Recently, I was trying to help a doc student revise the methods section of a research paper. The student had collected and analyzed data and knew the process well enough to answer my most detailed of questions. However, drafts were coming in a bit….unfocused. You know how it goes. You start writing a section of any paper and before you know it you’ve got a bunch of ideas that might be good but just don’t belong in the section where you put them. With experience, we learn what goes where, how much detail is needed, how much is too much, and what needs to be deleted entirely.
But when you’re new to writing academic research papers – how do you figure it all out?
In my conversation with the student it finally hit me. I looked across my desk and said, “You data is a pile of crap.”
Your Data is a Pile of Crap
Don’t take it personally when I say that your data is a pile of crap. Mine is too. It’s just a way to think about what goes where in a research paper. Look at it like this…
You collected your data. It’s sitting in a pile over in the corner of your room. It’s big, towering, and menacing. However will you get through it all? Seems overwhelming, right? And yet you get through it piece by piece.
But here’s my point when it comes to writing up your methods section – particularly when you need to discuss how you collected your data.
Imagine your data sitting in the corner of the room staring at you. That’s a big pile of crap, and it’s YOUR pile of crap. Once you have envisioned your data sitting in the room with you, then answer these questions:
- What exactly is in that pile of crap?
- How did you go about collecting that pile of crap?
- How did you make meaning out of that pile of crap?
That’s it. That’s what goes in your methods section. Now, it’s not your entire methods section, but it helps you get your head around how to talk about your data. If you’ve writing up how you collected a particular pile of crap, and you notice that you started writing about a second pile of crap, then you know to separate the two piles. You also have a way to identify extraneous information.
No one knows your pile of crap better than you. You collected it. You know what’s in it and how it got there. So tell us. End of story.