Welcome to Part II of this free, user-structured writing course.
The overarching course theory is provided in Part 0. To summarise, writing is a challenge akin to mountain climbing. You can improve your writing by contemplating certain mindsets, and playing their characteristics against the metamorphic/metaphoric mountain:
In Part I, we focused on the first row of the table. Now, we turn our focus to row two: Incline, Promethean poet, Unpack.
The writer’s incline
In the moutaineer model of writing, the incline is the stages of putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). It is often the most difficult meta-obstacle to overcome (although personally I struggle more with the chasm – more on that in Part III).
The writer’s incline is what numerous ‘how to write’ guides focus on. In the current model, the writer should unpack all of her ideas, scrutinise them, and arrange them into a working corpus of new knowledge.
By analogy, when the mountaineer stands before an unforgiving incline, it would be foolish to plough ahead anyway. The sensible thing for him to do would be to unpack his supplies, and begin plotting secure campsites at strategic points of the incline. In both the writing and mountain-climbing sense, the process of unpacking and repacking is aided by the Promethean poet mindset.
The writer’s mindset
According to Greek mythology, Prometheus formed humankind’s single-origin ancestor out of clay from the bones up. The early Christians in Rome drew on such Promethean imagery to explain the creation of Adam, the first man as accounted in the book of Genesis.
I theorise that the act of writing is Promethean by nature. That is, you need to build a solid skeleton before you can ‘flesh out’ your writing (add flesh and skin to bare bones). Writing is also Promethean to the extent that creation cannot be explained in objective terms. We can’t analyse authors’ intangible thoughts and inspirations to predict the genesis of subsequent texts. What you can do, though, is familiarise yourself with the anatomy of your own writing, so that you can better apply your own strengths in future writing projects.
This is the essential idea behind the character I call Promethean poet. In the mountain-climbing sense, she unpacks her equipment and plots campsites upon the uncertain, ascending paths before her. In the writing sense, she unpacks her ideas and plots new knowledge upon the blank, increasing pages before her.
The form of the monster on whom I had bestowed existence was for ever before my eyes, and I raved incessantly concerning him.
— Mary Shelley, ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’, 1818.
The Promethean Poet’s mission is to unpack her ideas, and use these to build a skeleton. The schematic below shows my basic model for how to do this. The model consists of two broad phases (Row 1 & 2), each with three sub-phases (Box 1-3 for each Row). Information flows into (Up Arrows) and out of (Down Arrows) each sub-phase.
Please don’t be concerned if you’re not interested in scientific writing – although I use sciencey terms below, there’s no reason why my method of unpacking ideas can’t be generalised to non-scientific writing. If you’re writing a reflective art or philosophical piece, you may interpret my use of the word ‘aim’ to mean ‘argument’, and ‘hypothesis’ could mean ‘expectation’, etc. Tomato, potato.
Essentially, in the first phase of building a skeleton, we want to take guiding information (e.g. an assignment sheet) and turn it into summarised knowledge (e.g. a draft document that summarises key papers on your topic).
In phase two, we want to move from summarised knowledge to new knowledge (e.g. new hypotheses that will inform a ‘gap’ in the research). I will unpack each sub-phase below.
Before you begin gathering bones for your skeleton, get yourself a research diary. This can take the form of anything you wish, but it can be as simple as a 99¢ school-style notebook.
In my experience, maintaining a research diary is fundamental practice, because you can never know the significance of ideas until you’ve unpacked them. Sometimes, you have to draw them out of your kit (i.e. your brain) and let them dry for a while. For example – legal disclaimer: this example is purely a joke – let’s say you write down:
<joke> Entry #001, 11/11/18
Question: Nobody has ever tested car brakes via a double-blind, randomised control trial experiment. Given this research gap, how can we know that brakes save lives?
Materials: Fueled and serviced cars, with or without fitted brakes, matched for make, model, and year of manufacture. 200 m straight, even-surfaced roadway, with bright yellow line marked at 190 m, and double-brick wall at 200 m.
Participants: Professional drivers, randomly allocated to drive a car with or without brakes. Neither the participants nor the research team will know which cars have (or don’t have) brakes. Participants will be instructed to drive at constant speed of 100 km/h, then apply the brakes the moment they cross the yellow line.
I.V: Brakes. Car fitted with brakes, B1 vs. Car not fitted with brakes, B0
D.V: Number of fatal crashes, FC
Prediction: Because this is the first true experiment of car brakes, we have no prior evidence to suggest testing anything else but the null hypothesis, that the number of fatal crashes does not depend on brakes, H0 = FC(B1) = FC(B0)
You may not think of that idea again for another five years, until someone in the pub exclaims, “I reckon car brakes end more lives than they save!”, to which someone else retorts, “Rubbish!” You tend to side with the opposition on this one, remembering the countless times you’d apply the brakes in your car without dying, but how do you know who is correct generally?
It takes you a while to locate your thoughts on this, but because you’ve diarised them, you are able to return to an idea about how you could settle this argument empirically.</joke>
Keeping a research diary is important for a few other reasons too:
- It gives you opportunity to trial and practice unpacking your ideas, before others can judge, influence, snicker or sneer at them
- You can copyright your ideas, before others can take credit for them
- It may allow you to forecast methodological or logistical challenges, before you can get caught up in them
Important things you can immediately start recording (and revising) in your research diary include:
- Date. When are you making this record?
- Topic. What do you want to teach others about?
- Question. What do you want to answer?
- Aim. What are you trying to do?
- Purpose. Why is this important? Who cares?
- Hypotheses. What do you expect to find?
It’s natural to start out vague and fine-tune as you learn more about your topic.
1.1. Strategise and Search
The input at this initial sub-phase is guiding information (see Box 1.1 in the above schematic). This can be almost anything – an assessment sheet, lecture notes, something you dreamt last night, etc.
Devise a search strategy from your guiding information, to find papers on each measure of interest. Rough-mapping key concepts and their relationships via a boxes-and-arrows drawing is a good start – you can do this in your research diary. This will help you to narrow your searches’ inclusion and exclusion criteria, which you should also commit to paper. Think about which databases to search in – unless you have infinite time, you’ll want to limit this to just two databases that have minimal overlap (e.g. GoogleScholar and PLoS ONE).
With coarse parameters now set (e.g. database selection, inclusion and exclusion criteria), the next step is to devise a search string. This will likely involve some trial and error, depending on how many results each search brings you, and the ratio of ‘hits’ to ‘false alarms’ among those.
Let’s say we want to search Google Scholar, and we have a list of only two key terms: ‘ego’ and ‘narcissism’. There are numerous ways we can combine these into a search string. Searching for articles that must contain both terms yields 78,200 results. Searching for articles about narcissism that don’t mention ego increases this number slightly, resulting in 1.21 times as many articles. Treating the terms as synonymous and searching for either or both will bring back about 21 times the number of articles that must contain both. Finally, searching for ego while excluding narcissism returns about 29 times the results from the original search! The numbers seem illogical to me, but I double-checked that that’s just how they come out. Point is, there are many ways to combine only a few terms into a search string, which can have a large bearing on the outcome.
In your research diary, for every search you perform, record the following:
- Time. When did you perform the search?
- Database. Where did you search?
- Parameters. What are the limits of your search? (e.g. “only peer-reviewed, randomised control trial experiments, published between 1980 and now, with at least 10 citations, etc.”)
- Strings. E.g:
- Title:”narcissism” AND Abstract:(“ego” OR “self-esteem”)
- Filetype:pdf AND Site:journals.plos.org AND “narcissism”
- Subject:(“ego and self-esteem” AND “narciss*”)
- Results. E.g:
In summary, at the strategise and search stage, your goal is to take guiding information (e.g. your professor’s essay question) and systematically turn it into filtered information (e.g. a systematically identified area of focus, being sure to write down instructions on how you came to this area).
For more information on how to use search operators (e.g. AND, OR, NOT), modifiers (e.g. *, ?, “”, ()) fields (e.g. title, abstract, body) and limiters (e.g. filetype:pdf, site:*.plos.org), please check out my textbook chapter:
Gaetano, J., et al. (2013). Appendix E: Searching psychology databases. In D. A. Bernstein et al. (Eds.), Psychology: An international discipline in context: Australian and New Zealand edition (1st ed., pp. E1-E15). South Melbourne, VIC: Cengage Learning.
1.2. Scan and Shortlist
In the scan and shortlist sub-phase, we start by scanning the filtered information for relevance. Note the word ‘scan’ as opposed to ‘read’. If you’ve devised a good search string that has found you 100 articles, you probably won’t have time to read even a quarter of them in any depth. What you need to do is scan the list of search results. Scroll down each page of results, and skim read the titles. Some titles might ‘leap out’ for some reason, in which case you may wish to progress to reading and taking notes from their abstract.
You should get a sense of roughly what proportion of database search results are potentially useful, and which ones are clearly not on topic. If you end up with too many of the latter, then you may want to return to sub-phase 1.1 and revise your search strategy accordingly.
In your research diary, jot down any search results that stand out as especially important or informative. What are their key words? Do they cite each other? What years were they published and how many times have they been cited? What do their title and abstract say about their key findings? Note that no deep reading has actually been done at this stage.
Now we are moving to the shortlist stage of the unpacking process. You might have 100 articles, but of those, you deem 25 are not relevant judging by their titles. Of the 75 potentially useful articles, 25 seem to make a larger impression than the rest.
The goal of the scan and shortlist stages is to take filtered information and turn it into selected information. In your research diary, summarise the citation information of the shortlisted papers, so that you can easily find this information later. Which are historically important? Which are new, but fundamental? Which are reviews that give a neat overview of the measures? Personally, with my diary, I find colour- and symbol-coding works for me (e.g. ♦ = new/important; ∇ = historical/important; ⊕ = good review; etc.)
Input at this sub-phase is the information you’ve selected systematically via the previous steps (see Box 1.3 in the above schematic). Your job at this juncture is fairly mundane; summarise the key points from each shortlisted paper. Just a few dot points based on their abstracts will do in most cases. Then, summarise your overall understanding of the story that all these shortlisted papers seem to agree on.
The output of this sub-phase is summarised knowledge. This is also the output of the whole first phase of the Promethean unpacking method. To recap, we started with guiding information, and unpacked this systematically to distill what I am calling summarised knowledge. We’re about halfway to building a skeleton!
In the second phase of skeleton building, the Promethean poet takes the gradually distilled, summarised knowledge, and turns it into new knowledge. Phase two is also gradual, with three discrete sub-phases.
The function of the synthesise sub-phase is to apply your summary of the readings to your specific research topic. Looking at your notes, where are the gaps in the story? For instance, you might have found plenty of papers linking ‘human visual sex perception’ and ‘human faces’, but not a single paper linking ‘human visual sex perception’ with ‘human hands’. That’s a research gap, because you know from some other papers that male and female hands do in fact differ in ways that should be perceptible.
Picking up from the previous stage, we now have some applied knowledge to scrutinise (Box 2.2 in schematic). To perform this step, you can start by listing your research question, aim, and statement of hypotheses as they were originally either (a) listed in your research diary, or (b) proposed to your institution’s ethics committee. Look at the list, and ask yourself if anything needs tweaking in light of what you now know about the story under development.
The scrutinise sub-phase is about testing if what you have learned still relates to what you initially set out to learn. This is an important sanity check, because paradoxically, the closer you get to a topic, the easier it is to wonder off topic. Illustrating my point, I may begin researching toxoplasmosis, only to arrive at a narrative that focuses more on why kittens are so cute. Your whole text could be tangential to its original purpose, and sometimes the only way to notice is to drop everything and return to square one.
This is one of the reasons a diary is so important; it allows you to scrutinise ideas, hopefully before they creep off course. By this stage in my method, because you’ve kept a diary, there is no risk associated with exploring a tangent further – or scrapping it and returning to a previous sub-phase. Whatever you do, your efforts should be directed to establishing compromise between guiding information (e.g. an assignment sheet, your original aim and statement of the problem) and revised knowledge (i.e. what you have learned about the problem and want your audience to understand).
Finally, we get to the stage of connecting all the bones into a skeleton (Box 2.3). The general process is to take revised knowledge and shape it into new knowledge. You are fashioning the most relevant and interesting points you have learned into a form that the naive reader will understand and will want to read. To do this, insert a single line per paragraph, to say what each paragraph will be about. Like Lego, with a finite set of blocks, there is an exponentially large number of ways to build; some are more structurally sound than others, and some are more artful than optimal.
Beware that some Promethean poets fall into the quagmire of trying to say too much with each paragraph (guilty, as charged). What I advise you do is write a series of temporary headings in ALL CAPS, as placeholders for your paragraphs. Avoid the temptation of conflating two points in the one paragraph, even if they are related. Here is a purely made up demonstration of what I’m suggesting in broad strokes – and please don’t be afraid to experiment:
P1: EVIDENCE FOR EXPECTED, SIG X&Y CORRELATION
P2: EVIDENCE AGAINST EXPECTED, SIG X&Y CORRELATION
P3: EVIDENCE FOR UNEXPECTED, NON SIG Y&Z CORRELATION
P4: EVIDENCE AGAINST UNEXPECTED, NON SIG Y&Z CORRELATION
P5: THEORETICAL SYNTHESIS
Once the bones are in place, you can swap and omit as you please. You can add new bones to support your skeleton as required.
When you are finally satisfied with a specific configuration of paragraphs, take a page out of the wise warrior’s book; hide the skeleton for a while. Go and play guitar or something. Later, exhume the document with fresh eyes – do you still like it? If not, rearrange the bones, reinter the document, and go and do something else for a while; if so, congratulations, you’ve unpacked your ideas and are ready to keep climbing!
Summary and next steps
These six sub-phases should get you well on your way – the rest is just adding flesh and skin to the bones. You can expect to spend something like 80% of your time on 20% of the work. The hardest parts of it all are getting started, and being okay with the story changing as you near completion.
In Part I of my writing course, the wise warrior mindset was conjured as the essence of preparing for the journey ahead. Now, with the Promethean poet, we are talking about committing our ideas to paper. Nonetheless, at any time, you are free to zoom out from a specific incline and appreciate the whole mountain again.
To illustrate, you may get stuck devising a search string that captures your specific topic. You plan and perform 12 different searches, but they all seem to result in either too many results to skim through, or none at all. At this point, it is a good idea to transform your mindset back to the wise warrior – when you do, your immediate goal becomes recuperation. The great thing about keeping a research diary is you can take the rest of the day off, then return as the Promethean poet tomorrow – stronger than before and with a record of exactly where you’re up to in the unpacking process.
In summary, the trick to start writing is to build a skeleton. Once you’ve done this, you can fill in the flesh and skin. The problem now is the opposite one we had before; you know how to write, but how do you stop? How do you know when to? In mountaineering terms, you have unpacked your entire kit, only to face a vast chasm. You can’t take everything with you, so you need to be real about what to keep and what to discard into the void below. This is the primary function of the barbaric butcher, which is the mindset featured in Part III of this course.