PhD workout: warming up your writing muscles

So, I am writing a book. I have been sort-of-kind-of writing a book for a long time now. We have an on and off relationship, my book and I. But, a proposal is being reviewed, and the hope is that the feedback will be a green light, so I have to get writing. And soon. But, I am a bit out of practice. I wrote a fair bit last year – 3 book chapters (a few drafts each) as well as part of a paper with colleagues. But this is a different beast altogether – as long and as complex as a PhD thesis. I am finding I am out of shape here.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling. I wrote here and here about moving from one year of PhD or post-doc into the next, after having a break and getting a bit flabby around the writing middle, so to speak. I know, therefore, that I have felt unfit before, and have made myself fitter and gotten the writing work done. But, this is – like actual fitness – hard work and requires a level of emotional and psychic energy that can be hard to find sometimes. I have decided, therefore, that I am going to start with gentle warm-ups, rather than jumping straight into the whole thing (Thank you, Roger Federer :-)).

rfed warm up

The first thing I am doing is starting with something manageable, that I could want to do every day – or at least 4-5 times a week. If I want to do it, and it feels manageable, it is very likely I will actually do it (and enjoy the experience). Instead of doing what I too often do, and writing ‘Chapter 1 draft’ on one day of my calendar, I am writing ‘one pomodoro’ every other day. I can do this. It’s 30 minutes of writing. I can then tick this off, and actually add days as a I go, or keep it every other day and work up to 2 pomodoros at least. If I can do it, I won’t fail, and if I don’t fail, I can keep enjoying this writing time and make it productive. Too often I set myself overly lofty goals, in life and writing, and set myself up to fail rather than succeed. Last week I wrote my first blog post in over 4 months, scheduled this post, and also managed about 1000 words on my book. HUGE success I say. All in these little manageable chunks.

The second thing I am going to do is keep it steady. Rather than having a good week, and thinking I can now escalate to high levels of writing productivity, I am going to keep going at this pace for now. Probably, realistically, this will be the pace for the year, with bursts of higher productivity around deadlines and when I have excess time and energy. As one of my writing students said to me last year: ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time’. Apologies to elephant lovers – I am one too – but this is a good metaphor for taking it steady with life and writing. One task, one pomodoro, one idea at a time. This way, things actually do get done as opposed to being menacing, un-ticked-off tasks on your to-do list.

Finally, for now anyway, I am going to get me some writing buddies. Face-to-face if I can, but virtually if not. I am always thinking I should join a Twitter shut-up-and-write group, or create my own writing group. And then work, and kids, and life, and my writing gets pushed down (with me attached) to the bottom of my list. My writing time is also time for me – it’s personal as well as professional. So, I have to actually value it, and myself. As a working mother I am too often too far down my list. And so is my writing. I am hopeful, that with positive peer encouragement, we can collectively make our writing more present each week in the to-do lists, and make appreciable progress on our projects.

group yoga

Warming up these tired writing muscles to fuller strength will take some time – what do people say?If it’s too easy you’re not doing it right? Maybe so. I don’t think writing should always be hard, but good writing should take effort and time. Maybe you are in this spot too, coming back to work and PhD and research writing, and working out how to begin your “elephant meal”. Hopefully some of these steps to warming up your writing muscles will help you, too.

If you have other ideas, please share in the comments. All the best for 2019!

What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible and unverifiable, but instead on constructed reality. Rather, constructivists discount claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

There is a lot going on in this sentence – it tries to establish that constructivism is popular, but flawed, and then also tries to show why it is flawed. But, for me, the sentence doesn’t quite pull this off. A few simpler, connected sentences may clarify and expand a little on what the author is trying to put across here.

Constructivism is a popular paradigm for explaining reality. Yet, its ontological and epistemological stance is overly relativist, as it conflates different categories of social construction in problematic ways. For example, a constructivist may argue that like tables, chairs and atoms, race, sexuality and gender are social constructions. A chair, and race, are clearly very different kinds of ‘social’ construction. We therefore need a different way of understanding ‘social constructions’ that allows for differences, and takes us beyond getting stuck in a battle between competing views of reality. 

This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, on the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence.

pexels-photo-340981

This is another example:

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through “a pedagogy which makes explicit (or attempts to make explicit) the principles, procedures and texts to be acquired” (Bernstein, 1999:168), usually the natural and physical sciences, and tacitly where “showing or modelling precedes ‘doing’” (Bernstein, 1999:168), typified by the social sciences and the humanities. Horizontal knowledge structures can be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155); these grammars may be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999:164).

Here, I want to focus on the amount of quoting going on. In this short passage there are three direct quotations, and a further reference to an external text in the second to last line. Many of the authors I work with, especially those who are new to academic writing in the form of a thesis or article for publication, overquote, believing that their inclusion of several quotes shows their reading, and their knowledge of the field. While using relevant, current sources to provide a foundation for your own research is important, the emphasis in any writing at doctoral and postdoctoral level must be on your own research.  This means paraphrasing more often than quoting directly, and using the work of others to inform and shape, rather than overshadow your own.

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through pedagogical approaches or processes that focus on making the principles or procedural learning accessible and clear to students, as well as the means by which to acquire it (Bernstein, 1999). This kind of learning is usually typified by the natural and physical sciences. These languages can also be modelled tacitly, as in the social sciences and humanities, where students are immersed in texts, language and learning over a longer period of time (Bernstein, 1999). Horizontal knowledge structures can further be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155), and as such  may be stronger or weaker relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999).

This is a minor edit, but transforming the direct quotations into paraphrased passages, and changing the sentence structure goes some way to making the author more visible, and more ‘in charge’ of the text’s construction. Thus, to sound academic, it is important to claim an authorial voice, and make your own research and its contribution to the field very clear through your paper  – in other words, as you weave your golden thread, make sure it doesn’t get crowded out or lost in long, complex sentences and over-quoting from the work of others.

pexels-photo-144633These are just two observations I have made in working with a range of writers across several disciplines in the last few years. Other things writers do, seemingly to sound more ‘academic’ is introduce and use smart-sounding transition words, often in the wring place, or extraneously; include 15 references in a bracketed space where only the 5 top references are needed); and over-use formatting tools, such as adding tabs, heading levels and so on. It’s like writers are trying to create a staircase to take their readers from one ‘place’ of knowledge to another; the question is whether you create a staircase that makes your readers dizzy on the way up, and wanting to stop halfway, or one that has a bit of interest and colour, but gets them to the new knowledge via an accessible and manageable route.

The general ‘rule’ to observe with writing, as I hope this post has shown, is to be as clear, direct, and detailed as possible in setting out, establishing and substantiating your argument. Shorter, simple sentences that convey your meaning clearly; the right references for the piece you are working on (not all the references); limited use of direct quotations and only where you really need these (quotations from literature used as data are a different kind of quotation to the one I refer to here); and all claims supported, and explained in context, so that your golden thread is clearly woven through the piece of writing. Verbose, under-explained, ‘fancy’ papers are alienating to readers, who have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. Simple, direct, clear prose that conveys your meaning and gets the point across well is so much more enjoyable to read, and is far more likely to be useful to other researchers too.

Fairy castles, ramshackle cottages and writing in the real world

I have this problem: I am not always a huge fan of reality. It’s often far less interesting and well-ordered than the world I can create in my head. For example, it can take 2 years to publish a paper – writing, revising, reviews, more (crushing at times) feedback, more revising, and this goes on and on, paper after paper. It’s tiring, and hard. But, in my head, I write a paper that is erudite and important, and journal editors and reviewers like it a lot, and it gets published within a year, and cited a lot. This sounds silly, right? It is, kind of.

I wrote ages ago about PhD fantasies, and why you should have them. In that post I argue that, while they can be distracting and even perhaps paralysing if you indulge in them too often, and for too long, fantasies can be useful motivation tools. Imagining the eventual future, as a place where we are successful, and have achieved something we are currently struggling with can push us towards that goal.  I think we need fantasy – what I call my ‘fairy castles’ – because fantasies are, at their core, creative acts. I could imagine a fairy castle of writing that goes well, is invigorating and stimulating, and that makes me feel clever, accomplished and productive. In reality, right now, I’m more like in a ramshackle cottage in the woods just trying to get the fire going with damp wood. (I have also been watching too much Once Upon a Time). The reality and the fantasy in my writing life do not align often enough.

fairy castle 2

But, they do align. And I believe that my fairy castle papers -and Book Manuscript, and the New Project I Will Start Planning – are a vital part of creating a reality that will actually be productive, and result in written work that will eventually be published.

The fairy castle and the ramshackle cottage can be part of the same ‘writing realm’ that all writers inhabit. There are always good writing days, where you can concentrate, and make sense, and feel like progress is really being made with the piece you are working on. And there are bad days, where none of the words see  to come out right, or at all. I am starting to really get that these two kinds of days go together – they have to. It can’t all be fairy castles and magical days of erudite brilliance, but by the same token, it can’t all be days of smoky damp fires and frustration. You have to learn from the bad days, to make the good days more frequent, and useful.

The work, to follow the metaphor, is to bring the cottage closer to the castle; to bring it into the walls of the city, like one of those small houses in the shadow of the queen’s castle in medieval time.

fairy castle

I have a plan I am going to try to follow to start inching my writing fantasies and writing reality closer to one another. Firstly, I am going to write down the fantasy in my research journal: finished book chapter by February, and a book proposal and draft chapter by March. Let’s start small, so we don’t crush the whole enterprise at the outset. I am going to outline the steps I need to take to actually get there – how many words, what do I have, what do I need to read, write, do. Then, I am going to stop thinking about it all, and spend an hour a day – two pomodoros – writing. It will be awful at first. I will feel stuck, and frustrated, and cross with myself. The ramshackle cottage will feel like it is falling apart. But, if I keep slogging away at this, the cottage walls will get a bit stronger, maybe the fire will get going at last, and the fantasy of the finished work will start to become more attainable. (And I will probably feel much better about indulging in my binges of Once Upon A Time if I use them as rewards for actually writing, rather than as ways to escape writing!)

The cottage will always be a cottage – it will never turn into the fairy castle up on the hill. I am not sure it should. I think we need the struggles and frustrations to push us across important thresholds in our learning and thinking – about theory, methodology, the nature of our research, the process of actually writing, and so on. The struggles do make the victories that much sweeter, I must say, and they help me to appreciate that this is a real job. Being an active writer and researcher is work, hard work most days, and it is valuable work. To me, and hopefully to others in my field too.

So, my plan for this year is both simple, and really hard: to strive to create a writing realm for myself where the cottage I really live in is closer to the castle I admire, and often wish I lived in, so that they co-exist in a mutually beneficial space, where the fantasy feeds the reality, rather than keeping me from it. Or, where the words become sentences, the sentences become paragraphs, and the paragraphs become my published work.

 

Iterativity in postgraduate writing: making peace with the mess

Lovely husband and I were talking recently about a workshop we both attended on postgraduate study, and our respective conversations with our own postgraduate students about what postgraduate study involves them in, specifically the over-and-over again nature of the reading, writing and thinking. Iterativity, we concluded, is the name of the game at this level, and in post-doctoral academic research; yet, it is an aspect of working at this level that produces much frustration, self-doubt and struggle.

Ernest Hemingway famously said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. He was, certainly in my experience, right. If you look up writing advice on Pinterest, you will find many soundbites to inspire you; for example: ‘First drafts  don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written’, ‘A crappy first draft is worth more than a non-existent one’, and writing first drafts as being like ‘shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build sandcastles’.  There is truth in all of these inspirational tips: first drafts are messy things: often incoherent in parts, full of both useful and useless information, lacking a proper focus. But, they are where we start any writing, and the key word here is ‘start’: writing is a non-linear, often chaotic, process, where we learn as we write, and our thinking develops with each round of feedback and revision.

This ‘logic of discovery’ is at odds, though, with the ‘logic of dissemination’ that we display in our finished thesis: the iterative process that produces the thesis is hidden from the view of the reader, as they are presented with our neat, polished, coherent argument. Many postgraduate students start their thesis process believing that these two logics are the same: that you start with Chapter 1, and the process unfolds neatly and logically from there. They become frustrated, then, when this turns out to be a lie:  when the truth is multiple drafts and mistakes, time spent writing paragraphs or pages of writing that have to be deleted when they are no longer relevant, and sometimes unexpected changes to your research questions, theory or methodology as the project evolves. This frustration can breed self-doubt if not carefully managed through supervision: many students believe that the more drafts you have to write, the worse you are as a writer; so many students I have met erroneously believe that the best writers don’t write that many drafts, and don’t make that many mistakes or revisions.

The opposite is the truth. The more successful writers, and postgraduate students, have learned to embrace the chaos and the frustration; they have learned to manage a balance between having a clear research plan and letting that process evolve so that they can still be surprised by what they find, or learn, as they write and work the data. This is a hard thing to do, live in a space where you know probably less than you don’t know, and where you have to be okay with the not-knowing, and move willingly between knowing and not-knowing over and over as your research moves forwards. This requires not just mental fortitude, but emotional resilience.

Researching and writing a thesis feels, at times, as if you are on a many-roaded route, trying to keep your eye on the GPS when it’s giving you more than one possible route and asking you to choose the best one to get you to your destination within minimal traffic and in good time. You may choose one route, and then find halfway you’ve made an error in judgement, and then choose to turnoff, and take a back road back to the main route you were on. There may be unexpected detours that the GPS didn’t know about and so couldn’t warn you of. You may feel like you are going around in circles at some points, and in a lovely, free-flowing straight line at others. A research degree, especially a PhD, represents a long road, with several possible routes to your destination. And it’s not a straight line. You may have to re-drive parts of the route at times, or try out different parts of the route than you expected to. But, if you try to trust the process, and make peace with taking your time and living with a bit of mess and non-linear chaos, you will hopefully get to your destination in one piece, and with a really good understanding of the area you’ve been driving around and around.

In research terms, this means getting more comfortable with the iterative nature of research, writing, and thinking. You cannot expect to write a chapter once, and be done. And you can’t expect to read something once and fully understand it, especially if it’s pivotal to your project, like theory. Writing multiple drafts, making mistakes, including knowledge and reading you don’t need along with that which you do, and making revisions that improve your writing, further your thinking and push your research forward is part and parcel of valuable, challenging postgraduate study that makes you a more capable researcher. Doing worthwhile research that pushes your field forward will require you to have a really firm understanding of that field, and the place your research can occupy within it. This means getting a bit lost sometimes, but having the means (through supervisors, peers, reading) to find your way onto your route again.

Terry Pratchett’s soundbite on first drafts is my favourite: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. If you see your thesis as a story, evolving as the characters and plot take shape, and as the twists and turns reveal themselves through working with theory, methodology, data and analysis, it can be easier to embrace that uncertainty, and iterative rounds of writing, feedback, revision, and rewriting that push your research, and you as a researcher, forward. You start by telling yourself, and move to telling your supervisors, examiners and finally your wider audience – and you make a contribution that is valued and relevant. It won’t happen in a nice, linear way, but the depth of knowledge you gain, of your field and the research process, will be worth all the ‘driving’ in the end.

Weaving smaller arguments into a larger thesis: the parts and the whole

Making your thesis into an argument that is both persuasive and coherent is probably the biggest challenge in doing a doctorate. Argumentation is a craft, and crafting a well-honed, carefully substantiated argument is difficult work. I have written before in this blog about the ‘golden thread’ that weaves the parts of your thesis together, and creates the argument that is, at the end, what your research is all about. Here I want to write a bit more about this tricky beast that is your argument, and how you create smaller and larger, connected, arguments within a thesis.

From pinterest.com

From pinterest.com

A thesis, as we know, is written in pieces and chunks over quite a lengthy period of time – anywhere from 3 to 8 years on average across South Africa, the UK, Australia, and the US and Canada. Some PhDs are research-only, where all you work on for your candidacy is The Thesis (the UK, Australia and South Africa, generally), and some PhDs include compulsory examinations and coursework before students embark on researching a thesis (the US and Canada). There are other forms of thesis writing too, like the PhD with or by publication, fairly popular in Scandinavian universities alongside the more traditional ‘big book’ theses. There may be other forms as well that I am unaware of, but these seem to generally be the primary ways, at the moment, of producing PhD-level research in higher education. The challenge, in all these forms – some more than others – is creating coherence across chapters, and pulling these chapters together around the central thread that is your overall argument. You could think, in terms of a metaphor, about this overall argument as a kind of pattern, guiding and shaping the weaving and knitting and selecting that goes into crafting a well-designed and written thesis.

From waldorfmama.typepad.com

From waldorfmama.typepad.com

Each chapter, though, has to contain a part of that argument – smaller or sub-arguments: taking my own thesis as one example, you may well need an argument for your research aims and questions, and the gaps in your field that your research is located within (chapter 1); an argument for the concepts you have chosen to create and craft the theoretical framework that will be the lens (theoryology) with which you will view your research problems, methodology and data (chapter 2); an argument for the analytical and methodological framework and tools you will use to generate, organise and analyse your data (chapter 3);an argument defending your selections of only parts of your full data set, and how these have been organised and analysed to answer the research questions (chapters 4 and 5); and finally, an argument for the significance of your research to your audience and your field, and what it all means (chapter 6). These arguments all need to keep in mind the Big Argument that your thesis is making, which should be the answers to your research questions. Carrying on with the weaving/knitting metaphor, you could think of all of these chapters as balls of yarn in different colours – each one necessary to follow the pattern you have created.

One way to keep track of this Big Argument as you are toiling away at individual chapters, pieces and chunks of the thesis over time is to keep it visible. Write it on a piece of card and stick it above your workspace. Type it into the header of each page as your write parts of your thesis, as a running header, so that it is always in front of you). Check in regularly, in a research journal or similar space, so that you can track smaller or larger shifts and refinements of the Big Argument as your writing and thinking evolves and grows over time. It is so important to keep reminding yourself of what you are actually wanting to claim in your thesis, and why you think this argument matters, especially, for example, once you get into your data swamps and immerse yourself in everything your data want to tell you. It is easy, at that point, to get lost in all the interesting, rich data and lose sight of your argument, which will ask to you select only some of that data to substantiate your claims within the word limits you have been given.

Another way to keep track of the argument you are making is to find one or more critical friends with whom you can create a writing group, circle or support space, whether in person or virtually. You can undertake to read one another’s work at intervals, and give one another feedback on whether the arguments you are making in each chapter connect to one another and to the bigger argument; whether the parts are creating a coherent, sensible and persuasive whole (and where they are missing the mark). You can, of course, also ask your supervisor very specifically for this kind of feedback, as it is also their job to ensure that you stay on track and make the most persuasive, coherent, substantiated argument you are capable of making within the time and space allowed to you.

In the end, you want to complete a thesis, in whichever form or system you are working within, that represents what Trafford and Leshem term ‘doctorateness’: it is more than a collection of chapters, or ticks against boxes (theory, check; literature review, check; etc). It is a well-crafted, sensibly structured, persuasive piece of work that shows your capability to do research at this level well, and to make a contribution to the development of knowledge (and perhaps also practice) within your field. It is, in terms of the metaphor, a carefully woven, complete and accurate representation of the pattern you created, in all its brightly coloured glory.

From torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

From pinterest.com


torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

From torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com