An earlier version of this post appeared on The Writing Centre@UWC here.
I am currently working on the full draft of my PhD thesis (hereafter ‘the Thesis’) and this issue of writing for myself and writing for others, like my supervisor and examiners, is very much a current affair. Lately I have been quite focused on the former kind of writing: writing for myself, and the value of this kind of writing as a way of thinking through often complex ideas and concepts.
My supervisor has long been telling me that it is really important to find time to write just for myself every day. But I am a part-time student and am working and parenting full-time, so writing just for myself often seems overly indulgent. When I can make time to write I need to Produce Writing that can be Read and Commented On and go into the Thesis. I can’t just scribble. That’s a waste of precious writing time, right? Actually, wrong, as I only very recently worked out for myself.
I found my way to a website called 750words.com, and signed up after being given the link by a colleague. It looked like a fun way to get a bit of writing done, and was similar in intent to the research journal I have been keeping sporadically for the most part but quite faithfully as my ‘formal’ writing has picked up in pace. I wanted to write every day for as many days as I could, and also had the added bonus of being rewarded with point and badges on the site – just for writing! Initially it was a chore. I had to write ‘Do your Words’ on my ‘to-do’ list every day for a week to remind myself, and everyday for a week I sat down and started with ‘I’m not sure I even have anything to write about today but…’. But, I would start with something I had been thinking about and before I knew it half an hour or so and 800 words had flown by. And I was not just writing, I was thinking quite productively, making connections between the first little idea and all the other ideas that connected to it and flowed through me and onto these pages. And every day I did it it got easier. I have not kept up with the website, using it now when I need to do some freewriting to unblock my brain, but I have gone back to my pen-and-paper research journal and have started scribbling and drawing in there more frequently. And I have been moving forwards, even if what I was writing about in May and June on the website has not all found its way into the Thesis. I am still moving forwards – and I have indeed learned that the writing is the thinking and this is useful work, and not at all a waste of my precious PhD time.
As so many PhD students who are studying part-time and working (and some of them parenting) full-time find, time is at a premium, and if we are going to make time to work on the PhD we want that time to be as productive and useful as possible. We want to read only books and articles that we will cite, and write only words that can go into chapters. We try to make the process as linear and straightforward as we can so that we can fit it into our lives and manage it along with everything else. But too often writing in academia is made to seem separate from all of the other academic activities that are part of it, like reading, speaking and thinking. We don’t only think before we write; we think while we write and after we write, and we need to try to open our own eyes to the process that is writing, and see beyond just the ‘product’ that we are writing. If we only focus on the destination we miss so much of the richness in the journey. Well, that has been my learning, and I am going to be spending far more time with my scribbles, as well as my draft in progress, because the latter won’t be quite as good without the former.
I love this idea. I am at the other end of my PhD – more like beginning to wade into it – and I am acutely aware of schedules and deadlines and Finishing Before I Turn 50! (I’m 35). So yes, everything I read and write must be Valuable. But I think I’m beginning to discover that this is making the whole experience not very enjoyable. Too outcome focused, not enough process focused. So I’m trying to apply to reading what you have applied to writing. A PhD is about learning, after all, so if I indulge in a lot of reading that won’t ultimately be valuable to my thesis, surely it will be valuable in some other ways, to me.