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

german_smallClick here for the German version!

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.

___________________________________________________________________________

Advertisements

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.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Summer, hot weather… and writing journal articles

german_smallBitte hier für die deutsche Fassung klicken!

journalarticleKlein(Photo by me)


What happened?

What to do – it’s over 30 °C outside, and it has been that way for the past two weeks or so. Not the best weather for getting work done (I admit, I work best in winter, but then again, who doesn’t?), but alas, I attended a writing course – yes, yet another, but this time on writing journal articles. This course was part of the Leuphana University Lüneburg’s PhD student training, and was taught by Dr Isabell May.

What do I think about this?

As said quite a few times before, I appreciate these kind of courses a lot, and think that they’re very important in any PhD programme. Why? That’s easy – a lot in academia may work through ‘learning by doing’, but I think that focused efforts on helping young academics, such as PhD students, can prevent quite a few pitfalls and obstacles.

Just like this course. It was open to all PhD students of the university, natural and social scientists alike. This led to disciplinary strains at times because of differences in conventions, but all in all, the advice I got was very valuable. So, what did I learn? Here are what I would like to call the ‘three top tips’:

Know Your Journal: Don’t start writing your article before you know the journal you want to publish it in (or maybe two to three journals). What do the articles normally look like? What kind of stylistic elements do they use? How would your work fit in there? Do not start before you know all this because this will increase your chances to get accepted quite a bit.

Use The Hour Glass Model: Imagine an hour glass, with its broad top and bottom, and its slim middle. This is what a good journal article could look like. Start broad in the introduction by getting from a wide question to your specific topic. Then get slimmer and slimmer, going from the literature review to results, and then get broader again in the discussion and conclusions part. This structure focuses on your specific findings, but also leaves room for showing how these findings fit in the broader academic debate.

Structure Your Sections: Do not only structure article as a whole, but also the sub-sections. Whether it’s the methods section or the results section, if there is a lot going on, sub-headings can work wonders. The reader gets a quick overview of your work even when just skimming the paper, and this could be a definite plus in a world where people have a lot to read,.

These are only three tips out of many, many more, but I believe these are very valuable. Whoever is interested in learning more, here’s the website that accompanied the course: http://writingajournalarticle.wordpress.com. Quite a lot of things to read, but it’s definitely worth it when a journal article is coming up.

Conclusions

All in all, I learned a lot in this course. With these things, it’s more about becoming aware of things than anything else – what are the conventions in my discipline? How do other authors structure their articles? And, most important, what can I learn from this and apply to my own work? So, I would definitely recommend to any PhD student to look for a course like this.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Writing at university – a piece of cake?

german_smallPlease click here for the German version!

 

blockklein(My photograph)


What happened?

I attended a workshop (three weekends in total) on a topic that does not seem to get enough attention at university – at least it does not in Germany – and that is writing. Nobody ever talks about that, the common stance seems to be that everyone know how to write, how to string words together, and thus, everyone is also supposed to know how to deal with essays and final dissertations. This is what my own time as an undergrad and also postgrad was like – I always worked according to the “try and error” system, which was sometimes working out fine, sometimes not so much. Some essays took forever, some I wrote fairly quickly. Well, I wrote somehow, that was it.

But, the question is, is it really necessary to leave students alone with this? Is this really part of the daily “uni struggle” just because “this is the way it is”? Well, I don’t think so, and the workshop called “Supervising essays/dissertations” at Leuphana University Lüneburg, lead by Prof. Dr. Ingrid Scharlau and Christine Heß, showed me that there are quite different approaches to this.

What do I think about this?

Well, as for myself, I rarely struggle with writing. No writer’s block, nothing. Why? Well, I only thought about this during the aforementioned workshop, and I came to the conclusion that even though I have never attended any sort of formal training, I went through the “school of life”: during my master’s at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I always had to write something during term time – essays of around five pages, short answers to given questions, all-the-time. But, that was no piece of cake, and even though I learned a lot from just doing it, I would not recommend this way to everyone.

And that there definitely are other ways to deal with writing at university – this is what I learned during the workshop. The first weekend gave some theoretical background on writing and writing psychology, and so we, the participants, worked our way through the writing process. Concerning the drafting stage, we looked at techniques like mind maps and clustering, and scrutinised our own writing habits. The next step was the writing process itself, so we focused on topics like writer’s block and several strategies to deal with an essay or a bigger piece of writing. The last weekend was all about giving (and receiving) feedback – that is especially important for us lecturers!  Giving “good” (and thus, “useful”) feedback is quite a feat and does not come naturally.

For every single step we did all the proposed exercises ourselves, and often discussed them afterwards. There was a plethora of different exercises – ranging from a “writing talk” in a group, in which the question “What disrupts my writing?” was discussed (of course only by using a pen and not the mouth!), or writing a fairy tale, and so on, and so forth. I think that this was crucial, doing it all myself – yes, it was not easy to get started with “that stuff”, but now I know exactly how the exercises work and how I (and others) feel while doing them.

So, what to do with this new knowledge? I will plan and conduct my own writing workshop, where I will see which techniques and exercises work (and which don’t) for students. We will see how that works out, but I believe that students do not have to be left alone with their (writing) worries. Solutions can be easy – I would’ve never believed that just sitting down and “free write” anything that comes to my head for five minutes on a given topic would help to get my thoughts back on track!

Conclusions

So, why did I attend this workshop even though I am not a typical “writing worrier”? That’s easy: since I do not suffer from these problems, I also struggle with giving advice when students of mine come to me and ask for help concerning their writing. Well, I know how I do it, but that’s not how everyone writes. So I decided to learn about that, and I am actually looking forward to the next essay phase. And, well, concerning my own PhD thesis, knowing things like that never hurt…

 

___________________________________________________________________________