On writing

by ninashiel

One of the most fashionable academic blogging topics at the moment is the process of writing itself. Getting the work done. How to move from point A to point Z in your PhD, and how to survive the process. One of the most popular topics within this broader umbrella is ‘how to write’ in the sense of ‘how to get writing done’. I have been thinking about this and I have an unhelpful and a helpful contribution to make. 

The unhelpful contribution:

1) Stop reading blogs about how to write, and just write. 

The helpful contribution (This’ll go on for a while):

1) Everything starts with preparation. You need to know your topic well – not perfectly, but at least have a very good foundation in it. Take your time with research and don’t worry that you’re not writing. The writing will come, once you have the knowledge. While you’re researching, think about what you’re reading, in preparation for the writing. Do you agree or disagree with the author/source? Are they reliable? What information has been made available since the publication of their work? How can you connect this to other writers and theories? Make notes. 

2) Plan your essay/chapter/paper. Write down a preliminary structure for it. It’ll probably change as you’re working on it. That’s okay. You don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to say, but it will help you considerably if you write down ‘Intro – [main point] [main point] [main point] etc [conclusion]. You can even try to assign target word counts for each, but at least I can never stick to those. The word count estimates may work as guidelines, though. 

3) Make your environment such that you’re comfortable to work in it. There might be more to the frantic desire to tidy up when a deadline looms than just procrastination. Some people require their workplace to be as short of visual clutter as possible, others like to be surrounded by comfortable mementoes and pep talk posters. Whatever works for you. You also need to be at a comfortable temperature, so dig out that college hoodie, if you need it. My husband often writes in a long lined hooded black velvet robe, made for him as a costume for some Halloween once. If you are like me and consume vast quantities of caffeinated drinks while you work, ensure that the kettle/coffee maker/ingredients are readily available. Any extra trip to the shop is a distraction. If you have children or clingy pets, unless you’re absolutely sure they won’t try to interrupt you, get someone else to look after them.

4) Write. Assign yourself an x number of words to accomplish each day you’re writing. Mine’s a 1000 words. Yours might be 700, or 500, or 300, or 1500, whatever works. Err on the side of caution. Writing Academese is hard and taxing. Take note of the 1/3, 1/2, and 3/4 points in order to give you a sense of accomplishment. Important: write now, edit later. Your mission is to accomplish the word quota. You can come back to it later for quality assurance. When you are done with the word quota, step away from the document and don’t think about it again that day. 

5) Have breaks. I’m very bad at this. I’ve had to install WorkRave (Windows only I’m afraid, I use Time Out Free on the Mac) to make sure I take a sufficient number of breaks. Mental health aside, I, as so many other researchers, are prone to RSI and regular breaks, during which you stand up and move around, are essential in preventing attacks. Use your breaks to make that coffee or tea, have lunch, go to the toilet, stretch, print out an article, and so on.  

6) Don’t try to write every day. Most other advice contradicts this, but I would argue that unless you absolutely have to write every day, you’ll burn out trying to do so. By all mean assign specific days of the week for writing – three a minimum – but don’t think that you need to write every single day. On other days you can do other relevant things: research, correspondence, administration, and, importantly, keep a day or two for wholly irrelevant things in order to retain your mental balance. You’ll get more done while your mind remains sharp and rested. 

7) The ephemera: good diet that works for you, plenty of water, enough exercise and outdoors, and don’t forget to meet your friends. A project such as PhD, or any other research project, is not separated from the rest of your life. The better shape you’re in mentally and physically, the better you’ll be able to handle the project as well.