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Research as Craft #3 - Pen to paper

Research as Craft
Research as Craft
Hi Researchers! Aidan here 👋🏻 I spend a lot of time thinking about writing, a foundational skill in any researcher’s toolkit. This issue shares some concepts and tools I hope can help get writing right.

From the final report, paper or essay that puts our findings out into the world, to the everyday communication and admin tasks that make up a large portion of our work (think relentless email), writing is something researchers do every day.
But writing is hard. Trying to get our ideas into fully formed sentences often leaves us staring at a blank page, typing words only to delete them, or feeling that itch of procrastination pull us towards Twitter once again. 
In this issue of RaC, I’d like to share two lessons I’ve learned to rethink my approach to writing, and seven ideas that can help writing in practice.
💡 Rethink writing
The best lesson I’ve learned for improving my writing is this: writing isn’t about the writer, it’s about the reader. The challenge is not crafting sentences that you like, it’s giving your audience the information they need, and nothing more. 
The second best lesson is that writing isn’t really about typing out words. Not at first, at least. Instead, writing is about structuring ideas and information in a way others can understand. So, really, most ‘writing’ time is actually ‘thinking’ time spent organising ideas and facts. 
These two lessons have altered the way I approach writing. Rather than opening up a fresh doc and starting at the beginning, I’ll start with a blank doc, or slide deck, or paper-and-pen, and start to jot down rough, loose, messy concepts and ideas that will form my argument. It’s a brain dump.
Then I focus on carving that mess into clear, succinct points. Then I start to put them in the right order. Once that’s done, then, I can start to write the prose. 
Great! In theory. How can this work in practice?
✏️ 7 ideas to put this into practice
1⃣ Build your writing around a skeleton of key points: never start writing without a bullet point structure that maps out the cornerstones of your argument. Focus on making those bullet points as straightforward as possible, and build out the evidence and detail around them. If everything but these points were stripped away, your reader should still be able to get the core of what you’re saying.
2⃣ Trick your brain out of writer’s block. Writing out your ideas in draft bullet points also takes the subconscious pressure out of finding the perfect phrasing, so it’s a great trick for just getting words onto the page. Another trick is to start sentences with ‘so basically’, then write in the most basic words you can think of, as though you’re explaining it to a mate over coffee, just to get the idea out. Of course, once you’ve made all that rough content, go back and edit, edit, edit.
3⃣ Be accessible: there’s no better way to sound intelligent, precise and like you know what you’re talking about than to use the simplest language you can. Utilise? No, use. In order to effect change? No, just to change. Use plain english, use complex terms only when necessary, and cut filler words. (The Hemingway App helps with this.) It’s also worth taking some time to read about ‘active voice’ and practice using it instead of passive voice.
4⃣ Be ruthless with cuts. The best thing you’ll ever do for your writing is cut huge chunks of your draft while editing. If there are paragraphs that don’t help the reader out, or are tangential, cut them, no matter how long they took to write. Remember, the goal is to be precise, accessible and concise, not verbose. (Colleagues and friends are your best tool here. If they read a draft and suggest cuts, listen to them.)
5⃣ Scrapbook! When cutting, you’ll find it hard to part with your words. A good trick is to open a separate doc, and paste the text you cut into there. That way, you haven’t lost it and you can easily reinsert it afterwards if you do find you need it.
6⃣ Formatting is your friend. There is nothing more daunting than pages and pages of dense text, with few visual breaks. A simple way to improve readability is to use structural and formatting tools to guide the reader from point to point. Paragraphs, subheadings, line-breaks, bullet points, bold text: there’s a whole arsenal of tools you can use to structure your ideas.
7⃣ Start at the third paragraph. More often than not, we subconsciously use the first two (or three) paragraphs to ‘get into’ what we are writing. That means these opening lines are mostly filler, the product of our brains getting into gear like a stuttering engine. Usually, this can be cut, allowing the reader to get straight into the protein of your ideas. (Use the scrapbook, if you’re unsure!) This is a trick many journalists and book editors use.
📚 Resources, reading and tools:
  • First you write a sentence, by Joe Moran. One of the most wonderful books on writing. Moran practices what he preaches in every sentence.
  • Content design, by Sarah Winters. Written by the former Head of Content design for the UK Government Digital Service, this book is a practical guide to making your content - i.e. your words - useful.
  • Hemingway App: an online tool to help make your writing clearer. The Flesch-Kincaid scale is also useful for finding the right level of readability.
  • Organisational style guides are great resources for rules on accessible, clear, consistent writing. Our favourites are: Guardian, gov.uk, The A11Y Project.
  • This blogpost by Grammarly is a good explainer of active and passive voice.
💭 Your thoughts?
Of course, there’s no single perfect way to write. We wouldn’t dare suggest we’ve crammed all the answers into one newsletter, and everyone will find their own voice. But hopefully the thoughts above help you find yours. 
We’d love to know what you think. What writing tips and tools do you use? What’s the best example of research writing you’ve come across?
Hit reply or Tweet @ResearchAsCraft
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for reading Research as Craft. If you think someone else would enjoy it, we’d appreciate you forwarding it on to them or sharing it wherever you hang out on the internet.
Got an idea for an edition? Questions or feedback? Or want to nominate a thoughtful researcher in your network? Hit reply to this email or tweet at us and we’ll add them to our longlist of potential contributors.
Research as craft is co-ordinated by Jenny Brennan and Aidan Peppin. We met in 2019 when we both joined the same tech & society research institute in London, UK.* Ever since we’ve been sharing ideas, thoughts, and questions on what research is and how to do it well. 
(*Research as craft is an independent newsletter and is not affiliated with any organisation.)
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Research as Craft is a newsletter and community about how we can grow and improve as researchers. Each month, we share ideas, resources, tools and more to support people who do research - whether in industry, policy, academia, activism or elsewhere. It’s inspired by the idea of traditional crafts as tangible practices that can be honed, shared and developed.

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