Like Ice in The Sunshine … and lots of stuff to write.

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summer_klein(My photograph)

 

It’s 30 °C outside – however, the PhD thesis is alive and kicking, even though its author (me) is hardly moving when it’s that warm outside. Well, writing up goes well and because I received my certificate for the teaching module “Writing and Teaching” the other day, I’d like to give some advice for everyone who also has to get something down on paper during these summer days. It’s not only PhD theses that want to get their word count, up, there are also essays and so on…

Write every day

Why should one do that? That’s easy, and there are several reasons why this helps. First of all, there is progress every single day. More and more words get written, the word document adds one page after another, and at the end of a working day, the next steps towards the goal – a finished essay, for example – are taken. That’s a neat psychological trick. Even though there might not be thousands of words written in one day, there is indeed progress. Second, a habit is formed, slowly but surely. The first few days may be hard and frustrating, however, the writing phase will make its way into the daily routine and will then be an easier task. For people who love planning, I recommend to set a word count for each day that has to be and can actually be (!) reached. Of course, sticking to this word count is not always possible, however, when the task is done, one can (and should!) call it a day.

Write what you like the most

Well, everyone is familiar with the following situation: there are chapters and paragraphs one just doesn’t like, doesn’t want to write, doesn’t want to anything, however, things have to be done. One cannot avoid the theoretical background or the methodology section forever.
But one can today.
I’m not usually the one advertising procrastination, however, summer heat is an exception to the rule. It’s hard to focus on writing as it is, and so I’m lenient just this once. Also, writing is still done – just not the hard parts. After all, who says that research papers or essays have to be written in chronological order?* I think that if you know what you want to write about, if you know your theories and the like, you may let it be or just take a few notes, and go on to what you really want to get down on paper. Life’s (close to) a picnic this time. One can always get back to these parts later on, when the “fun” parts are done.

Write, write and unblock your head

Alright, life’s not always a picnic, even if there are nice parts to be written. One gets stuck, ideas vanish into thin air, book titles follow suit and are just gone. Everything’s gone. What now? First of all, take three steps back, then take a deep breath. And then go on – with a mind map, for example. Mind maps are a great way to get one’s thoughts back in focus, and maybe even give a slightly ordered picture if one desires to classify thoughts in such mind map. Ideas and thoughts will come back, they just need a bit of help and time. Freewriting does also help – one way is to sit down and write relentlessly for three minutes straight. Whatever comes to mind, put it down, and just don’t let the pen leave the paper (or the fingers the keyboard). Even thoughts that do not belong to the task at all – “I’d love to be outside, I’d like to buy some ice cream” – should be written down. Because with this, the brain eventually restarts. One is sitting there, writing and writing, and after a while, it’s not hard to switch to the actual task because of the already established writing flow. Sometimes it’s quite useful to fool oneself.
However, just a little piece of advice so that thoughts and ideas might not get lost in the first place or are easier to find later on: write ideas down when they come, and the case of book titles, just take a picture of the cover with a mobile phone. The mobile phone are around anyway, so one can put them to a good use, eh? By the way, there are also apps for note taking, so there is not even need for pen and paper.

Things still won’t work!

Okay. No worries – leave the library and get some ice cream. Paying a visit to the outdoor pool sound great? Go for it. I’m repeating myself, but here it comes: breaks are crucial, especially when it’s hot outside. And even more so if one is not used to temperatures like this; I am definitely not since drizzle constitutes nice weather where I’m from. So, if you have to work in this heat, don’t forget to relax every once in a while. Everything’s better after ice cream and iced tea.

After all, it’s like this when there are lots of words to be written: don’t get it right, get it written! Revision comes afterwards, but there no revision without anything to edit.

So here we go – good luck with your essays, dissertations and so on!

 

* Just one footnote: I recommend to write the introduction first. I do know that the introduction is the chapter that many people write last. However, I think that knowing what one wants to do and using the introduction as a guideline for not getting lost in details is valuable. But that’s just me, and I’m a top-down writer. Just do it the way you like and that is successful for you, however, I recommend to be aware of what other tactics are out there.

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Come on, let’s write a PhD thesis!

writingup_klein(My photo)

 

So, I’m in the writing-up phase of my thesis. What does this mean? To me, quite a lot, and here’s a bit advice on what works (and has worked on other occasions) to get on with it. Of course, this advice does not apply to everyone, but I guess there could be a few pointers in here for some people. Also, it’s not rocket science – or is it? There’s noone who has found the formula to writing as of yet. Quite on the contrary, there are many, many guides on writing out there, and more than once I rolled my eyes at things that would never apply to my personal working style. So, here’s what works for me to get my words on paper:


Open your eyes to the facts

… and make plans and outlines. I know that this a very top-down approach to writing, with content being actively controlled from a structured point of view, but let me explain. I always need to know where I stand, and I find that keeping my eyes closed to the facts never helps in any way. So, from time to time, I like to take stock of my own work and put everything in a straight outline, or as you might have it, a “storyline”. This storyline, of course, needs to correspond with my research question which guides the plot of the article or thesis chapter. I like to work with the contents table feature in Microsoft Word because it gives me a quick overview of how the argument flows, but other methods will work just as well. It might (and probably will) take a few tries to get the story right, and of course, it might change in details during the course of writing. But all in all, it makes sure I keep on track while filling the space under the headings. In the end, these outlines benefit my writing in a great way, and sometimes it feels just like I only have to fill the blanks. Also, and as an added perk, my supervisors like these outlines since they give them a quick and dense overview over my work, too.

Write regularly

Putting off writing is never helpful, and thus… I make a plan. You might’ve already guessed it, I’m a big fan of plans and to-do lists. So, I make plans for my chapters or sections, setting out how many words or pages I want to get down in print in one day. The next step is not only setting these goals, but also assigning certain routines to them – like writing every day in the afternoon, whatever works best. It doesn’t matter when I write, I just does that I do it regularly in order to develop a habit. This is hard at first since I’m not used to this new chunk of writing in my timetable, but after a few days it’s already a given in my day. I found this worked perfectly with coding data – I had to code a whole lot, and putting it off, sadly, did not diminish the work. So I decided to code a certain amount every day, and after a very hard first week, I knew how long it would take me approximately per piece and I had the routine down. Routine – that’s the term here. Write regularly to get into a habit, and the piece of writing will grow every day.

Always keep in mind: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

However, be reasonable with the goals. Writing is hard work, and I can’t cram 5.000 words in a single day, at least not as a set task. No, I kept myself at a minimum of 1.500 words a day, and even though this isn’t that much, the thesis grows every day, step by step. Every day that’s pencilled in my calendar, that is – and these are only five days a week, and not more. Why? I made the experience during coding that working every day of the week with a high goal is not healthy, especially if you are bound to fail when it comes to keeping it. Life often comes in the way – either with bad things like illness, and even common colds keep you off work, or good things like meeting with friends or days out which everyone needs every once in a while. So, while I got on with my work with these seven days a week goals and did not lose much time, it was exhausting and took most of the fun out of my work. And fun, that’s what a marathon has to be in order to get to the finish line! Reasonable goals are everything, and a habit still develops even when not sitting on your desk 24/7.



All in all, these are the things that keep me going: good planning and structuring, writing regularly as well as setting reasonable goals. However, I would advice everyone to try out for themselves what works best. Just because I am a “list-everything person”, not everyone is. By the way, there’s some literature out there that can help a great deal – in fact, I would like to recommend Joan Bolker’s “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” (1998). Even though it is quite old, discussing whether one should use a computer for the thesis or not, Joan Bolker’s advice on writing as well as just getting on with it is still very valuable. Even though the ‘fifteen minutes a day’ is not really what happens after reading this book, one can take away lot while being guided through the book by Joan Bolker in a reassuring voice. Of course, there is a lot more out there, but since this book is tailored specifically for PhD students, it is worth a look. After all, learning by doing is always best in this case.


P.S. Also, when everything fails, I just sit down and watch an episode or two of ABC’s Castle. Richard Castle, the crime novelist, always creates the best storylines out of seemingly unsolvable murder cases at hand, and when I get up and back to work, I’m always excited to get my own loose “storylines” in order. So, this is recreation time well spent.

 

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How your work can be just like a TV pilot

pilot_klein(Photo by me)

 

What happened?

I watched TV. ‘Big deal’, you might think, but for me, this was quite enlightening. But one step back, and I’m going to tell you more. When I feel like nothing I write for my thesis works anymore, I tend to resort to watching DVDs of my favourite TV series. And I get sad when they’re over, so I often resort to the bonus features, which, quite often, come with the rejected pilot of the series. What’s a pilot? It’s a like a test episode of a new series, where the main concepts and characters are shown, and it is generally tested whether these might carry a whole series.

And this is where this gets interesting.

What do I think about this?

Do you know that the big networks often reject TV pilots? Well, rejected is not the right term, as the producers often get a second chance to make it better. A process which is not unlike the interaction between a professor, a PhD supervisor even, who listens to the ideas of their student, might endorse some and reject other, but in the end, who helps to make the PhD student’s work better. I as the student might think that my ideas are great, that they don’t need any polishing, but, oh boy, they always do.

Just like these pilots. As mentioned before, I love watching them, just to compare them with the final product. And I always find that they are very rough around the edges, that certain storylines do not work, that the characters are not as refined as they should be, that some scenes appear to be out of order.

And when I sat there, shaking my head at quite a few of these things while watching the pilot of a series I love, it hit me – it’s just the same with my PhD thesis. I do not write a perfect piece with my first try on spelling my ideas out on paper, not even my first draft is perfect, never. My chapters may appear not as organized as they could be, and it took quite some time to pin down the “story” of my PhD thesis so that it is not only appealing to me, but also to others. Thank God there was my supervisor, being my ‘network’, and talking with me about all this.

I do embrace my ‘pilots’, my very first work, getting it all out. But, whenever I hand something in, present my ideas or preliminary results, I am very grateful for critique, for anyone trying to get my thesis better, for getting a better angle out of my storyline, or my work overall. Yes, that’s the same in television and for PhD theses – you have to have a storyline, and it has to be consistent. The great ideas might all be there, they probably are, but they have to be presented in a way that your viewers, sorry, your thesis committee or anyone else reading your work will get the most out of it. But that’s another story, and reading over this again, the last comment should probably not be here – too bad, even final products do have glitches.

Conclusions

So, all in all, procrastinating can be quite valuable. So, whenever I get anxious about my work, about my first draft and how I did not pin down exactly what I wanted to say, I’m grateful there is the ‘network ‘ in the background, my supervisors, critiquing my work, and helping me see what’s already there. Meaning, it’s not bad if people critique your work – it was only your first try. On to the final product then, right?

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