Whether you are new to Interpretative Phenomenological
Analysis (IPA) or have been using it for a while, you may have noticed some
differences in the language associated with this qualitative approach to
This might seem confusing at first but don’t worry; help is at hand!
The guidance and steps suggested to conduct
your analysis remain the same. So do the underlying principles. All that’s changed
is some of the terminology.
Emergent Themes are now known as experiential statements, superordinate themes are now called personal experiential themes, and master themes are now referred to as group experiential themes.
This change in terminology can actually make things clearer as you work through your analysis. Experiential statements are just that, statements about the experiences captured in your data in terms of their meaning for the participant.
The example transcript includes the lines “so I really had to put in the effort and judge people quite quickly as well. So, yeah, I just had to put stuff out there quite a lot”. One of the experiential statements to arise from this analysis is ‘Selectively and purposively bonding with strangers’ (p. 41).
This statement is both concise and rich. It captures the participant’s description of forging relationships with other travellers and their sense of this being a deliberate, active process. A statement such as ‘Meeting new people’ or ‘Social aspects of travel’, although still reflective of the data, would not provide the same experiential detail.
Thinking in terms of experiential statements – rather than emergent themes – can help you orient yourself during the earlier analytic stages. An experiential statement involves summarising the meaning in a short portion of the text – perhaps just a few lines. At this stage, being too concerned with the bigger picture of ‘themes’ can distract you from looking carefully at each section of the transcript in a close, fine-grained fashion.
Personal experiential themes or PETs, are themes developed through an analysis of a
single case, meaning they are personal to that individual.
Group experiential themes or GETs are developed by looking across individual cases for patterns of
convergence and divergence. They are themes which represent the group.
As you can see, the revised terminology makes finding your way through the analysis easier.
Are you a postgrad student using qualitative methods to explore a social science topic?
Are you wrestling with your analysis, your themes, your write up? Or maybe you’re feeling nervous about your viva?
Qualitative research is an intense process that requires a lot of careful thinking. You need to hold many ideas in your mind as you consider connections between your themes and how your research fits into the wider picture. It’s no wonder analysis can cause a headache.
That’s why PGPR offers video consultations: hour-long sessions in which one of our team of qualitative experts talks you through the challenges you’re facing in your research project.
If you’re wondering whether a PGPR VC can help you, read the following examples to see how we’ve helped clients in the past…
Aimee was working on resubmitting a reflective assignment as part of her psychotherapy doctorate. She was finding it challenging to revise her previous submission to ensure she met the assessment criteria while expressing her lived experiences clearly in a formal academic style. Aimee sent us her original submission, along with the feedback from her assessors and the assessment criteria. Through a series of video consultations, we explored how Aimee could relate psychotherapeutic theory to both her personal and professional experiences. We identified specific areas where she could demonstrate her relevant understanding in relation to the required learning outcomes. By explaining her ideas verbally, Aimee felt more confident communicating her knowledge, and successfully reworked her assignment with a clearer narrative arc.
Bob had completed the write up of his interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) findings for his doctoral thesis. He had received feedback that his work was descriptive rather than interpretative and was unsure how to address this. Bob sent us his results chapter and we had a chat about how we could best support him. We agreed that a general discussion about how to be interpretative would be too abstract, so decided he would select some quotes from his findings which we could explore together. During the hour, we talked through a small selection of extracts in depth. This allowed Bob to get a sense of how to approach his data interpretatively, what to look for and the types of questions he could ask himself. He then felt more able to apply this to the rest of his findings chapter, which he continued to revise on his own.
Cathy had completed her PhD viva and was unsure how to approach her revisions. She sent us her viva report and thesis. In a series of video consultations, we focused on the different amendments required. In one session, we made a detailed plan for a chapter she had been asked to re-structure so that she could go away and organise her writing with clarity. In another, we discussed the examiners’ request that Cathy acknowledge the influence of her position on the research. We decided that writing a single reflexive statement would be appropriate and talked through what she might include in it. Cathy later sent some sections of her amended thesis for proofreading and written feedback to iron out the last details. Her revised thesis was accepted.
If you decide to book a VC with PGPR, we will spend an hour looking at your work before the session, and then an hour discussing the work once it’s done.
Previous PGPR VC client Andrea K said:
“I found my consultation meetings with Rachel incredibly helpful. When I felt stuck in my analysis, Rachel helped me to understand better what I am doing well (which motivated me to continue) as well as areas for further learning by discussing specific examples in my data. She definitely helped me to understand better how to put theory (IPA principles) into practice (analysis). Each consultation was used very efficiently thanks to Rachel’s clear focus, and she also made sure we had some time to discuss any questions/dilemmas that I had. I would recommend these consultations to anyone who feels stuck or wants to learn what they do well and what they can improve. Do not hesitate to contact the team if you have any other issues in your research study as they seem to consider individual needs and requests very well.”
Get in touch via the form below to book a session with one of our qualitative experts.
Ask any seasoned researcher if they’ve ever got into a muddle with references, and they will have a war story or two to tell. Whilst references are an essential part of any scientific piece of writing, they are undeniably a massive pain in the you-know-what.
It all makes sense. You’re writing your beloved thesis, the mind-blowing ideas and ground-breaking theories flowing from your fingers. You know the literature, you know where your research question came from and how it’s added to our knowledge. You’re in Csikszentmihalyi’s magical state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi & Rathunde, 1993) (that, my friends, is an example of a reference) and you’re not going to break that off for a tiny little detail like who wrote the paper proving that positive mindset is the key to everything. You’ll come back to that! So instead, you insert something like (positive mindset paper, pink folder????, come back later) and carry on writing.
That’s fine if this is your strategy
for one or two references.
It’s really not so fine if this is your strategy for the 500
or so which make up an entire PhD!
Fear not – here are PGPR’s five top tips for staying on top of your references from the outset.
1. Start an account with a referencing software
This is essential. I know the software might seem alien and
off-putting at first, and sometimes these systems are pretty clunky, but hand
on heart, I think the best move I ever made as a researcher was to get to grips
with EndNote from month one of my PhD.
Think of your referencing software as an online library
where you store all the details of the reading you’ll do over the course of
your thesis/paper/project. Most of them are simple to use once you’ve got used
to them. Google and YouTube are also crammed full of helpful tips and videos
for working these programs, or you can book an appointment with your uni
librarian, who will walk you through it.
As stated, I use (and am a fan of) EndNote Web, which is free, but there are plenty of other choices out there, including the paid version of Endnote, Zotero and Mendeley.
Reading some of these blogs might help you to decide which to use. Or ask your PhD supervisor which they would recommend.
2. During the lit review, record each reference, with
notes, as you go
One of the first steps of any research project, big or
small, will be doing a lit review. This is good as it means you can get to
grips with your new software early in the process and become confident with it.
Every time you read a paper, chapter or web page, import or record its details
in your software and make some notes. These notes will help you remember which
paper is which when you come back to them in a few months. You can also keep
different reference records in different folders for different projects, which
will help you locate that finding you know you read somewhere at a later date.
Top tip: If you’re unsure what details you need to record,
look for the paper in question in Google Scholar and then click the ‘cite’
button. This will tell you all the details you need to know (for journal
articles, this will be title, authors, year and doi as well as publication
name, volume, edition and page numbers), which you can then either import or
copy and paste into your software.
3. Use your software system as you write
Now that all your references are neatly filed in your
software, do ensure that you use that software to insert the in-text references
as you write. If you use EndNote, you need to install a plug-in which then
shows up in Word. Click ‘insert citation’ each time you need to do just that,
and EndNote will format the in-text citation for you and put the full reference
at the end of the document.
Inevitably, as you write, you will need to look for more
references as questions arise, or to respond to feedback from your supervisor
or peer reviewers. By this point, you will be confident with your software, so
just keep adding to it as you go, being disciplined about recording all those
details and notes with every paper you need. Then use the software to insert
the new reference as you write.
4. Find out which referencing system you need to use for
this piece and set that in your software
There are several systems for citing references in scientific papers, which include APA, Harvard, Vancouver and so on. These all differ slightly from each other and, to make matters even more confusing, differ within themselves as well. Harvard referencing, for example, is an umbrella term which is interpreted differently depending on which institution you’re at, while APA has 7 versions.
The intricate differences in these systems can lead to
further confusion if you haven’t been staying on top of your references
throughout the process. But this is where referencing software is so handy. If
all the references in your thesis are linked to your software, you can change
which referencing system the software uses to present those references, switching
from APA7 to Vancouver at the touch of a button. This job would take days and
days by hand and runs the risk of you throwing your laptop out the window in
5. Contact PGPR for help
If you’re reading this blog thinking, well, that’s all very useful but I’m already two years into my thesis and it’s all too late, don’t worry! PGPR can help. Our expert reference checkers can ensure that every in-text and full-length reference is formatted correctly for the system you’re using, locate any missing details and even cross-check your thesis to ensure that every in-text citation appears in the bibliography and vice versa. We even have some crazy people on our team (Hannah and Shannon) who enjoy this work! So just hand it over to us and you can get back to uncovering more thrilling new findings.
We’re always happy to help. Just get in touch via the form below.
If you’re working on the final stages of your thesis, there’s probably a lot of writing going on in your world right now. It’s also likely that you’re juggling that with a job, cooking dinners, spending time with your family and trying to get out of the house once a day for fresh air. Therefore, despite your best intentions, writing might not be happening as often as you’d like.
some tips for carving out some time every day to get those brilliant findings
and interpretations committed to the page.
As much as possible, try to plan your weeks so that writing time is scheduled. Of course, life is unpredictable and sometimes we can’t stick to our plans, but if you at least know what you’re aiming for, you’re more likely to get there. If your schedule looks jam-packed, try to think creatively. Can you get up earlier a couple of days a week? Work in the evening while everyone else is watching TV? Get the kids to make the dinner one night so you can spend that time working? (Age of child dependent, of course!)
your housemates/partner/family that you have to shut the door
If you’re a housemate, a mother, a father or a spouse, you might feel that you need to drop everything the moment you’re needed by the people you love. Genuine emergencies aside, this is not the case. Can you set a time for working when you tell everyone that you’re not to be disturbed? Even if it’s only for half an hour a day, those half-hours will start stacking up, and so will your word count.
3. Turn off
point telling your family that the door is shut if you’re going to spend all your
time behind that closed door frantically checking Twitter and replying to your
favourite WhatsApp group chats. Put your phone on silent, don’t open your
emails and try to resist the urge to start Googling things as you write – it’s
all too easy to fall into an internet rabbit hole that way. You can always look
up how to spell phenomenological later; for now, just fudge it and get those
4. Recognise and reward the wins
Writing a thesis is really hard, even when there isn’t a global pandemic. You are doing an amazing job and you deserve to be rewarded. Sadly, most of the time, everyone else is too wrapped up in their own challenges to recognise how awesome you multi-tasking postgrad students are, which means you might need to reward yourself. And that’s just dandy, cos no one knows what you like better than you do! If you pass a milestone, no matter how small, book yourself a day off, buy your favourite cake, settle down with a novel and convince your other half to rub your feet. You’ve earned it.
expect the impossible
It can be
really tempting to start setting yourself huge targets: I’m going to write
2,000 words every single day without breaking a sweat. Sound familiar? The
problem with these unrealistic targets is that if you can’t stick to them, you
might start feeling discouraged, which makes it harder to come to your desk
feeling positive and energised the next day. Plus, if you know you don’t have
time for your 2,000 words that day, you might think well, there’s no point
starting – I’ll begin tomorrow instead. You can see how this thinking can
quickly lead to a week with no words written at all. Some of you might find it
easier to set a time limit for each day instead or to think in terms of
sections per week.
Do you have any tips for writing every day? Do let us know if so. And of course, once you’ve finished writing, you can always book us to proof-read your work so that you can be confident it’s as polished as it can be.
If you’d like to book PGPR to help you with your writing, just get in touch via the form below.
Completing postgrad qualitative research is an adventure. It can be thrilling, enriching and rewarding… but it can also be arduous, stressful and exhausting.
Here at PGPR, we can help you through every step of your journey. Here are seven services we think will benefit you as you progress through your project.
1. Interview schedule check
Collecting your data is so important. Asking participants the right questions can unlock access to the rich, lovely data which will underpin your entire study. We can look at your interview schedule and talk it over in a video consultation, giving you pointers for ensuring your questions are open, comprehensive and ordered in a way that is likely to generate rapport.
2. Feedback on analysis
Analysis can feel fun and fascinating – and it can feel overwhelming! Trying to conduct analysis without many qualitative colleagues or at a university without many qualitative experts can feel especially lonely and daunting. Fortunately, the PGPR team loves analysis, so we’re always excited when a client asks for feedback at this stage. We can offer written feedback or feedback via one of our video consultations. We’ll look at whether your data truly supports your conclusions, if there are areas where you can dig deeper, and whether your analysis fits in with your chosen methodology.
3. Feedback on word length and structure
Once you start putting the chapters of your thesis together, you might find that you’re several thousand words over your university’s word limit. Don’t panic – this is a common problem and is something we can help with. We’ll read your chapters and offer feedback which will help you tighten up your structure and delete those unnecessary words.
4.Correcting your spelling and grammar
While we love giving feedback, we’re also all huge word nerds here at PGPR, so you can come to us if you need any sections of your thesis proof-read. We’ll correct any spelling and grammar issues, ensure that you’ve used terminology consistently and offer suggestions to make your sentences read as smoothly as possible.
5. Checking references
Reference sections: can’t get by without them – but you CAN offload them to us! When you’re immersed in analysing your beautiful data or wrangling with that tricky discussion section, ensuring that your reference list is also perfect can feel incredibly onerous. Don’t worry; we’re here to help. Our proof-readers Hannah and Shannon particularly enjoy checking reference lists, so it’s likely that one of these two superstars will undertake this job for you. They find it soothing – clearly, we need to clone them!
Word has lots of features that can help you present your thesis in a professional manner; unfortunately, it often feels like you need a degree in IT to be able to get them all to work. We have several Word experts on the team who will be more than happy to create tables of contents, ensure that your headings are consistent and caption all your figures for you.
7. Conference check package
Once your research is complete, it’s time to share it with the wider world. If you have a conference coming up, PGPR can offer feedback on your slides and give you an opportunity to practice your presentation via video for a friendly audience. Just get in touch to find out more.
We look forward to hearing from you – just fill in the contact form below and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
We will ensure that your work reads well and is in good English. Depending on the level of service you have paid for, we will also offer feedback on structure, methodology and analysis. However, we won’t change the meaning of your work or re-write any sections for you.
How quickly will you return my work?
We will aim to get your work back to you as quickly as possible. We can usually proof-read 5,000 words per day, meaning a 15,000-word piece takes three days after we start.
Johanna often has a waiting list, so you might have to wait longer if you are specifically requesting to work with her.
We can work to your schedule; if you have some sections finished earlier than others, we can start work on those while you complete the rest of your thesis. Please note that we don’t book work in with a member of the team until we have a copy of that work.
Why can’t I book a slot before my piece is ready?
Postgrad work is unpredictable. It might take longer to recruit your participants than you had hoped. Your supervisor might go off sick. You might really need a break. For this reason, we no longer book clients in until their pieces are ready to go. This saves you having to feel stressed about a deadline that is no longer realistic and saves us reserving time for work which doesn’t materialise. We have a large enough team of experts that we can still offer quick turnaround times.
What format should I send my work in?
Send your work to us in Word: either .doc or .docx. This is essential because we use Word’s track changes function to proof-read your work.
Why will you send me back two copies?
Many proof-reading services will only send you back one clean copy. You may feel that this approach would mean less work for you. However, since this is your project and is so crucial for you, we feel it’s important to offer you the chance to collaborate. Ultimately, it’s your choice whether to accept the changes we suggest. Including a copy with the track changes on it gives you the option to accept or reject those changes. The clean version means that if you are happy to trust our judgment, you can work with this version rather than going through the changes we’ve suggested.
What is included in the service?
We will proof-read your work and, depending on the level of service you are paying for, suggest feedback as well. See how it works for more detail about this. We are also happy to answer short questions via email and may, in certain circumstances, agree to brief video chats to talk through the work.
If you have booked a video consultation, we will spend an hour beforehand reading the work you have sent us, and then an hour talking it through with you online. If you need more time, that can be arranged with the team on a case by case basis.
PGPR is not a supervision service, so we cannot offer ongoing extended conversations about your work or emotional support for the ups and downs of postgrad life.
What if I need to cancel or change my VIDEO CONSULTATION timeslot?
If you need to cancel or change your video consultation, you need to give us 24 hours’ notice. Otherwise, your payment is non-refundable.
How can I pay?
You can pay via BACS transfer or Stripe. Please note that we do not accept PayPal.
If we are working on a larger piece, we will ask for a deposit of 50% before we commence work. We will send a second invoice for the balance once the work is done.
What if I’m not satisfied?
For larger pieces, we will work on and return a small section to begin with. This gives you a chance to check that you are happy before we go any further. Working together in this way means you can let us know if there’s anything you would prefer us to do differently. However, we are so confident that you will be pleased with our work that we will not charge you for any completed sections if you are unhappy.
If you want to book PGPR to undertake some work for you, just fill in the form below.
Exciting times here at PGPR… our team has doubled in size over the past few months. We now have more staff members who can help you with all your proof-reading and feedback needs. Additionally, our new staff are bringing new expertise to the fold, so it could be that we can now help you or your colleagues with areas you hadn’t previously considered contacting us about.
While PGPR has traditionally helped qualitative psychology students, most of whom are using IPA or thematic analysis, we can now also help criminology,humanities, history and musicology students as well as students who are using quantitative analysis, mixed methods, ethnography and discourse or framework analysis.
Here’s a rundown of our new stellar staff members.
Claire M has a BSc in psychology and criminology,
an MSc in psychology of health and wellbeing and a PhD from Keele University.
She is another discourse analysis expert who can offer feedback
and video consultations in this area, as well as transcription.
She has also edited the PsyPAG Quarterly Journal for two years and worked as an
editor on the QMiP Bulletin since 2016. She believes it’s important to give
encouraging feedback that doesn’t make students physically cringe and hide away
for a week.
Claire R is a mixed-methods health psychology and health services researcher with a keen interest in digital health, long-term conditions and implementation science. She can offer proof-reading and feedback for students working with thematic analysis, framework analysis, ethnography and mixed methods. She has worked and studied at a variety of universities in the UK and completed her PhD in improvement science at the University of Southampton. She is currently based at the University of Oxford but lives in Southampton.
Josie has been working as a lecturer in psychology, teaching BSc and MSc Psychology, for the last 12 years. She’s currently working as a teaching fellow at King’s College London. She can help you with proof-reading and feedback for thematic analysis, IPA and quantitative work as well as video consultations. She has taught research methods in psychology (both qualitative and quantitative), biological psychology, cognitive psychology, mental health, and the psychology of sleep and dreaming. She has also supervised many research projects for final year BSc psychology students, using a range of qualitative and quantitative methods and has written a popular book on the psychology of dreaming.
Nick can help you with any proof-reading needs. He has an undergraduate degree and a master’s in history and became an English language teacher after taking a CELTA course. He has also taught academic English and critical thinking skills to university-level students. Now based in Malaysia, Nick combines proof-reading and editing with tutoring. He has worked with a wide variety of texts, including journal articles for publication, dissertations, academic theses, corporate documents and university papers, while his proof-reading experience covers engineering, hospitality, political science and management.
Shannon is another proof-reading whizz with
expertise in quantitative methods. She also offers transcription.
She completed a Bachelor of Business Science and a Master of Commerce in
economics at the University of KwaZulu Natal. During her time there, she also
worked as an economics tutor and an academic coordinator. She has assisted in
various quantitative research projects, primarily working with econometric and
statistical models. Working in research led Shannon to the role of proof-reader
and editor for research papers, prior to their submission for publication. She
also proof-read postgraduate dissertations in a variety of business-related
And last but certainly not least is Steph, a musicologist and early modern music book historian who can offer proof-reading and feedback. With a master’s degree in early music editing from Hull and a PhD in seventeenth-century music publishing from Manchester, she is now an Associate Researcher at Newcastle. She works on music in early modern England, particularly within the broader cultural contexts of print, book history and economic trade. She’s also the editor for the Northamptonshire Victoria County History Trust, meaning she is used to working with historians from a broad range of backgrounds.
If you or any of your colleagues would like to book one of our new team members to look at your work, please just get in touch via the box below – we’ll be happy to help.
By this stage in your postgrad journey, you have probably
read thousands of academic papers – or at least it feels that way. Indeed, you
may have written one or two as well. But was the process quick and painless –
or did it involve tears, tantrums and having to cut far too many of your
carefully honed words? If you fall into the latter camp, you’ve come to the
right place. Don’t panic; paper writing is challenging at first. But the more
you practice, the slicker the process gets.
The method section is the simplest section of the paper.
What did you do? Can you remember? If so, write it down. Check your target
journal to see whether they have certain subheadings they want you to include
(examples might be data collection, analysis, ethics and so on). If they don’t,
have a look at other papers and copy their headings. Writing this short,
factual series of paragraphs gets you into your stride and breaks that
terrifying ‘blank page’ syndrome.
If you can, it’s often a good idea to start writing your
method section while you’re still conducting the research. This ensures that
you don’t forget any of those details about exactly where you found participant
14 or when you made those all-important changes to your interview schedule.
2. Use your table of themes to create your findings
The findings are the most important section of a qualitative paper. This should be the longest and most detailed element and will guide the material you include in your introduction and discussion sections. This is why, once you’ve got started with the super-simple method, you should tackle the findings next.
You’ve got a table of themes that you lovingly created
during your analysis, right? Well – I say lovingly created – what I mean is wrote,
crossed out, re-created, kicked down the stairs a few times and cried over
until you reached this final draft. Am I right?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that
(nearly all) of the hard work is already done. Created correctly, your table of
themes should be the blueprint for your findings section. This means that you
already know what points you want to make, in what order, and supported by
which quotes. Brilliant, right? Well done past you. In theory, all you need to
do now is turn write about why you named the themes and subthemes as you did,
how those ideas are supported by the quotes and any interplay between the
themes. With the right table of themes, this is easier than it sounds – the
section almost writes itself.
The bad news – which really isn’t all that bad – is that analysis continues during writing. This means that, as you write your findings up, you are likely to realise that some quotes don’t quite do the right job, or that some points need shuffling around. You might need to seek out some different quotes, or re-order things. That’s fine; it’s good, in fact, as it shows you’re really engaging with the material. In this instance, use your new findings section to re-order the table.
The next stage is the introduction. These can be tough to
write when you start writing papers as opposed to a thesis. They are somewhat
equivalent to the lit review chapter of the thesis – but much, much shorter.
And shorter does not mean easier!
Start by making a bullet point list of all the points you
need to make in your introduction. These should include:
Setting the scene for your research question
The main points which need addressing from that
question. So, for example, if you’re asking what it is like to work in criminal
law (a heteronormative culture) as an LGBTQ person, you might have a bullet
point on heteronormativity, a bullet point on the culture in criminal law and a
bullet point on the challenges faced by LGBTQ people working in heteronormative
environments. (I kinda want to read that paper now…)
Why your approach is the best way to answer your
Once you have the list, approach this in the same way you did the method section – just fill in the blanks and write a paragraph (two at most) for each bullet point. If you’re lucky, you’ll already have done all the relevant reading. If you’re not, you’ll need to conduct a lit review at this point. However, knowing exactly what areas you’re interested in will make this quicker and easier than if you were just exploring the topic as a whole. Search for relevant, recent papers, plug them into EndNote or whichever referencing system you’re using, whizz through the relevant sections and make notes on anything useful. As you go, slot useful points into your skeleton intro, following the bullet points. You can refine it later. Ensure you don’t just look for papers that back up your pre-existing point of view; remember to be critical at all times, even of your own ideas.
Think of your introduction as a funnel. You’re starting with
the wider context of the question and then narrowing down to the point where
the reader agrees with you that answering this is question is essential, and
that your stance is the best way to do so.
Once you’ve presented your findings and shown the reader why they are important via the introduction, the next stage is to discuss them (hence the name!) in the light of other people’s work. Discussion sections can be notoriously tricky, which is why we have an entire blog post dedicated to getting them just right.
Qualitative discussions will generally follow the same
structure as your findings. Work through each theme in the same order you
presented them, showing how your findings confirm, contradict or build on
If time is of the essence, you can start your discussion section simultaneously with the introduction – after all, the two map onto each other to a certain extent. As you read the papers and make notes in a skeleton discussion section too. Write out your theme names under the ‘discussion’ title and note down any useful findings from others. All you need is to polish up your notes (and potentially look for a few more papers), and voila! You’re nearly done.
Please tell me you’ve been doing these the whole time? And that you’re using a handy piece of referencing software like EndNote or Zotero? If so – easy peasy. Use your software to set the references to the right system for your chosen journal (APA 7, Chicago or Harvard, most likely), and away you go. If you haven’t been using software, step one is to amend this immediately for next time. I know it feels like an intimidating pain before you get started, but it is SUCH a lifesaver in the end. Step two, for now, is to get onto Google Scholar and copy and paste those bad boys in by hand.
And finally, the abstract. Journals often have tight rules
for how long an abstract should be and what structure it should follow, so
check those first. Your abstract needs to give a small flavour of all the other
elements of the paper. They can be hard to get right and might be best left for
a week or so (if you have time) so that you can get a bit of distance from the
work. Or, if you’ve done the bulk of the writing, you might ask another member of
your research team to have a crack at this bit.
7. Send to PGPR
Whether you’re a total paper-newbie or an old hand, we can
all use an extra pair of eyes now and then. If you’re struggling with any
element of your paper writing, just get in touch with us using the form below,
and we’ll be happy to help.
If you’re an academic, you are also, by proxy, a writer. Academics lives are full of words. Emails, feedback to students, grant applications, papers, theses – all of these require the careful placement of the one word next to another. As Prince once (almost) said, if you put the right letters together, you make a better day. And if it’s good enough for Prince, it’s good enough for the rest of us mere mortals.
However, while we university types are educated up to the eyeballs in our particular topics, we’re not often taught much about writing itself. Sure, we might have had an undergrad lecture about writing essays which follow the funnel structure, but other than that, we’re left to sink or swim. Which, given how much of our lives we spend trying to communicate complex ideas through the written word, is perhaps a bit of an oversight.
With that in mind, here are some of PGPR’s top tips for
creating words which stand out.
Every writer also needs to be a reader. Fiction writers are
experts in their genre, reading everything they can get their hands on by the
writers they admire. The same counts for academic writing. Read as many papers
and books in your field as possible. Spot what works and what doesn’t. Try to use
the best techniques in your own writing.
Additionally, two great how-to books that can help every writer are Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and Stephen King’s On Writing. I’m sure there are other great books on writing which haven’t been written by someone called Steven, but those are a great starting point.
That funnel structure lecture you sat through in undergrad was actually pretty useful. Good academic writing should always follow a structure. This might feel boring, but it makes it easier for others to read, which should always be your aim. Think carefully about the points you want to make. How you order those points will influence how the reader digests your ideas, so plan carefully before you start.
3. Write tight
As we’ve said in a previous PGPR blog, a key tenet of writing is to ‘omit needless words’ (Strunk, 2007). Effective writing is concise. We all write in longer sentences when we’re drafting something, so look back over your work and get rid of those filler words (‘that’ ‘very’ ‘really’) which aren’t needed.
Another tip for writing tighter prose is to avoid
repetition. We all have favourite phrases which we use over and over again
without even noticing. Try to spot yours and find new ways of phrasing. This
will keep the reader’s attention.
4. The Curse of Knowledge (Pinker, 2014)
This concept, which Steven Pinker discusses in detail in The Sense of Style, is especially relevant to academics. When we’re an expert in any topic – be it phenomenology, attribution theory or fuzzy logic, it can be easy to forget that our readers don’t share our knowledge. This can mean we don’t provide essential explanations, leaving the reader lost. This is a tough nut to crack, but if you ask for feedback from a non-expert friend or colleague, they will be able to help you spot the holes that need filling.
5. Read your work aloud
You might feel like a bit of wally doing this, but it is
super helpful. There’s something about reading aloud which helps you spot the
awkward clauses or overly long sentences you might otherwise have missed. You
could read to a friend or family member, or just to yourself in your locked
office – whatever you choose, release your words into the ether and you’ll spot
lots of areas to improve.
6. Impactful words should be at the start and end of
This is a neat trick. If you are using words which pack a
punch – and let’s hope you are – try to place those words at the start or end
of the sentence, and your writing will immediately improve.
Let’s look at an example. Perhaps you’re writing up some qualitative
findings from your fascinating study about eating tasty cakes. You’ve drafted
the following sentence:
It was reported that the chocolate cake was the most
delicious out of all of the options.
The three best words there, I think we can all agree, are ‘cake’,
‘chocolate’ and ‘delicious’. At the moment, while there’s nothing technically
wrong here, those words are a little lost. Our hacky human brains might
therefore jump over them, in our rush to skip to the end.
What might work better?
Most delicious, reported participants, was the chocolate
The chocolate cake was reported to be the most delicious.
Chocolate was found to be the best flavour.
There is no one right answer. When you’re faced with a
sentence like this, play around. Is ‘best flavour’ a more impactful way of
saying ‘the most delicious’? Several needless words were omitted in the edited
versions. Which sounds best to your ear?
7. Employ PGPR
If all this sounds like far too much hard work, just get in touch
with PGPR via the form below. We’ll be happy to help your writing be the best
it can be.
It’s not uncommon to read “this study
concludes…” or “these findings suggest…” in academic writing. I would hazard a
guess that nearly every researcher has used similar phrases at some point in
their career. You may well have used them yourself and thought nothing of it. However,
these ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous phrases cause quite a stir in certain
They are just two examples of anthropomorphism: incidences where the author attributes human characteristics to inanimate or nonhuman objects or concepts. Under APA 6 guidelines, academics would be chided for implying that their data had the power of speech – how can data say anything? Anthropomorphism was to be avoided at all costs.
And logically, rationally, this makes
sense. Data, findings, “the study” – all these things lack agency. Research
doesn’t think, explore, or conclude; researchers do! Active verbs belong with
people, not abstract concepts or inanimate objects.
If you are only now learning of
these particular guidelines, you may be groaning, rolling your eyes, and
wondering if you have to go back through your entire dissertation to awkwardly
juggle clauses and remove agency from “the study”. If you’re writing in the
first-person, this is fairly straightforward. What was “this chapter
describes…” becomes “in this chapter, I describe…”.
However, whilst first-person
writing is an increasingly popular choice for qualitative researchers, not all
supervisors, examiners and journal editors will accept this format…a topic for a
whole other blog. De-anthropomorphising sentences in the third person is
possible, but it can lead to some verbose and awkward phrasing. For example:
This research explores the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness.
Could become the slightly wordier:
In this study, the researchers explored the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness.
Or the clumsy, back-ended
In this research, the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness was explored.
Perhaps you’re wondering what all
the fuss is about. Surely this is pedantic in the extreme; we know that
it’s the researchers, not the research, who are doing the exploring, describing
and suggesting! Anthropomorphism is a useful and engaging stylistic shorthand
which can facilitate clarity and conciseness, rather than create confusion.
It’s unlikely that we will read “the study suggests…” and go away thinking
“gosh, that study has acquired the power of speech! And isn’t it remarkably
And to an extent, it seems the APA style guide finally agrees (or should that be “the authors of the APA style guide agree” …?)… to an extent. Under APA 7 guidelines, the rules around anthropomorphism have been relaxed, meaning your study can now be allowed to speak. Only a little, though, and only under strict circumstances. There are limits to the active verbs which can be ascribed to non-human entities. For example, it’s now fine to state:
The data suggests…
The findings indicate…
The table presents…
Some phrases which might be
acceptable (but use with caution):
This chapter describes…
The questionnaire assessed…
But definitely steer clear of:
The study concluded… (this suggests that there is one objective conclusion to be drawn from the data).
The literature claims… (this suggests that from a whole body of literature on a given topic, one unified view can be drawn).
Whilst there is arguably room for clarification around these new guidelines, I wouldn’t hold out hope for a comprehensive list of suitable verb-subject pairings. A good rule of thumb may be to question why you’re employing anthropomorphism – does it clarify your writing (perhaps by avoiding long, awkward sentence structuring), or does it muddy your intended meaning? If you spot anthropomorphism in your writing, is there another way this could be phrased? While there is no longer a blanket ban on anthropomorphism in APA, it’s generally good practice to reflect on your writing, and what you may be implying by employing this device.
You can read more about the changes to the rules here.
If this all feels overwhelming, or confusing, or you’re not sure where to start, then there’s always help available. Get in touch with us about your writing concerns! Whether it’s specifically about anthropomorphism or more broadly about APA style, we’re happy to provide expert guidance and friendly support. Just fill in the box below to contact us, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.