Helen writes: find the gap

Continuing her occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams reflects on what it means to find a gap when writing your literature review.

The fact that doctoral research must be original and fill some kind of ‘gap’ in the literature is trotted out all the time, particularly to PGRs in their first year or so of study who may still be grappling with all the existing research on their topic. But how do you search for an absence? How do you identify something that isn’t there?

It can feel like a somewhat impossible task, especially if there are reams of articles, chapters and books that have been written on your topic. One answer could be changing the parameters of your research slightly; focusing on a specific and under-researched angle might tick that ‘originality’ box in a field that is saturated with research. However, if this isn’t practical, or you’re already fairly set on what research you want to carry out, it might be that you need to try to record your reading in a way that makes that gap more obvious.

Continue reading “Helen writes: find the gap”

Helen writes: spring-clean your thesis

In the next of our occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams talks about refreshing existing writing as a rewarding and important step on the road to your thesis.

In these uncertain times it’s nice to have a few constants and, whilst working at my desk overlooking my garden, I’ve been reminded that the changing of the seasons is one of these.

Helen's garden
Spring in Helen’s garden

As always, spring has sprung, and this put me in mind of other spring-related traditions that roll around each year. One of these that feels quite apt right now is spring cleaning; what better time than now to do all those tasks that get pushed to one side and ignored in favour of more ‘urgent’ ones?

You may be using this time to charge ahead with writing up and churning out new chapters, which is great, but if you’ve ground to a bit of a halt or want some variety, the following are some good ‘housekeeping’ activities that will pay dividends later on when your schedule may be getting back to normal (most of these assume that you have drafted some work already; if you need to start writing but are struggling, check out my previous post on this). Continue reading “Helen writes: spring-clean your thesis”

Helen writes: reading to write

In the third of an occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams talks about how reading previous theses can contribute to your writing practice.

If you saw last month’s posts about perseverance and The Conversation, you’ll have picked up on the fact that November was #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) – an annual, month-long, communal attempt by academics at all career stages to focus on their writing. In thinking about what can be most helpful in both facilitating and improving writing however, I keep coming back to how important reading is as part of this process.

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." Stephen King

Continue reading “Helen writes: reading to write”

Helen writes: explicit content!

In the second of an occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams gives advice on writing more clearly.

I am often surprised by the difference between what people think they have written compared to what is actually on the page. I was reminded of this recently when helping a friend with a chapter of her postgraduate work; she was confident that she made frequent links back from her literature review to her own research. Trusting her opinion I had a look, but soon found myself writing comments like “How does this inform your approach?”, “I’m not sure how this relates to your topic” and “Can you link back to your own research here?”

Parental_Advisory_labelEither you are explicit in how you set out your ideas or discussion, or you are expecting your reader to pick up the implicit connections. Something about doctoral-level writing in particular seems to breed a fear of being explicit. Certainly on my part I always felt that the more complicated I made my writing and argument, the more ‘intelligent’ it would appear. Setting everything out clearly for a supervisor or examiner felt overly simplistic or even patronising – as if they couldn’t work out the links for themselves.

The reality is that no-one should have to ‘work’ to understand your writing; there is a difference between complex ideas (which a doctoral thesis should engage with) and complex writing. Continue reading “Helen writes: explicit content!”

Helen writes: getting started

In the first of a new occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams gives advice on getting started with your thesis writing.

In 2018 I started at the University of Birmingham as a Writing Skills Advisor, and when asked to contribute to this blog I considered the hardest part of writing my own thesis.

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Helen Williams, Writing Skills Advisor, Library Services

Fittingly, ‘getting started’ was often the toughest task for me, which also felt apt for a first blog post. Preparation is essential in drafting effective writing, and there is a lot that you can do encourage this process before putting pen to paper. So, to start, here are four tips for getting started. Continue reading “Helen writes: getting started”