Tag Archives: scientific writing

How to Structure Your Chapters in 3 Quick Steps

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One of the things inexperienced writers struggle the most with is getting the structure right!

And I’m not talking about… ‘first comes the introduction, then the literature review, then the methods, data analysis, results and so on’…

That’s the easy bit. Everyone gets that.

I’m talking about writing the actual chapters and arranging your content in a way that makes sense. That’s when the text suddenly loses its structure. And like a body without skeleton, the whole thing just falls apart.

If you constantly receive feedback along the lines… ‘this chapter is unclear’… ‘there are lots of repetitions’… ‘I cannot see where you are going here’… ‘what is the point you are trying to make?’… ‘I think these paragraphs completely lack focus’… chances are the problem may be in the structure (or rather lack thereof!).

In fact, these are just a few examples of the feedback some of the students I coach receive from their supervisors.

It is frustrating, both for the students and for their supervisor.

So what I try to do first and foremost when I work with these students is to take them through a process of creating a structure.

I do not claim that this is the only way to do it, but it works for me. And for my students.

I describe it here in the hope that it can help you too.

1. Make a mind map.

Mind maps are a great tool to quickly generate a comprehensive overview of what you want to put in your chapter. One of the main advantages of this approach is its ‘scalability’. You can use a mind map for your entire thesis, for an individual chapter, or even for a section. The principles remain exactly the same. If you have never done one before, here are some practical tips.

Take a piece of paper (landscape orientation works best) and write in the middle the core topic. For example, literature review, or data analysis, or the name of whatever other chapter you are working on.

From this central ‘node’, start drawing a line (just like the branch of a tree) and at its end write one of the topics that you want to include in this particular chapter. This could be one section. From there, branch out to other bits that should be included in that particular section: draw one branch per item. If appropriate, you may also link items with other lines, just to show that there is a connection or a relation between the two.

When you have exhausted all the topics for that section, move back to the main node (your chapter) and start another branch: a new section. Again branch out with its sub-branches to the various bits that will go into this other section.

Keep going until you think you have included all your key ingredients in your map.

For example, If you are trying to write a literature review to discuss the experience of women in the labor market in your country, your mind map may look something like this:

mind-map-draft

2. Revise your mind map to give it some structure

Most likely your mind map will look rather messy. That’s fine! That’s how is should be.

Remember, a mind map is a visual representation of what you have in your mind when it comes to ‘which items am I going to include/present/discuss in this chapter?’.

But probably, there will be far too many details that you do not want to have into the actual layout of your chapter.

So, an intermediate step may be needed before you get to your final goal (i.e. producing a layout of the chapter’s structure): re-arrange the various nodes and possibly cut down some branches.

This doesn’t mean you are going to leave out the corresponding topics from your text, but you will leave them out from your layout.

A revised version of your mind map may look like this:

mind-map-revised

3. Turn your mind map into a structured layout

Now it’s time to create your chapter’s layout. This is critical because it will provide the bare bones structure for your ‘meat’.

Unlike a mind map, a layout represents an ordered and logical (I repeat, ordered and logical) sequence of the topics in your chapter.

It will showcase the content in a way that should (ideally!) make sense for your reader.

So, this step now is all about looking at the mind map you have just produced and decide which box (with its branches) comes first (in a logical sequence).

Say you are describing the situation of women’s employment in your country and want to compare it to that in different welfare state types.

A good logical sequence would be to provide a brief general introduction about different welfare states FIRST, and THEN about the specific situation in your country. (Remember: always from the general to the specific)

Proceed like this until you have covered all the main nodes (and their main branches) in your mind map.

Your chapter layout may now look something like this (in fact, this is just an excerpt of the full chapter):

layout

Make sure your sections and sub-sections titles are clear and sufficiently descriptive so that your reader can quickly figure out what he/she can expect to find in them.

Eh voila’! Your chapter’s structure is laid out nicely before you.

At this point – I hope – it will become a lot easier to see what goes where and to write each section accordingly. You will avoid un-necessary repetitions and deliver your reader a much better (and clearer!) experience.

Also, once you know what the overall length of your document should be, you can plan more carefully for how many pages each section should be!

 

I hope this helps. If you have questions, please post them in the comments below.

[Note: the examples in this post were taken from real case drafts and have been reproduced with the author’s permission]

PS If you found this post useful, you may also like: City Maps and Theses Layouts, Mastering the Art: The Two Stages of Writing, and What Can Celebrity Chefs Teach You About Writing

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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!

 

 

13 Effective Strategies to Sharpen Your Writing

pencil-sharpener

 

1. Write for your audience. If in doubt about your readers’ background, always write for the least informed.

2. Decide on the purpose of your writing. An essay, a thesis, or a grant application may have elements in common but vary greatly in purpose. Keep this in mind and write accordingly.

3. Nail down your message. What are you trying to say? and also: Are you saying it?

4. They say “Content is king”… but structure is the secret that holds it together. Fix the structure first. Only then start drafting your content.

5. Favour active voice over passive: it takes less time to process.

6. Keep subject and verb close together. Don’t make your reader hang out there in waiting.

7. Choose words carefully. Do they express the exact meeting you want them to convey?

8. Use verbs, not nouns. They are more powerful to carry your sentence forward.

9. Omit useless words. Sometimes, less is more.

10. Make lists parallel by keeping the same grammatical form for each of its items.

11. Vary the length of your sentences. It makes for more interesting reading.

12. Punctuation exists for a reason. Use it properly.

13. Grammar matters. Make sure its it’s correct!

 

Ready to put in practice some of these strategies? Let me know how it goes by leaving a comment below.

And if you liked this post, please share it.   

 

Are You Struggling With Your Writing?

Computer-Frustration-Cartoon-2‘How do I write an introduction?’

‘What do I put in my conclusions?

‘How do I manage to keep on track when I feel I have completely lost my motivation?’

‘My submission deadline is approaching fast but I still haven’t completed my thesis and I’m now panicking. What can I do?’

‘How do I decide what to reference in my text?’

These are just some of the questions that I get asked all the time.

Do you relate with any of these? If so, don’t miss my FREE Webinar:

‘How to Write Your PhD Thesis, Proposal, or Research Paper in 5 Easy Steps That Will Save You Time, Stress, and Sleepless Nights’

In this webinar, I’ll be sharing:

  • The single most important thing to get right in your thesis, proposal or research paper
  • My top 3 tips for productive and effective writing
  • The worst mistake you can make and how to avoid it
  • My proven 5-step approach to writing that will help you enjoy it and become more confident

Interested? Then, make sure you register now as spaces are limited and they are filling up quickly.
http://www.handsonwriting.com/webinar

After the webinar, I’m also going to open up registrations to my online course ‘Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing (in the Sciences)’ where I teach the very same strategy that I now use for my own writing and when supervising my PhD students.

And… I’ll be telling you about some juicy bonuses on how to avoid procrastination, stay on track, enjoy a great work-life balance so you can feel confident and in charge again.

I’ll tell you more at the webinar, so just make sure you do not miss it! 🙂

Here is the link again:
http://www.handsonwriting.com/webinar

Mastering the Art: The Two Stages of Writing

Some years ago I attended a workshop on academic writing at the University of Edinburgh. To be honest with you, I do not remember much about it. But at some point the instructor said something that really resonated with me.

struggling_writer

She said that writing happens in two main stages – drafting and editing – and that it is imperative that one should approach each separately.

Now, this may sound pretty obvious to you, but for me it was a revelation. I had never realized the importance of such a distinction, even though – with hindsight – this is exactly what my PhD supervisor used to do every time we were writing something together.

In truth, writing has never come easily to me. Being a perfectionist, I would like to produce the perfect draft in one go. Sadly, this is the worse possible recipe for major frustration. So, over the years, I have had to remind myself about keeping the two stages separate.

So, how does it work? and why can this improve your writing?

Here is the answer.

In the drafting stage, all you have to do is to fix concepts to the paper. Put down your thoughts, ideas, and key concepts. Do not worry about their proper layout or whether something should actually come before or after. Do not bother too much about style. In fact, do not even worry about grammar, or punctuation. Make sure you draft something as quickly as possible, almost without interrupting the flow of thoughts in your mind.

At this stage, your main focus should remain on the message you want to convey. To use the analogy with cookery from my previous post, this is when you mix all your ingredients together (it is not the time to put the decoration on your cake!).

Then, once you feel you have committed most of your content to the page, move away from your piece. Literally. Save it and store it. Hide your printout in a drawer and forget about it for a day or two.

When the time has passed, retrieve your script and critically review what you have written. This is the editing stage. Here – first and foremost – remember that “the structure is king”. Make sure that the content flows in the right logical order and strive for clarity.

This is often achieved by going from the general to the specific. At this point, you can still retain most of what you have written in its original form (again no worries about style, grammar, or punctuation. Yet!). If you need to re-arrange any material, just cut and paste entire blocks of text until you are satisfied that the order in which they appear makes sense.

Now, you can proceed to the next level down: editing individual sections, paragraphs, and sentences. This is the time to experiment with better ways of expressing a concept; refining the language; getting rid of the clutter. Probably, you will need to iterate this process a number of times before producing a text that flows and is stylistically pleasing to the reader.

Some people find editing boring, but in fact this is where elegant writing is crafted. It is in the final polishing of style that mastery is achieved. Keep this in mind and you may find editing a very rewarding aspect of your writing.

So, why do you need to keep the two stages separate? Well, if you are anything like me, chances are you will start writing something (just a sentence or two), read it, realize you do not like it, and start it all over again.

Some people call it zig-zag writing: going back and forth on the same line without actually achieving much. It is a surefire way to spend hours after hours trying to compose something, only to realize that the page is still mostly blank at the end of the day. Frustrating, isn’t it?

So then, every time you sit down to write up, resist the temptation to achieve something good the first time round. And remember: (almost) anything you read that has been published will have undergone far more editing and polishing that the authors themselves are willing to admit. And most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself expecting your first draft to be the polished final one.

Mastering good academic writing takes time. And effort.

The good news?

It can be learned.