Author Archives: Marina Hurley

8 steps to writing your first draft

Many writers find it hard to start writing, and once they do start, after writing a few sentences, they stop and immediately rewrite these sentences until they are perfect. This is a type of procrastination but because it involves writing, it's a hard habit to recognise and then break. Following these 8 steps will help you complete a content-rich imperfect first draft and avoid the trap of getting side-tracked by perfectionism. 


1. Outline your core topic


If you are writing a paper or report, start by outlining the key problems you seek to solve with your project. Briefly outline how they will be (or were) solved, then list the main findings. Develop a broad framework that you can modify and add further detail in later drafts. Write a summary of the what, who, how, where, when, and why?

Don’t try and write perfectly: stick to just writing notes, headings and bullet points that help you understand what direction you are going with your writing. 

2. Identify your audience

What you write and how much detail you provide depends upon who you are writing to, so clearly identify your target audience.
  • What is their background? 
  • Why are they reading your document?
  • What do they already know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • Do you have more than one target audience?
3. Plan with pre-writing

Pre-writing is the thinking, note-taking, outlining, summarising, mind-mapping, brainstorming and question-asking needed to plan and develop your core topic. Pre-writing is where you focus on the big picture while writing your first draft and can include hand-writing and drawing diagrams on a whiteboard or large piece of paper.

Try recording yourself talking about your project or use voice-recognition software to capture additional thoughts and ideas.
4. Make a mess and clean it up in later

The first draft should be messy, rough and amenable to change, allowing you to remould your structure with successive drafts. Write bullet points, sentence fragments, and temporary paragraph headings. Avoid trying to write perfect sentences and paragraphs (polishing). Don’t worry about being repetitive or boring. Avoid making your writing eloquent, stylistic or succinct in the first draft: you can revise and improve your writing as your rework later drafts.

5. Avoid adding minute details

Adding minute details to a specific sub-topic in a first draft can be a form of procrastination from writing about your key points. Aim to produce a first draft that reflects your main ideas without explaining them in minute detail. There is no point adding too much detail in the first draft as you may change your mind about what you want to say. Allowing yourself to change your mind about what you write is another important reason why you should avoid writing perfect sentences in your early drafts.

6. Start writing without engaging your inner critic


Don’t worry if your first draft doesn’t make complete sense. Don’t worry about the reader in a first draft. Don't worry if you're not completely sure about what you want to say or what your final conclusions will be. Give yourself time to develop and improve your thinking as you work through successive drafts. By not writing perfectly in your first draft you are allowing yourself to easily to chop up, delete or dramatically change what you have written. 

7. Don’t stop to do more research

While writing, don’t stop if you are unsure about a particular fact or if you realise your need to look something up. Instead try writing reminder notes to yourself directly in your draft in hard brackets and make time to follow this up later. For example, [I remember that there was a recent report that looked into topic X - look this up] or [ask Luke about those review papers he mentioned during his talk]. Try to do your research before and after each draft. When you allocate time for writing, just write. When you have finished your first draft you can review what you have written and identify topics that need further research.

8. Seek appropriate feedback


When you finish your imperfect draft, seek feedback that is appropriate for what you aimed to achieve. Seek feedback on your key ideas and summary points that outline your core topic. If you follow the protocol of not writing perfect first drafts, ask your colleagues to ignore punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and any lack of details or thorough explanations that can be tackled in later drafts.

and remember...

  • If you give your draft to more than one person for feedback, give the same version to each person and get them to give their feedback separately. Not only is it confusing to read multiple comments and editing on the one document when there is more than one reviewer, some reviewers' opinions may be unduly influenced by someone else's comments.
  • Before you make changes to your first draft, print it out, take it to a cafe and edit it with a pen or pencil. Editing a paper copy of your document can give you a fresh view of what you have written and also break the cycle of making continuous small changes when writing or editing  on screen. It's also easier to view a document as a whole when printed out.
  • Keep both digital and printed copies of each draft so you can quickly retrieve writing that has been previously culled.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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10 stages of the PhD journey: advice from many experts


Designing, executing and writing up a PhD study takes a large chunk of your time and energy. Here is an overview of each stage of the PhD journey, along with links to excellent articles that will help you along the way. Some of the advice offered here may be specific to a discipline, country or university, or may be heavily dependent upon some author’s experience and background. Nevertheless, you are likely to find most of this advice and instruction helpful.

 1. Consider what you hope to achieve by completing a PhD

It is important to seriously consider why you are undertaking a PhD and what you hope to achieve by completing a PhD. Completing a PhD can be extremely useful even for those who may not continue doing research later on.

*   A successful PhD student will be expected to possess key research skills and knowledge as listed here: Research degree graduate qualities by the University of South Australia.

2. Write a research proposal 

You might be offered a PhD project where the research proposal is already planned or you might need to devise a research proposal yourself, either before or after you have chosen a supervisor. This proposal and confirmation of candidature will need to be approved by your university’s research committee.

*   Research proposal and confirmation of candidature – University of South Australia

3. Choose a PhD supervisor

Some students have one key supervisor with one or two additional supervisors, while it is not unusual for some students to have three or four. It is important to remember that your supervisor may have many students under their direction, so their time may be strictly limited. At Monash University, research supervisors receive accreditation training.

*   Choosing a PhD supervisor by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier
*   You and your supervisors by the University of South Australia

4. Design your project budget

An essential project management skill when conducting research is the ability to effectively design and manage research budgets. If you need to request finances through a grant application, ensure you thoroughly investigate the necessary guidelines.

*   Organisation and Budgeting by the NHMRC.
*   How to make a simple research budget by Jonathan O’Donnell

5. Start writing in the early stages of your project

Don’t wait until you have collected and analysed your data before you start writing. Most universities encourage students to write about their project while they are conducting their research. Project proposals can be rewritten and methods sections developed as data is collected and analysed. Literature reviews can be updated and conference talks and posters can be prepared even before you have started to collect data. 

6. Consider the structure and the format of your thesis

Exactly how to structure and format your thesis will vary greatly depending upon your project, your discipline, your department and your university and your discipline. Always refer to your university’s guidelines for thesis format requirements. For example:

*   Style and format by the University of Western Australia
*   Thesis format requirements by the University of Queensland
*   Thesis structure by the University of New South Wales

How to find completed PhD theses

It is always a good idea to check other PhD theses that are similar to your topic, have been completed recently and have been produced by your university department. You can gain a wealth of ideas about structure, size and overall thesis design.

*   How to find a thesis by Macquarie University
*   Finding Australian theses by the Council of Australian University Librarians

And on this page, there are other useful inks:

How to write a literature review

Reviewing the literature is important to assist your knowledge and understanding of your topic and integral to establishing your position in the academic landscape. Writing good literature reviews is crucial to show your examiners how well you know the literature and how well you are able to explain the importance of your project. It is a common requirement that you write a separate chapter as a stand-alone literature review. However, for those theses that are predominantly composed of complete published papers, there might not be a requirement for a separate review section.

*   How do I write a literature review? by the University of Sydney

7. Get feedback on your writing

In addition to your supervisor, seek feedback on different aspects of your writing from appropriate advisors: accuracy, clarity and brevity. Increasingly, projects are written for a variety of aim to get academic audiences so ensure that your writing is clear and succinct.

*  Getting Feedback – University of North Carolina (USA)

8. Learn how to publish peer-review papers

Increasingly, students are expected to submit a large proportion of their thesis as published papers. Not every PhD project can be easily prepared as separate papers; however, remember to look at recently submitted theses within your discipline and within your department to see how people have completed their thesis.

*   What is a ‘thesis by publication’? by the University of Sydney

9. Submit your thesis

The process of submitting your thesis may include preparing additional tasks and preparation of paperwork (i.e. the Originality Statement).

*   Thesis Submission by UNSW
*   Submitting a thesis by the Australian National University

10. Understand the examination process

Usually there are three examiners. However, the process of thesis examination will vary widely according to discipline and university. Broadly speaking, your examiners will recommend that your thesis be accepted without alteration, accepted with minor alteration, accepted providing major changes are made or rejected. Usually your supervisor will choose who your examiners are and you may have the opportunity to choose one of your examiners.

*   Examination Process by the University of Western Australia

An oral examination for a PhD is necessary in some Australia universities.
*   Guidelines for the oral defence of the thesis by the University of South Australia

If there are any problems...

Most problems with your project are surmountable and remember that your supervisors and your university are there to help you. If things go drastically wrong at any time, it is essential that you seek assistance as early as possible. There are people within your university administration who are there to help you. To help dealing with problems, document any issues as they arise. It is essential for you to have excellent time-management and record-keeping skills.

*   Resolving problems by the University of Melbourne
*   Resolving problems by Griffith University

and remember...

*   Be aware of, and develop, sound project management skills including risk management protocols to identify alternative actions in unforeseen circumstances.
*   Keep records and extra copies of everything: for example, data, thesis drafts, email, meeting agendas, fieldwork notes. Ensure you have excellent electronic version control of your documents and extra backups of all your data and work.
*   Ensure you develop and maintain a support network of friends and colleagues who may give important advice and help you deal with any obstacles.
*   Get plenty of exercise, rest and sleep.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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Two ways to be an INefficient writer


Science is often complicated and writing about a scientific topic can be like trying to untangle spaghetti. Writing efficiently can also be a struggle if you are exploring an unfamiliar topic or haven’t had a lot of writing experience. Irrespective of experience, there are two types of writing behaviour that will greatly reduce productivity and confidence.

1. Writing without having a clear understanding of your core topic

Your core topic includes your document aims and objectives and the key problems you are aiming to solve, together with an explanation of how your topic fits within your discipline. Starting to write without a clear idea about the depth and breadth of your topic can be time-consuming. Every scientific topic may be linked to dozens of other sub-topics that at first consideration appear just as important as your original topic. It is often tempting to try and include them and look for a way to link them all together. Without clear focus, it is easy to drift away from your topic and you may not realise that you are actually writing about five topics instead of one.

It can be easy to get distracted from your main story by adding excessive and seemingly, interesting details. Avoid the desire to update the reader with every twist and turn, every exception to the rule, and every related, but not-so-important, detail.

2. Polishing: trying to write perfectly in a first draft

Inefficient writers often start by writing a burst of fresh thoughts and then immediately spend considerable effort rewriting, editing, and proofreading this material before writing a fresh block of text. This is also known as polishing your writing. Polishing in early drafts is an easy trap to fall into when writing on-screen: each time you open a file, it is tempting to first read, review and then re-edit the existing text before writing fresh material. As the document develops, what is written earlier is continually reconsidered, rewritten and re-edited while what is written later receives far less attention.

Polishing in the early stages of writing can be a form of procrastination where you allow yourself to get distracted from the important thinking time and problem-solving needed to design your document.

People often believe that they should be writing perfectly the first time and get frustrated at the seemingly endless amount of time it takes to complete a document. Some people imagine that innumerable drafts and rewrites will be needed and suspect that they will never be happy with the final product. Labouring over a single sentence while thinking you still have 1000 more to write is daunting.

Polishing your sentences is necessary in later drafts when fine-tuning your ideas and improving your message for the reader. Inefficient writers polish early, while efficient writers polish after they have worked out what they want to say.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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Are you only writing for the conscientious reader?


When you write, do you consider how your readers will read your document? Do you expect your readers to be conscientious? Will they studiously read every sentence and paragraph from beginning to end? Some readers will read your entire document, while some will quickly look for the main points and then file it away, perhaps hoping to read it properly later on. Some readers might give up after reading the first sentence because it doesn’t interest them.

You cannot assume all of your readers will obediently start at the beginning and diligently read every sentence and absorb every word. To communicate clearly, you need to understand your reader and what they want to know. Not only do you need to define your target audience, you need to understand how they read and what they want.

Not everyone reads the same way

A reader’s behaviour is primarily influenced by their level of interest in your topic and how much time they have to read. Many other factors also affect their decision to start reading and to keep reading until the end. As a writer, you have control over some of these factors and being aware of how your reader reads will improve your ability to attract your reader and keep them engaged.  

I consider there are generally two types of readers of scientific documents. The avid reader who will read every single word in your document (even if it is poorly written) and the lukewarm reader who may not thoroughly read your document (even if it is well written).

An avid reader is someone who will read your entire document because…

  • they believe they will immediately gain a direct benefit
  • they respect you
  • they are familiar with your writing and expect that your document will be informative and easy to read
  • your information is not found anywhere else
  • they have commissioned your project
  • they are very interested in your topic and will thoroughly read everything they can find on it
  • they are your peers, colleagues or competitors with a vested interest in your work

A lukewarm reader is someone who has started reading your document, but…

  • is busy, little time to read and is rapidly searching for the take-home message
  • is easily distracted
  • is trying to do three things at once
  • is poorly organised
  • unsure about what they need to read
  • doesn’t feel like reading
  • will decide very quickly whether to keep on reading
  • will be easily convinced to stop reading

Assume most of your readers are lukewarm

If you assume all of your readers are avid readers, you might not try hard enough to write well.

Assume all of your readers are lukewarm: that they have little time to read, have a short attention span, are easily distracted or would prefer to be doing something else.

Expect that your reader has many other documents in a large and overly-optimistic ‘must-read’ pile and will only spend 2-5 minutes skimming over your document before deciding to delve in. Write for them. While some of your readers will remain lukewarm, no matter what or how you write, make sure that even the most disinterested reader can easily find a concise, informative summary or take-home message.

Key considerations to attract and engage your reader

Your reader needs to be immediately convinced that your document will be useful.

The title

  • Will it immediately attract your reader?
  • Is it hard to read?
  • Is it too specific or too long or does it rely on too much background knowledge?
  • Does it refer to a relevant or interesting scientific topic?

How and where you present key information 

  • Provide context at the very beginning. This means that you start your introduction with a succinct overview of the problem your document will be solving and how your project or topic fits within your discipline. 
  • Are your sentences and paragraphs well-structured so that important points or details are not hidden within unnecessary or irrelevant detail?
  • Are your key messages and conclusions abundantly clear?
  • Do you have a document summary where the reader can absorb the key findings and take-home message at a glance? If your document doesn’t normally include a summary, can you break the rules and write one? If not, ensure your key findings are short and concise.

Ease of reading and comprehension

Your reader will want your document to be clear and easy to read, so write clearly and concisely.

A document that is easy to read has a greater chance of being read even if the reader’s interest is low and they haven’t much time. Anything off-the-topic, confusing, or to too specific might easily cause your reader to not only stop reading but permanently decide that your document is of no interest to them. If your document is hard to read then only the determined or avid reader will finish what they have started.

Your reader’s background knowledge and expertise

How much background knowledge do you assume your reader has before they start reading? Unless you are specifically writing for experts, don’t assume your reader is an expert on your topic. However, don’t assume your reader needs to be told every detail surrounding your topic. Decide what your main points are and stick to them.

Document design and layout

Is your document well-laid out, with appropriate visuals, fonts and headings?

Finally…

How do you read?

To help you engage your readers, analyse your own reading behaviour. How do you react when you are reading something unfamiliar or not immediately interesting? How often do you read a document all the way through? What causes you to lose track and stop reading?

Pretend someone else wrote your document

When reading through a late draft of your work, try pretending that you didn’t write it. Look hard for anything that could be confusing, vague or have any unintentional double meanings. This might help you understand how someone else reads your writing.

Ask for feedback

If feasible ask someone from your target audience for feedback. In particular, tell them to let you know if anything is unclear or confusing or if any details appear missing.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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Should we use active or passive voice?


The traditional criticism of active voice

Traditionally, science and academic writers were strongly advised to use passive voice in order to maintain objectivity. However, this view is based on the criticism of using the first person (‘I’ or ‘my’) in that an individual’s view or perspective was considered biased. For example, the proponents of the passive voice in science writing claim that the active construction “I observed the behaviour.” presents a subjective view, while the passive construction “The behaviour was observed.” presents a more objective perspective. Some also argue that the use of personal pronouns in science and academic writing gives the impression of stating an opinion. However, active voice is not governed by the use of personal pronouns. You can write in passive voice while using a personal pronoun. For example: “I was photographed by my friend”. 

What is meant by ‘voice’?

In simple terms, ‘voice’ refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb.

How to identify active voice

Active voice is when the grammatical subject performs the action specified by the verb. 

For example:

Active voice: “I produced ten surveys.” The subject is the person “I” who performs the action “produced”. 

How to identify passive voice

Passive voice is when the grammatical subject of the sentence is receiving the action specified by the verb. Passive voice always has the verb form ‘to be’ followed be a past participle. ‘To be’ verbs include: ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘am’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘has been’, ‘have been’, ‘will be’, ‘will have been’ and ‘being’. They are also known as linking verbs. A past participle is a past tense verb that often (but not always) ends in ‘ed’.


For example:

Passive voice: “Ten surveys were produced”. The subject is the “surveys” that receives the action “were produced”. In this sentence, the reader does not know who or what produced the surveys.

Passive voice with an object: “Ten surveys were produced by me”. In this example, the object of the sentence specifies who (or what) performs the action (me).

The criticism of passive voice

The insistence that writers should always avoid the personal pronouns (or the first person) has lessened and the use of active voice is increasingly encouraged. Key criticisms of passive voice are that the reader does not know who or what was responsible for the action described in the sentence and that passive sentence constructions are often wordy and vague.

Both types of voice are necessary for good, clear writing

Whether you use active or passive depends upon what you are writing and what you need to focus on.

1. If it is necessary to specify who or what performed the action

Without adding an object identifying the performer of the action, passive construction can make it difficult to know who did what.

For example:

The effectiveness of stem cell treatment was investigated.”  With this statement the reader might be unsure who did the investigation. They might assume that the authors are referring to another study. Whereas, “We investigated the effectiveness of stem cell treatment.” clearly lets the reader know that the authors did the investigation.

If a sentence is to remain passive, a citation might be necessary to let the reader know who did the investigation.

2. If it is necessary to focus on the action itself

The following example is from the methods section of a recent research paper, which uses both passive and active voice. Here the focus is on what was measured, determined, distinguished and compared. Continual reference to who did the measuring is not necessary.

 “The abundance, sex ratio, and age structure of GT and NGT trees were determined by designating 47 plots (50 m × 50 m) in the six sites in the main GIAHS area (Fig. 1a). Morphological difference of GT and NGT trees was distinguished by identifying the graft scar just above ground. In each plot, we measured the location, basal diameter (BD), and sex of each of each torreya tree. The sex ratio of NGT trees was calculated in each plot. The population density (number per ha) of GT and NGT trees was statistically compared with a t-test in R.” p 8. Zang et al. 2019

3. If the person or thing responsible for the action is unknown

For example:

Passive: “The car was stolen.”

Active: “Somebody stole my car.”

4. When explaining cause and effect 

For example:

Passive: "Most malaria cases are caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum".

Active: "The parasite Plasmodium falciparum causes most cases of malaria".


5. If it is necessary to deliberately avoid specifying authorship

Some government departments, consultancies and corporations produce documents where acknowledgement of individual authors is deliberately avoided. This might occur when documents are designed to represent the organisation in its entirety or when a variety of different authors design, write and update documents.

For example:

- Passive: “The remediation program was initiated in early 2015”.

- Active: “Land & Water initiated the remediation program in early 2015”.

In these cases, the third person (we) may be used to collectively represent the organisation or institution.

6. If changing voice will make your writing more concise

If you do not need to specify who did what, your writing can be more concise.

For example:

- “We found that an increase in production rate was caused by increasing the length of the probe.” (16 words)

- “An increase in production rate was caused by increasing the length of the probe.” (14 words).

Changing to active voice makes the sentence shorter and more direct.

- “Increasing the length of the probe caused an increase in production rate.” (12 words).

Finally...

As passive voice is commonly in past tense, some confuse past tense with passive voice. Tense explains when something happened while voice explains who or what performs the action. Here are examples of active and passive voice written in the three different tenses.

For example:

Passive voice

Past tense: "The problem was investigated by me".

Present tense: "The problem is being investigated by me".

Future tense: "The problem will be investigated by me".

Active voice

Past tense: "I investigated the problem".

Present tense: "I am investigating the problem".

Future tense: "I will investigate the problem".

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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