On Writing

Writing a thesis is an odd process. I’ve never written something of this length before, so I’ve never had this much space to discuss ideas or theories. This is causing me a few problems in my writing. When I show my supervisors work, I’m told it’s not detailed enough or the ideas aren’t as clear as they could be. This is fair criticism and I’m happy to get it as it’ll eventually help me improve my work. However, I’m used to having limited space and the idea of having 10,000 words just to discuss one theory is a little daunting. How can I write in such detail without simply paraphrasing the original work? Where does detailed writing end and parrot-like regurgitation begin? This is one of the issues that has been bothering me writing-wise lately.

So I’m going to try something new. I’ve heard about the Cornell method of note taking before, but never used it. Today will be the day I start. Usually I will take notes whilst reading and then try to fit the information into the structure of a piece I’m writing. This hasn’t been very effective for me to be honest, and I’m getting to the point where I need to be writing more and quicker, so trying a new approach can’t hurt. The Cornell method gives a page template for note taking. The space for notes themselves is limited, so you only write down what is important (I often get a huge amount of notes from just one page of a book, so this seems useful already). Also the margin on the page is much wider, where you can point out the words or themes from your notes, or write questions about the work. These themes and questions then turn into a large space at the bottom of the page, where the notes are summarised in full sentences. These summaries then form the basis and structure of your writing on this topic. This description is basically a re-hash of the Thesis Whisperer’s post which can be found here: http://thesiswhisperer.com/2012/12/12/turn-your-notes-into-writing-using-the-cornell-method/

This sounds to me pretty similar to the grounded theory approach to data analysis. Picking out themes and key points from a text which you’ve looked at in detail; then creating summary descriptions of these themes (citing examples from the text) and using them to make a larger point. The idea of applying research techniques to the process of doing the research makes a lot of sense to me. Possibly one of the reasons I’ve been struggling with my writing is that I’ve not applied an equally methodical and thought out approach to it as I do my research activities. For some reason I expect writing to just happen once I’ve done reading. Now I think about it, that makes no sense. Why would writing “just happen”?! Applying a methodical and structured approach to the note taking may help make the writing process itself more structured. So I will let you know how I get on with the Cornell method.

Do any of you have particular strategies for note taking and writing? Or any favourite books about writing or the process of research? I’m a fan of Stephen King’s “On Writing”. It’s partially a memoir, but he gives practical tips for doing writing as well. It’s mostly applicable to fiction writing, but I think some of the tips are good for writing in general, like target setting. One tip: avoid adverbs (e.g: “She wrote determinedly”) as things like this are something the reader can see anyway if you’ve written the character well; and I think it can be applied to academic writing as: avoid hyperbole (e.g: It is imperative this research is done). There’s no need to try and oversell your work. The ideas you have will be good, otherwise you wouldn’t have got onto a PhD program, or your supervisor would have said, “That’s not the best idea, try something else”. You don’t need to try and make others believe they’re important, just put them across as well as you can, and if you’ve done that right, they’ll seem important without you saying so.

Those last couple of sentences may not apply to you, it was slightly more of a pep talk for myself really. But I feel ready to get some work done, so that justifies it in my book.


About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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One Response to On Writing

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