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.

From chaos to coherence: logic, linearity and lies in thesis construction

I have written before on this blog about how a doctorate is assembled in chunks and pieces, and comes to together slowly, and (in my case) in fits and starts. It is not a linear, clean, neat process – generally the ideas and brainwaves ebb and flow, and we take two steps forward, three back and five sideways as we muddle through the complexities of managing a research project as daunting and significant as a doctorate is. It is chaos – sometimes organised and manageable, sometimes not. It’s kind of thrilling, a lot terrifying, and pretty exhausting.

Image from userexperience.co.nz

Image from userexperience.co.nz

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could reflect some or much of that chaos and two-side-stepping in the final thesis? It would certainly, as a friend of mine suggested to me this week, feel more honest in terms of reflecting the process of messy discovery and diversions and muddling-through that is the PhD process (for many scholars, anyway). As you write your thesis in these chunks and pieces, you are probably writing in the present or future tense, for example. I will be doing this, and I hope I might find that… . But when you write the introduction (often right at the end, after the conclusion, when you’ve finally pinned down what your thesis is about) you write in the past tense – ‘This is what I thought, so this is what I did, and this is what my conclusions will point to… . It is, as my friend stated quite plainly, all lies.

Researching and writing a doctorate is messy, but presenting and crafting a final thesis draft for examiners cannot be; the final product of all your messy, meandering labours has to be linear, logical, coherent and all in the past tense. Your examiners and readers are coming to what you have written after the fact, not as it is happening inside your own head, and they don’t really need to see all the mess. What you have to show them is a neat, linear story that is coherent and sensible, and takes them carefully through each step of your research. Basically you are following (especially in the social sciences) a fairly standard plotline, even if the form your story takes varies across disciplines, faculties and higher education systems.

Once upon a time people thought that… But I thought that maybe… So what I did was… and what I found was… and this will change the way we think about*… .

(Fill in the … with a few sentences describing your project – very handy tool for plotting out a paper or longer writing project, and for crafting an abstract)

The way you work that story out will vary hugely depending on may factors, like the quality of the supervision you receive, your own confidence as a researcher, time and resources, what research has already been published that you can access, and so on. As you discover, for example, what the field is that you are scoping in your literature review, you may read yourself around in circles, working out who the chiefs and tribespeople are, and what they are saying to one another and how it all relates to your thesis. But, when you write this section, you need not to be thinking about this chaos; you need to be thinking about how you are helping your readers understand what they need to know in order to believe that your research questions are plausible and valid, so that they will see exactly why your research does fill a gap and is necessary and important. You write it with this logic of demonstration in mind, rather than with the logic of discovery you employed when reading, selecting, and situating all that literature in relation to your own research questions.

But, as my friend pointed out rather amusingly, this feels like lies – this linear, coherent, polished narrative you craft, create, edit and mangle into being for your readers feels very far from the messy, meandering chaos that lurks behind the scenes of many PhDs – and some take longer to find their way to that final product than others. Creating coherence out of the chaos is a kind of conceit, but it is a necessary one.

Writing and the thinking behind it can be a bit messy and mad, but reading really can’t be because we read what others have written to help us sharpen, expand, clarify and prompt our own thinking (and often writing, too). The writing we produce and send out into the world for readers to engage with must be as clear and coherent as possible, so that the contributions we are making to scholarship in our respective fields will not be lost amongst the chaos. Our ideas (and we must believe this) are valuable, and they need to be read, debated, hopefully agreed with.

PhD story

Click image to enlarge

Ultimately, a linear, coherent and clean story created out of a messy research process can feel like a kind of lie, but it is a necessary lie given the point of all of that research: to share our ideas and to make a valued contribution to the scholarship in our fields of study.

*I learned this in a writing workshop with Prof Lucia Thesen, from the University of Cape Town, in 2011.

Spinning the ‘golden thread’ that can sew your PhD together

When I was doing my PhD, someone at some stage asked me (probably in response to my ramblings about what my PhD was about): ‘what is your “golden thread”?’ This stumped me. My what? I hadn’t really heard that term before, although my supervisor has talked about it since, as have other colleagues who all supervise students – it seems to be a fairly common notion then, this notion of a ‘golden thread’ with which you can ‘sew’ your PhD thesis together. But what, indeed, is a golden thread, where do you get one, and how do you work out how to sew your PhD together?

To begin with what it is: the golden thread is, for want of a better explanation, the central argument that pulls through your whole thesis, and creates coherence across the literature review, the research questions, the theoretical and conceptual framework, the methodology, and finally the analysis and organisation of the data and the conclusions you are able to draw (on the basis of that argument you set out to make). It sounds quite straightforward when it is put like this, but in my experience (and in the experience of many other PhD students) it is really difficult to find and hold onto over the long course of researching and writing a PhD thesis. Another way of thinking about it would be to keep reminding yourself about what the point of your PhD is. What is it actually about – what are you trying to say here? A friend of mine types her main research question into the header of each page she works on in each of her chapters, so that she is not tempted to go off track in her writing and thinking; another friend wrote a haiku about the main point her PhD was making, and stuck it in a place she could see it when she was writing; another wrote her research questions on several sticky notes and put them above her desk at work and her desk at home, so that she had them in front of her whenever she was working on the thesis. I kept a fairly faithful research journal, and re-read it often, to remind myself what I was actually making my argument about.

So, how do you get one? Sadly, you cannot go to PhDarguments.com and order one; you have to make or build one, and this takes time and is really challenging. I think of it a bit like Rumpelstiltskin turning all the straw into golden thread (except without all the creepiness). What you have when you start a PhD is straw – ideas, concepts, theory, methods, questions, literature you have read – and you have to pull the right pieces of straw together to make a strong, shiny length of golden thread that you can then use to sew a beautifully coherent and persuasive PhD thesis. Like theoretical frameworks, analytical frameworks, literature reviews, an argument is built part by part and always in relation to the main question it is being made to answer. There are key parts of the thesis that you need to put into place as you go to help you create strong and coherent sub-arguments that build towards the overall, central argument your PhD will make.

You need to scope your field well, and find a gap into which your research could fit – this helps you to start asking more refined questions, which can turn into research questions. You need to move from this reading into tougher theoretical and conceptual territory – you need to find your theoryology, and with it, further refinement and focus of your research questions. You need then to consider how you will answer these questions: what data will you need? How will you find it? What will you do with it in order to make sense out of it, and select what is relevant to analyse in relation to your research questions? Then you need to further consider the research questions you are trying to answer as you connect the theory with the data in the process of analysing it, and using it to tell the story that answers your questions, and explains why both the questions and the answers are important to your readers, and your research community or field. Following a logical and coherent process, and pulling each part of the process through with you into the subsequent stage or part of the process, really helps. In other words, don’t leave all your theory and research questions behind when you plan out your methodology and generate your data. Don’t forget the scoping of the field you have done, the research questions you are asking, and your theoretical framework and conceptual tools when you organise and begin to analyse that data in order to build your strong, shiny argument.

Image from uklpf.co.uk

Image from uklpf.co.uk

The argument, in the end, is the thing with the PhD. You cannot have your readers get to the end of it wondering: ‘So what? Why did I just read all of that? What was the point?’ The golden thread is just that: the answer to the ‘so what’ question; the point of the research; the central argument you have made on the basis of the research you have done. Without it you don’t have a PhD thesis; you have parts of a whole that has not been realised or pulled together. In order to sew those parts into something that represents what Trafford and Leshem have termed ‘doctorateness’, you need to channel Rumpelstiltskin, and start turning all your straw into your own golden thread, so that you can sew the┬áparts of your research into a coherent, persuasive, strong PhD thesis.