Research Methods in Technical and Professional Writing



Mapping knowledge

Building relationships and conveying knowledge requires you to understand how all of the information fits together. There are both the organization of the material and, perhaps, displaying that information to either you or the reader.

This unit is after the first draft of your literature review is due and I'm willing to bet that some of you are faced with the issues talked about this week. You have lots of good information, but don't have them orgnaized in a coherent way. Hopefully, you can use this week's information to reshape the next draft of your literature review.

The lit review builds a textual view of a subject, but often a visual can display what is happening better.


Visual of your information


Both of these readings deal with ways of creating a visual of your overall information space. Not how to create good visuals for use within your paper, but a way to get a good view of the overall structure of your information. This can then be used to help shape the overall text.

It helps to create these sort of visuals because the force you back from the details. You are flooded with information right now, it all seems important, and its such small details that they don't fit together. Creating a good map lets you put each detail into its slot and organize them for the paper.


A literature map of the research

Mapping the research territory


Organizing Your Research


There is an amazing lack of good sources on how to actually organize information. It all tends to tell you keep good notes and then put them in order. With no guidance on how to do either.


Organizing Your Research


Make and sort a list of important points


You need to make a listing of the important points and the supporting points.

This list may not be points in the main article outline, but they provide you with the basis for creating that outline.

The list needs to be grouped into coherent groups and each grouping named. This is very similar to the card sorting exercise done in user experience design. In both, the goal is to take a collection of topics, arrange them into some sort of coherent order, and label the larger groups.

With a card sort, you would put each of the information pieces onto separate pieces of paper and then sort them. (This also works on various projects where you need to see how your audience views the information.)

It's important to realize that there is no single right way sort your list. It depends on your specific topic. Two people using the same articles but pursuing different research questions will sort their lists differently. The order must help commuicate your topic, not achieve a mythical "correct" sort.


Card sorting: A definitive guide

This is explaining how to use it in a usability test, but the same concepts work for ordering almost any information.


"Miscellanoues" is not a valid topic heading


Information only fits in one single place in your literature review.

"Miscellanoues" is not a valid topic heading, by the way. Essentially, you are saying you want a heading in the paper called Miscellanous for stuff you found and don't know where esle to put it, but you found it and you will report it.

If your literature review in on font readability, then all of the biographic information you found on various font designers may be nice to know, but is is irrelevant to the readability of the fonts they designed.

A Miscellanoues category means one of two things.

  • The topic doesn't fit within the scope of the informatin you are sorting. In that case, it needs to be discarded. But don't delete the file; although it doesn't fit here, it might be perfect for a future project.
  • The sorting is wrong. Start over with recreating new piles based on different categories. Eventually, everything either clearly fits into a category or doesn't belong in the paper.

When I was working on one book, I had an organization that made sense to me, but seemed to require that I repeat variations of the same information multiple times. Finally (and this was after a publisher had rejected the manuscript), I found a good visual model that laid out what I wanted to convey. When I reordered the book according to the new model, everything fit into place and nothing repeated.




Writing is rarely linear


You can rarely start at the beginning and write to the end. Or even just write the body straight through and then do the introductionand adn conclusion. Writing a long document is an inherently non-linear process.

My personal writing style tends to be rather broken up. I'll write the text for each citation or stop while writing about one topic and follow another idea. The result is a long text that as no order.

So, I number all of the paragraphs, create headings at the bottom of the first page, and create a list of what gets moved where. This image is a scan of one of those pages.

In a previous class, one student said just looking at this diagram almost caused a minor panic attack. Your revision method and milage may vary.





Discussion questions


There is no end to software that lets you track your research, putting it onto the equivalent of 3x5 notecards, and even creates a properly formatted citation. (Do you sometimes get the feeling that many sources believe having the citation properly formatted is the MOST important thing.) What is the differences, advantages, and disadvantages of using specialzed software, keeping notes in Word, using 3x5 notecards, just writing on the article itself or using Acrobat's sticky note feature. Part of this falls to the basic question of online versus paper.


What problems have you encountered in the past or up to this point on organizing your research information and shaping it into a form that lets you put it into the paper? How have your organization abilities changed? What big problems to you still face?


Thoughts to ponder


A writing project that takes a week is very different from a bigger one. Writing difficulty does not scale linearly; writing a 40-page paper is not equal to 4 10-page papers. It's more like equal to 8 10-page papers. Both the time involved and the amount of research you have to keep track of becomes difficult.


I converted my PhD dissertation into a book titled Communication of Complex Information. The book was sent to a publisher twice. The first time it came back as a reject. It was only after that, when I thought the book was completed, that I figured out how to organize the material. I was able to create a nice overall visual, which I placed at the beginning of each chapter (with an area highlighted), and used that to reorganized and rewrite the book.


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