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How NVivo can help you conquer writer’s block

13 August 2015 - IN academic, block, memos, models, nodes, writer’s, writing

NVivo is more than just qualitative data analysis software. It's also a time-management tool that can help you structure your writing.

In this post, I highlight how merging nodes can save time getting from analysis to written papers.

Staring at a blank screen

For context, midway through my research, sources had been coded and theoretical sampling brought nothing new. I was ready to start writing.

At every attempt, I just stared at a blank screen and an impatient blinking cursor. I had writer’s block. Taking on Charmaz’s (2006) advice for memos as draft writing, I tried it on my NVivo project and started writing in no time at all.

What changed? I simply merged nodes, and then drafted memos on them.

I will not go over the practical technique; useful guides on merging into existing and new nodes exist elsewhere. Instead, I will make the terms I use below clear (drawing on Grounded Theory).

Open coding

Applying nodes to sources in the first stage is called open coding (creating Open Nodes). These open nodes are the nasty ones that routinely trip up new researchers, where codebooks often ‘go viral’:

Focussed coding

The second stage is called focussed coding (creating Focussed Nodes). This involves paring down the open nodes by merging them into a smaller set of focussed nodes.

Personally, I always merge into a new node - it keeps the open nodes and focussed nodes separate. I will explain why in a moment.

Incidentally, although various literature advises to avoid going viral with open nodes, if it does happen – this is the stage where you can rectify the situation with a lot of merging.

Building up focussed memos

With a new focussed node in place, you are ready to start writing. Ideally, with a new memo for each focussed node. I call these focussed memos, and personally, I prefer to store them in a separate source folder to keep the Navigation View tidy.

As you start writing up a focussed memo, draw on the relevant focussed node to pull out the source content. That way, you have something to write ‘about’, rather that starting out from a blank page.

Also, make use of other memos, annotations, and linked content in the analysis. In addition, you might incorporate a literature review, include data from social media, or import from other web applications. The most important thing to do here is to refer back to the open nodes!

The open nodes provide purchase on different perspectives/dimensions on the focussed node they constitute. A focussed memo is an analysis of a focussed node. If you keep the open nodes separate, you can refer back to them (as suggested above); they can be used to structure the section headings inside the memo.

Making a model

Developing focussed memos this way may feel awkward at first, producing memos with internal logic but no external connection to other memos. However, after sorting focussed memos into a model you will have a narrative between focussed memos. When you do, writing up flows easily - all you need is the introduction and a conclusion, with a few bridging sentences to connect each focussed memo to the next.

Suddenly, you have the first draft of a paper ready. Where multiple papers or chapters are involved, e.g. data analysis chapters in a PhD thesis, open nodes merged into more than one focussed node provide additional depth, acting as themes or concepts that cross over the sections or chapters.

Revisiting the basics

In summary, NVivo has several features that are more exciting (drafting memos on merged nodes is a routine task), but sometimes it is worth revisiting the basics to draw out new uses.

[Tweet "For researchers like me who struggle to get started with writing, NVivo goes far beyond analysis."]

It provides an easy way to structure the first draft of written papers whilst ensuring the depth of analysis is not lost. It saves time, and proves far less frustrating than staring at a blank screen and wondering where to start.

How do you tackle writer's block?