Lighten-up your writing-up

Hello everyone,

Following email communication with members from the doctoral community on the topic of writing-up, I suggested moving the discussion to the blog for possible wider participation. I thought I would start this thread for sharing thoughts, ideas, pleasures, and pains of writing-up with the hope of turning it into an enjoyable process of creative production especially for those of us who have just embarked on this journey.

I begin by throwing in some tips or reminders based on my humble experience in this respect. The following points are in no particular order as many of them are answers to questions, or issues we have already discussed. As an advance warning, this post is pretty long  🙂

1) Writing-up requires good time management and total concentration. Personally, I only got into writing mode when I stopped conferencing. I used to print out monthly Outlook calendars and divide my work into detailed sections, for example, time for library visits or online searches, time for reading and adding colored posted notes, time for organizing themes/ thoughts in Word, and time for writing. When you allocate time for writing, it’s a good idea to be specific (e.g. ch 3 intro, rather than just ch 3). Because you are very much on a self-regulated schedule, it is important to stick to your plan, but at the same time be realistic. Factor in breaks away from your thesis, or you will end up like this  🙂 ..

2) As part of planning your writing-up, you need to keep an eye on the general flow in the library. For example, in August MA students will be actively working on their dissertations; hence methodology books might not be available. They are more likely to be back on the shelves around mid-Sept after postgrads complete their coursework and before the new start of the new term.

3) One of the advantages of planning your writing-up is to lessen the feeling of guilt that you may be carrying around when you are not doing any writing. There’s always a lingering thought of: “Maybe I should be doing some writing-up instead”. Though we all know that we need breaks, unfortunately, only a few of us know how to turn relaxation into positive energy that can enhance the quality of our production afterwards. Also, if you are not feeling well physically or psychologically, there is no point sitting by your desk and deceiving yourself into productive work. Of course, if you are unwell for a relatively long period of time, that’s another story.

4) It is important to note major distracting factors to your writing. In my case, one of the main ones was the Internet. For other people, it might be the phone, friends, shopping, TV, football.. etc.

5) I think writing-up is highly dependent on where your PhD falls in your daily plan. It is natural to have several commitments in life. If your writing-up ranks high among your priorities, probably you will get it done faster and more effectively. Minor things then get moved around, and some times, totally cleared. Of course, you will always have this dinner out or that movie, but when we mark our diaries, it is always good to place these things around your writing-up plan rather than the other way round. Otherwise, you will get everything done.. except your thesis.

6) Ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?”, and try to connect your work to principles and values important to you. For example, if the answer to this question is “because I want to get it over and done with!”, this will result in an attitude to writing different from say “because I want this to make a real difference to my field” .. and don’t be surprised if you fluctuate between different answers.

7) Because writing-up is the last station in a long PhD journey it is normal that you will get questions like “when will you finish?” or statements like “oh, I thought you were already done!”. It’s good to ‘try’ to consider such remarks and – all the expectations behind – as a motive to finish up your writing. However, don’t let them put you under constant pressure, so that your PhD becomes a box that needs to be ticked off before you can enjoy anything else in life. Unfortunately, many times we perceive life as a series of boxes to be ticked. We move from one stage to the other without giving ourselves the chance to reflect on achievements, celebrate change, or appreciate the opportunities we have been given. Instead, as we progress, our vision is always fixated on an unidentified future moment of happiness which, in reality, never comes.

8 ) I am also not in favor of a PhD that drags on, which may result in losing momentum, forgetting one’s data, feeling constantly guilty, in addition to the possible distress placed on your supervisors and people around you. Hmm.. For the same reasons, I am also not in favor of long holidays in the middle of writing-up for you will need time and energy to get yourself back into the right mindset.

9) Make sure to back-up your work. Yes, it is s very basic piece of advice but saves a lot headache. For every day I did some writing up, I opened a new dated file. Yes, you will end-up with many files for the same document, but this helps you keep track of the development of your work and, if necessary, revert to a certain point in your argument (that you were pursing before) and start again from there. I also had a file where I inserted all deleted passages or unfinished ideas, just in case I needed them again (and once in a while I did). Every day, before going to bed I used to send that particular dated file to myself by email, and every now and then I will back up all the files on my external hard disk.

10) There is a host of online dictionaries, thesauri, and concordances around. Make use of them. In other words, try to ‘compose’ your thesis rather than just ‘write’ it. You can also share a chapter or two with specialists in your field (other than your supervisors).. and you already do that to a great extend through conferences.

11) I used to add references to Endnote after deciding on their relevance to my work (people are different in this respect). When I had the references imported, I was able to add them to the text (through the cite-as-you-write function) without interrupting my thought processes. The software also helped me build an automatic bibliography (which I still had to review in the end), and facilitated sending complete references to other people. JRUL provides advanced Endnote courses by Steve Mcindoe, who is also very helpful with individual Endnote inquires.

12) There is no need to fix margins or even font type or size, for the university has its own submission criteria. When all your chapters are ready, and you add them together to form the bigger document (fantastic feeling!!!), you then fix these things and add the table of content.. etc.

13) Word count can be a challenge. Too many or too few? My advice: a) just say what you feel you need to say, b) planning a chapter ahead might give you an estimate of the size of each section, c) if your supervisors don’t bring this point up with you, simply forget about it!

14) On my bulletin board, I used to have sections for methodology, lit review, conclusion etc, where I just stuck whatever came to mind regarding that specific area, e.g a quote, a question for supervisor(s), a problem.. etc.  Before our meeting I used to collate these notes type them into an ‘agenda’ and bring it forth.

15) I highly advice recording supervision meetings during writing up (actually, I am in favor of recording all meetings at all stages of a PhD), for it gives you the chance to listen to their feedback over and again afterwards. It also elevates that stress of having to focus on what they tell you, document it, and also express your own opinion about certain sections. Recording meetings also helps you listen to yourself again. Sometimes, you present a narrative or a story to your supervisors, they approve of it, but when you reproduce it in print, it is not as expressive or vibrant. Listening to yourself again, helps you retrieve your own rich description and detailed accounts.

16) Also, to save your time and that of your supervisors, it is important to factor in time for proof-reading your text before turning it in to them, and as we all know, when you plan to send something long (e.g., a whole chapter) it is better to ask them in advance when they would like to receive it, send it right on time, and to give them sufficient time to read it before you see them.

17) If your supervisors suggest changes to your document that might not be totally clear to you, ask them if they have a former thesis where this is exemplified. I have found reviewing other people’s work a powerful way of improving my own.

18) The best place and time for writing is a very personal matter. For example, some people do all their writing at home, and are mostly active in the evening, others like working from university offices and are active in the morning. Some people can write in different places (e.g. café or park), while others prefer to stick to their desks. My advice is to never take a person’s advice on this. I tried.. and it has just disrupted my body clock and wasted my time.

19) Towards the end of writing up, I occasionally suffered from insomnia for I often got new ideas when my head rested on the pillow. I read about this problem  and found some advice to overcome it: a) Switch off your laptop a good time before going to bed and do something different b) Do not study in your bed (and if possible study away from your bed), c) keep a notebook next to your bed for recording ideas as they emerge.

20) It is a good idea to have your thesis proof read/ edited before submission to avoid any sneaking typos here or there, and also to enhance style (esp. if you are a non-native speaker of English like myself). If you want to do that then there are two things to bear in mind, a) book your editor in advance especially if your submission date is around the same time as MA dissertations for editors might be very busy, b) set aside some cash for that.

21) Reviewing your writing can be very addictive. Toward the end I just couldn’t let go. I loved working on the text tweaking this or changing that. Setting a deadline for submission is, therefore, crucial.

22) Writing-up does not have to be a lonely process. Share it with others. When people ask you about your work, don’t just tell them “well, yeah. Still writing up”, but tell them exactly what you are doing.

23) One non-academic tip: Walk (even if you go to a gym)! I found long walks a very good way of organizing thoughts and gaining clarity and also to vent occasional frustrations. I used to walk everyday even in the coldest days of December (before submission). Now when I walk down Anson Road where I sometimes had my writing-up walks, I recall aspects of my thesis, sections I was thinking about, diagrams I wanted to develop, titles I wanted to change.. amazing! In addition to the possibility of enhancing your writing, walking also prevents you from gaining those extra pounds because of long hours of sitting by your desk, especially in the cold winter days when there is not much to do outdoors anyway.

24) One more non-academic tip: Reward yourself! Yes. Every time you complete a chapter or an important section, treat yourself to something you like.. and we all know how to treat ourselves 😉

I think one of the profound moments of writing-up is when the personnel at the university bindery hands you your work in the form of an object or a book. It’s very much like handing you a newborn in hospital. You knew it was coming, but when it arrives, it changes your life forever!

Best wishes,

Mariam

Related post: The viva: Getting ready for the big day!

5 thoughts on “Lighten-up your writing-up

  1. This is actually very interesting. Although I am in the first stages of my PhD…However, I think that the experiences of people that have completed their studies are always helpful! thanks!

  2. Interesting and helpful tips here, Mariam, thanks.

    I also liked Richard’s comments – although I am nowhere near the writing stage, I tend to imagine it as what he described as a work in progress continually informed and enriched by related literature and framed rather than determined by its research questions. But these thoughts and issues are still some way away from where I am at the moment…, revising my proposal, that is.

    Regarding backing things up and using computer technology in research and writing – good point – I’d like also to point out that technology can sometimes be a source of frustration. Right now, for instance, I cannot open the LTE blog at work because the site gets blocked by the QF. I have to “snip” the screen and send its picture to our IT for them to intervene somewhere higher up. Even at home access to it is random (we use the QF server at home, too). Our new intitutional “firewall” is blocking everything and anything (it’s so efficient, you see). I couldn’t even download pdf files from my UoM/SoE reading groups. It took a couple days to get them unblocked.

    Plus, my USB ports on my home PC have stopped working so I can’t use any of my flashdrives on which I have conscientiously backed up my drafts of various papers, including the proposal and notes!

    So, technologically speaking, it has not been a good month so far…

    However, it does feel much better now that I got it off my chest!

    Magda

  3. Many thanks Mariam. So many of your points resonated with my own experience as a doctoral student, and they will be helpful as I continue trying to supervise others. My only additions would be about the discourse of the thesis. For example, the phrase ‘ writing up’ for me was somehow misleading. It suggested that I had done all the research and now had to simply write up this ‘experiment’ whereas in fact what I was doing was writing my research text – which was, in part, a Report of my study so there was some ‘write up’ function to it – but also a work-in-progress regarding my conceptual thinking and my performance of my researcher competence, i.e. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say, what I needed to say, what I wanted to say, until I started writing about what I had done and working with my best guesses about the content and ‘feel’ of my text. So, to avoid these (to me) misleading connotations of ‘writing up’ I now avoid the term and speak instead of about drafting and polishing the thesis draft ready for submission.

    It’s a bit like my unease with the term ‘Literature Review’ which seems (to me) to be suggesting that we are reviewing the literature (which can be a worthwhile goal for some) whereas what I was doing, and what I sense others are often doing, was exploring how the relevant literature had informed (and was cotinuing to inform) my research(er) thinking. It’s closely related I know, but usefully (to my mind) different in nuance.

    And finally, I also take care with the pair ‘Research Question’ + ‘Answer’ because, in my case the RQs were in fact a rhetorical device for articulating my research focus, and in the thesis I reported on how my work developed / addressed this focus and what I learned about the topic through the process. Thus, RQs lead not so much to answers and more to insights about the topic as shaped by my research focus. Again, this is close to the original pairing (of RQs + Answer) but I found that it liberated me to think more about insights arising from the research rather than answers to RQs per se.

    Overall, I guess what I am saying is that the discourse of thesis writing needs to make sense to each of us and this may need some re-engineering of terminology rather than simple adherence to a set of terms perhaps better suited to a different kind of research(er) stance that we ourselves were working to.