book blogging – we must be good to ourselves

It’s one thing to decide to write a lot in a short space of time. You can set aside the days. You can get as well prepared as it’s possible to be. But it’s another thing to actually do the writing, to stick at it day after day after day.

There’s no doubt in our – Barbara and my – minds that writing together makes it easier to keep going. When one of us flags, the other is able to offer some encouragement. And writing together makes for more interesting conversations and ideas. And that’s motivating. But we do find that we still need lots of incentives to write for long periods of time.

First of all, we like to make sure we are well-fed. We do become rather focused on food, maybe even fixated, when we write. We plan one day what we will eat the next and we always have a decent break just after midday to eat what we’d organised the day before.

When we were in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur we went out to sample a different street stall each day. Soup one day, noodles the next. In Nottingham and Melbourne we eat in. But we take half and hour or so every day to visit the market and buy whatever fruit and veges take our fancy. While we’re out we often have a coffee, look at people and talk about anything other than the work. We let our collective subconscious keep working while we chatter about something else. The change of scene is important; getting out means we feel less trapped.

Sometimes we do a bit of additional shopping later in the day. After we’ve racked up a decent enough slab of writing we reward ourselves. We visit the local bookshop, go to a nearby gallery or take a quick look at jewellry or clothing. Or we might go for a walk or sit outside with a glass of wine.

Writing is sedentary so keeping up with some kind of activity is important too. As we both have bad backs we are on serious stretching regimes in the morning and night.

Our final reward is to build in social occasions. We try to fit in dinners, the occasional film, seeing other friends – these take us away from the office and the computer and force us to talk about something other than our book.

We’ve worked out what works for us in these intensive writing periods and we don’t feel guilty taking time out for rewards, rest and relaxation. Without these breaks and pleasures to look forward to, I doubt that we would manage to write as much as we do.

Progress report: Today we wrote 6500 words, a short chapter on arguing. Still on track.

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book blogging – dib dib dib, be prepared

Barbara and I are writing fast.

The usual way to write fast is to ‘speed write’. This often requires the use of timed sessions where the goal is to write as much as possible in the allotted minutes. Another approach to producing a fast first draft is to just literally empty your thoughts onto the page – sometimes referred to as vomiting words, a term I don’t much like for obvious reasons. Barbara and I are using a third approach – fast writing on the basis of a slow-cooked plan and a lot of pre-preparation.

Because we were able to spend time early on thinking about what we wanted to write, and in what order, we have been able to sort out the set of contents for each chapter. Those of you that have followed our book writing saga will know that in fact we changed our minds about what we were doing after our first week together. The plan now we have isn’t the same as the one we started out with. Our current plan is the result of quite a lot of thinking, and rethinking.

The plan we have for our chapters might seem to someone else to just be a relatively short, numbered bullet point list. Two mere pages of bullet points. However, the bullets must be understood as a set of reminders of the very lengthy conversations we’ve already had about what is to be covered and what should go where. Our two pages are the framework that now guides what we do. While we might change the order of a few points, or add, remove or shift the odd one here or there, this numbered list is basically a road map to our book.

And, because we’ve got the map, had slow conversations, and cooked some of our ideas over a very long period of time, we have been able to do a lot of pre-preparation for meeting up. We‘ve amassed various bits and pieces of material that will go into the different chapters. Some of these bits are things I’ve blogged about in order to try out the ideas.

You see, we never actually start a chapter with a totally blank page or screen. We always begin with some materials already partially written.

This morning we finished the rough, holey draft of chapter three – some 8,500 words (hooray). This afternoon we’ve been putting together the various accumulated chunks we already have for chapter four. We’ll begin writing fast tomorrow morning with three thousand or so words already in hand, a few paragraphs of introduction written and an agreed place to start.

This is really not the same as speed writing, it is writing fast, but only because we’ve done the necessary work ahead of time.

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book blogging: the re-invention test

One of the things that I was most worried about with this new book was that Barbara and I would have run out of things to say. We have already written a lot about writing, and I’ve blogged even more. My, no our, worry was that we would be just repeating ourselves, and to the point where we would just be writing the same book over again.

As well, in the fourteen years that we have been working together, there has been a veritable explosion in writing about academic writing. What did we have to add to the plethora of stuff out there, we worried. Could we say anything different, anything that would mark this book as different not only from our other books, but also everything else?

And of course, we knew if we were just going to go over old ground, we would bore ourselves. We would really struggle to get the text done if we didn’t find a way to keep ourselves amused. If we did just produce the same-old same-old, neither we nor our publisher would be very happy.

Fortunately, these fears haven’t yet materialised. While there is a certain amount of revisiting some important topics, we have found ways to rethink and rewrite ourselves, and to riff on our basic refrains in ways that we think are fresh and interesting.

One important, and obvious, way we have achieved some novelty is through adding some new things to our usual fare, meaning we’ve removed some material too. We can do this because this new book has different intended readers, it is written for doctoral researchers not their supervisors. So, these last two days we’ve been playing around and improvising new subject matter, new ways to talk about academic writing, new strategies to suggest to doctoral researchers.

Another, perhaps more important, way that we’ve arrived at the new is by finding different examples. We always use actual doctoral writing in our books, texts produced by enrolled or recently graduated doctoral researchers. Using authentic texts is not something I do on the blog, largely because discussing actual writing extracts requires more words than I typically allow per post (and a better kind of platform, wordpress). But it is a hallmark of our books. I knew that there needed to be some new doctoral writing for this book, and I knew that we would need them in Melbourne. So I went a-hunting before I left home. In searching for examples of doctoral writing which exhibited some of the problems we had previously discussed, I came across some new combinations of problems and some new issues. So we had new data to work with, in fact. We are also using PhD blogs and a lot of online materials as resources to work with and against. So this too has led us to some new ideas.

Reinvention is something that most researchers have to do. Whether it is turning a thesis into a book, or a thesis chapter or research report into a paper, academic writers inevitably need to come up with a different angle on the same subject matter. Writing something just once is rarely an option. Academic writers often have to address the same topic several times over. It is thus really crucial for us all to take time to think about the potential difficulties in repetition, and consider very carefully how remixing ourselves might happen.

Progress report: We have now produced over 6000 words of text in two days. We’re still on track to finish the full draft in the time I’m in Melbourne.

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book blogging – pick it up, start it up

Barbara and I are at it again. Book writing, that is. We finished the first draft of the first three chapters of our new academic writing book back in May. That was at my place in Nottingham. Now here it is November already, and we’re together in Barabara’s house in Melbourne. And we have to pick it up where we left off after months away.

It’s a scary thing picking up and starting over. Will we know what we were thinking last time? Did what we do make sense? Will it all read like complete nonsense? What if we want to begin again – again?

Barbara and I looked at each other over our breakfast boiled egg this morning and agreed we probably wouldn’t write anything much on this first day. We’d look at where we were up to, get a general idea of what and where next, we’d talk and get back into it slowly. We were relaxed, it didn’t matter if we didn’t do a lot today.

Well, that decision lasted all of about ten minutes once we got into the office. Firstly, we decided to look at how many days we actually had together and whether it might be possible to get a full first draft done in the time I’m here in Melbourne. We have thirteen days, and four more chapters to do. Was three days per chapter feasible, we wondered. Yes, it was. It certainly was.

Our reasoning went like this… We’ve been known to write a chapter in two days, so three days per wasn’t a completely impossible ask. What’s more, and probably more importantly, if we didn’t finish a full draft this time we’d need to meet up again, probably somewhere in the middle of the world, equi-distant from both our homes. This would be expensive for both of us. Flights, accommodation, shopping… And really, we both have other things to do with our money and other places to go – we’d rather not shell out for more writing-related travel. We’d rather not spend another week together writing. Another week together yes, but writing no.

Our second, follow-on decision was that in order to avoid the need for another writing-meeting we had to find a way to finish now. And the only way to get a first draft done in the time we have is to produce something pretty rough.

Of course, this is not an entirely out-of-the-blue decision because we already know that we can finish off a text once we get to a first draft. We’ve done that before. We also know that we’re pretty good at email and skype co-writing once we have something to work from. It’s the writing from scratch that only works when we’re together. Being and working apart can work once we get some way along with the writing. It really seems better to have a full text with big holes in it than have something lesser but with more detail. We really don’t want to end up a chapter shy of the complete shebang.

Our strategy for the twelve days is therefore to write fast, and write rough. Write a chapter each three days. Write through and leave place markers where we need to go back and fill in the blanks. Don’t mind the gaps. The text can be imperfect. Just get on with it.

Proof and puddings…. How did we go with this?

Well, here we are at the end of day one and we have about a third of a chapter done, and some bits we can start on tomorrow. Let’s just see how we go, but so far the rough and ready strategy is looking good.

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what did I do? – the research diary

I’ve got an OK memory. Most of the time I can summon up the details that I need to remember, when I need to remember them – passwords, deadlines, the way home. But I do struggle to recall all of the films I’ve seen, I can’t quite place the name of a novel for love or money and I rely very heavily on Endnote to produce, on call, the details of the things I’ve read. And I am prepared to leave much of what I can’t remember to chance. If the novel was that unforgettable and riveting I’d remember it, right? If I need to tell someone about a television programme and I can’t quite pinpoint the title, I can probably find it via google. And if I do forget one of those very obscure and little-used passwords I can probably reset it.

But I can’t afford to forget the details of my research projects. In a long-term project that runs for over two or three years, there are a myriad of small decisions that get made along the way. They can’t be forgotten. They can’t be left to chance. They must be remembered somehow because all of us need to be able to talk about why the research is the way it is.  It’s VERY important to be able to retrace steps to justify, say, why this site and not another one, why these texts and not others, why these people in particular, why this number and not more or less.

Keeping track of these research project on-the-way decisions is crucial. In order to demonstrate that the research has been conducted rigorously you need to be able to provide a clear rationale for the choices that have been made. In order to establish the research results, you need not only to be able to say what was done and why, but also what wasn’t.

Now, some of these research decisions are deliberate. You choose to draw the line around the research somewhere. It can only go for so long. It can only cover a certain territory. You haven’t got enough person-power to do more than this many. These decisions are usually pretty easy to remember and everyone knows that you have to put them into your research design discussion somewhere, and that you have to refer back to them when you are making the claims at the end about what you ‘found’.

And sometimes this discussion has to cover the things that weren’t planned. For instance, you couldn’t get access to the site you wanted to. The people you wanted to talk to didn’t want to talk to you. The survey return was low. These disappointments and messy bits have to be tracked. The things you did to try to deal with them are part of your research account. PhD examiners are generally pretty forgiving about changes in original plans as long as they are explained – some journal reviewers less so. PhD examiners can actually see a lot about the doctoral researcher from their discussions of coping with mess and unanticipated obstacles.

BUT – well you knew there was going to be a but didn’t you – one of the places where people often forget to keep track of their decisions is when they get to their data analysis. While there is very little room to discuss data analysis in most journal articles, it needs to be part of the audit trail provided in a PhD thesis and in research reports. (The data-analysis-tracking-decisions-discussion doesn’t have to be in the main text, of course, it might be referred to and put into an appendix.) However, reporting the ongoing decisions about data analysis is often overlooked. Yet it can be an area where a lot of small choices are made. Why this theme and not others? Why this code? Why decide that this cross-tabulation would be the way to go, and not another… These analytic choices often take place over time, and they can easily get forgotten in the process of arriving at the final analysis.

These small choices can mount up to something very important in their effect on what has been seen and what can be said about the data. And if you begin the process of data analysis with some systematic trialling of different approaches, the record of those decisions will be important when you come to report back on how you got to the conclusions that you have.

Setting up a research diary to log the ongoing decisions you have made during a research project – including those about analysis –  is important. The research diary can be an important aide-memoire when you finally get to writing your text. And it helps you provide important reassurance to examiners and readers that you have been thorough and thoughtful in the way that you have approached all aspects of the research – not just the design of the project, not just generation of the data, but also in the process of making sense of what you’ve got.

I rely heavily on my research diary. Mine is a big digital folder with running records which I keep on key topics: reading, field work, data analysis. I’m often surprised how much I go back to these files to retrace my steps. The diary file is my external memory, and it’s much more reliable than the internal one!

So, diary on. A research diary might seem like unnecessary record-keeping some of the time, but it will repay the effort in spades just when you are least expecting it. After all, very few of us have 100% retention of everything we do, see, say and hear. Now, where did I put my keys?





Posted in data analysis, research decisions, research diary | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

devouring your data

You’ve read hundreds of books. You’ve waded through archival material. You’ve got mountains of surveys, folders full of transcripts, notebooks stuffed with barely legible field notes, and rather more photographs than you initially intended. Now what? How is it going to be possible to convert all of this material into something sensible? Where do you start? What is it you don’t know about data analysis ?

It’s not at all uncommon to feel deeply worried about getting started on analysing all your material. Thinking about what it might take to make something out of the pantechnicon of paper and digital documents produces deep chasms of doubt, a fug of anxiety and/or a crisis in self-belief.

Getting through this stage can be really, really tough. They don’t often say that in the methods books. It all looks rather simple and straightforward on the written page. Well, I’m here to tell you that too many of the books gloss over the messy reality that is beginning to make something out of your research stuff. It’s daunting.

Some people find the sheer volume of data produces a kind of paralysis. Not quite knowing where to start means nothing gets done at all. Other people start doing something, anything, in the way that they interpret the research methods texts to suggest – code, code, code. Others turn to a bit of software for support. Many read their data over and over, hoping that it will speak to them. Sometimes of course this does happen – but this is actually because the task of making sense of the material has occurred subconsciously rather than through a more explicit process. While I’m all in favour of letting the subconscious do the work, it is a bit of a risk on time-limited projects – it may take a very long time to produce anything. You usually have to try to hurry the process up.

I tend to think about data analysis in the same way as I think about inventing a new recipe. You have to be systematic. So at the start you work small, and try several things out one after the other to see what seems to taste good. So, let’s imagine you have a base ingredient, say potato, but then you have to sort out how to cook it and what to put with it. Potatoes stewed with walnuts? Disaster- nil points. Potato mashed with parsley – sort of OK but not really what you were after. Steamed potato dressed with bacon, spring onion and chilli oil? Now we’re starting to get somewhere.

So it is with potatoes and with data. Start small, try things out one after the other to see what does which. Find the tasty combination.

I think it’s a really good idea to take a small clump of data and then see what you can do with it. Say you have a set of interview transcripts and you’ve asked the participants the kinds of questions so you’ve covered some common ground… now take just one of those common areas. Put all of the various answers from the transcripts together, numbering them carefully so you know where they came from originally. You can do this physically or you can cut and paste from digital files using a word search. Then try a few things out.

For example:

  • Take one of the transcript sections and read each separate sentence very carefully – how might each one be understood? If you think a sentence might mean a particular thing. See if you can find any indication that your interpretation is justified. What else is there that relates to this idea? If so, What might be going on?
  • Are there any common themes (messy, blurred) that cut across all of the data?
  • What metaphors are used?
  • Are there phrases in common across the data – are these indicative of some kind of shared framework or discourse?
  • What little narratives are there?
  • Look for reasonings – Who is doing what to whom and why?
  • What categories are used and what is included and excluded through their use?

Or you might take a section, a coherent cluster of answers, in a survey and look to see the various ways in which the numbers might be interpreted, represented and cross tablulated.

Or you might take one transcript only and work through it very carefully, before writing a sketch of the person, and their story/ies.

This is not a complete list of possibilities, of course. The point I want to make is that you have to start somehow, but this doesn’t mean starting anywhere. You do have to be very brave and plunge in, but you may very well not automatically know what and how to do the analysis first off. If you do, that’s great and you will just get on with it. But if you don’t, then you need to work out a way to proceed. You must generate a beginning analytic strategy so you can take a bite sized piece of stuff… this will then help you understand how to tackle the entirety.

Data analysis… As the saying goes – how to eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time. The trick with data analysis to take that first bite – and it’s got to be big enough so you get to experience what it will be like to eat the lot, and not so big that you choke.

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research project blogging – the successful and the not so

This is a modified version of the contribution I’ve made to `Social media in social research: Blogs on blurring the boundaries. 

I reckon it’s a good idea to blog your research. It’s a way to tell people what you’re doing and how things are going. You can drum up a bit of interest in your project. Maybe you’ll get some useful feedback, get pointers to literature and arguments you’re not yet onto. Perhaps you’ll find some new networks and potential new research and writing partners. You and your blog might even be found by some of the people who are likely to use your results. That’s sounds great, right?

Yes, it’s all good in theory, but I’ve found it doesn’t always work out quite like that in practice. No, I’m not a blogging sceptic. This is my primary blog but it’s not about any particular research project. In fact, it’s more about the things that interest me about supervision and teaching  – so I write about academic writing, doing research and being a scholar. And I’m committed to blogging. I post twice a week without fail. I think of myself as a blogger. But I’ve tried several times to blog my research projects on specific purpose-developed sites, and I have to say that some of these efforts have been more successful than others.

The research project blog which I think was the most useful to me and to others was one developed for an AHRC funded cultural value project. It was a limited life project about a youth workshop in live art. My co-researcher Emily and I decided that we would put a range of materials online – some resources about the work we were inspired by, some details about the artists involved, the process of the two workshops and some emerging analysis. The posts on emergent ideas either grew out of conversations that we had or they were based on analytic work that one of us had been doing. We used these ‘emergent ideas’ posts as a way to play with potential theorisations. We were not committed to them, but were ‘trying things out’. This generation of possible perspectives on the research profoundly influenced the ways in which we arrived at our final ‘results’. The blog also generated a small readership interested in similar issues and it continues to attract them, even though the blog is now largely a project archive.

Another ‘good’ project blog was designed for a desk study rethinking the evaluation of community theatre. The three of us involved in the project carved the reading up between us. We developed a schedule of posts about key ideas, and these ranged across a wide range of disciplines. We duly wrote and posted 800 – 1000 words every couple of weeks. We were working with a group of local community theatre companies and our project concluded with a two-day workshop to discuss the various literatures and develop a heuristic for formative evaluation. We hoped that the blog posts would be a less time-consuming ask of the busy theatre workers – rather than read a hefty literature review they could just pick and choose the posts that were of interest to them. And indeed, most of them did read at least some of the posts before coming to the workshop. So the blog did what we hoped it would do. Like the live art blog this blog’s purpose was to generate ideas, rather than to communicate a set of settled ‘results’. We wrote with boundaried content and a core of target readers.

A more frustrating – and just completed – research blog began with a literature review. I was able to break a completed 20K (and very comprehensive if I do say so myself) literature review on alternate education into smallish self-contained chunks. However once these posts were up, I couldn’t do much more. No more blogging. I couldn’t write about any of the actual field-work or ongoing emergent ideas, even though that would have been helpful to the actual research analysis. That’s because the funders didn’t want to pre-empt the final research results. They planned a big launch – tada – of the final report. So I had to be very careful that I didn’t put anything up on the blog that could hint at what we ‘found’. It seems likely that this blog will be more useful as a static archive now the project has finished, when we’ve added the final report (it’s up) and some more of the worked data – the 17 case studies and thenacademic papers. So it’s really more of a website marking the research territory than a blog.

I’ve also tried the literature review based model with one other research project. This was a pretty disastrous effort as far as I am concerned – and I’ve not provided a link to it for that reason. You’ll just have to take my word for it. It’s not good. I posted literature work in progress. The posts were the actual workings of the content analysis we were doing. And it’s – well, quite frankly – it’s really, really boring. I can’t imagine anyone but the most dedicated researcher reading the set of analytic posts. I’m now convinced that blogging a show-and-tell data analysis is probably not the way to go. The posts are however great evidence to back up the final research report; it’s an audit trail to convince any sceptics about the rigour of the process we used to conduct a meta-analysis. But it’s a crap read. And I won’t be doing that kind of research blog again.

I have also posted on this patter blog about my ongoing ethnographic research at Tate and this seems to be tolerable to the usual patter blog readers as long as it doesn’t go on for too long. A week at a time is about enough away from the usual content. But these diary posts have proved to be a very helpful reminder to Tate participants and our research partnership, it’s a process for remembering what happened sometime ago. It also is an audit trail, but a much more readable one.

So what can I conclude from these variously successful attempts to blog research? What will I do in future and what will I abandon? Well, I still reckon that, in principle, blogging research projects is a good idea. I know that the process can be helpful in developing and testing out ideas, and can work as an aide memoire. A project blog can also be a useful way to connect with partners and to provide resources for face-to-face activities. It can, under some circumstances, be a good way to let interested people access an otherwise over-large literature review. However, there can be problems with what funders want to do and what might happen on a blog, and there are clearly issues to do with readability and the premature revelation of results which I need to not forget (that’s one big indelible ink note to self).

I will still go on blogging my research wherever possible, bearing these potential problems in mind. And I’m sure there’ll be more issues I haven’t yet come across. However, I am now wondering about project blogs when the research is finished and the blog becomes a static archive. What happens to them. Should they stay or should they go? And of course how many project archive blogs might a busy researcher end up with? These finished blogs perhaps need a big home where they can be housed and contextualised. They need an overall URL as well as their own little signatures. Solving that problem is now well and truly on my ’to do’ list.

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