I liked this short, but helpful, advice from J.K. Rowling, who knows a thing or two about writing, in response to a desperate tweet from a student struggling with a dissertation.
I’ve written before about Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column, ‘This column will save your life’. In another recent column Burkeman addressed the challenge of dealing with writer’s block. As usual Burkeman draws on a fabled self-help guide, in this case Robert Boice’s, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency. As with all books of fabled repute, Boice’s is long out of print, and changes hands online for large sums. Fortunately, Burkeman shells out £68 for a print-on-demand copy, and rather generously summarises Boice’s advice to save us from doing the same.
He is somewhat disgruntled to discover that Boice’s advice amounts to little more than – write, for a short period, every day. There is a little bit more to it than this, and you should read the column, (and save money on the book), but it boils down to – don’t build writing up to be a big deal, which involves harnessing elusive and mystical creative forces, but rather an everyday activity which you can pick up and put down at will, like running or digging the garden. Only when you have demystified it in this way will you have the freedom to write with comfort and fluency.
A hypothesis is a testable statement which seeks to explain a phenomena by examining the relationship between two or more variables. It is important to remember that a hypothesis seeks to explain a phenomena – it does not merely seek to describe it. Statements such as “people don’t like the government”, “people are generally opposed to the legalisation of cannabis” “some people support the death penalty whilst some are opposed” are not hypotheses. They don’t explain a phenomena they simply describe it – there is a lack support for the government, opposition to the legalisation of cannabis, and different views on the death penalty – these things may all be true but they are not explanations, they are not hypotheses.
It is also important to remember that a hypothesis is not a question – “why has support for the government fallen?”, “who supports the death penalty?” “which people are opposed to the legalisation of cannabis?” You may, indeed should, have a research question but a hypothesis posits a potential answer to that question – “Sun readers are more likely to be influenced by the political position of their newspaper than readers of the Daily Mirror”, “women are more supportive of the death penalty than men”, “adults in full-time employment are more likely to be opposed to the legalisation of cannabis than adults in full-time education”.
A hypothesis is a testable statement – it may be true or false – descriptive statements such as “people’s attitudes towards the death penalty”, and questions such as “who supports the death penalty?” are not a testable statements because they can’t be shown to be true or false. Less obviously, the statement “people are opposed to the Government” is not a hypothesis (or at least not a very good one) because it is not really possible to test this statement unless one can prove that nobody is opposed to the government.
In order to show that a hypothesis is not true, one should be able to define a null hypothesis which explains the situation which exists if the hypothesis is proved not to be true. In the case of the hypothesis “women are more in favour of the death penalty than men” the null hypothesis is not that men are more in favour of the death penalty than women (although this would disprove the hypothesis), it is simply sufficient to prove that there is no difference between men’s and women’s attitudes to the death penalty. Establishing a null hypothesis is an effective way of discovering whether you have a statement which can be proved true or not, i.e. a hypothesis.
In order to make their hypotheses testable social scientists introduce the use of variables. These are different factors which may influence the phenomena which is being explained. Hypotheses in the social sciences usually compare two or more variables. So if we use one of the examples offered above, in examining attitudes towards the death penalty one could hypothesise:
“men are likely to be more supportive of the death penalty than women”
In this case gender is being used to explain support for the death penalty, the variables are gender (which may be male or female) and attitudes towards the death penalty (which may be supportive or opposed).
A statement such as “students are in favour of the legalisation of cannabis” – is not a hypothesis. Firstly because it does not seek to explain a phenomena it just describes it. Secondly it doesn’t seek to compare variables. The only variable in this statement is attitudes towards the legalisation of cannabis, “students” is not a variable. There is nothing with which to compare the attitudes of students. One could create a hypothesis on this subject (it’s extraordinary how often students want to look at this issue) along the following lines:
“students are more in favour of the legalisation of cannabis than people who are not students”
However, if this was your hypothesis you would then need to bear in mind that the educational status of your respondents may not be the only factor which explains the phenomena which you have observed. So the factor (or variable) which affects individuals attitude towards the legalisation of cannabis may not be their educational status, but some other variable like their age, gender, religion, or even political affiliation.
The different variables which you identify in testing your hypothesis have different names. The variables for which you are suggesting there is a relationship are called the independent and dependent variables. In this case the independent variable is educational status (whether the respondent is a student or not) this is a fact, or external reality, which will not be changed by the research. The dependent variables are their attitudes towards the legalisation of cannabis – these vary from person to person but are not usually fixed and unchangeable in the way that independent variables like gender, age, social status are. What you are claiming is that people’s attitudes towards cannabis are dependent on their educational status.
This means that such research is essentially predictive. If your hypothesis is proved to be true then knowing someone’s educational status would allow one to predict their attitude towards the legalisation of cannabis.
Any other variables which may have a relationship with the dependent variables but which are not covered by the hypothesis are known as intervening variables – ie they intervene between the suggested relationship between the independent and dependent variable. Intervening variables tend to be other factors similar to the independent variable posited in your hypothesis. So if your hypothesis suggests attitude towards the legalisation of cannabis is dependent on educational status (the independent variable), it may actually be dependent on age, gender or political affiliation – these then are intervening variables.
When designing questionnaires to collect data with which to test a hypothesis you need to try to include questions which establish all the variables you are interested in independent, intervening and dependent. Generally speaking you would begin by covering the independent and any potential intervening variable – Are you a student? What is your gender? which age group do you fit in? What political party did you vote for at the last election? You should then move onto the questions which establish people’s attitudes towards the issue being discussed (the dependent variables), – Are you in favour of the legalisation of cannabis? Do you think cannabis is less damaging than cigarettes? And so on.
Large scale social attitudes surveys such as British Social Attitudes usually ask a very large number of questions about the background of the individuals being surveyed before moving on to the more substantive questions about attitudes. This enables a large number of independent variables to be tested. Small scale surveys, of the kind carried for most undergraduate research projects are usually more limited, not least because students often find it difficult to persuade a large number of people complete surveys comprised of several hundred questions. This doesn’t mean that such surveys can’t produce valid results but it does mean that careful consideration needs to be given to which variables to include.
There is a tendency amongst some students looking for an approach for their undergraduate dissertation to claim they want to do “library based research”, by which they mean they are going to look through whatever literature is available to them on a particular topic, ie whatever is available in the university library or easily accessible on the internet, and write a kind of extended essay or literature review on the subject. I wouldn’t wish to undermine the value of such desk-based research, and indeed when done well some very good dissertations have been completed in this way.
There are, however, different ways of approaching desk-based research or the extended literature review. One approach is to produce a piece of theoretical research. This does not mean “in theory this will be a good dissertation but I haven’t written anything yet”, but might mean the application of a particular theory or body of theoretical literature to a particular case, a feminist critique of the UK counter-terrorism policy for example.
When it comes to the extended literature review, it may also be possible to produce what is known as a systematic review. A systematic review is an approach to reviewing the existing literature on a subject which involves the adoption of a transparent and replicable system in the identification and analysis of the literature. A detailed description of the method then forms a part of the study itself. The notion is that this is more thorough and less subject to bias than traditional literature reviews which tend to involve the researcher picking and choosing those works, and themes they think are important.
Systematic reviews have been common in some fields, such as medicine, for a long time, but have recently been applied more widely, particularly in social policy. They provide a means of reviewing all the evidence on a particular policy. Systematic reviews must be comprehensive and cannot, by definition, be limited only to the literature available in the nearest library. Consequently they involve a lot of work and are very challenging but they can result in a rewarding and useful study.
The Centre for Reviews and Dissemination at the University of York have been at the forefront of systematic review and have produced some useful guidance. There is inevitably a journal devoted systematic reviews which provides an invaluable editorial on the nature and growing use of systematic reviews. Although not widely covered in the research methods literature there is a useful section on systematic reviews in Bryman’s Social Research Methods, 3rd edition, pp.85-91, while Sundberg and Taylor-Gooby’s systematic review of comparative studies of attitudes to social policy is a good example of the approach.
I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s, On Writing: a memoir of the craft. It is part memoir and part guide book for the aspiring writer. I have observed in the past that while, one hopes, there may be significant differences between what goes into a work of fiction and a carefully researched piece of social research, when one sits down in front of a blank screen to communicate ideas the challenges can be remarkably similar. King’s book is full of useful advice. While some of it obvious, it is no less valuable for that, and it is considerably more engaging than staid self-help guides one might read.
Almost all writing, fiction and non-fiction, is a creative process and as such there can be a tendency to imbue it with certain mystical qualities. How many times have you heard someone say they have to be in the mood to write. This is something I have observed in students, and of which I have also, on occasion, been guilty. King’s book seeks to demystify the process by encouraging us to treat writing like any other form of work, something which should be done on a regular (daily) basis but which doesn’t need to take over our lives. Sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike is likely to be much less productive than setting aside several hours each day to sit down and write. As King advises:
Don’t wait for the muse… he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here , but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. (p.157)
One can help this process by creating the right environment. King is not overly prescriptive about this, some people will work best in the library (although King advises against this), others will take themselves off to a motel, a quiet cottage in the woods or at least a shed in the garden. J.K. Rowling famously wrote the first of the Harry Potter novels in a café in Edinburgh. King tells us that he wrote his first two published novels, Carrie and Salem’s Lot, ‘in the laundry room of a doublewide trailer, pounding away on my wife’s portable Olivetti typewriter and balancing a child’s desk on my thighs.’ He adds that while the space can be humble, (‘you don’t need an Early American rolltop desk in which to house your writing implements’), it should have one thing, ‘a door which you are willing to shut.’
The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and you intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. (p.155)
He does suggest that, ‘for any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it is wise to eliminate every possible distraction.’ There should be ‘no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with’. On writing was published in 2000, but one might now add, disconnect the internet or at least switch off social media. Although King does admit that he works to loud rock music like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses and Metallica! Once the door is closed, King suggests a daily target and that the door stays closed until that goal in met. As with physical exercise, to avoid discouragement he suggests setting a low target to begin with. His recommendation to begin by aiming for 1000 words a day is fairly standard in guides to writing.
Sticking with the writing as work analogy, King also recommends that all writers should build up a toolbox to enable them to do their work. He narrates a story from his childhood in which he accompanied his uncle, a carpenter, to carry out a job on the other side of town. As this turns out to be a relatively simple job requiring little more than a screwdriver and a handful of screws, King is puzzled as to why his uncle chose to carry a heavy toolbox across town. Of course as any craftsman knows, when embarking on a job, one never knows what tools one might need, and his uncle naturally responds:
“I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.” (p.114)
The writer’s toolbox, King suggests, is not a physical thing, it has nothing to do with pencils, pens and notebooks, and may therefore be less physically demanding to carry, but it should be no less complete and failure to have a well-stocked toolbox is likely to be discouraging. It is comprised of those intellectual tools which will make the process of writing easier. Like the carpenter’s toolbox, the writer’s toolbox should have several levels and the tools within it should be well maintained, ‘if some are rusty (as they may be if you haven’t done this seriously in awhile), clean them off.’ The most commonly used tools, King suggests, should be kept at the top. The first two levels should be comprised of vocabulary and grammar, with additional levels, drawers and boxes containing information on style, paragraphs and sentence structure.
King also has much to say about the process of drafting and redrafting. Perhaps the most significant and succinct piece of advice was offered to King by the editor of a provincial newspaper early in his career, ‘write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’. The first draft is for you, but once you’re reasonably happy, or as happy as you can be, then let others read your work, and redraft it accordingly. As with many guides, he recommends putting a piece of work aside between drafts. On returning to it you will often (hopefully) find that it is better than you remembered. He also passes on a useful formula, provided by his High School English teacher, for dealing with what is, in my experience, one of the most common preoccupations of students – word count. The formula, which King still claims to apply, is ‘2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.’
What the formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavour, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing – literary Viagra. You’ll feel it and your… reader will, too. (p.223)
There is much else of interest in King’s memoir/guide, but for those who are not interested in how King became a writer, or how he got back to writing after a one-sided encounter with a truck in 1999, I would strongly recommend the chapters on the writer’s toolbox (pp.111 -137) and the section on paragraphs (pp.129-135) in particular, and the sections on reading (pp.145-154), the writing room (pp.155-162), revising (pp.208-220) and the ideal reader (pp.220-227).
If all of that sounds a bit much, remember the following
If you want to be a good writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.
Stephen King, On writing: a memoir of the craft, New York: Scribner 2000. The book was serialised in The Observer in 2000, there are also, inevitably, a huge number of interviews with King on the subject including this and this from The Atlantic and this from Open Culture.