Monthly Archives: August 2012

My Own Personal 100% Ripped-Off Guide to Critical Reading and Writing (guest post)

Ever wondered how on earth you are going to start your literature review? That’s right: first of all you need to be able to assess other people’s work. In today’s post, Ben from Literature Review HQ shares some excellent advice on how to develop your own skills at critical reading and writing. I am sure you’ll find it very useful. Thanks a lot, Ben!

Bio I’m Ben the writer from Literature Review HQ. I’m an early career researcher who developed my website as a resource for anyone who needs help with their literature review. I write weekly blog posts as well as providing a Literature Review Toolbox for anyone who signs up to receive my emails. If you need more tailored help, I also offer 1:1, or group training over the Internet. You can contact me via Twitter (@LitReviewHQ) or email ( 

Hands up if you find criticizing other people’s writing tough. As grad students it’s especially hard because we are expected to criticize our peers while we are still learning our craft. Furthermore, our peers are normally world-leading experts in the field. How are we, as lowly grad students and early career researchers supposed to criticize Professor Big-Shot and their enormous research group?

Errrr…I don’t know!

Sorry folks. While I was writing my thesis and my blog, I developed a lot of ways to cope with many different aspects of writing. However, critical reading and writing was something that I just couldn’t seem to crack. So, what did I do? I went around and asked other people and read up about critical reading and writing. It turns out there are some pretty clever people out there who have some really good advice on how to be critical. So my first piece of advice is…

…Interact with other people

You can read an article until you are blue in the face and not find any ways to critique it. However, if you and a friend (or your supervisor) have read the same paper and you have a 5-minute discussion, you’ll be amazed what will come out. If you read relevant papers together you will pick out points you can use in your writing, however, by regularly interacting with people, you will quickly learn how to draw critical conclusions of your own. I’m a strong advocate of journal clubs, whether they be in person or online. I think this is a great way to learn the skill of being critical. Join a journal club this week if you have one, or start one if you don’t. My second piece of advice comes from an interview I did with Alison Wray and Mike Wallace who have written a very good book on how to be a critical writer…

…Be systematic

Many people have their own way of doing this and you can develop your own way too… or copy someone else’s! It doesn’t make that much difference but if you can tailor a systematic approach to your own circumstances then I think you will benefit more. What exactly am I talking about? I’m talking about question asking and note taking. For every paper you read, you should develop a set of questions that you can ask of the paper to try and tease out any flaws and criticisms. There are several lists of questions available online and I would start by downloading the question sheet from this blog. You should answer the questions and find a way to store the answers with the paper, either electronically or physically, so that you can easily access your notes with the paper and use them or alter them as needed. Some good critical questions to ask are:

  • What are the main findings?
  • How does this work relate to the central theme of my literature review?
  • What does this work claim?
  • How do they back up their claims?

This brings me nicely onto my third point that I stole from Alec Fisher and Stephen Toulmin.

The Claim vs The Evidence

Firstly, I have to say that Fisher and Toulmin present great methods for critical analysis that aren’t the same. However, it would take too long to go through them both here so I will talk about the similarities and the general principle behind their methods. To put it simply, any article that you read will make not just one, but many claims. They will state that something is true based on evidence that they SHOULD present. To understand this is a powerful tool to unlock the floodgates of critical analysis – it’s so powerful, that you could end up being too critical!

The crux of these methods is to analyze the claims that articles make and then check that the evidence for these claims stacks up and is present in the first place. This is where you can really take advantage of being new to a field because you can more easily unpick assumptions that people too familiar with the work might make. Do the authors have sufficient evidence to make that claim? Have they misinterpreted the evidence they have? Have they assumed too much?

When I first discovered these methods I went a bit crazy and I found that most academic articles were flawed in some way. I needed to rein in my critical reading rampage. It was then that I discovered some more advice on critical writing from the amazing writer Pat Thomson.

The Literature is a conversation

When you are reading and writing, you are interacting with the literature as if it were a conversation, not an argument or a blazing row. This is an important distinction. Your goal in critical writing is not to tear other literature to pieces but to effectively engage with it in an interesting and appropriate way. The way Pat puts it is to imagine you are inviting the authors of the papers in your literature review to a dinner party. How are you going to interact with them? You’re not going to agree with everything they say (boring) neither are you going to tear them to pieces and shout at them (antisocial). You’re going to be somewhere in the middle. You are going to identify with some things that people say and contradict others. However, you are going to do all of this in a civilized way.

So that’s how I critically read and write now. I’m lucky to have interacted with some great people to help me on the way. I know I still have a long way to go but I get better every week. This raises another important point, which is…

Practice makes perfect

The more you read and practice the art of critical analysis, the better you will get. This will happen over the course of your career but also over the course of a project. Not only will you have more experience, but also you will have more context in which to set all of the articles you are reading.

I hope this guide helps; I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in the comment or on Twitter (@LitReviewHQ).


City Maps and Theses Layouts

If you have been travelling to some new place this summer, chances are you will have planned your route before setting off and will have studied the map carefully to find out how to get there. If your destination was a city you had never visited before, you will have explored the city’s map to get a feeling of its layout. How do you get to the city centre? Where are its most important monuments located? How to find that famous restaurant? Most of this information will be in your map and you’ll need it if you want to avoid feeling lost.

The same holds true for any piece of writing. When you hold a thesis or a report in your hands, what you want to get at first is a sense of orientation, a bigger picture. What is the report about? Why should I read it? What can I expect to find in it? You need a map to show you how to get to its core, how to figure out what its most important conclusions are, and how to retrieve any key references cited throughout.  Without a proper map to indicate you where to go, you will soon feel lost and unsure about what you are doing in there (metaphorically speaking, of course).

So, now, imagine you are a writer. What do you think your readers will expect? That’s right! They’ll want a map. So, how do you provide one? There are various things you can do. Here are just some ideas:

  • Include a Table of Content. Whether your script is a 6-page document or a 150-page PhD thesis, a ToC will be extremely useful to see at once where to find what.
  • Use sections and sub-sections. These do not have to be pages and pages long. It is enough to make sure they have a core message that justifies a dedicated section or sub-section to it.
  • Choose titles wisely. Ideally, short is better, but there is no point in having something like “Introduction”, “Methods”, “Data Analysis”, or similar even if this is precisely what the sections/chapters are about. Use titles that are more specific to the content they refer to and make them more interesting and engaging to your reader.
  • Highlight key concepts, as appropriate. Here you are spoilt for choice: underline, use bold typeface, frame in boxes,


     basically anything that makes the concept stand out.

  • Spell out the conclusions of what you have been presenting thus far. Again, this can be achieved visually by using a stand-alone paragraph, maybe in italics and possibly preceded by its obvious signpost conclusions:
  • Does your investigation still leave open questions? Group them all in an outstanding issues paragraph.
  • Use pictures, plots, graphs, and tables wherever possible and make sure they are clear and informative and can stand alone (without your reader having to go through the entire text to find out what they are about).

By now, the bottom line of this post should be clear:

Do everything you can to make sure your reader does not have to think too much or look too hard to find out the information he is after.

Ultimately, if he likes the place and knows how to get there, chances are (s)he’ll come back for more.

What elements do you use to map out your writing? Leave a reply and share with us.

How To Write To A Prospective PhD Supervisor

Today’s post is from Prof Faye Hicks. Faye is a hydrotechincal (civil) engineer with 30+ years of experience and the Author of “The Art of Scientific Writing”, a blog where she provides advice for university students in Science and Engineering. I hope you’ll like her post as much as I did. Enjoy!

The Art of Scientific Communication

I’ve noticed recently that a lot of people make their way to this site while searching for advice on how to write to a potential PhD supervisor. I’ve also noticed that many of the letters/emails that I personally get on this topic are actually irrelevant to me, poorly written, or both. So, I figured it might be a good idea to put a little bit of advice out there to help students who are trying to get into a PhD (or Masters) program. All the same principles also apply for those seeking post-doc supervisors.

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The Power of Nature!

Wow! That was completely unexpected! Of course, I knew that guest posts are a very useful way of increasing traffic to your site. But I just did not imagine the amazing response I received from my recent post on the Soapbox Science, a community guest blog from Well over 1000 visits, from over 20 different countries, and 18 new subscribers! So, a big Thank You to all my readers and to Laura Wheeler for her kind invitation. What was the post about? Scroll down to find out.

Here it is: Top 10 Tips to Succeed in Your PhD Click on the link or visit any of the pages listed below (you’ll find the link on the sidebar). Oh, and by the way…

…if you are struggling with any aspects of your PhD, just let me know. Whether it is writing up your thesis, or drafting your first paper, or simply re-gaining motivation to continue working at your project, I can help you develop a personalised plan to achieve your next goal and build up momentum towards successful completion.

Just email me at marialuisa.aliotta at for a FREE 30-mins “Let’s Plan Your Strategy!” Skype call.

But hurry up! I’ve got only a couple of spaces left.

To Your Success!