Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Now Comes the Hard Part

"A writer's problem does not change. He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I've worked at it very hard." (Ernest Hemingway)

Yesterday I made the perhaps provocative suggestion that it should be easy for you to say what you think your peers think about your research. That is, once you have told them what sort of study you have undertaken, and what sort of object you've chosen, you should have a good sense of what your immediate peers (i.e., people working in the same area) expect your results to show. Even if you think they'll draw a complete blank, that's something you should be able to confidently and easily say. (Although this implies that you've taken a "gap spotting" approach to literature reviewing, which I don't actually recommend.) By the time you know what your result actually is, moreover, you should also have a good sense of how it will affect them. Will they be surprised? Shocked? Bored? Feel vindicated? These should not be difficult questions.

Now comes the hard part. How do you best deliver your news to your peers? What they believed—and, in principle, what you also believed—before you did the study is the shared background on which you now present your novel figures. In your introduction you would write "This paper shows that..." and complete it with a strong thesis statement summarizing your empirical results. For the purpose of this exercise, however, which is a bit more general than actually writing a research paper, let me suggest the sentence "My research shows that..." and set yourself the task of composing a paragraph to support that claim. We'll call this the key sentence.

If you're a graduate student just starting out, I'll let you get away with "My research will try to show..." or even (though I'll urge caution tomorrow) "My research explores..." It's just important that you make a sincere, simple declaration of what you are doing or trying to do with your research.

Notice what your writing task is when making a claim about what your research shows (or will show). The reader's immediate question is: how do you propose to show me that? And the intensity of this question will be proportionate to the novelty of your result. This novelty (or degree of "surprise", if you will) is measured against the background expectations (the "null" or "prior") that you were so "easily" able to present on the basis of your review of the literature. If you're challenging deeply held views in your discipline, you better have conducted a very serious study.

A good third of the paragraph, perhaps two or three sentences, therefore should be devoted to your methods. If you're doing quantitative work, how big is your sample and how did you determine its size? How carefully was the sample selected? What techniques did you use to avoid biases? How did you limit your degrees of freedom? If you're doing qualitative work, how did you choose the observational site or body of material to study? How did you gain access to it? Here, too, you can show some awareness of sources of bias (often in yourself) that you've controlled for. Either way, you are trying to say something that a peer would want to know in order to trust your analysis.

Another third of the paragraph should be devoted to detailing your result into sub-theses. You've got some overarching claim (expressed in the key sentence) and it is supported by, let's say, three smaller claims that add up to it. Write a good clear sentence for each of these. Remember that you are delivering "news" to your reader, good or bad, but in any case novel. These are claims based on data that the reader has not seen before. As Hemingway might put it, this is your experience and you are trying to convey it in such a way that it becomes part of the reader's experience. The good thing about writing for peers (in contrast to writing a popular novel) is that you know a great deal about how your reader experiences the world, or, at least, how they experience the empirical world that you construct out of your data. You are of like mind.

Finally, you can fittingly devote about third of this paragraph to gauging the importance or significance or your result. What consequences should your result have for either theory or practice? Do we now have to rethink the conceptual framework that we approach our object within as scientists? Or should politicians reconsider the regulatory frameworks that govern us as subjects? Or does your study merely suggest some tricks that managers can use to be more successful in their work? Again, remember that this is your study, so you have the opportunity to be the first to suggest its implications. Step into that role confidently.

Like I say, this isn't easy. It's probably (and properly) the hardest part of writing, and it corresponds with the true difficulty of research, namely, making discoveries that constitute real contributions to our knowledge. It's likewise also the most satisfying thing to do well. That's why I'm suggesting this exercise to practice it.

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