Creating a coherent text: ‘sign-posting’ your argument

Readers of this blog may know that a big part of my work-life is reading and commenting constructively on other people’s writing – PhD scholars, postdoctoral fellows, peers. I spend hours each year immersed in people’s words, ideas, arguments and theses. And, while this work is difficult, and can be really draining of my own writing energy, it has the benefit of giving me a deeper awareness of what makes a piece of writing work, and what does not. In this post I want to reflect specifically on ‘signposts’, as a tool to create a more coherent, reader-friendly text.

When we read, our brains work to make sense of what is in front of us. When the writer has worked hard to ensure that what we are reading is well thought-out, and carefully put together, this is easier. But, when the text is ‘patchy’, and the links between the pieces are unclear, this sense-making work becomes harder. As a reader it is frustrating, because it’s hard work. Readers who have to work too hard may give up and move on to reading something else. So, as a writer, putting this kind of text out there is risky. What we need to be putting out there for our readers is a text where the ‘moves’ we are making in putting the story together are clear, and signalled, so that the reader’s work is less trying to work that all out, and more trying to engage with and appreciate the story itself.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

So, you are writing a paper. You have a basic argument in mind – a claim, or series of claims that you know you need to make. You have done your reading, and have notes around the evidence that will go with these claims to support them. You start writing, and the argument develops and may take a somewhat different turn to what you originally thought. You start to worry that you have lost your argument thread – what are you actually saying anymore? How does this all fit together? Does it, even? This is all the first draft (and maybe second draft) process of working out what you are actually trying to say, and whether and how you can say it in this paper. Totally on track so far.

Where the more conscious connecting, and care, comes in is usually on draft three or more, where you have to start making the thread of the argument clear, and overt, for the reader. This is where you need to start thinking about structure, coherence, and the tools you can use to ensure this. There are a couple of tools that I use, as ‘sign-posts’, to guide readers through my argument. These are ‘foreshadowing’, descriptive sub-headings, and clear transitions.

Foreshadowing

This, in essence, is a tool that uses clever repetition to create links in the readers’ minds between paragraphs, and sections, of the paper. Repetition is often discouraged in academic writing, but there is a use for it, when it consolidates and advances the development of your argument.

From: https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.15.1.04

See how these writers have used the term ‘bridge’ in the text, and then again in the sub-heading. And, how they have connected this idea of a bridge to disciplinary knowledge structures. This term, in a different way, is then repeated under the sub-heading, and the effect for the reader is to see, without being told in a sentence that starts with ‘The next section will …’, that they are going to read about what the writer thinks this bridge is, and how it is connected to knowledge in the disciplines. The value of trying to use repetition, carefully, to build connections between ideas, as well as complexity of ideas, over the course of a paper, is that you show the reader what your argument is (and why it is useful), rather than telling them what it is. This is a more reader-friendly approach, and more likely to engage the readers with the argument itself, than with the way the argument is structured.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Descriptive sub-headings

Not everyone is allowed to do this. If you are writing for a journal in the natural or applied sciences, or that has a more ‘traditional’ approach to journal article structure, you may be given your subheading (Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and so on). But, if you are writing in a field, and for journals, that is less prescriptive about this, consider using your sub-headings, with your text, to create sign-posts for readers to move them from one sub-section to the next as your argument builds.

Instead, for example, of ‘Literature review’, consider the main claims or points this section is contributing to the argument overall, and create a sub-heading that captures this. Instead of ‘Theoretical Framework’ or ‘Discussion’, try headings that capture what the theory or discussion contribute to the argument. This further enables the reader to see each step of the argument, and how they are being led in one direction, rather than wandering around in circles or zig-zags. See the examples below, and how the authors use a mix of foreshadowing and descriptive sub-headings (e.g., ‘driven by economic concerns’ and then ‘Drives to increase…’

From: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14703297.2016.1155471

And here: they introduce the notion of the ‘politics of disciplinarity’ in the text, along with the ‘university system’ and then show with the sub-heading that they are moving forward to elaborate on these issues in the next section of the paper.

From: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ523110.pdf

If you are working in a field that will not look kindly upon descriptive sub-headings, you will need to think more creatively about the transitions you create for your readers. I urge you to go beyond statements, like ‘the next section will discuss X’. Too many of these, and the reader starts to feel like they are being taken through a list of points, rather than a joined-up argument. Rather, think about what you have been writing about, and where you are going next, and what the ‘content’ connection is. What is the link between the present section, or paragraph, and the next one? How are they connected together in light of the overall point of this section, and the unfolding argument? Try to capture that in the transitional sentences.

From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876
From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876
From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876

Hopefully, in these examples, you can see a small sense of what I am arguing for – a form of showing your reader your argument, through carefully thought-out links and transitions between paragraphs and between sub-sections that ‘sign-post’ the steps of the argument as it builds.

If you do not pay attention to sign-posting your argument, especially through carefully and clearly connecting ideas, and claims, to one another as part of a coherent whole, the effect on the reader is usually one of two things, in my experience. The first is the sense that they are reading a list of ideas – they may be in more or less the right ‘order’ to be making an argument, but the ways in which you are joining them together are left to the reader to figure out. The second, is the sense that this is a jumble of ideas, not all of which may belong in that paper, or chapter. Neither make for a reader-friendly experience, and if the reader is lost, or annoyed, or struggling to make sense, this is not good for the writer.

https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/

Clear, careful, and visible signposts that are creatively woven into your text take time, and work, and iterations of drafting and feedback from readers. But, they are the ‘glue’ that binds your argument together.

Writing a literature review in your own ‘voice’

Literature review sections of a paper or thesis are a tricky beast, to be sure. In my writing workshops, and face-to-face work with writers and their texts, this section, next to ‘theory and analysis’ presents the greatest challenge. This stems, in large part, from a struggle to marry what other authors are saying with what the writers want to say: to let your own ‘voice’ come through as you base and inform your argument on and with relevant reading and research.

writing giphy.gif

Firstly, to be clear, when I say ‘voice’ in academic writing, I mean argument. In a piece of academic text, such as a thesis, paper or book chapter, your ‘voice’ is the argument you are making, and that is driving the text forward. It is your contribution to knowledge in your field.

I have written here and here and here about literature reviews, and Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn have some useful posts that you should check out too. In this post, I want to look at less conceptual and more ‘nuts and bolts’ issues in actually writing a literature review that makes your ‘voice’ audible, and builds one part of the argument of your paper or thesis. Essentially, this section must make an argument for what the GAP is that your research is addressing, and discuss the ways in which the gap HAS been addressed in other studies, yet point out clearly the shortcomings/blindspots/remaining questions that this research leaves open, which is where YOUR STUDY comes in.

I trialled an approach to thinking about this, and revising drafts of literature reviews in a recent writing workshop, and their feedback gave me the courage to try it here. I call it ‘concepts and claims over author names’. Other have written about literature review sections that are a citation dump, or a laundry list –  essentially as long list of which authors made which claims, and who contradicts who and how, and so on. This shows that you have read, but not that you necessarily understand how to use what you have read to build your own argument (in support of the need for your research or study). Thus, you need to move from the ‘who said what’ approach (author names) to which concepts, claims, findings etc are useful to tell the reader about so that they can position and understand the argument you want to make.

Look at this example, kindly lent from a student’s early draft of a proposal:

The goal of ODL is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers (Kelly & Mills: 2007, p.149) to education. Learners experience isolation due to separation from their institution, lecturers and fellow students (Rumble: 2000, p.1). Although according to Daniel et al. (2009, p.24), ODL has been identified as an effective way of reaching out to large student numbers, Perraton (2000) observes that ODL institutions have high dropout and low pass rates. While there are many factors that contribute to attrition in distance education programmes, at the top of the list according to Stacy, Ludwig, Hardman and Dunlap (2003) is level of interaction and support. Successful distance learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, and quality personalised and affective learning support (Holmberg, 2003). However McKenna (2004) disagrees with this assertion by saying that student success in higher education environment is not a function of motivation but rather of student investment in his/her studies which agrees with Tinto’s (1975, 1993, 1997) assertion that student success is a function of stunt’s commitment to his/her personal goals and that of the institution.   He further says that this investment is both material and psychological. The greater the input to the provision of student support services, the greater the success rate (Sewart, 1993).

There are three main observations I make that I’d like to highlight here:

The first is the positioning of the references (in green) – throughout, they placed after claims (as indeed they should be) but in such a way as to make the effect of the whole paragraph more a list of these claims, than using the ideas advanced by these authors in support of the student’s own claim. So, this is a little ‘laundry list’-like right now. The second, then, is the student’s own claim: what is it? It could be about the goal of ODL institutions, or challenges they face, or student attrition. It is not yet clear. Each paragraph you write needs to have a claim YOU advance, and that selected claims and evidence from reading can be organised around, before you connect this back to the golden thread you are spinning – what is this information helping the reader to understand about YOUR STUDY? The final observation is this, precisely: the connection between this selected information from the readings with the student’s own project. I have attempted a re-write:

Online and Distance Learning (ODL) faces several key, student-related challenges in addressing its central goal. The goal of ODL is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers to education (Kelly & Mills, 2007). Yet, many learners experience isolation due to separation from their institution, lecturers and fellow students (Rumble, 2000). This sense of isolation may then result in lower levels of persistence, resulting in ODL institutions having high dropout and low pass rates (Daniel et al., 2009; Perraton, 2000). While there are many factors that contribute to attrition in distance education programmes, at the top of the list is students’ level of interaction and support (Stacy, Ludwig, Hardman and Dunlap, 2003). Holmberg (2003), for example, argues that successful distance learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, and personalized, affective learning support. However McKenna (2004) disagrees, saying that student success in a higher education environment is not primarily a function of motivation per se, but rather of a student’s investment in her studies, both material and psychological and the systems created to enable this. Tinto (1975, 1993, 1997) echoes a call for a more systemic, rather than individualised approach to student support, which should be applied in ODL contexts. What all of this means for ODL institutions, is that increasing student retention and success is a complex challenge with numerous variables. These authors, however, seem to be pointing to a need to begin with addressing student support, to decrease alienation and increase students’ ability and willingness to invest in their education more meaningfully.

What I have tried to do here is address my three concerns. In orange, a point, and an explanation of how this information is all pointing back towards the larger study, which is about creating relevant ODL student support structures to increase student success. It may sound mechanical, but try to be conscious of beginning paragraphs with a claim of your creation – based on your reading, but in your own words, and that advances or builds your argument or voice. Not every paragraph will end with an explanatory note, but you should be conscious of drawing the connections between the research you have done and your own argument: as Pat Thomson points out, all reading you include in your thesis must have relevance to, or be positioned in relation to, your argument.

In pink, I have highlighted connecting phrases that position the authors’ claims in relation to one another, yet enable the voice of the writer to come through more clearly, as you get a sense of the writer choosing where to place the claims and what claims to use in making this small part of the argument. Yet, however, while, although – these kinds of ‘transitional’ words are incredible useful in writing, not just to create more readable text, but chiefly to indicate the position of claims made by other writers in relation to one another, and in relation to the argument you want to make.

loads of reading.jpegPerhaps approaching any ‘review’ of the literature from this kind of starting point – concepts and claims over author names (and lists of their points) – will re-orientate you away from ‘reviewing’ the literature, towards using selected literature to make an argument. The point is not to show your readers everything you have read, and what everyone else thinks about your research; the point is to tell us what you think is relevant, and why, using established research to shore up and solidify the credibility and significance of your claims.

 

 

Concluding the thesis

I am co-supervising a PhD student who is handing in her thesis for examination in November. She is currently revising her whole thesis, working towards the conclusion (and finally, the introduction). Conclusions can be tricky things to write – pulling something as big as a PhD dissertation together into a final, clear chapter is not easy. It is both an intellectual and an emotional challenge, as conclusion-writing comes towards the very end of the process, and you are so tired, and probably feeling like there are no more coherent words or sentences in your brain. This post reflects a little on what a thesis conclusion is for, with some thoughts on how to construct one that does justice to your meisterwerk.

pulling ideas together

To begin with, let’s think a bit about what conclusions are for in a piece of written work. In undergraduate studies, students are typically taught that conclusions are summaries. You restate the thesis, or main claim, of your paper, reiterate what each paragraph has said that contributes to that argument, and then bring it all together with a firm final sentence or two that says something about the relevance of the paper, or argument. There should be no new information, just a summing up of what has already been said. Sometimes you are allowed recommendations, depending on the discipline. It makes sense, then, that we progress into postgraduate studies believing that we are writing summaries whenever we conclude (a paper, or a journal article, or a thesis). I have seen many conclusions like this in postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writing. But, unfortunately, at these levels conclusions that merely summarise a paper the reader has just read are not adequate, or suitable. A shift is needed.

As Pat Thomson usefully argues in this post about writing a thesis conclusion, the conclusion to a thesis (or journal article) is not a summary of the whole. The summary part of a thesis conclusion should ideally be quite brief, and used rather as a springboard to the real work of the conclusion: using the preceding writing and research to show how the study has addressed the research questions, and in so doing, how it has made a valid, and useful, contribution to knowledge.

A strong conclusion shows your readers what your research means within the context of the field you have referenced in your ‘literature review’, and how in answering your research questions you have been able to speak back to this body of research in which you have located your own study. It answers your research questions, succinctly and clearly, so that your readers understand the overall claims of your study, the focus of your argument, the basis upon which you have advanced your argument, and the significance, meaning or value of that argument to your (their) field. It discusses – argues – for the place of your research within your field, and the contribution it is making.

arrows direction

There are a few ways in which you can approach writing such a conclusion (and Pat’s post above is very helpful here). There are also a few guidelines to consider in writing this vital part of your thesis.

To begin with, you do need to bring your reader up to speed with the thesis thus far. Examiners and other readers are unlikely to read your whole PhD in one go, so ending each chapter with a brief summary, and starting the next one with a short section that connects the present chapter to the previous one is a good idea for creating coherent connections between chapters, and is helpful for your readers. Thus, you should begin your conclusion with an overview, or brief summary, of the argument thus far.

Then, consider your research questions: what did you set out to do in this project or study? Your research questions could make useful sub-headings here, at least in a first draft, to help you organise your thoughts. Starting here, you can begin to pull out the answers you have found (in the ‘analysis chapter/s’) so that you can discuss the implications of your findings, their relevance in relation to your overall argument, and the way in which what you have found relates to the body of research to which you have connected your study. No new information: just an analytical discussion of selected aspects of your findings that are useful for answering your research questions, and further consolidating your argument.

Perhaps you have recommendations, on the basis of your findings and their implications for practice, and/or further research. You could include a section on these, discussing a step further the possible implications of your research in relation to your field. Something else that may be relevant to include here could be limitations to the size or scope of your findings: are there any that your readers need to know about, so that they don’t expect your study to have done something other than what it has done? Don’t just list all the things you could have done but didn’t do: think carefully about pertinent limitations that may represent counter-arguments you could defend or mitigate against.

At the end of the end, consider your argument again: what has your thesis claimed and to what end? Try to end your thesis with a paragraph that reiterates not just what your thesis has argued, but WHY this argument has relevance, or import, for your readers. What do you hope the outcome of your research will be? Why are you so passionate about it, and why do you think others should care too? Read a few thesis conclusions to get a sense of different ways of doing this, and check out Pat Thomson’s posts on conclusion writing, too. Then write a draft and share it with your supervisor for feedback.

It’s worth really taking your time and not rushing this chapter, even as it comes at the end when you are tired, and really just want to be done. End on the highest note you can: you owe yourself that much after all your hard work getting there.

Paper writing IV: analysing data

One of the trickiest areas for researchers working with data – either primary or secondary (data you have generated in ‘the field’, or that gleaned from texts etc) – is the analysis of that data. It can be a significant challenge to move from redescribing findings, observations or results, to showing the reader what these mean in the context of the argument that is being made, and the field into which the research fits. There are a few moves that need to be made in constructing an analysis, and these will be unpacked in this post.

Often, in empirical research, we make our contribution to knowledge in our field through the data we generate, and analyse. Especially in the social sciences, we take well-known theories and established methodologies and use these to look at new cases – adding incrementally to the body of knowledge in our field. Thus, analysis is a really important thing to get right: if all we do is describe our data, without indicating how it adds to knowledge in useful ways, what kind of contribution will we be making? How will our research really benefit peers and fellow researchers? After all, we don’t write papers just to get published. We conduct research and publish it so that our work can influence and shape the work of others, even in small ways. We write and publish to join a productive conversation about the research we are doing, and to connect our research with other research, and knowledge.

data 1

How to make a contribution to knowledge that really counts, though?

First things first, you can’t use all your data in one paper (or even in one thesis). You will need to choose the most relevant data and use it to further illustrate and consolidate your argument. But how do you make this choice – what data should you use, and why? The key tool used to make all the choices in a paper (or thesis) – from relevant literature, to methodology and methods, to data for analysis – is the argument you are making. You need to have, in one or two sentences, a very clear argument (sometimes referred to as a problem statement, or a main claim). In essence, whatever you call it, this is the central point of your paper. To make this point, succinctly and persuasively, you need to craft, section by section, support for this argument, so that you reader believes it to be valid and worth engaging with.

So, you have worked out your argument in succinct form, and have chosen relevant section of data that you feel best make or illustrate that argument. Now what? In the analysis section, you are making your data mean something quite specific: you are not just telling us what the data says (we can probably work that out from reading the quotes or excerpts you are including in the paper). To make meaning through analysis, you need to connect the specific with the general. By this I mean that your data is specific – to your research problem and your consequent choice of case study, or experiment, or archival search and so on. It tells us something about a small slice of the world. But, if all we did in our papers was describe small slices of the world, we would all be doing rather isolated or disconnected research. This would defeat the aim of research to build knowledge, and forge connections between fields, countries, studies and so on. Thus, we have to use our specific data to speak back to a more general or broader phenomenon or conversation.

data 2

The best, and most accepted way, of making meaning of your data is through theorising. To begin theorising your data, you need to start by asking yourself: What does this data mean? Are these meanings valid, and why? There are different kinds of theory, of course, and too many to go into here, but the main thing to consider in ‘theorising’ your data is that you need a point of reference against which to critically think about and discuss your data: you need to be able to connect the specifics of your data with a relevant general phenomenon, explanation, frame of reference, etc. You don’t necessarily need a big theory, like constructivism or social realism; you could simply have a few connected concepts, like ‘reflection’, ‘learning’ and ‘practice’ for example; but you do need a way of lifting your discussion out of the common sense, descriptive realm into the critical, analytical realm that shows that reader why and how the data support your argument, and add knowledge to your field.

Analysis and theorising data is an iterative process, whether you are working qualitatively or quantitatively. It can be difficult, confusing, and take time. This is par for the course: a strong, well-supported analysis should take time. Don’t worry if you can’t make the chosen data make sense in the first go: you may well need to read, and re-read your data, and write several drafts of this section of the paper (preferably with critical feedback) before you can be confident of your analysis. But don’t settle for the quick-fix, thin analysis that draft one might produce. Keep at it, and strive for a stronger, more influential contribution to your field. In the long run, it’ll be worth more to you,to your peers, and to your field.

The relationship between your research question and your argument

In the last post I wrote about research problems, and working out one that is the right size and shape for the scope of your project and level of study. In this post, I want to go a step further, and reflect a little on research questions, and the relationship between your research questions and your argument, and how to think about building your argument from the start.

In the workshops I have been facilitating with postgraduate students, all of whom are in the early stages of their projects, it has become clear that they have research problems, and questions, but are still struggling to a) pin these down into a manageable project the right shape and size for their level of study and time available; and b) separate (yet also connect) their research questions from their proposed argument.

(b) is a tricky thing to do early on in an MA or PhD – how do you really know what your argument is if you haven’t even done the research yet? I didn’t really know clearly what my argument actually was until I had finished the research – generated and analysed the data and considered what kinds of answers I had found in response to my research questions. But I had a sense of where I was trying to go. Working out a basic, ‘holding’ line of argument, and clear research questions that can reasonably be answered within your proposed timeframe and project scope is important to work on at this early stage for two main reasons.

Clear strategy and leadership solutionsThe first is so that you have a track to stay on when you start  reading, sharing your work, getting feedback and so on. Having a sense of the point of your project can limit the risks of  being pulled in different, potentially confusing directions, especially by reading and other people’s responses to your early thinking. This track may shift and change shape a bit, but you need to try and argue for what your proposal says you will argue for, so having a basic idea of what that argument could be, even if it starts off a little more fuzzy and ill-defined than it will be at the end, is helpful.

golden-threadThe second reason for creating a line of argument refers to the golden thread I have written about here. The questions you ask, and the argument that you propose as the answer to these questions, will guide the rest of the work you do on your thesis. You choose conceptual tools and build your theoryology in order to create a framework within which the argument can be built; you create a methodology, and choose a research design and methods in line with the theoryology and the research questions and proposed argument; and you analyse your data within the bounds set by these frameworks, so that you can actually refine and strengthen your overall argument. Thus, having a fairly clear sense of what this golden thread will comprise, and how it will pull through the different parts of your argument-building process, is also important.

Your argument is your original contribution to knowledge in your field, at PhD more than an MA level. It is the answer, more or less, to your research questions. It is the most important part of your research. You may well find that it is difficult to pin down in a concise few sentences, in your proposal or early on, exactly what your argument is. You may only find this emerging from your research as it progresses, and your thinking deepens. If you have followed a more linear research process (theory, then methods, then data, then analysis, then pulling it all together) you might find it easier to see your argument, your contribution, from early on. If you have started somewhere in the middle, with data, and are moving back and forth to build your theoryology and methodology around the data, your argument might be more fuzzy and difficult to pin down.

The point is, though, that your argument is there, and that pulling it out and jotting it down, at various points, is a useful exercise. Ask yourself: ‘What is the point of my research? What am I trying to say here?‘ Write down what you think the point of your research is on post-its and stick them up where you work. Rewrite these every few months and update them, even if the changes seem small.  A workshop I went to during my PhD encouraged us to come up with a haiku to capture the contribution we thought our research could be making (this was actually pretty spot on, and fun to do, so it’s worth a try). Keep a research journal, and make a point of checking in every few months on what claims you are making, and how these might be slowly becoming more refined, sharper, and possibly changed.

At the end of your research project, at whatever level you are working, and whether you are writing a paper, a book or a dissertation, you need to have found an answer to the question that started the research process in the first place. This answer is your argument, and it is what will make that contribution to your field, whether bigger or smaller. This is your voice, joining the conversation, and you want it to be a loud, and clear, and relevant as possible. Taking some time, throughout your research process, to make notes on what that argument is shaping up to be is a useful way of keeping yourself on track with your research aims, and spinning that golden thread as you go.