Craft and care. It’s sometimes difficult to find the best word to describe what we do when we’re engaged in academic endeavors. Terms like “craft” seem to fall into the domain of creative work, with responsible ownership by the poets and novelists of the world. “Writing” and “research” lack the aspects of craft, care, and concern that academic authors bring to what they create. It’s more than “work” too: that word evokes a kind of drudgery that falls short of embracing the deep immersion, the discovery, and the pleasures that academic craft can bring about. Would it be revolutionary to think of ourselves as academic craftspeople? A different term might bring a different perspective–not only for others, but also for ourselves.
Be bold. Look back through your draft and see how frequently you use hedging language. How often does the word “seems” appear? Is there a good bit of “maybe” and “might”? If you have invested substantial time, intellect, and creativity in developing your argument and arriving at your conclusions, be bold in reporting your results. If you seem doubtful or skeptical, your readers will be as well.
Make Arrangements. Making, arranging, organizing: creating the spaces in which you write can be a first step to starting a new project, finishing a forgotten one, or moving forward with work already underway. How you arrange your space can make a difference in your comfort level–physically and otherwise. Being mindful and deliberate about how you make arrangements might lead to a more engaged writing experience.
Create an emergency. Noting the similarity between “emerge” and “emergency” inspires some word play that leads to creative thinking about deadlines. Many writers will agree that deadlines can be a strong motivator: when you finally reach the point where you absolutely must get your writing done, there is little choice but to put everything else aside and focus on meeting that deadline. Now imagine creating a microdeadline that is an emergency: I absolutely must finish this paragraph/abstract/outline/chapter before I do anything else. On deadline, we’ll excuse ourselves from obligations to family and friends, let the call go to voice mail and let email go answered. What might emerge if you create a small space of no contact with an urgent deadline for yourself?
What will you call it? When I teach public speaking, I encourage students to title their speeches in progress, often as a first step in writing. That title may never be spoken, or known to anyone but the speaker, unless someone read a written version of the speech. Perhaps even better than writing a thesis statement (which often seems to vex undergraduates), the title helps students remember what they are working on and stay on target as they are researching and writing. This method can be useful for any essay or manuscript in progress. Giving it a title is also a way of making it manifest.
Did you make a resolution? Now make a plan. A goal without a plan is likely to go unfinished. We’ve talked about setting microdeadlines here before, and breaking big goals down into small pieces can make clear how to meet your goals in a manageable system. If you set a project goal, try to get an idea of all of the component parts. You might then set a backward timeline: if you know that you want or need to have that article finished by mid-April, how much work do you need to do each day or week in order to complete it on schedule?
Is your resolution to write every day? If so, determine if you can adequately manage that. That some days are quite full with other responsibilities may make daily goals difficult, so setting them quite small can be helpful. And if you miss a day? So be it. Set it aside and get back on track. It’s easy to abandon daily resolutions when goals are met for a day or two. Don’t give up, and don’t give up hope!
Forgo resolutions and write a statement of purpose instead. With the new year around the corner, many of us have given thought to what we hope to accomplish in 2015. From quitting one habit to adopting another, many aspirations are affirmed on new year’s eve. While we often resolve what to do, how often do we articulate why we want to do it? As a writer, researcher, and scholar, what is your fundamental purpose? Examining why we do what we do can facilitate progress and productivity. Your statement of purpose can also be a reminder to stay on track when struggles arise.
Writing the sonnet. A poet friend who was working on his MFA thesis had a unique method for settling his writer’s block. He typically wrote free verse poems, structured by his own style and aesthetic. But when struck with times where he struggled to find a rhythm, he would lean on traditional rhythms to get started.
This isn’t meant to suggest that you transform your data into iambic pentameter, but rather that you might use that meter, a haiku, or an acrostic as a quick remedy to the frustration of not having a place to start.
Put a new spin on your research topic. Filmmaker and artist Ze Frank describes his process for getting unstuck by considering the extremes of something: What if we had a scarcity of X? What if we had an overwhelming amount of X? Sometimes it is difficult to step away from our set relationship with our topics and see things from a different perspective. Yet doing so can provide new insight into our areas of research expertise. Even ridiculous questions can yield helpful perspectives. If aliens landed on earth and I had to explain X, what would I say? If a baby put X in its mouth, what would it taste like? What color would this thing be? If it were part of a cargo cult, why would it be revered? Do we cherish X? Do we deplore it?
Watch a chilldren’s show. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, which has just been released on DVD/BluRay in the US, might be one option, although it is certainly not the only children’s show rich enough in intertextuality to also delight adult viewers. A little bit of Teletubbies or Sesame Street can go a long way to clear one’s head and bring us back to the very basics of communication. When dealing with complex ideas and trying to articulate them, simple can be a good place to start.
Matt Lawson is a final year funded PhD candidate in film musicology. His thesis is entitled ‘Scoring the Holocaust: a comparative, theoretical analysis of the function of film music in German Holocaust cinema’. You can find out more about Matt at his website: www.themusicologist.co.uk, and follow him on Twitter @MattLawsonPhD.
After a fantastic month in Germany, I am now back in the UK. Is it a case of proudly looking over what I’ve achieved, or licking my wounds after an unproductive month? Well I’m delighted to announce that it’s the former! I have had one of my most productive months of writing in the short history of my PhD.
It was always going to be a challenge working in a foreign country for a month, but they say “change is as good as a rest”, and the different scenery and culture helped a great deal with my productivity.
After my interim report stated that I’d made a solid start, things got even better in the following week, meaning—and I take a deep breath as I type this—I have returned to England with a final first draft of my PhD thesis! It’s an incredible feeling, and one I didn’t expect when I flew out on October 31st, but the month away has propelled me into a very strong position.
How did I make it work for me? Well, as previously highlighted, I made use of daylight hours by sightseeing, hiking, taking photographs and generally forgetting about research. Mentally and physically, this was important. Then, when it got dark at 4.30pm, I wrote until around 9.30pm each evening, with breaks for drinks and a meal. I repeated this Monday to Friday, and took weekends off.
Over the course of three weeks, I managed to write 14,000 words using this method. The final week, it was decided early on, would be a break as a reward for working hard. I cannot recommend taking a week off enough. It is the first time in over two years of PhD research that I have truly abandoned my research for a week. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t check emails, I didn’t even open my laptop on some days. The impact on my wellbeing was incredible. From feeling proud of my efforts, but also a little stressed to say the least, I returned to England invigorated, refreshed and as enthused as the day I began my PhD journey. As I tweak and polish my thesis in the run up to Christmas, I have already promised myself two weeks with no PhD over the festive break.
In conclusion, I look back with fondness on a country and experience which worked wonders on my PhD productivity, and perhaps there is something to be said for a 3 week/1 week working pattern, giving the body and mind time to recover before the next stretch of research.
Engage in bracketing. This is a tip that comes from conflict management, and it carries over well to research and writing. When we are engaged in conflict, many different issues and concerns might come to the fore. If those issues create a digression, the original source of conflict might get lost and might never get resolved. Instead, the effort toward resolution turns into an even muddier puddle. In managing conflict, you should be mindful of those side issues and point out that they should be bracketed for a later conversation, once the current conflict is resolved.
As interested, engaged researchers and writers, we often find side interests that might take us down rabbit holes. This happens even after you have stopped reading your email and shut down your internet connection. Keep a notepad or an open document where you can jot down the “save for later” topics and keep yourself on track.