When we write academically, one of our main tasks is to deeply explore the topics we write about. It is not enough to present a superficial overview, so we need to drill deep. Yet it is often difficult to judge where we need to go deep, or whether we have gone deep enough. Many students think they have deeply explored a topic, only to find that their marker disagrees.
To figure out how I deepen my own writing, I ‘reverse engineered’1 my own process of thinking. This might provide some guidance for tackling an otherwise mysterious process of digging deeper.
How do I judge where to drill?
First I sketch an overview of the topic to get the lay of the land. I need a map of the intellectual terrain that shows the relationships between all the main ideas, points or concepts which I could investigate. For example, if I’m writing about reflective practice, the overview might include ideas such as Gibbs reflective cycle, reflection as learning, the difference between reflection and learning, reflection on practice, and reflection as practice. I might also isolate the different elements involved in reflective practice such as uncovering assumptions, evaluating past practice, planning future practice, etc.
Next I rank the most promising areas for drilling. I look at each idea and decide which are the main ideas important for understanding the overall topic, or which need the most attention (perhaps because of some gaps in our understanding), or which ideas I am most interested in.
Finally I choose to focus on only the top ranked ideas, and I include only the quantity of ideas I can cover in the available time and word limit. For example, if I only have 1500 words and one week, I might choose to only investigate one of the main ideas, such as uncovering assumptions as one important aspect of reflective practice.
Sometimes I explain how I judge where to focus my investigation using the metaphor of travelling to a new city, rather than the metaphor of drilling. This is a useful way of understanding a research project like a thesis. A research topic is like a new city, and I start my exploration by wandering around the new city, reading almost randomly, until I have a good sense of the whole map. But you cannot research the whole city, so next I have to choose one building to explore, and one floor within that building, and one room within that floor in which I will work for an extended period of time. This means my research is on the city, the whole topic, but I investigate the city by working in depth on only one small area.
How do I judge if I have gone deep enough?
I start by asking what needs elaboration, justification and illustration about the idea that I am probing. For example, what do I mean by an assumption and what do I mean by uncovering an assumption? Why is this important for reflective practice? What is an example of someone uncovering an assumption, and how does this example illustrate the process of reflective practice?
I write my answers to these questions, and then ask about this new writing: what needs elaboration, justification and illustration? For example, if I described uncovering as assumption as finding out my prejudices, then I now need to answer the questions: what do I mean by a prejudice and what is an example of a prejudice?
I keep writing further drafts, and re-reading what I have written, looking for anything that needs explanation, justification and illustration until there is nothing more to elaborate, justify or illustrate, and the questions no longer arise. Then I know I can’t go any deeper.
Sometimes when I tackle 2 or more ideas, I write so much about one of the ideas that I can no longer fit all the ideas into my available word limit. In this case I have to delete one of the less important ideas as I cannot do justice to all of them. I might replace the deleted idea with a phrase like: “Another important idea is reflection during practice, rather than reflection after practice, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.”
 Golding, C. (2011) Educating for Critical Thinking: Thought-encouraging questions in a community of inquiry, Higher Education Research and Development 30(3), 357-379.