Tag Archives: Writing

How to Structure Your Chapters in 3 Quick Steps

Structure photo Structure.jpg

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!

 

 

How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences

Ok, this is an announcement more than a post.

writing

But first…

…did you know that only 2% of academics have ever undertaken any formal training in academic writing [1]?

This is amazing when you consider how critical it is for academics to be able to write well. Think about a PhD thesis. Or a research paper. Or a proposal to obtain research time at some international facility (a major lab or a big telescope). Or even a grant application. Or a job at a prestigious university.

Your chances of being successful at any of these hinges greatly on one simple factor: How well you can write!

Sadly, most PhD students (and, dare I say, academics!) are expected to (magically!) master academic writing with very little guidance, almost by osmosis. Of course, there is much you can learn by trial and error and by attempting to emulate the work of the masters. But this is a lengthy, inefficient, and serendipitous path to take. And one that does not guarantee success either! (Do you really want to find out how to write a good job application by trial and error?)

Far better is to understand what makes for good writing, to learn the dos and don’ts of academic discourse, and to follow some simple strategies that can massively improve the quality of your writing. Then, you realise that scientific academic writing is a craft. And one that you can learn!

Yes, I know. There are hundreds of books out there, which could teach you how to write successfully in academia. And actually many of them are really great.

But here is the problem. Do you actually ever read them? I suspect, your answer is no.

And if you do, have you ever wished you could get in touch with the author to ask any question you may have? If that’s the case, then here is my announcement for you:

I have developed a stepbystep programme specifically designed to take you through the process of academic writing, at your own pace, but with my support.

Interested? Then, have a look at

Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences.

In this course, I will share with you some simple tools and techniques that I regularly use in my own writing and that have proved helpful to many students already.

Whether you are working at your PhD thesis or a research paper, this course will provide you with an easy-to-follow framework to become a more effective, confident and productive writer.

And even if you are not in a scientific discipline, you can still benefit from plenty of very general strategies and tips to help you improve on your skills.

Now, here is the important bit!

The course will go live online for the first time on November 4th and then registration will be over until next year.

And because this is the course debut, I’m going to offer it at a very special price for this time only.

So, now is the time to take action. Click here to register.

But hurry up! This offer expires on Sunday, November 3rd.

PS Oh, and if you think that this post may be relevant to someone you know, please be so kind to pass it on.

[1] Source: Helen Sword, Author of Stylish Academic Writing, Harvard University Press (2012)

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!

You ARE a Writer, Whether You Know It or Not

writerPaul*, a colleague and dear friend of mine, called me on Skype the other day to mourn about the referee response he had received for a recent paper.

He was clearly annoyed, and probably rightly so. I have known him for many years and without doubts he is one of the best researchers I know. And I could share his frustration.

I let him speak and vent off his resentment.

Then, after a while, I asked him half-jokingly whether he wanted to write a guest post for my blog and share his experience.

His reply, however, took me by surprise!

“No, it’s not really my thing – he said – I am not a writer.”

I was baffled, but decided not to insist as he probably would not be bothered and certainly was not in the right mood to discuss this further. In my mind, however, I could not avoid thinking that he was wrong.

You see, as an academic, writing is really at the core of what you do.

Actually – you may argue – research is our top concern!

Fine.

But what would our research be worth if we were not able (or willing) to write about it and to communicate it effectively to our readers?

How could we pass on the knowledge, advances, and breakthroughs if not by writing about them in a way that would make sense to others?

And yet, arguing the importance of writing as a vehicle to communicate our research is only too easy. Of course – you’d agree – we need to write and share the results of our research!

But, perhaps you too, like my friend Paul, do not regard yourself as a writer.

But think about this… As an academic, you are expected to write all sorts of things: grant applications, research proposals, letters of reference, articles for journals and magazines, review papers, books or book chapters, conference papers, facility-time applications, annual reports, research statements, job applications, cases for promotion, resumes, Curriculum Vitae, exam papers. The list goes on.

I cannot think of any other job – apart from being a professional book writer or a journalist – whose core activity is so much centered on writing.

So, even if you do not regard yourself as a writer, the truth is that you are!

More than that, your success as an academic may well hinge on how well (and how much) you write, as Patricia Goodson rightly argues in her recent book, Becoming an Academic Writer. In fact, writing may well be the single most important tool of a successful academic career [1].

And it certainly pays off to learn to do it properly.

[1] P. Goodson, 2013: Becoming an Academic Writer – 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing, SAGE Publications Inc.

*Not his real name