Writing to think, or writing to discover your thoughts

I used to work in a university writing centre until quite recently, and the tutors I worked with and I read a great deal and talked a great deal about writing to learn, rather than only about learning to write. More specifically, we talked about writing to think, or writing to discover what it is that you think about a specific topic or subject. All of us were, at the time, working on articles for publication and/or postgraduate degrees, so there was a great deal of both the writing and the thinking that needed doing, all the time it seemed.

But writing and thinking have always been, for me, a sort of ‘chicken and egg’ issue: which comes first – do I read and think and then start writing, or will the thinking only really come when the writing happens? Or do I just write it all down, and then read, think and edit?

Of course, there is no right (or wrong) answer, and we all have different writing tics, tricks and processes to help us get into and stay in our own writing ‘zone’. In this post I’d like to reflect on my own writing and thinking process, which comes first, and why I think that thinking is perhaps more valuable than writing (although hopefully some of it will lead to writing, because sharing our thinking is necessary for others to learn from and engage with it).

Doing a PhD showed me, more than anything else, how much thinking actually goes into producing a lengthy, detailed piece of work that can make a genuine contribution to a field of study. Prior to writing my PhD thesis, I had completed other degrees, but quite honestly I had never thought that hard, and for that long, and in that kind of roundabout, convoluted, complex and also kind of thrilling way before. Even the papers I had published, which were few, had not demanded that level of thought, based on reading, challenging conversations with supervisor and peers, and more reading and scribbling on my own. It is much clearer to me now how important it is to make time, and space in my head, to really think about what I want to say, and why it matters, and to whom it might matter so that I can write articles that my peers will really want to read, and that will make a contribution to practice in my field.

This means that I do a great deal of informal writing before I open that Word file, give the paper a title and start plotting it out in firmer detail, committing myself to one argument. I scribble a great deal in my research and reading journals, and I play around with ideas, letting them kind of just flow until I find one that I think can support one clear and coherent argument. This, in my process, is thinking level 1: messy, informal, scribbly, and ultimately quite enjoyable because there are very few rules. Of course, as an editor as well as a writer in my professional life, I often want to jump ahead 5 steps and edit my thoughts before they have even made it onto the page, so this is a tendency I need to tamp down. Scribbling as freely as possible, at this initial level of thinking, means that many more ideas than can be contained in one paper often make it into my research journal, and although many of the scribbles remain just scribbles, all of this builds my confidence in my ideas as being valuable, and all of it serves as writing and thinking practice, strengthening my researcher muscles over time.

Moving on, once I have found my way to an idea that I like, and that feels like an argument I can actually make and support in an extended piece of writing, like a chapter or an article, I start the plotting process more formally. I think up a holding title, and I craft an abstract that contains an initial form of my ‘tiny text’ (Kamler and Thompson’s illustrative term). I then work on possible subheadings within the paper, and capture initial thoughts about what might go into these sections. I also make a note of readings I have done that would be referenced within the paper. At the end of thinking level 2, creating a skeleton for the paper, I now have a concrete base to build my paper on.

At this stage, though, the thinking behind the paper is still fairly nebulous, and needs to be pinned down, in particular the argument, which is the core of the paper. I use a thinking tool learnt about on a writing retreat earlier this year, and that has been incredibly helpful in making clearer this nebulous thinking and subsequent writing. In essence, I use sticky notes to plot out the key parts of my argument in my research journal. I write down, on no more than 3 stickies what my main claim is. Then I write down, again on no more than 3 stickies, what my reasons are for making this claim. The next step is to write down what forms of evidence I need to use to substantiate these claims. I added a step to this process for my own writing to note what I want the ‘take-home’ message for my writing to be. This process, which is thinking level 3 for me, ends up looking a little like this:

IMG_3049

Finally, once I have reached this stage, I feel ready to really write, and I set myself words per day or week targets and start typing the paper. What I love about this 4th stage in my own writing and thinking process is that the writing flows a little more easily in general because of all the pre-writing and thinking I have done to get to this point, but that I am still surprised by the kinds of thoughts and turns of phrase that emerge as I let the writing flow, and as my thinking continues to stretch, change and develop. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling to find yourself reading over a paragraph you have written, and thinking ‘Wow! I didn’t know I thought that – it sounds so smart!’ 🙂

I suppose, at the end of this reflection, I am concluding that what I tend to think of as ‘Writing’ is the formal processes that turn nebulous ideas into a formal paper that I can submit to a journal. I don’t often count the scribbles, and plottings and ongoing thinking that brings all of that to life as Writing. But, it is all writing, and even if parts of the scribbles and thinking never see the light of day in a formal piece of writing, it all counts in terms of building my confidence, and my capacity to keep thinking and keep writing in tighter, more refined and more integral ways as I grow into my scholarly self.

 

 

Keeping track of your study in space and time

I have been asked to speak to doctoral students at the end of the month at a ‘Doc week’ attached to the PhD programme I have graduated from, where we all come together from different parts of the country to attend seminars, share our progress, meet with supervisors etc. These weeks were a big and important part of my own journey. I am going to be talking about my research journey, focusing in on three areas that were tricky for me, and sharing ‘tools’ that have been helpful. So, I thought I’d do a dry run with one of these tools here: the ‘GPS tool’ to help you keep track of your study in space and time, and to help you stay motivated.

GPS – or global positioning systems – as most people know use latitude and longitude to give exact coordinates of different locations or places around the world. If you have these coordinates and a GPS device or very precise map, you can find your way no matter where you are (in theory at least). I am thinking that this idea could be useful for finding or keeping track of your PhD over time and in space. PhDs can be slippery things, in part or whole, and having tools to help you manage the process and work out not just where you are now but where you have come from and where you are going to can be really helpful. So, I’m going to call this one the ‘GPS tool’ and like all tools, it can be adapted for specific use in your own context.

From iconfinder.com

From iconfinder.com

It’s a really simple idea and it probably works best if you try and check in on your study’s GPS coordinates regularly, like once a quarter or every 6 months. If you check in too frequently, especially in the first year when things seem to be moving more slowly than they do in the final year, you may not feel like you are making very much progress and you may become disheartened. If you check in too infrequently, though, the tool may not be that effective because you may have trouble remembering key details. I think checking in every 3 or 4 months is probably ideal. The idea is to use a research or similar kind of journal, by hand or electronically, and write to yourself about: 1) where you started from at the beginning of the period you are tracking (e.g., January – have draft 1 of theory chapter and interview schedules; written to people re interviews and set them up); 2) where you are right now (e.g. March – conducted 4 interviews, transcribed data from 2, have generated data from documents and observations; have started methodology chapter – 10 pages); and 3) where you plan to go between now and the next check-in (e.g. by May finish interview transcriptions, capture field notes, write further three sections of methodology on data generation). Hopefully, this will show you that you have made progress, even if parts of the period you are tracking have involved PhD neglect and feelings of guilt about this; it will also hopefully give you a more manageable ‘to do’ list on the PhD for the next few months.

Tracking your study’s GPS coordinates at regular(ish) intervals can be helpful in a few ways: it can show you that you are indeed moving, and (hopefully) in the rights kinds of directions; it can motivate you to keep moving; it can give you helpful information to bring into meetings with your supervisor/s, especially if you feel you are going to slowly or are worried that you’ve wandered off track; it can also possibly form part of the narrative you tell your readers about how you have done your study, and could be part of your language of description. The trick, though, apart from keeping these GPS coordinates in one place, and checking in regularly, is being honest with yourself. I battle with this – I don’t want to look bad, even in front of me, and so I often make things seem less dire or unproductive than they (too often) are. If we lie to ourselves about what we’re up to with our PhDs (or not up to), we risk derailing ourselves further.

I find it really tough to make long terms plans, even though I made a work plan for a whole year in 2013. I battle to stick to these and I can’t anticipate all the things that will happen or go wrong, or get in my way. Planning for 3 months seems a lot more do-able, and may well make it easier to be honest without the fear of looking bad.  I think I am going to make this tool a more conscious part of my own forward journey with my postdoctoral writing, starting today. Do any of you have tools like this that help you stay or get back on track?

Why (and how) I keep reading and research journals

research journal cover

My reading journal

This post is about reading (and writing), and how I try to keep track of what I read and what I think about it and why I need to include it in my writing.

I went to a Doc week workshop last year at Rhodes on how to keep reading and research journals and why these are useful. It was one of the most ‘lightbulb-going-on’-type workshops I have ever been to, largely because of the reading journal tool. I had been, up until that point, annotating all my readings and highlighting all over them, but stopping and starting as I went to do this highlighting and annotating. I found myself getting to the end of a long book chapter or paper unable to articulate, in my own words, what the author was on about. It was so frustrating because I found that my reading was stilted and my notes were full of exact quotes from the readings rather than summaries in my own words, so I was having trouble writing about it all. I could not think beyond the authors’ words and I was getting nowhere fast with my ‘theory’ chapter and literature review-type sections.

At this workshop the idea of a reading journal was introduced and explained. Essentially the goal is to read the article all the way through without annotating or highlighting or stopping. Then, on a clean MSWord page or notebook page (I like to write mine in pen and pencil in a pretty Moleskine notebook) you write a summary of the article – what stuck out for you, what the main arguments were, how you are linking it to your other reading, what questions you had, what you were not clear about and so on. You can go back and read again and add direct quotes or clarify fuzzy bits but only after you have read the article or chapter and summarised it like this first. What is brilliant about a reading journal kept like this is that you do remember what you have read (even though you think you won’t), the main points are what go into the summary rather than all the points as often happens when you are annotating, and you are writing in your own words so there is less of a writing block caused by being stuck on the author’s words.

I have learnt a few tips to make keeping a reading journal like this a bit easier. Firstly, read when your brain is fresh, otherwise it’s harder to focus and remember the main points and you find yourself having to keep going back to the reading and then you’re copying quotes instead of summarising in your own words. Second, make sure you write the FULL bibliographical reference at the top of the summary – there is nothing worse than having to chase down references later on. Thirdly, keep your journal with you – if you get a few spare minutes and want to read it’s nice to have your book with you (if you keep a hard copy) and to keep these summaries in one place. I have reading journal entries in my book and on my PC and on bits of paper stapled to printed-out articles and it’s a bit hard to keep track of it all. This reading journal has changed the way I read and make notes, and has really helped me to find my own voice as a writer in this PhD and even in papers and other things I am writing.

research journal inside

An example of a writing/drawing page in my research journal

The other journal I keep is more personal and something I also learnt about during this Doc week. It’s my research journal. This is where I scribble ideas for parts of my thesis, ideas for papers I want to write related to my PhD research, notes about my frustrations, triumphs, setbacks, writing process and inklings, and so on. I draw pictures, I write more linear entries, I draw ‘word-pictures’ – it is a creative, personal space where I record my journey, and where the ‘archaeological dig’ that has been my study has unfolded and evolved over the past almost-two years – and is still unfolding. I take it to work with me everyday, and home again. I never know when the muse will strike, and I scribble sometimes on the way to work while my husband drives, or sitting in bed on a Saturday morning, or quickly between meetings at work. This journal has been very useful as a part-confessional diary and part-intellectual work-space. A small tip: if you are going to start one, buy a pretty journal from a bookshop. It’s more inspiring and enjoyable to keep a journal that is lovely to look at than one in a plain A4 book with a brown or black cover. :-).

I highly recommend keeping one of each of these journals – the reading journal for the more ‘academic’ work you are doing, and the research journal for your own personal as well as academic processes and thoughts and ideas. These tools are useful for the PhD journey itself and beyond or outside of it.

The value of writing just for yourself

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.