How to Keep on Top of Your Writing and Reading Activities

If you follow PhD-related topics on Twitter, you may have already come across the #phdchat forum, founded and moderated by Nasima Riazat. In the forum, a topic previously chosen through a poll is discussed “live” every Wednesday (7.30pm-8.30pm BST) as a Twitter chat. Some time ago, the question on “How to keep on top of your writing and reading activities” came up as one of the popular “problems” faced by PhD students. In fact, I would argue that this can be challenging for established academics as well. Luckily, becoming a better writer and a more careful reader gets easier with time and practice.

If you are also struggling to keep up with the literature search for your PhD thesis or if you are losing track of all the papers you are reading for your Review Article, here is a simple yet effective way to manage your reading and help you with your writing.

The first thing to do is to create a template file with the following fields: title, authors and journal (for easier retrieval later on); nature of the paper (theoretical, computational, experimental); aim of the work; why was the study undertaken (i.e. importance in the wider context); method used for data taking; method used for data analysis; key findings of the study; implications for the wider context; limitations of the study; conclusions and outlook. Of course you can pick and choose the fields that are more relevant or modify them to suit the specific needs of your subject.

Then, every time you read a paper, just fill in the relevant information in the appropriate field. You can do so by hand, or on a computer, depending on your preferred learning style (I typically prefer to take my notes by hand when reading a journal article). Also, you can fill in the form as you read the paper (my recommended option), or you can do so at the end. Whatever you chose, make sure that you:

1) Do not spend too much time on doing this activity. A few minutes should be enough. If you spend any longer, you will soon lose interest and motivation and will not see this exercise as worthwhile. Remember too that things will get easier with some practice.

2) Record only key pieces of information (bullet points are perfectly fine). The purpose of the exercise is not making a summary of the article you are reading, nor to transcribe all of its details. Simply aim at notes that are factually correct and do now worry about style.

3) Do not exceed two A4 sides. This should be plenty to record the key aspects of the paper. It is also a good length to provide a quick overview of what the paper is all about.

Once finished, attach your filled-in form to the paper and store in a folder.

With a bit of practice, this activity will become very natural to you every time you read  an article relevant to your writing project. As a result, you will become a better reader because you will:

  • focus on the key issues
  • extract critical information quickly and effectively
  • retrieve relevant info from papers easily, even months after you first read them.

In addition, this activity will help you becoming a better writer too, because you will more easily:

  • compare and contrast different papers, methods, and results
  • spot and highlight possible discrepancies in the current state of the art
  • organise your literature review.

I hope this is useful and just in case you think preparing a template is too much of a hassle here is one for you to download: Paper Annotation Tool-Sheet.

Happy reading!

My Number One Secret to Become a Better Writer

Become a better reader! As simple as that.

We often take it for granted. When reading an article, a paper, a blog post, we focus on content. Is the information relevant to us? Do we get the answers we were looking for? Do we agree with the opinions expressed? This is all very important indeed.

Occasionally, we may even go as far as thinking, almost subconsciously, that we like what we are reading or, perhaps, that we don’t. But even then, I doubt we ever pause for a moment to find out exactly what we like about the piece, or why we seem to find it so hard to read and understand.

We also forget that what we are reading may have taken the author a considerable amount of time to write. So, for example, a paper in a refereed journal may have undergone a large number of iterations before appearing in its beautiful final form. No wonder then that we feel frustrated if we fail to produce the perfect piece straight away.

Yet, as I teach in my Hands on Writing Workshops, there are several things that we can do to improve our own writing. Becoming a better reader is most definitely one of them.

If you too are struggling to become a better writer, here is what you can do as a reader:

- Focus on the structure. Sometimes, the structure is clearly sign-posted by sections and sub-sections and is easy to recognise. However, even when sections are not there (for example, in the Letter format of a paper), there will nevertheless be a structure. The structure forms the underlying skeleton of your writing, without which the whole piece would fall apart.

- Work out the function of each sentence in a paragraph. This can be trickier to see at first, but with some practice you may start recognising a common pattern in the same sections (for example, the introduction, or the methodology, or the discussion) of different articles. This is because scientific writing ultimately follows a well-prescribed set of “rules”.

- Pay attention to the ways in which sentences are connected to one another. Connectors such as “however”, “although”, “therefore” and the like are very powerful ways of alerting the reader to a change of direction (or indeed the reinforcement of one). However (!), more subtle links can be created by overlap (repeating something said in previous sentences), pronouns or relative clauses, or even the wise use of punctuation.

- Notice the use of verb tenses. Reporting on research carried out is normally done in past tenses. At times, however, the present tense might be used instead. Ask yourself why that is the case. Is the author trying to imply something without saying so explicitely? Try and pick up the nuances of the language by reading between the lines.

- Read the captions. Figures and Tables are meant to stand alone so that the reader can get the gist without having to read the whole paper. So, pay attention to the way in which captions are written. What type of information is given? How well is the figure or table described?

And finally, remember, writing well takes time and it does not come easily to most of us.  But we are all readers before being writers, and learning to read well can can do wonders in teaching us to write well.

PS. What is your number one secret to become a better writer? Leave a comment to share.