research, writing

Tools of the trade

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I have a few bits of software which I use for my PhD which are not exactly run-of-the-mill (and some actually cost me money, albeit are great value) and I thought I’d write a blog about how they help me in my research.

First up is Scrivener. I have nooooo idea how people could write a PhD thesis using Microsoft Word. Word is hideous. It’s not as bad as Outlook (seriously awful) but having a word processor which crashes all the time (particularly with large documents) and seems to hate its users is not my idea of fun. Scrivener, on the other hand, is a pleasure to use. It was designed by people who actually seem to want to help you to write, and although it is extremely powerful with lots of features, you can just pick it up and start writing and figure out the bits you want to use later. You can dump ideas, web pages and references in there, compare different versions of documents side by side, take snapshots, write in a distraction-free environment, make a writing plan, move stuff around, work on tiny pieces of writing or zoom out to see the bigger picture, stitch different bits of writing together, edit fairly painlessly, add comments in lots of different ways, and probably do a few other million things I haven’t even explored yet. And it has never, ever crashed on me. You can also write on your iPad, or even on your iPhone if you’re a masochist, and your work syncs easily between devices without you having to think about it. It also avoids the problem of version control which plagues Word, so if you edit a document down you can take a snapshot (which you can then ‘roll back’) or you can dump the original version into another folder so it’s still there and accessible but not cluttering up your laptop with ‘final final version 2.1 15thApril2018. doc’.

Next is Quirkos, a simple bit of software for doing qualitative analysis. It’s basically a visual method of coding text by dragging and dropping relevant bits onto coloured bubbles which you can then move around to help your analysis. Although you might want to use something with more features (like NVivo) if you were doing a massive qualitative or group project, for my smallish studies it has been perfect, with almost no learning curve. It’s also very pleasant and pretty to use. The one thing it’s missing is a memo function (which is coming in the future apparently), but you can get round that in different ways. You can add memos to the project itself, which is what I did for my Resolve to Walk study, or you can screenshot the ‘canvas’ and chuck it in Scrivener to write about the big picture, which is what I’m doing for my Walk Jog Smile study (I’m using structured questions so adding memos won’t work for this).  Below is an example of some preliminary coding I’ve been doing for one study, I basically start coding as I add each interview or questionnaire, then keep coding as I go along. Then when I have a whole big mess on the screen and I think some patterns will become apparent I move things around into similar concepts and write about what I’m doing and what’s working and what needs more thinking about. You can click on any of the bubbles to see who said what in what context, you can do an overlap view to see which codes are closest, and you can run queries for different categories (this has been useful for me to compare different study conditions). There are a bunch of other features I don’t use much which are probably useful. The Quirkos blog is interesting and useful, and the developer is also super helpful if you have a problem. Whenever I do a talk and show my pretty Quirkos pics people want to know more, so I think there is definitely a place for Quirkos for those who don’t need the bells and whistles of other software.

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Finally, one more tool of the trade which has been extremely useful is If This Then That. This is a bit hard to explain, but it’s basically a way of linking different apps together to accomplish a certain goal, with no coding required. So you use something happening in one app as a ‘trigger’ to do something in another app. Below are a couple of the ‘healthy habits applets’ showing some different things you could automate if you’re so inclined.

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I’ve been using IFTTT as a way of emailing participants a feedback questionnaire each time they’ve completed an activity. It’s basically a neat way of doing an online diary study, and I’m not sure how else I could have managed this without either some serious technical knowledge or using some kind of commercial gadgetry. Neither of those are really within my research budget of approximately £0.05. It’s also been a massive time saver for me. I had to manually transfer all my app data for a previous study and it took me literally weeks to do and was open to data entry errors, whereas IFTTT does this all for me and pops the data I need into a spreadsheet. Amazing. Now if someone could come up with something similar for transcribing, that would be even more amazing!

 

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research, Uncategorized, writing

AcWriNo

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The lovely people at Surrey Uni RDP ran an AcWriMo programme in November, for people to set goals and write All the Words in November. I did set some targets, and made progress towards these goals, but fundamentally November was a bit of a nightmare for writing. I didn’t manage to make it to a single event at uni, which was annoying as I could have done with some company.  Most of my writing was on trains or ferries or at train stations or ferry terminals, or in my car (not whilst driving, obviously!) On occasion, the views could be distracting:

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So the question asked by the RDP blog is ‘What have you learned and where do you go from here?’

To which my response is:

Don’t expect to make much progress in a month which involves: teaching, renovating/decorating/furnishing a whole house (slightly time consuming, even when it’s not been me wielding the power tools and paintbrushes, so many decisions to make and shopping to do), taking kids to school open evenings, parent teacher interviews, car servicing/MOTs, multiple orthodontist appointments, selling a car (serious time suck), Christmas shopping, doing amendments to an ethics protocol, trying to organise a conference symposium, a muddy race and a standup comedy set to write and rehearse. On top of the usual chaos of family life, laundry, meals and food shopping for kids who can hoover up carbs faster than the speed of light. I did manage to complete my data entry though, I did it in the evenings when too tired to do anything else, in front of some property porn with a glass of wine…

Where do I go from here? I’m declaring AcWriJan instead, it’s going pretty well so far. Paradoxically, January is likely to be less breakneck in pace than November was. December was a bit of a write-off with lots more house stuff to order and organise (and a husband who is incapable of measuring a doorway before ordering a sofa…), a dose of the lurgy and Christmas stuff. I did complete my annual goal though of running 1000 miles, which I am very proud of, even though it required some serious determination during the final 2 weeks (and coughing up several lungs).

Anyway, I must get on with some more interview transcriptions, as I would really like to present some more of my findings from my Resolve to Walk study this year. The buzz round New Year’s resolutions at this time of year is a good reminder that I need to wrap up all the analyses from this study. Oh, the irony of having a resolution to finish a study about resolutions…Technically, the resolution part of this study isn’t strictly related to my thesis topic, but it’s too fascinating to ignore! Happy New Year!

presentations, research, Uncategorized, writing

Something I wrote about how to love exercise more

 

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I recently wrote a piece for The Slant, which is a collection of articles collated by Zova (a health and fitness company with a cool app). I thought I’d give a couple of evidence-based suggestions for how to enjoy exercise more (or feel better about it afterwards). The internet is awash with some great ideas for how to exercise more, but I’m not sure the suggestions here have received much attention.

 

Anyway, I need to get back to my never-ending pile of PhD work if I’m going to fit in a run to the bank later. You can find the article here

23things, Uncategorized, writing

Thing 13: Getting the cogs to mesh

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Thing 13 is about writing a discussion section. This is the part where you try to line up your arguments from the introduction with your results, hopefully without any grinding of gears…

I’ve been struggling with this paper no end recently, I know what I want to say it but how I say it is proving tricky. One reason is that this study was fairly exploratory, but I found something which is in line with a previous study and I want to go in-depth on this particular bit. But most papers are written as ‘we set out to look at X and here are our results’. Whereas I am more along the lines of ‘I set out to look at the alphabet and I found that X was important’, yet most of the background needs to be about X. So that either requires fuzziness over what you were looking for, misleading your reader (‘I wanted to look at X’ or ‘I thought X might be important’) or otherwise doing some writing contortions around the alphabet and the role of X so that the reader isn’t left puzzled by why you are talking about X. Most qualitative papers are not that helpful here, because they are much broader and are just looking at the alphabet, so I haven’t found an example to copy.

On a positive note, I have found some excellent papers about how to write qualitative papers. This one is about how to write up a qualitative study (or proposal) for a non-qualitative audience. It’s incredibly useful! This paper is also useful for thinking about a few different structures for qualitative papers, and is worth reading. I have loads of books on qualitative research, but they tend to be more how to do the research rather than how to write it up, so these papers have been most helpful. Qualitative research is difficult to do and very difficult to write up, which I think is evidenced by how hard it is to find a well written paper which is easy to read and not full of jargon. I think the first paper in particular ought to be compulsory reading…

Anyway, I am going off topic here. Back to Thing 13:

‘Choose one of your four articles, and consider the following aspects of its Discussion section:

  1. Do you think it is cautious, confident or neutral in its tone? What is it about the language used that makes you think this?
  2. Does it explicitly state the study’s contribution to the field? If so, what phrases are used to do this?’

1. Hmmm, let me see. I think cautious to neutral. Qualitative research is Not Keen on talking about Universal Truths, so being too confident in a qualitative paper would be out of place in the field. However, I did think that the caution was more over the theories and ideas already existing in the literature, rather than the findings of the study. The authors talk about ‘proposed’ theories and the ‘literature suggesting’, but then weren’t too overly hedgy when discussing their evidence, e.g.

‘our findings suggest’

‘Our findings also revealed that’

‘Our interview findings provide evidence that’

2. Contribution to the field: this paper actually includes something along these lines throughout each sub-section of the discussion, e.g.

‘provides a novel and original contribution to our understanding of this process within the exercise context’

‘A novel finding from the present work that extends the concept of’

‘These findings lend new evidence to support the proposal that’

I like the way this paper does this, it doesn’t come across as too boastful or too defensive about the use of qualitative methods (which I think many qualitative papers suffer from), but gently points out at regular intervals that there is a contribution being made to the field in many different ways. I think I will adopt this tactic in my paper 🙂

23things, research, Uncategorized, writing

Thing 12: no, the 23 things have not been shelved (despite appearances to the contrary)

 

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This is actually what my PhD looks like right now in my mind. Maybe not quite so tidy though…

I’ve been up to my armpits in writing and submitting abstracts recently, and combined with teaching and all the life clutter currently going on in my world, I’ve put the Things on the back burner. But I have a little window now so I can focus on this for a bit. Firing up the forklift to retrieve it from its spot in the warehouse…

Sooo, where were we? Story arcs and flow, OK. Actually, one of the many reasons why I dropped the 23 things for a bit was that I knew I had a bit of a theoretical hole in my story. I knew the background literature for this particular hole must exist, but I could not for the life of me find it! And then something popped up from nowhere and led me to a paper which led me to another paper and then lo! There were a bunch of great papers which were just what I needed to plug the gap in my story *does happy dance*.

Thing 12 looks at how to build an argument through the paragraphs. First, you need to be clear about the particular story you’re trying to tell. I think I have this bit sorted, now I’ve found my gap, and I’ve made a list of important points which I think I need to weave into the introduction. I usually use mind maps to do this sort of stuff, as sometimes a big sheet of paper and some pens are the best way for me to literally connect the dots. You can see which bits are missing and which points need some more meat on the bones when you stick things in bubbles and draw arrows between them. I think this is even more important for qualitative work, when you have a mountain of data and you could tell a thousand stories about it. It’s much easier when you’ve done a quantitative study!

There are some useful links and guidance here for linking paragraphs using key words and transitions, I think I’ll bookmark these for when I have my argument completely sorted out and want some ideas on how to do this. The writing for this Thing is to look at my example paper and make some observations about key words. Initially, I thought maybe the structure of the introduction was not that logically clear, but on looking more closely there are plenty of key words used and the transitions are ok. The main culprit getting in the way of clarity here is the use of enormously long sentences. Stick 5 or 6 references in there as well as long sentences, and even the most assiduous reader will lose the will to read! In physical activity there is something called ‘the talk test‘, where you use talking as a measure for the intensity of an activity. During moderate intensity activity, you can talk but not sing. During vigorous intensity activity, you can’t say more than a few words  without needing a pause to take a breath. Using too many long sentences is the written equivalent of making people run too fast for too long: it’s not pleasant, and you’ll want it to stop…Related to this is a fascinating piece by Peter Elbow (a very good writing educator) on why it’s important to read your work aloud. I loved the way he talks about ‘word music’, and he’s talking about all writing, not just fiction or poetry. I don’t think he finds academic writing particularly poetic, somehow.

 

 

 

23things, research, Uncategorized, writing

Thing 11: in which I abandon rhyming titles as the only thing which rhymes with eleven is…

kevin
Completely gratuitous minion meme

 

OK, Thing 11. Bring it.

Oh. Paragraphs. Yawn.

It might be difficult to get excited about paragraphs, but analysing them is a lot less scary than looking at sentences, as there is a lot less jargon. Plus you can kind of see the point of paragraphs because there is nothing more intimidating than looking at huge swathes of text. Endless vast tracts of words unbroken by paragraph breaks, and you’re just thinking ‘I really don’t want to read this stuff, it looks A Bit Much’ and then you also think that if someone hasn’t used many paragraphs then chances are they are a bit rambly and should probably get to the point already, probably delete a few sentences or twenty, and take the needs of the reader into account. So this is just a short list of reasons why you probably shouldn’t just bung lots of sentences together without considering the impact on the reader and the flow of the writing and the argument and…

But too short a paragraph makes things seem bitty.

It’s also hard on the eye to flit about too much with very short paragraphs.

And how are you supposed to build an argument with such short paragraphs?  There needs to be a happy medium, particularly in an academic context where building and supporting the argument is everything.

Yeah, I made my point, badly. It must be time for another meme. Will academic papers of the future use memes? Cos that would be cool.

paragraph
OK, I got carried away with the memes. I promise to stop. Probably.

 

Right then, what am I supposed to be doing here, oh 23 Things Oracle?

‘Take one paragraph from one of the journal articles you’ve chosen, and have a go at analysing the purpose of each sentence in the paragraph. Do you think the paragraph is as concise as it could be, or could you improve it? Write your views on the paragraph in your blog.’

I looked at the qualitative paper I’ve used as a model so far, and eeeek! Some of the paragraphs are huuuuuuuuugely long. Although the paper is generally well structured using headings to signpost different theoretical areas and different themes in the results, this clarity does not extend to paragraph length. Yes, you need to contain your ideas in paragraphs, but it’s extremely difficult to keep your focus if the paragraph takes up more than half a column. Your brain gets twitchy and starts to wander when it sees a long paragraph (or is that just me?)

My example paragraph is structured as:

  1. Acknowledgement of an issue in dichotomizing participants
  2. Reason why this might be an issue
  3. How this limited further exploration of the concept
  4. An alternative sampling strategy
  5. What this could offer to a study
  6. I dunno, what does this sentence even mean? Losing the will to live here…
  7. Other factors involved in exercise experiences blah blah context
  8. Unrelated sentence giving a limitation which I don’t even think is a valid limitation, which could have been better defended or given a reference

 

The paragraph I chose is 8 sentences long, which doesn’t seem too bad until you look at the sentences and realise that most of these are also extremely long. One of them contains 60 words! Combined with some complex ideas and a certain woolliness in wording (‘this would allow one to examine’ springs out as an example), and this paragraph needs a damn good edit. Frankly, a 60 word sentence is a crime against writing. It’s particularly interesting that this paragraph is the muddiest of the paper when you consider that it’s evaluating the weaknesses of the study. The psychologist in me wonders if this is precisely why it’s the muddiest? Perhaps the authors didn’t want to be all boasty-boasty? Or perhaps this is the part when all the authors weighed in with their own ideas, or Reviewer 2 made an annoying suggestion and the authors gave up the fight. Anyway, it’s a bit painful to read whatever the cause.

tldr
Well, if ever you needed a meme to express something, this would be the time

And the final bit I need to do in this blog:

‘Looking at the results you wrote in Thing 10; are your paragraphs as concise as they could be?’

I’m thinking probably not. Let me see what stuff I wrote:

‘Affective responses to exercise predict future exercise behaviour. The better people feel during exercise, the more likely they are to continue (Rhodes and Kates, 2015). Given this, how can we help people to feel better during exercise?

 Qualitative research on affective responses to exercise is scarce, yet more is needed to understand what factors are influential, and how these can be altered to improve affective responses to exercise. Knowing quantitatively how people are feeling does not tell us anything about the context of these feelings, or pinpoint areas for improvement. Qualitative research on affect during exercise is even more scarce. Rose and Parfitt (2010) provide a rare exception: they asked high and low active women to talk aloud during a laboratory exercise bout about how they were feeling, and why they were feeling that way. Some of the themes they found have obvious practical applications, such as directing attentional focus during exercise to reduce discomfort, or interpreting physiological information positively rather than negatively.

Most research on affect during exercise is lab-based. There is evidence, however, that affective responses to exercise in laboratories differ from those in everyday environments (Dasilva et al., 2011). This makes intuitive sense — running on a treadmill is a very different experience from running alongside a river — but there is no qualitative research on affective responses to exercise in such everyday environments. This study aimed to fill this gap.’

Paragraph 1 is probably a bit too short. But I wanted to set the scene in a very quick way, and hopefully this accomplishes this aim. Plus I stole it from several abstracts I’ve done, and abstracts are highly condensed 🙂 The first two sentences propose one reason why people continue to exercise. The first sentence is perhaps not that clear, as I don’t define ‘affective responses’, so I could put ‘Affective responses (how people feel)’ to clarify this part, though it’s a bit clumsy. This is why I use sentence 2 to say exactly what the research basis is for looking at affective responses. The third sentence is a bit non-academic-y, but hey ho, it’s what the substance of my research area is. I really don’t want to stick ‘ameliorate’ in there just for the hell of it…

Paragraph 2: I’d probably rejig the first two sentences, maybe popping in something in the first sentence about how there’s plenty of quantitative research in this area but not much qualitative stuff. Also, thinking about it, my first and third sentences don’t make much sense because I haven’t previously mentioned the during part as being crucial (rather than the responses afterwards, which seem to be useless). So I should probably stick this in the first paragraph. Then say why we need qualitative research (it might be scarce because it’s just not very interesting or useful), I should beef up this section. I think the final 2 sentences are OK actually, as they give a concrete example of some qualitative research and show how it’s useful.

Paragraph 3 starts OK, though I could emphasise the lack of ecological validity of much of the lab-based research by mentioning that not only are participants on a treadmill or bike, but they are also usually wired up to heart-rate monitors, and sometimes with gas masks over their faces to collect the gases they breathe out. Yeah, not exactly your everyday exercise experience, is it? I quite like the example I give of the treadmill versus the river, but again I need to emphasise the during part, as it’s missed out here. Also, there is some qualitative research on exercise experience outdoors, but it tends to be bitty, autoethnographic stuff, or social geography, or from other disparate research areas. I probably ought to emphasise the particular perspective I’m coming from here.

I should probably rewrite those paragraphs now, but to be honest, I can’t be bothered. Now, there are bound to be stacks of memes I could use here 🙂

writing-meme-5

 

 

23things, research, Uncategorized, writing

Thing 10, Begin Again

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Well, sorry to the 23 Things cohort for going off radar for a while there: I was travelling in Europe for a couple of weeks and a lot of the time I had NO internet access. Yes, such a thing is possible, who knew? In Germany my phone pretty much had no signal good enough for data, and the campsite we were staying in didn’t have wifi. It was quite blissful actually 🙂

My younger son and I had the BEST road trip: we drove to Luxembourg and stayed a few days there (it’s lovely, we want to go back), then we drove to the Moselle valley and stayed there before driving ALLLLLLL the way across France (it’s a big place!), picking up my husband and older son and spending 4 days in Cahors, 2 in Le Mans and then back home. The photo above is of the Moselle valley. Beautiful! It was a fantastic way to spend the dregs of summer: we walked and did a few touristy things, watched the rivers go past (all 3 of them!), I made pancakes for my son and I, I tasted and bought wine, I ran up lots of hills and along rivers, we hired bikes and pedalled along the river, we read a bit, I did some stats and a bit of other PhD stuff, we watched Tom and Jerry DVDs, we swam in the cold pool in hot Cahors, and I slept loads. I really love camping, I would happily live outdoors if we didn’t have this pesky thing called winter!

And now it’s back to school and uni and all that shizzle…

*sound of gears crunching as brain tries to re-engage*

I really have no idea where I’m up to with the 23 things. According to my last blog, I should be on Thing 10. I looked at the blog and saw lots of stuff about grammar and got some nasty flashbacks to my son’s SATS homework last year…

(Son: it’s really quite simple mum, I don’t understand why you don’t understand how to spot a nominal clause

Me: *sticks fingers in ears* Lalalala, can’t hear you, can you please stop torturing me?

Son: it’s when…

Me: I can’t hear you, I’ve got a fish in my ear!)

So yes, I’m struggling a bit with Thing 10. Sentences are Not Fun. So I’ll try to simplify it a bit for my simple brain by copying the relevant bits:

‘Simple sentence

This type of sentence is not necessarily short; it is simple because it contains just one complete idea.

Compound sentence

In contrast to a simple sentence, a compound sentence includes more than one complete idea. It can contain two or more complete ideas that are linked with words such as and, but, or, for, yet, so.

Complex sentence

Like a compound sentence, a complex sentence also contains more than one idea. However, it will have at least one dependent clause as well as an independent clause.’

I was fine until that last bit…

‘See how much fun sentences can be!’

Er, no. *sticks fingers in ears*

However, I think I get the gist of the rest of it: if you want to draw attention to one idea of several in a complicated sentence, then you need to make that a sentence which could stand alone. The other idea(s) in the sentence which are just sentence ‘snippets’ then take a back seat. Phew! I just about get the usefulness of that. It’s probably something I do anyway without realising…

Now, what am I supposed to be doing again?

Writing for this Thing
Use different sentence structures (simple, compound and complex) to write a brief introduction to your specific research topic, and post it on your blog. Your introduction should include three paragraphs: a paragraph on the general research context/background; a paragraph establishing the gap in the field; and a paragraph explaining what you wish to research and how it will help to fill the gap.’

OK, let’s do this! You’ll have to excuse any sloppiness, I’m trying to squeeze this blog out in between data analyses, so I’m not editing…

 

Affective responses to exercise predict future exercise behaviour. The better people feel during exercise, the more likely they are to continue (Rhodes and Kates, 2015). Given this, how can we help people to feel better during exercise?

 Qualitative research on affective responses to exercise is scarce, yet more is needed to understand what factors are influential, and how these can be altered to improve affective responses to exercise. Knowing quantitatively how people are feeling does not tell us anything about the context of these feelings, or pinpoint areas for improvement. Qualitative research on affect during exercise is even more scarce. Rose and Parfitt (2010) provide a rare exception: they asked high and low active women to talk aloud during a laboratory exercise bout about how they were feeling, and why they were feeling that way. Some of the themes they found have obvious practical applications, such as directing attentional focus during exercise to reduce discomfort, or interpreting physiological information positively rather than negatively.

Most research on affect during exercise is lab-based. There is evidence, however, that affective responses to exercise in laboratories differ from those in everyday environments (Dasilva et al., 2011). This makes intuitive sense — running on a treadmill is a very different experience from running alongside a river — but there is no qualitative research on affective responses to exercise in such everyday environments. This study aimed to fill this gap.

Not perfect, but it’ll have to do. SPSS is calling me! And I’m *gulp* about a gazillion Things behind already. I’ll leave you with another photo: this is of some of the vineyards in the Moselle. They are planted on very steep slopes. Like, scary steep! I figure harvesting these grapes must be like doing a PhD: never look down, don’t look ahead too far. Focus on one bunch of grapes at a time!

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