Tag Archives: Reading

Reading About Writing: 7 Books You Should Have

Have you ever run a search for ‘Academic Writing’ books on Amazon?

I just have! And there are well over 15000 titles in the Paperback section alone!

No wonder you may get a little overwhelmed in case you want to buy one to improve your writing skills (a great idea, by the way, which I totally support).

So, I thought I’d give you a quick list of some of my favourite books on the topic.

I hope you’ll find the book that suits your needs. And if you have other titles to recommend, just post them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Here is my list:

glasman-deal

 

H Glasman-Deal: Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English, Imperial College Press (2010)

A very clear and well-designed book that will take you step by step into the process of structuring the various sections of chapters in your research paper of thesis. Lots of useful tables with frequently used phrases of academic writing.

 

greene

 

A Greene: Writing Science in Plain English. The University of Chicago Press (2013)

A little gem of a book! A must-read for all (students and staff) who want to improve their writing by applying some simple and practical strategies. Plenty of examples (and ‘solutions’) for you to practice your skills.

 

goodson

 

P Goodson: Becoming an Academic Writer – 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful, Writing. SAGE Publishing Ltd (2013)

If you are short on ideas of practical things you can to to improve your writing, here you’ll find plenty of suggestions and examples.

 

sword

 

H Sword: The Writer’s Diet. Pearson New Zealand Ltd. (2007)

I just love the analogy between writing and eating! If you take the Writer’s Diet Test, but don’t get too disappointed with the results… It’s good fun to see at once where your writing is going wrong.

 

 

koerner

 

AM Koerner: Guide to publishing a scientific paper. Routledge (2008)

If you are new to publishing a research paper, this book will take you through every step in the process from choice of journal, to manuscript submission, to response to reviewers’ comments. Excellent advice even if you are not new to publishing!

 

strunk

 

W Strunk: Elements of Style. Dover Publications Inc. (2006)

A classic that never seems to go amiss. Some advice is probably outdated, but plenty is still valid today as it was almost hundred years ago, when the book first came out.

 

 

atkinson

 

I Atkinson: Copy. Righter. LID Publishing Ltd (2011)

Not exactly a book on academic writing. But there’s nothing wrong about borrowing some of the best tactics that highly successful copywriters use to hook their readers!

 

 

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Effective, Easy, and Enjoyable: The Best Way I Know to Improve Your Academic Critical Skills

I’m sure you have heard this before!

If you want to write a good literature review you need to develop your critical skills.

‘But how?!’ – you may ask.

extending17_lg

Physics Journal Club Presentation, R. T. Birge Lecturing seated at left: Lawrence and Oppenheimer [UARC PIC 04:268]

Simple: Join a Journal Club!

(and if you don’t have one to join, create your own – keep reading and I’ll tell you how)

A journal club is a group of people who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the academic literature and to discuss in detail a specific research paper.

The members of the club can range from PhD students and post-docs, to more experienced researchers and highly accomplished professors. A mix of people at different stages in their careers is a blessing to further stimulate discussion (even though it may feel slightly intimidating to the inexperienced student).

Regardless of its composition, a journal club will help you to:

  • Keep up-to-date with the latest literature in your field
  • Become a more careful reader (and therefore a better writer!)
  • Learn and practice your critical skills
  • Improve your presentation skills
  • Build your confidence and ability to evaluate the work of others
  • Promote your sense of belonging (to your research group or department)
  • Turn a social occasion into an enjoyable educational treat.

Of course, you may be in the unfortunate position of not having a journal club to join.

If so, just start one yourself!

Ideally, you should aim for a group of four or five members, but again don’t let this stop you dead in your tracks. All you need to make a start is just one more person. So, ask a fellow PhD student or an early-career post-doctoral fellow from your own discipline.

And if you are still complaining that you can’t (I know… you are the only student in your group!), then consider creating a virtual Journal Club that meets online.

Once you have found and assembled your buddies, here is what you need to do:

  • Schedule your meetings to take place regularly (ideally once a week, for about one hour)
  • Design a facilitator before each meeting (make sure this role is taken in turn by all members of the group)
  • The facilitator chooses a paper for discussion and distributes it to all members a few days before the meeting
  • The facilitator circulates a few questions about the paper (this is optional, but may prove useful to focus people’s minds to specific issues, especially if the paper is very long)
  • Each member commits to reading the paper before the meeting and to think about the questions posed
  • At the meeting, the facilitator presents a brief overview of the paper. Keep this informal: no need to prepare slides or anything. A piece of chalk and a blackboard is all you need to write down key points if necessary
  • The facilitator initiates the discussion and encourages everyone to take part (see below for suggestions of possible topics)
  • Before the meeting ends, agree on the date, time and facilitator for the following meeting
  • Make sure you start and finish at the agreed times. 

If you are in doubt as to what to discuss about, here some pointers to get you started (feel free to add your own)

Description of the study:

  • What was the purpose of the research?
  • Why is the research important in the wider context?
  • Were the key objectives clearly stated?
  • What was the nature of the study (experimental, theoretical, computational)?

Literature evaluation

  • Was the literature review well presented and sufficiently up to date?
  • Was any major recent study left out? If so try to figure out why
  • Is the paper clear and well written?

Approach and Analysis

  • What was the method used in the study? Can you clearly identify it?
  • How were data obtained and analysed?
  • Is/was there any fault in the approach used?
  • Is the statistical analysis of the data appropriate and sound?

Results and Conclusions

  • What were the key findings of the study?
  • Were results clearly presented and properly discussed?
  • Did the author(s) offer an interpretation of their results?
  • Did the study suffer from any potential limitations? Were these discussed?
  • Could the study be replicated?
  • Was the study successful in solving the research gap(s) identified?
  • What additional questions does the study raise?

I hope this post serves you well.

A final secret for success?

Just take action now. Go talk to one of your colleagues or friends, share this post and arrange your first meeting.

I’ll wait to hear from you 🙂

How Long Does Your Writing Take?

Let me ask you a quick question. Do you normally read in bed before falling asleep every night? If so, how long do you read for?

candleI certainly do. Yet, I only manage to put together five or six pages at most before abandoning myself into Morpheus’ arms. The whole process probably takes me 15-20 minutes every night and, as a positive side effect, I have noticed that the quality of my sleep is far better than if I tried to fall asleep without reading.

But I am digressing…

So, here is my point:

I have managed to read lots of books in my life, just by spending a few minutes every night reading only a few pages!

This is remarkable for me because all too often I have a strong tendency to wait for the perfect circumstances, the perfect settings, the perfect time, before actually getting a start on what I want or have to do.

Say, for example, I have to prepare a talk for a conference. I typically wait to have a whole half-day free from any other commitment before even thinking about making a start.

Guess what?

The perfect time never comes. I wait and wait and wait… and then I have to rush through preparing my talk at the very last minute when I cannot procrastinate anymore.

Sounds familiar? Maybe you do the same with your writing.

You wait for the right time, the right context, or the right inspiration.

The trouble with this approach is that we seldom get anything done and end up feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and guilty.

Admittedly, finding large chunks of time to devote to one single activity is often difficult in our busy lives. Yet, we can still accomplish a lot by using whatever 15 minutes we can find here and there. That’s how I have read hundreds of books. And that’s how I have written some of my papers.

More than that, setting aside just 15 minutes may be far more productive that setting aside 3 consecutive hours (assuming you have them!).

So, if you are struggling to find the time to do some writing, here is an excellent way to making a start:

  • You schedule one 15-minute session in your diary (ideally at the same time every day, just to get into the right habit)
  • You protect this time from external invasion (this is essential or you’ll let any excuse distract you)
  • When the time comes, you set your timer (any timer would do!) and just write. For 15 minutes. Every single day. A few sentences a day. A figure. A table. However small, it’ll be more than you had yesterday. Just do it, day in day out.

After a few weeks (apparently it takes 21 days to establish a new habit) feel free to increase the time (not by much!) and keep going.

It does not matter if the quality of what you write is not good at first. You can always revise later once you have put together enough content. Your aim here is to get into the habit of writing and to stop procrastinating.

And remember: if you start today, even for as little as 15 minutes, you won’t have to start from scratch tomorrow. And writing tomorrow will just feel a bit easier.

I have done it. And it works.

Ok. Enough said. I’d better go and make a start with that talk of mine!

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!