Making time to write

This is my 41st post on this blog, and I was thinking recently about how different keeping the blog up to date is now compared to when I started last year. When I started I had so many ideas and I had posts scheduled for a few weeks; I was just churning them out. Recently I missed a week because I lost track of time and forgot to write a post. I have also been super-busy at work, and have been struggling to find the time to write – not just the blog but other things, like papers for journals. To be honest, I am getting way too little writing done and my excuse is that I just don’t have the time. It was an excuse I used a lot during my PhD when the writing would get pushed further and further into the background of my days and weeks, neglected for many more urgent work and personal tasks and demands.

But, here’s the thing. To say that I do not have time to write (or did not) is not completely true. I have had the time if you think of time as physical hours in the day. There has been enough of that kind of time in the last couple of months to write and publish several blogposts and at least a draft of my paper. But this is not necessarily what writers mean when they say they don’t have time to write. They are talking about another kind of time – a less literal kind.

When I say I don’t have time to write – and I say this a lot at the moment snowed under as I am by administrative tasks and endless emails that need sending and a million little terribly urgent things that need doing NOW – what I am saying is that I don’t have time to do the things I need to do to make it possible for me to write. I don’t have time to read, and to make notes. I don’t have time to think about all I have read and make connections and have realisations and see a paper structure emerging from that thinking, scribbling and reading. I may have physical time, but my head is so full of all these other things that I find I need more than just an hour or two here and there to get into the right headspace and create writing time.

Writing time is less about hours and minutes, I find, and more about space in my head. Hours and hours of headspace that can be devoted to all the reading, thinking, writing, scribbling, rewriting and so on that goes into producing a chapter of a thesis, or a journal article or a report. This kind of time is not always easy to find when life and work are busy. Many PhD students, I think, struggle to find this kind of time. I think many may also struggle because they are perhaps unfamiliar with all the things that need to go into this writing time – all the reading and thinking and drafting etc that is part of a typical writing process linked to writing a PhD. I was certainly way too ambitious with my writing time early on, and often still am, believing I can get  more done than is actually possible. Working out the difference between the physical time you have and the writing time you need is important for making progress and not being really mean to yourself when it seems like you are not making any.

You see, I do know, having been an academic and a writer for some time, that I can find an hour today to work on a paper I am writing. It’s in revisions, so an hour is enough to get a good whack of revising done. However, if I were to use that same hour for a paper I am starting to write, I would get a lot less done – maybe read a paper or two and make some notes, or draft the introduction. But too many times I have taken my physical hour and written a to-do list of writing tasks worth 4 or 5 hours of writing time and tried to cram it in because my actual hours for writing are few at the moment (most of the time, really). It doesn’t work, of course, because I am distracted, or I am going too slowly through a new concept or section of reading, or for many other reasons. So I get frustrated, and I berate myself for going too slowly, or for not working hard enough or for being distracted. Then I start to resent the writing and its intrusion on my time and headspace and this is just a recipe for disaster. I end up wishing I could just find more time to write, because if I could all would be well.

This brings me to my point in this post: I don’t think we find writing time – I think we have to make it. We need to sit with our writing tasks and work out all the steps that have to go completing them, and then make that time in our schedules. We need to prioritise our writing and make it important – more important than the million other small things we do every day that can probably wait or at least be scaled down in importance. For me this means putting it into my calendar as a meeting with myself each week, and then planning the rest of my week so that I can get all the other things done in order to clear my headspace and have that writing time to spare. For students this could be a similar kind of process. Writing time is made, not found, but it can take time to learn that lesson.

A final point: I was advised, often, during my PhD to write every day. I didn’t. I just couldn’t. I tried a few tricks, like my research journal and an online writing site called These helped a lot, and for short stretches like a week or two I could write every day. The more I did this the easier it got, but inevitably the also-working-and-parenting thing would get in the way of making time for my PhD every day and I would lapse into once or twice a week, and a few times even less than that. Being mean to myself did not help. It just made me hate my PhD and wish I could quit. I had to try hard to be kind to myself, and to give myself a break every now and then. This kindness is important to making progress, I think, and to staying on good terms with your PhD.

It would be great to write every day, but you don’t always have the time to make for that – physical or headspace/writing time. However, I would advise making time regularly, whatever that looks like for you, and putting it into your diary as a meeting with your writing. Go to that meeting and be present as you would for any other meeting.  Making time to write and think is often also about making time for yourself, and making your own needs and time as, if not more, valuable than the time of those who want you or need you during your writing time. It’s OK to put yourself and your research first, and the more you do that, the easier it gets to make the time to write. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go and take my own advice. I have a paper waiting to be written…


Conscious writing

I have been writing parts of this post in my head for a while. This has been an issue I have been thinking about a lot in relation to my writing centre work with the tutors and also with students, as well as in relation to my own ongoing writing. I mentioned a post or two ago that my MA mini-thesis did very little to prepare me for PhD research and writing – not because it was mini, but rather because I was not very conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I didn’t get a great deal of guidance and formative feedback during that process. The PhD, therefore, was a BIG step up for me, and for the most part because I needed to fill so many gaps in my research capability and in my research writing. The biggest gap for me was the c0nsciousness gap.

What do I mean by this? Well, two things. The first is beginning to understand what you are actually doing in your research project and, incredibly importantly, why you are doing it. How to then go about achieving the what and why is also important, but as I had already learnt, trying to complete a research project focusing on how rather than more on what and why gets it done, but is not the most conscious or even satisfying process. Understanding what you are doing your research for and about, and also why you are taking the steps you are and where they fit into your overall study is so important because you need to be able to sustain a narrative, not just for your readers and supervisor over 80,000 or more words, but also for yourself. Most PhDs take over 3 years to complete, and are broken up until the last year or so into pieces that don’t start coming together, in the writing anyway, until you start putting your first full draft together. You have drafts of chapters and pieces of the whole and it’s so easy (and probably also par for the course) to get lost. But if you understand, in your own words, what you are doing and why, and how the pieces fit or could fit, then you can keep the narrative going and keep coming back to your path. This makes it more likely that you will finish within a decent timeframe, and also helps reduce the frustration and craziness that are part and parcel of doctoral study. Keeping a research journal and trying to write to and for yourself as often as you can really helps with developing this research narrative, and the consciousness about your own writing and research process.

The second thing is a meta-consciousness about the thinking and writing moves you make. It’s a more focused narrative than the bigger picture one where you are looking at your research project as a whole and its parts. This kind of consciousness is one I developed in a big way over the course of my PhD, and not without formative and challenging feedback from my supervisor. Here I am talking about the choices you make when you write – what words you use, or what terms, and how you actually write your research for your readers and supervisors. For example, rather than simply using modals (might, may, could, should etc) to temper statements because they seem like a useful feature of written English, really understand what the modal is doing to the meaning of your claim or argument. Hedging is a key feature of academic writing, but it needs to be done consciously rather than mechanically for the text to then be coherent and also pleasurable to read. If you use modals incorrectly you can sound too certain and strident when you need to be more cautious and curious, like in your introduction where you are posing rather than answering your questions. I had to work hard on this, and became far more conscious about the choices I was making around my writing. The move from how I was writing before my PhD to how I write now was a little like Neo’s journey in The Matrix – I went from not seeing that there was a whole world beneath the surface of my texts that I needed to understand, to seeing that it was there, to starting to write the code that could reshape and change that world and my writing in a variety of ways. Being so much more conscious of what I am writing and why has given me more control over how I write, and it’s a good feeling. It feels like a much more solid and tangible base to keep building one than the one I had before the PhD started.

Conscious writing involves being able to read your own text as an editor and a writer, asking yourself questions about the choices you have made in terms of words, terms and concepts used and well as structure, organisation and coherence. It means being able to explain not just what you have written about, but also being able to tell the story of why the choices were made and how things were included, excluded and shaped in relation to the overall aims and objectives of your research. It’s a crucial part of the PhD process, and one that, while incredibly challenging and a lot of hard work for a long time, yields such satisfying rewards during and also way beyond the PhD itself. Once you have been inside the Matrix and have learnt to write the code itself, you can’t go back. Why would you even want to?

Two more scary -ologies

This post follows on from last week’s post about a couple of -ologies I have found a little (and a lot) intimidating over the course of my PhD. These -ologies are often stumbling blocks for me, and for other students I know. It’s almost as if your brain hears them and immediately puts its fingers in its ears and starts saying ‘la la la’ really loudly until you stop asking it to think about these concepts. I suggested last week finding ways to best these -ologies by finding examples and stories to explain them in the context of your own research, or in the context of more familiar ideas. This week I have two more -ologies I have done this with. The first is a very familiar one – Methodology – and the second is my own one – Theoryology. I’ll start with the made-up one.

When I started my PhD in 2010, I had no idea what a conceptual or theoretical framework was. My MA research project was a smaller one – 25000 words – and my supervisor was in Canada while I was in South Africa writing it and she was not a lover of email or sustained feedback, so I did not get a great deal of help with the thinking. I did alright in the end, but it was not a very conscious writing process. I felt like I was simply following her basic instructions to get it done rather than crafting my own project. So, starting the PhD was properly scary because I had never done a research project like this, and I was intimidated and very unsure of myself. And, on top of that I had to start with theory.

Now, I like theory, and I am pretty good at putting pieces of a puzzle together to create a nice, coherent whole. So, I write really good literature reviews. But a theoretical framework is much more than a literature review. It’s just that: a framework; a holding structure; something that makes you study intelligible to readers and that guides the study as it progresses. A literature review is really more of a guide to all the other research you are drawing on to make sense of what your study is about, what it thinks it can contribute to the field, and where it is located in the field. Starting out, my supervisor talked more about me reading my way into finding a framework, rather than a literature review. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of reading I needed to do, and battled to find the time but more than that the headpsace to do all the reading and thinking. I read a lot and made a mountain of notes, mostly copied quotes from these texts, but at the end of the year I had no framework. I had a great draft of a literature review, but nothing that could really shape and guide my study. I had no Theoryology – no strategy to guide the selection and coherent melding of theoretical tools into a framework capable of shaping and guiding a research study.

I took a break for a while in 2011, and when I started reading again I came to the literature trying to look for something different – trying to find this sort of strategy. I found my way to social and critical realism, and these two fields began to give me what I was looking for – theoryology. I could slowly begin to see the shape of my project, and the scope of the questions I could ask and answer. I think the key difference was that I started to see the theory I was reading as more than just ideas; I started to see tools: tools that could become analytical and a lens with which to look for and look at data; tools that could do different things in different parts of my study. There was other theory that I used as well to build the framework for my study – substantive theory that was more ideas than tools. You need both, but I learned that different kinds of theories can do different things. Some have greater explanatory and conceptual power than others, and you need to find the overarching conceptual or theoretical framework – the theoryology – as well as the substantive theory that helps you to understand and explain parts of your study and that helps you to locate your study in relation to other relevant research.

The other -ology I took a while to get a handle on was Methodology. I took ages to get going on this chapter, mostly because I had no idea what I was really doing with it. What exactly is a ‘methodology’? I did some reading, but what I found was a lot of stuff on methods, which is not a methodology. For ages, though, I thought it was. I think lots of researchers, especially less experienced ones, might use these terms to mean the same thing. I did initially, but that was because I did not see the crucial difference. A methodology is another kind of strategy, linked to your theoryology. You use both to give a more abstract picture of your study – one at a remove from the nitty gritty of the data and the details. The bigger picture stuff, if you like. So, if the theoryology is the framework or holding structure for your study, then the methodology is the strategy you employ for putting the study into action. What data will you collect? Why will you collect this data and not other kinds of data? What will you do with this data once you have it? How will you look at it, question it, analyse it? How will this data connect to the theory and the literature? These are some critical methodological questions. When you get out into the field, and interview, survey, observe, and then come home again and transcribe, draw, sift etc – these are your methods shaped into a coherent form by your methodology – your overall strategy – and held in place further by your theoryology or the theoretical (and eventually analytical) framework you will use to guide your whole study to its conclusions.

These don’t seem like such scary -ologies now, but I think they are potentially intimidating and also confusing for many scholars. Again, finding ways to make them make sense to you and to your study is the best way to gain control over them and out them to work for you.

Scary -ologies

I think all PhD students – all academics – have been there: to the place where they are confronted with an -ology and asked to explain it only to find that while it makes sense (sort of) in their heads, it doesn’t make any sense in actual words. I’ve been there, so many times. I’m still there with some of these -ologies. I call them my ‘scary -ologies’.

There are the big ones – ‘epistemology’; ‘ontology’ – I still can’t really explain these in small, clear soundbites (or even longer, less clear phrases) without confusing myself and others. This is frustrating because in the quietness of my mind I do feel like I sort of know what they mean. But please don’t ask me to use them is a sentence. I can tell you, probably not completely correctly, that epistemology has to do with knowledge and knowing, and ontology has to do with being. But that’s not very helpful if you are new to these terms or trying to get a handle on them yourself. Sorry. I could cite some online dictionary definitions (some of which are actually quite helpful) but the best way to get to grips with any -ology or tough concept is to find examples you can use to explain them, or ways to break them down into simpler, easier terms. I thought I’d share my examples and self-explanations on these two bigger and more scary -ologies.

Epistemology, at its most simple, is the study of knowledge – its scope and also its limits and validity. It is also defined as a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the origins, nature and so forth of knowledge – it is often called a ‘theory of knowledge’.  I think this is where I usually come unstuck in my own understanding of what it is and how to explain it to myself in less dictionaried terms. I’ll come back to this though. Ontology is defined, generally, as a ‘theory of being’, or or theory about the nature of being and what kinds of things exist and why.  I tend to get stuck when people start referring to these things as ‘theories’ about other things. [Theoryology is another scary -ology for me (so scary I made it into an ology).]

I have tried, then, not to be put off my the word ‘theory’ which in my mind signals other notions like ‘grand’, ‘impenetrable’, ‘will take months of reading to work out’ and so on. I have tried to look rather at what these ‘ologies’ are about. Epistemology is about knowledge, and what we can know and how we can know it and what the limits of that knowledge and knowing are or could be. As an example: we can ask whether something we know, like the world being roughly spherical in shape,  is justified. We can say ‘yes, it is justified to know that’. We can also ask how or why that knowledge is justified or true, and in response we could posit evidence drawn from physics, geography, astronomy and so on. You can ask these questions about the nature of many different kinds of knowledge, and that for me (right now anyway) is epistemology – this kind of inquiry and thinking process around what I think I know and why I think I can know it or not.

Ontology is about being and this -ology is more tricky for me to get my head around. I try to understand it in relation to my work or my research. For example, I research pedagogy and what lecturers and students do in relationship in classrooms in order to teach and learn and come to know and so on. A big part of teaching and learning is a process of becoming – you need to become, for example, a lecturer or teacher; it’s not something you just are. It’s a process. In the same way, students need to become lawyers or accountants or physicists – these are ontological as well as epistemological processes because they involve not just knowledge and knowing but also personal and metaphysical traits as well. So, ontology, then, would involve questioning these processes, and the nature of them and what is happening and what that means. I’m not sure I’m right about this – -ologies can make even the most sure-footed researcher doubtful (and I’m not all that sure-footed anyway). But I am very willing to be corrected.

There are other scary -ologies I will get to in my next post – tune in next week – but for now my advice would be to work on the concepts that scare you by finding simple examples or stories to try and contextualise and explain them, all the better if you can do so in the context of your own research. Turning them into stories and examples takes some of their power to scare you and render you speechless in the face of ‘Do you know what X means?’-type questions. And half the battle with concepts and -ologies is getting them under our control rather than being too much under theirs :-).


Notes: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online has a very useful entry on epistemology.