Posts Tagged ‘writing’

I hope the exercise we did in class this week – capturing the essence of each paper in one tweet – got you thinking about how to write smartly and concisely. I would like to challenge you to adopt the same approach when you write your reading notes and blog posts.

In your reading notes, aim for quality, not quantity. Write one “tweet” that summarizes the main point of the reading rather than 2 rambling paragraphs that make me wonder whether you understood what you read. Capture the essence. The reading notes I ask for are not a simple summary of what you read. That’s too easy. You can keep a summary for yourself if it helps you, but what I ask for is an assessment – thinking about those ideas and deciding which one is the most important. As you saw in class, that’s not easy – it requires more thinking, less writing. Let that be your mantra:

More thinking, less doing. Work smart.

For your blog posts, which I have really enjoyed reading, I invite you to become familiar with blogging culture and expectations. I feel that most of you expect way more of yourselves than blogging requires. I asked you about this yesterday, but didn’t get answers, so I don’t know if my feeling is correct…

Not every blog post needs to be smart and well-documented. It is OK to post a short commentary, an example, a half-baked thought that shows us what you’re thinking about. It’s OK to keep blog posts short, concise, and smart. It’s OK to keep each sentence short, concise, and smart. Academic writing is notoriously bad. Unlearn it.

In academese, the writer’s chief goal is to defend himself against the accusation that he is naïve about his own enterprise. So academics describe what other academics do instead of what they study (“In recent years there has been increased interest in X”). They use many metaconcepts—concepts about concepts, like level, perspective, framework, and approach—instead of writing “call the police,” they write, “approach this problem from a law-enforcement perspective.” They turn verbs into nouns—instead of writing, “People cooperated more,” they write, “Levels of cooperation increased.” And they sprinkle their prose with hedges—somewhat, virtually, partially—in an attempt to get off the hook should anyone ever try to prove them wrong.  – Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker, from his book that came out yesterday and that I can’t wait to read.

So, tell me. In your understanding, what makes good writing? What makes good writing for blog posts?

Your Methods section should describe the specific procedures you used to:

  1. collect the data
  2. analyze the data

This blog post provides details about these two sub-sections that I expect to see in TECH 621 final papers. The details are specific to the research tool you used, in this case, Radian 6:

Data Collection
  1. State that data was collected using online monitoring service Radian 6. Provide a brief description of Radian 6 as well as all the widgets that you use. Don’t assume readers know them. Write the paper as if it were a conference or journal publication (some of them will be) – write so an audience who is not familiar with R6 understands exactly what you did.
  2. Describe all the procedures you used to identify and collect your data. How did you select your final data set? Specify: A) search terms; B) date range; C) language; D) region.
  3. Explain what you did to ensure that irrelevant data is filtered out of your data set. How did you filter out spam? How did you filter out posts that included the key words, but were not relevant to your topic?
  4. If you narrowed down your data set, explain every single decision you made. For example, after seeing the topic trend for a month, you see that there was more conversation during a particular week. Then you decide to focus only on that particular week. Within that particular week, you see that most of the chatter was on Twitter. Then, you can decide to focus only on Twitter for that particular week. It is fine and desirable to narrow down your scope this way – but you have to have good reasons behind every single decision.
  5. Once again, make sure you explain what the individual widgets do – and even what a widget is. Do not assume readers are familiar with them!
  6. For some students, even the final, narrowed down data set is too large to work with. In this case, if you want to perform manual content analysis, you need to draw a probability sample of items and only analyze those. I recommend stratified random sampling.Make sure you use a randomizer engine or random number generator (available at to draw a probability sample from each one of your groups/strata – in your case, days.
  7. Finally, describe your final data set. How many messages, from what media types, across what period, language, and region. We need to know, in exact detail, what was the data set that you performed your analyses on.
Data Analysis
  1. Explain, step by step, what you did to the data in order to derived meaning from it. Provide our reasons for every single decision.
  2. Avoid saying “I analyzed the data.” – what kind of analysis did you perform? Name it, cite it. If content analysis, then briefly explain your procedure and cite a source. One substitute or, preferably, addition to content analysis that I found is to pull up day-by-day or even hour-by-hour conversation clouds. The change in words provides a story about how the conversation topics changed.
  3. I understand that it may make sense to include some of this information with the results, in the Results section. That is fine. In this case, provide a general overview of data analysis methods in the Methods section, and provide details for each analysis along with the results of that analysis.

So far, all the draft I have seen need to follow this advice. Please do, and let me know if you have any questions. Also, I’d appreciate seeing feedback that you read this post. Please comment, like it, or assign a star rating below.

Dr. V

It’s done!

Not only the literature review, but the entire paper. That explains why I didn’t have time to post an update on the blog.

In case you missed it, here’s part 1 – my process for working on a literature review.

I left off with an outline. So, what happened next?

After reading a few more articles, I felt that the outline didn’t make any sense whatsoever, and that I had no idea how to go about this. Stress plummeted to very unpleasant levels. When that happens, I know what it means: It’s time to start writing.

So I started writing. I started with just the first paragraph, and that lead me to the second. After that, I re-evaluated my outline. I looked at all the articles, sorted them into piles, and saw that my initial outline plan actually made sense.

This is what my lit review looks like

So, I started attacking the literature review section by section – aka pile by pile. As soon as I was done with a pile of articles, I put it aside. I kept writing, and writing, because at that point I was on a roll  – I knew what I wanted to do, and couldn’t wait to get it done. So I actually drafted the entire literature review in one sitting (maybe 5 hours or so). As the need occurred, I found more references to fill in the occasional gap.

When I write, I work with Word and Endnote – it is a reference management software that works with Word to insert citations in text and in the list of references. So I had to make sure that each reference was entered correctly in Endnote. I use Zotero to collect references, then export them into Endnote, and clean them up in Endnote. Zotero references often need a lot of cleanup – for example, each word in an article’s title is capitalized, and that’s not correct in APA style, so I need to go back and lower case each word manually, and add whatever information is missing. I hear Zotero also has a plugin for Word, but I am pretty happy with Endnote. Have you used it? What do you think about it?

I cannot share the end result publicly, but if you’d like to see the literature review, let me know and I’ll post it on Blackboard.

I am spending Spring break working on a paper, specifically, the literature review section. So I thought I’d document my process here, in case it may help you. Maybe we can turn this blog post into an ad-hoc literature review support group.

(Speaking of support groups, I tried creating one for College of Technology graduate students. Nothing much has happened yet, but if you’re interested, join the group on Facebook. I’m planning to try again to meet over the summer.)

Back to the literature review. It sounds simple. Here are the steps, in 140 characters or fewer (fewer, not less):

Yesterday, I worked on reading articles that an undergraduate research intern had helped me collect.

As I was reading, I experienced the following:

  • elation and satisfaction at learning new things
  • panic that there’s so much more to read than I have time before the deadline (and by deadline, I mean before I die)
  • confusion about how to organize the articles into literature review sections
  • occasional tiredness and boredom, coupled with restlessness. Even though I was tired, I couldn’t stop reading, I had to pick up article after article.
  • the thought that I can’t do this before deadline, I should just give up and try a later deadline
  • the thought that I’ve done this before, and just like I miraculously met deadlines before, I will meet the deadline this time, too.

You may experience all of the above, except, maybe, the last one – if you do not have sufficient experience. What I am trying to say is that unpleasant feelings, panic, and doubts are part of the process. They don’t mean much. Just like a headache goes away, they, too, will go away. So notice the unpleasantness, label it as normal, and keep going. I wish I’d known earlier on that they are a normal part of the process.

The most difficult for me was the confusion, the fact that I could not see a structure or a way to organize articles into sections. That’s when I knew I need to take a break (go to sleep) and give my brain time to process all the new information. When I woke up this morning, I had a structure in mind, an I could hear the words for the first paragraph (which is the hardest for me to write).

Pooky helping with a literature review. Note the piles of articles in the background. Each pile became a lit review section.

This is where I am right now. My paper is about using social media in higher education. So, I’m thinking that the outline of the literature review will go something like this:

  1. Several people argue that Web 2.0 is so much better than sliced bread (cite here all of these arguments). If it’s so wonderful, how come we don’t all use Web 2.0 in our teaching? And more importantly, what evidence do we have that Web 2.0 is as really as great as these arguments claim? (This is my transition to the section about empirical studies.)
  2. Empirical studies have looked at social media tools individually. There are studies about microblogging in education and at conferences, which show that… (summarize results here). There are studies about using blogs in education which show that… (summarize results here). There are studies about wikis… There are studies about some other random tools… However, there aren’t studies that look at an integral social media solution. What happens when you combine several of these tools in education? That’s the need we are trying to address with our study.
  3. Theoretical framework: Learning outcomes, Self-determination theory, Social capital (explain all these theories and how they apply to our problem).
  4. Study goal and research questions.
  5. THAT’S IT. That’s the end of my literature review.

I am now thinking that there’s a bunch of statistics and studies about how students use the Internet and social media, and they seem to belong somewhere in the literature review, but I am not sure where. Help me out: Where do you think I should plug them in, in this structure? Or should I leave them out?

How’s your process going? What feelings are you experiencing? What are you discovering that works well for you?


I used to teach public relations. In public relations, your livelihood depends on details. If you send out a promotional brochure with spelling errors, it ruins credibility. In public relations classes, one spelling error in a final project would bring down a course grade by one entire letter. I assume that in professions such as engineering details matter even more. One misplaced number may result in a collapsed bridge and casualties.

Details matter for you, too. When you send out your resume, or even a relatively important email, lack of attention to detail, manifested, for example, in spelling errors, can cost you a job or opportunity.

You’ve done hard work this semester. Don’t let its value and your credibility be ruined by lack of attention to detail: Spelling, consistency in formatting and alignment, use of punctuation – these details matter.

I’m trying to proofread your presentations and reports and point out as many details that I can find that need correcting. But don’t let me do this alone. Pay obsessive attention to detail – as if your life depended on it. As if your grade would go down one letter grade for each small error. Without attention to detail, there’s no such thing as excellence.

This might be the most painful and the most important lesson you learn from me this semester.

I have noticed several times in the past that, although students write perfectly clear sentences in emails and blog posts, when they get into “paper writing” mode the quality of writing decreases dramatically: Sentences become long, wordy, and impossible to follow. Passive voice is used more often than it should be (as opposed to” They use passive voice a lot”).

Good writing is simple, clear, direct. Your writing will be easier to understand if:

  1. You use short sentences.
  2. You use simple sentence structures: Start with the Subject (Who is doing the action), follow with the Verb (the action) and then qualify as needed. In each sentence, Someone is Doing Something (Subject, Verb, Object). Try to stick to this structure as much as you can. Avoid passive voice: Something is being Done to Someone (Object, Verb, Subject).
  3. Use fewer words. Examine your sentences and see how many words you can take away without compromising  meaning. I tell students to imagine each word costs 10 cents. Try to save your money when you write.

As you write, the main goal you keep in mind should be: How can I communicate this clearly? – NOT: How can I sound more elegant/academic? Focus on the reader (user), not on yourself.

Here is an example of rephrasing a sentence to make it shorter and clearer:

First of all, the open-ended questions after the post-task questionnaire as qualitative research were asked to the participants to analyze the nanoHUB website usability.

Start by asking yourself: What do I REALLY want to say? Then, just say it:

After each task, we asked participants two open-ended questions.

Some more tips/reminders for writing the final report:

  • It’s OK to use “We” – as in “We conducted usability research.”
  • It’s OK to use numbers inside sentences, but spell them out if them out if they are at the beginning of a sentence: “Three out of 5 participants completed the task.”
  • Be consistent across sections. Use the same style. If you refer to participants as P1, P2, do so in all sections. If you capitalize Task 1, Task 2, then do so in all sections.

Finding & telling the story

Posted: January 16, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

See this post by Chris Brogan (@chrisbrogan on twitter) about finding an angle for a story and telling a story about a product that’s been around for a while (in this example, Skype).

It’s great advice for PR people, keep it in mind for later in the semester when we will do these kinds of exercises.