If you’ve taken part before, you know the drill: get your reading done now, stock up on your favourite coffee [insert other productivity enhancement products here] and cancel what you can, because November means ‘write like there’s no December!’
If you’re new to AcWriMo here’s the deal:
Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo for short) is a month-long academic write-a-thon that happens every November, it’s inspired by the amazing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) but caters to the specific needs of academic writers at all stages of their career (from undergrads to the most distinguished of professors).
The idea is that you set yourself a writerly goal and get stuck in with all the information, advice and support you’ll get from others taking part. The month helps us:
Think about how we write,
Form a valuable support network for our writing practice,
Build better habits for the future,
And maybe – just maybe – get more done in less time!
And if you can get a lot done in November – a busy time for us academics all over – think how easy it’ll be to get writing done the rest of the year!
So here’s how you get involved….
There are 6 basic rules:
1. Decide on your goal. You might count words, hours put in or projects achieved – it’s up to you. But try and push yourself a bit.
2. Declare it! Sign up on the AcWriMo 2014 Writing Accountability Spreadsheet and fill in the sections on what you’d like to achieve and keep us updated on your progress. Being accountable is key to this working for you. You need to feel a bit of pressure to get the work done.
3. Draft a strategy. Don’t start AcWriMo without doing a bit of planning and preparation. Get some reading done, carve out time slots in your schedule to dedicate to writing, even buy your favourite coffee. Sort out whatever you’ll need to write, and get it done now, there won’t be time when November comes around.
4. Discuss your progress. OK so being on Twitter and Facebook with us all day isn’t acceptable – you’ve got work to do – but checking-in at certain times is really important! We want to know how you’re getting on? What is working for you and what isn’t? Do you need help? Do you want to share a writing triumph? (You’ll find most discussion about AcWriMo on Twitter using the #AcWriMo hashtag, but if Facebook is more your thing, go there. Or use your own blog to keep in touch. You can even write little updates you want to share in the spreadsheet.)
5. Don’t slack off. If you push yourself, you’ll quickly discover the tips and techniques that work best for YOU and that’ll save you even more time in the long-run.
6. Declare your results. It’s great to use the spreadsheet everyday (or as often as you can) to chart how you’re getting on, but even if you can’t do that, you MUST announce your results at the end of the month. Our writing community benefits not only from sharing in your achievements, but knowing what didn’t work and being reminded that, at the end of the day, we’re all human!
We will have a team of AcWriMo Ambassadors supporting you at every. And if you have time, blog posts are a great way to reflect on your writing strategies with your peers (we always gather all the posts created during AcWriMo season here)
Dr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is his forth and final post for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.
In David Bale and Ted Orland’s 1993 book, Art & Fear they describe a study in which a ceramics class is divided into two halves: one half of the students are asked to focus on producing a large quantity of work, while the other half is tasked with producing a small amount of high quality work. The notable result of this study was that not only did the first group produce the most work, but also the best work.
This example illustrates the psychology of human productivity. By concentrating on quantity as opposed to quality one can be produce better work and greater volumes. This example is drawn from a creative field, so does a quantity over quality mind-set work for more general academic research?
Bill Gates is quoted as saying that ‘most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.’ However, the opposite holds true of many academics. We often plan our academic goals and careers in the long term, but are sometimes guilty of assuming that writing and researching takes a long time. After all, a PhD takes years to write, and this instills within people the notion that good research and writing should take forever.
One of the eye opening experiences about academic writing month #AcWriMo is realizing how much you can get done when you focus on producing a large quantity of work in a short amount of time. It involves reimagining the potential of your output by focusing on quantity and setting strict deadlines. If you took part in this year’s event, you may already be beginning to think about the possibilities of sustaining November’s yield throughout the year, or at least between semesters.
David Hare offers some great insights into this topic in his article here, and makes the important observation that for many researchers it’s not just a case of increasing word count but also transforming ideas and existing projects into publishable and presentable work. Dave also has suggestions for developing a publishing strategy here. Whether you are building your first strategy spreadsheet, or revisiting an old one, keep in mind Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s famous quip that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” By setting challenging goals for your academic output and combining this with a good research and writing routine you can sustain your #AcWriMo habits throughout the year.
But what about the quality? The quality vs. quantity axiom assumes that one prohibits the other leading many of us to focus on quality. However, as the ceramics class example illustrates, this need not be true. A frame of mind that focuses on quantity involves re-evaluating what you are capable of, and, through repetition, improving the quality of the work you produce rather than compromising it.
While not all academics are perfectionists, it would be fair to say that academia as a profession is one that lends itself to perfectionism. If you set good habits with your research and writing, then concerns about the quality of the work shouldn’t be an issue. For example, by sharing your writing or collaborating with others you can use feedback as a barometer for the quality of your output.
Remember also that focusing on quality may not only result in lower output but also lower quality work. For years I approached research and writing at a snail’s pace. I simply assumed that I was slow or not as smart as my swifter colleagues. We also often blanket these types of issues with excuses: teaching, administration and life always seem to get in the way of our research. But as #AcWriMo demonstrates when the goals are set and the determination is there, somehow you just get the work done.
So are there any limits? A mathematician colleague of mine recently lamented that there are only so many theorems a human being can produce in a year and hence a limited number of publishable papers that can be originated from them. But on the other hand, why let limits constrain you? There is nothing to be gained from placing conscious ceilings into your research strategy. Aim high and even if you don’t hit all your targets your likely to beat what you could produce with a ‘quality-first’ mind-set.
Ensure that you exploit your work for the most publishable opportunities as possible. Over the course of my studies I queried several of the most distinguished professors at my university and all of them agreed that leveraging every project, study and experiment for a maximum number of publishable articles was crucial to their success. This ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy guided each of them to great achievement.
There is one caveat to consider when focusing on quantity. In your drive for more output don’t get caught into thinking about publishing in contexts that won’t advance your career, because it seems easy and you want to produce more. In her excellent book, The Professor Is in : The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. into a Job, Karen Kelsky notes that many young academics ‘squander the best years of their academic lives on worthless (for the purposes of the job market) publications such as book reviews, conference proceedings, and chapters in edited collections that a) never see the light of day, b) take endless years to get published, or c) get published but only in obscure hardcovers that even university libraries don’t buy.’
In other words, in your pursuit of greater output keep your focus on the best journals and conferences within your field. If you need further convincing take China as an example. According to a recent article by Changhui Pen in Nature. China’s total output of academic publication is now ranked second in the world, behind the United States. However, in terms of citation numbers it is ranked ninth equal, a statistic that dampens the country’s great strides in research over the last decade. The same holds true for academics, embracing a mind-set of abundance must be matched with a desire to produce the best work.
Dr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the third of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.
It’s the long holiday weekend and everyone is posting their day on Instagram while you are chained to your desk grading your students work. You tell yourself it’s worth it. Your students’ written work deserves your detailed analysis and feedback even if it means sacrificing your holidays.
The day arrives when you finally return said work to your students. You watch in horror, as students glance at the grades on their assignments and then shove them in their bags. Your comments succumb to the darkness never to be glimpsed again.
It was after one such episode that I started to rethink my approach to feedback. Clearly, something wasn’t quite working. Perhaps, my feedback was arriving too late, and maybe what I had to say or how I was saying it wasn’t resonating with my students. I began searching for new strategies for writing feedback. I found inspiration in an article on written feedback by researchers Chris Glover and Evelyn Brown, who point out:
‘Where feedback is given, its prime function is to inform the students about their past achievement rather than looking forward to future work.’
I had always adhered to the traditional model of imparting my “expertise” on students’ work. Before students submitted their work, I would review drafts and offer comments when solicited, but would reserve most of my feedback for after an assignment’s submission.
The idea of reversing this approach and giving feedback for future work rather than past achievements was one that resonated with me. I also had in mind a method which would enable students to take feedback into their own hands, so that it wasn’t just me imparting knowledge, but student’s discovering it for themselves. Finally, I wanted to incorporate blended learning and enable students the flexibility to interact with each other within and without the classroom.
With these goals in mind I hoped that feedback would be less about me defending a grade and more about students learning and engaging as they thought and wrote. I decided to trial these strategies on a first year writing assignment – an argumentative essay by asking my students come up with an argumentative topic in the form of a statement or question and a thesis outlining their position.
The students posted their topics and statements onto the announcement section of our class Blackboard (the online platform not the chalkboard). I asked each class member to give critical feedback to one other student by analysing their topic and statement and assessing whether it was arguable.
Although I chose to use blackboard any online platform would have worked: Canvas, Turnitin, Google docs and Facebook could all be employed for this type of activity. With educational technologies there is no perfect bullet for solving education challenges.
A mistake I made early on with blended learning was to try to fit my classes and goals around the technology. Instead, I now think about how technology can help achieve the learning outcomes I set for the class. In this case, I simply wanted to give the students a virtual space to share and critique their ideas and blackboard served this purpose just fine.
The results of the activity were encouraging. The students’ feedback on each other’s work was insightful and accurate. Colleagues had warned me of the time danger that these type of activities can involve. For example, it can be easy for an educator to lose hours giving feedback on an endless list of comments.
To avoid this, I told the students I would only give them feedback via email if I thought they were off track. I then looked through the statements and the peer feedback comments and identified a few outliers 4-5 students in a class of 25 whose comments or feedback confused or astray and offered some suggestions. I then asked these students to re-post/re-critique afterwards.
An unexpected effect of this trial was that some students put some extra work in and added claims to their topics and statements, and their peers in turn gave feedback on whether these claims were strong or weak and some even come up with counter claims. This was not planned at all, but it got me thinking about how to expand the approach further.
As a result, I am planning to expand the activity, so that it becomes a weekly homework activity in the month running up to the submission date. Students will upload a topic and thesis statement, followed by claims, and then counter claims and brief outlines of examples to support claims. Each week students will offer their peers critiques of these posts, guided by some questions and approaches we study in class. It would also be possible to have students give feedback on entire drafts of each other’s work depending on your university’s policies. To ensure my students stayed motivated I let them know their peer feedback would go towards their class participation grade.
My initial impression of this experiment is that my students have produced better work. Previously, I often had a few students who submitted assignments that weren’t arguable, were off topic or poorly structured. By employing this feedback for future work approach I saw an instant improvement.
The process of giving feedback and working through the stages of writing in steps, also helped to enhance the students understanding of academic writing processes and meant that even if they decided to write the essay at the last minute, a lot of thought and effort has already been put in. They had been critiquing other’s work for several weeks and had been thinking about their own topic, had a clear structure, and in some cases, examples to work from.
This type of activity can be implied to a wide variety of writing contexts simply by thinking of strategies for putting feedback in students’ own hands, making sure that the feedback happens for students’ future work and giving students opportunities to participate both within and without the classroom.
In most cases university policy around the world dictates that there still must a grade and a justification, so no promises that this approach will save your holidays, but possibly at least you can grade with the confidence that your students have already discovered much of the feedback they really need.
Glover, C., & Brown, E. (2006). Written Feedback for Students: Too much, too detailed or too incomprehensible to be effective? Bioscience Education,7(1), 1-16. doi:10.3108/beej.2006.07000004
Dr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the second of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.
You dedicate 3+ years of your life to graduate studies that promised to make you an expert on something. But what happens at the end when you can’t get a job, or you don’t care anymore, or you feel like a change? The question of what to do next, can be a little scary.
Last week, I wrote about transitioning countries, and in this article I explore some of the reasons behind why you might change or develop a new academic specialization and a few strategies that have helped me make the transition from one specialization to another – because, yes as crazy as it sounds, I did change countries and fields at the same time.
There is an antiquated culture in many university departments around the world that believes if you can’t make it in your specialization you are a failure. There is also a huge amount of pressure on PhD graduates to transform into tiny little diamonds of expertise. There is a logic behind this model, we can’t be experts in everything. In the past, if a graduate didn’t make the cut he or she was discarded. There was no discussion of alternative careers or of new possibilities, you were deemed a failure and that was that.
However, there are now communities of PhD graduates, researchers, and professors who are reinventing themselves in new ways. The term “recovering academic” has been a prominent one over recent years. The twitter hashtags #postac and #altac feature inspiring stories of academics that have found new paths.
For those not quite ready to walk the plank and take a dive into the unknown, academia offers opportunities beyond the specialization you trained for. This is because academia is changing; the new technological landscape of education and research is evolving new roles and possibilities. Among these are new interdisciplinary fields. You may not be able to switch from psychology to biology without further training but as a psychologist you might be able to work with a biologist on an interesting project that braids the two disciplines together.
There is also the prospect of developing a second stream of research or moving into a related field as I have recently done. Like many PhD graduates I had a tough time after I finished my degree. My family had just survived my studies, and so, I wasn’t about to drag them through more lean years as a post doc. I needed a job. This required an honest assessment of my career prospects.
I think it’s fair to say that I am an extraordinary academic, but not in the way that you might think. If you were to pass my CV to your supervisor, or a colleague they would probably shake their head and mutter, “There’s a cautionary tale, whatever you do, don’t be that guy.”
That’s because I never intended to be an academic, so I didn’t exactly plan my career. Over the last twelve years I have earned degrees in philosophy, communication studies and literature and have worked in a variety of institutions teaching a kaleidoscope of humanities subjects from creative writing to business English. My CV embodies the chaotic lights and noise of a Hong Kong night market in full swing.
During my PhD studies I dreamed of being a literary theorist. But after one year and 50 odd job applications I knew that this wasn’t going to happen. Not only was my CV a mix-and-match collage, but I wasn’t exactly setting the world alight with trailblazing research. Universities wanted focused academics, with degrees from prominent universities and a small ton of journal articles. I felt frustrated and a failure.
The ‘a-ha;’ moment came after many months when I started thinking about myself and my CV differently. After all, Hong Kong night markets are wonders to behold. I thought about how my ridiculously eclectic CV might be relevant to jobs in academia beyond literature. Often we think we have attained expertise in a subject and ignore all the valuable skills that we learn completing a PhD such as research, computer and communication skills along with project management to name a few. These skills are valuable and can help you move into administrative or consulting roles and new areas of research and teaching.
To guide me in a new direction and reimagine my career, I spoke with senior colleagues, my supervisor, friends and family. They pointed out that because of my experience I knew a lot about writing styles in different disciplines and genres and could teach a variety of different kinds of students. They also pointed out that Academic English was in high demand among universities, especially in Asia – my adopted home. I had worked for a couple of years at an editorial assistant at an Academic English journal so I had some ideas about this field even though the applied linguistics research it involved was very different to literary theory.
It was clear that I wouldn’t get a research track job in this new discipline. Research track was a dream installed in me since my first days of graduate school. It was and remains hard, but I had to let this dream go at least for a while. I set my sights on academic English lecturing jobs. I interviewed for a few and accepted a job at a good university. Although my new role was primarily concerned with lecturing I was also expected to do research, so the door was still open.
Six months later and I am on my way to developing a second stream of research. I am still writing up articles from my PhD, but I have also just finished my first grant application for an Academic English research project. I won’t pretend it’s been easy, teaching is one thing, but there is a steep learning curve to the research. I am embracing it anyway, jumping in the deep end and have been surprised by how much overlap there is between my existing skills and knowledge and the new field I am working in.
Nobody said it would be easy, but in the words of the philosopher Bowie, “turn and face the strange.” Consider all the things that are “wrong” about your skills and experience and see how they might be right for other specializations and opportunities.
Dr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the first of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.
In this age of adjunct academic positions and relentless competition for jobs, the temptation to cast off for exotic shores and low-tax salaries is an alluring one for many young academics. Before taking that leap consider this testimony on the trials and tribulations of transitioning between academic jobs in different countries.
In 2005, fresh from my master’s degree, I decided to leave my hometown of Auckland and take my OE (Overseas Experience). The OE is a mandatory rite of passage for those of us who grow up closer to Antarctica than the rest of the world. At the time I was convinced that London did not need another Australasian, so I headed in the direction of Shanghai convinced that it was destined to be the New York of the 21st century. As so often happens with adventures I never made it, and still haven’t ever been to Shanghai. Nonetheless, I also haven’t returned home either. Instead, I have lived and worked in universities across Asia.
People often ask me “Why did you choose to live abroad?” There is often a subtext to this question: “You grew up in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet so why the hell leave?” It can be difficult to offer an honest answer. In such situations I am reminded of a quote from The Odyssey which roughly paraphrased goes something like this: “A person who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his or her own sufferings after a time.” I will admit that living abroad has been hard for me, but in the end worth it. And I have managed to get by focusing on one challenge at a time.
So what kind of problems can you encounter working overseas? There are a number of professional challenges involved in transitioning between academic jobs. However, academics that make the move often overlook the injuries to their health and happiness that such new environments can present.
As an example, I consider myself a person who lives reasonably healthy, avoids excess for the most part, and grew up without any significant health issues or allergies. Yet each time I have moved country my body has been dealt a brutal blow. In Indonesia, within a 3 month period, I suffered dysentery and 3 separate bouts of food poisoning that left me 12kg lighter and with a chronically irritable bowel that took several years to recover. In Hong Kong the pollution brought on a lengthy bout of bronchial asthma. I recently moved to Singapore and my first semester of teaching has coincided with an extended battle with pneumonia inspired, my doctor tells me, not by age but by allergies and the climate.
Matters of the heart can also be difficult for academics transitioning to new countries. Trailing spouses of academics often learn too late that finding work can be difficult and even impossible in certain places. Life is not necessarily easier for singletons either. For every tale of cross-cultural love you might hear there are several other stories of souls left lonely and distraught by the enigmatic dating scenes of foreign shores. While these matters are not limited to academics they merit mention because even when your health and sense of wellbeing are tested you are still expected to bare the intense intellectual demands of our profession.
There are a number of often hidden professional challenges you can face working in a new country. Job interviews and university tours often don’t reveal the nuance of a foreign university’s culture, which can quickly leave newly hired academics perplexed and estranged from their employers. In Asia, for example, the bureaucratic nature of many universities can make you feel like you are trapped in a scene out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
In the UK, North America and Australasia your specialisation and research are respected to a certain extent. You expect to be hired to do research and teach on subjects related to your own field. In overseas universities this is not always the case. Academics are frequently expected to be more flexible: “Literary theorist you say? This makes you a perfect candidate for developing our English for business communication course. By the way, what do you know about social science?”
While living in a foreign country, social, cultural and language differences can impact your everyday interactions with students and colleagues, and this can take a toll over an extended period of months or years. Some find these experiences engaging and invigorating, while others feel as if their souls are being sapped of vitality.
Whether you see working overseas as a short jaunt or a long term move, consider carefully your exit strategy. My career outside New Zealand has involved living and working in three different countries and developing a specialisation in an area that is not in particularly high demand back home. I may find it difficult to get work should I ever decide I want to return to New Zealand one day. However, I have other friends and colleagues who carefully managed the development of their research, bided their time and leveraged their overseas experience for better positions on their return home.
For all the laments and sufferings described above, there are many advantages to moving overseas. In places like Asia and the Middle East salaries are often higher and taxes low. Universities may have more money for conferences and grants which can provide you more opportunities to develop your research. Living in a new country offers the chance for you to establish new perspectives and insights into the world and your own work. And, if there is anything that I am truly grateful for it is the friends I have made along the way—a network of people that now spans the globe. A group who have helped shape me into a better human being than the one that left home.
Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the second of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.
In the previous post I explored the differences between writing a dissertation and writing a book. In this post and the next I’ll write about the process of writing the book, both in terms of practical matters and in terms of deciding on the kind of book you’ll write.
There are two ways of going about writing a book: either you write a book proposal first, submit that to a publisher and wait for them to accept it (fingers crossed!), or you write the entire book first, and then submit that to the publisher. While some people go for the second option, most academic publishers don’t want you to send them an entire book immediately. If you do want to write the book first, or you want to publish your dissertation, you could write a proposal based on the finished manuscript and submit that. All academic publishers have a section on their website with details, so make sure to check that out first.
There’s a few risks involved with writing a book without having secured a contract from a publisher. The publisher might not accept it, or will require changes to be made to fit the book in with a series. Most importantly, though, having a contract in hand can be stimulating: having a deadline adds a sense of accountability to a project that can be quite lonely at times. Also, even though you haven’t yet written the book, having the contract gives you something to be proud of (and it looks much better on job and funding applications to have a book ‘under contract’, then just to be working on it as anyone can say that).
At the same time, I know of a few publishers who will express interest based on a proposal but won’t offer a contract until they’ve read a substantial part (i.e. a few chapters), or all of the manuscript. In that case it’s really up to you to if you want to proceed: if the publisher is renowned, if your book fits their list well and/or if you feel secure enough to go through with the book without the contract, you should.
I spent a few months researching and planning the book and then submitted a proposal with detailed chapter descriptions to a publisher. I was lucky to immediately be offered a contract. In my final post of this series I’ll write a bit more about this process and communicating with the publisher in general.
By the time I was offered the contract the timeframe that I had sketched in my proposal didn’t fit anymore. Hearing back from the publisher had taken longer than I had anticipated and I had decided not to start on the book until they had accepted it. Before I could start on the project I also had to write two articles I had committed to. With this in mind I asked for the delivery date of the manuscript to be pushed back a few months, which wasn’t a problem.
The process of writing a book has a practical dimension and a more content-focused dimension. You’ll have to figure out when you’re actually going to write it and, even though you’ve already written a proposal, you’ll have to figure out what kind of book you’ll write. Although I thought I had a pretty good idea about this going into the project, it did take quite a lot of work clarifying what I wanted to write, and what my emphasis would be on. I’ll discuss that process more in the next post.
First, though, the practical side. Once I actually started on the book I had about ten months in which to write it. In the beginning that felt like forever – I had all the time in the world to write this book! It would be fine! By nature I’m a very disciplined and organized person so despite feeling like I had plenty of time I drew up a detailed plan first.
My book consists of four chapters (13,000 words long each), an introduction (10,500 words) and a conclusion (5,000 words). I also needed time for revision at the end, as well as after every chapter, and wanted to schedule enough time so that I could ask other scholars for feedback.
My preferred method of making a plan for any kind of project is to use both a paper calendar – I currently use this one by Moleskine for my research projects – and an app, OmniFocus. I need to see on paper how much time I have available, so I began sketching out my plan using my paper calendar. I started off by planning in big chunks: around average 2½ to 3 months per chapter. When I began work on a chapter I drew up a more detailed plan, which I added to both my paper calendar and OmniFocus.
The benefit of my paper calendar for me is that I get a month at a glance – and I find it easier to plan on paper. OmniFocus, on the other hand, syncs with the app on my phone and iPad, so I always have it with me, and allows me to create projects. My book was one of those projects, and I could add to it even tasks that I didn’t need to schedule immediately but that I didn’t want to forget. Using the review-function, I was able to go back to these tasks and assign a date to them when they became important.
While planning, try to be realistic. The first chapter I wrote was the sample chapter I had submitted with the proposal, so I was rewriting more than writing from scratch. Consequently, this took me about two months at most. The next chapter’s subject matter was already very familiar to me from my PhD, so I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t be needing that much time for it either. Chapters three and four, on the other hand, were on new material, so I needed about three months for each.
Using my calendar helped me to keep other commitments in mind. I knew that by the time I had to write my introduction and conclusion I wouldn’t be teaching so I planned one month in which I wrote both. In practice, though, I wrote the book on one day a week.
While I wrote the book I used the proposal as the basis, but as I went along I ended up making changes and had to figure out in more detail what kind of book I was actually writing. I’ll discuss this process in my next post, as well my revision process.
Being an intern at PhD2Published means in the past few months, I’ve read more pieces on academic writing than my entire three years in the university combined. Many of what I have read involves investigating the problem of procrastination. I can’t help but notice that academic writers and creative writers hold very different beliefs when it comes to that problem. Some people are calling for academics to cease thinking of themselves as just scholars or researchers, but also writers, so perhaps we can take a few notes from people who fully identify themselves as writers.
So what exactly do creative writers have to say about procrastination?
Embrace it. That’s among the first things you will hear.
Creative writers often have slightly more flexible deadlines, so when they hit a writer’s block, they probably won’t tackle it by sitting down and ordering themselves to write at least 5000 words a day. They prefer putting the tasks aside and wait until inspiration strikes. “I’ve spent the last two weeks not writing and I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it, and I don’t feel guilty for not feeling guilty about it [,]” writes Bryan Hutchinson, a creative writer and the proud owner of the Positive Writer blog. He explains in a blog post on why procrastination is a good thing that forcing himself to write usually results in work he doesn’t appreciate. He finds this method wastes time and is causes more stress.
Of course, this doesn’t mean creative writers simply procrastinate for the rest of eternity. Rather they treat their procrastination period as a short break for their worn out mind. They believe creativity comes and goes as it pleases, and cannot be squeezed out like lemon juice. When the time comes, inspiration hits and that’s their sign of going back to work. Optimistic much? Perhaps, but funnily enough, from what I’ve read, this strategy usually works. “I discovered that the more time I put off writing and procrastinate, the more time I spend creating [,]” claims Hutchinson in his post.
Indeed, for creative writers, writing is a process of creation, not gluing your hands to the keyboard and typing until you hit a word limit. The problem academic writers have to ask themselves is, do they have the luxury to NOT do the latter? Sadly, most of the time the answer is no.
The bottom line, creative writers are people who value quality over quantity, while the academic world seems to expect the opposite. Quantity often dictates a scholar’s worth: The number of their works which have been published by high impact journals; the number of citations those works have received… The list goes on.
Just to cheer things up, I believe academic writers do have the chance to procrastinate. One thing both academic and creative writers can agree on is the best time to procrastinate: Something good usually comes out of putting your work aside after the very first draft. Give yourself a break before revising and editing and you will see your writing in a whole new perspective. If you don’t experience an inspiration spur during one of your showers at the procrastination period, it often still comes when you start working on the piece again.
On a final note, creative writers enjoy the writing process itself. As academics, you may find joy in researching or being published, but do try to enjoy the in-betweens like creative writers do. When you sit in a café with no wifi, writing your literature review, treat the process as something you have come to love. Passion always makes quality work.
Over the past two weeks I have been writing about some of the difference between finishing my first book and my second book. My first book began life as my doctoral thesis, and thus much of the writing process was comfortably braced by my supervisor and my fellow PhD candidates, all of whom, even if their topics were completely different to mine, contributed to the sense of camaraderie and research community. Once I began drafting my second book, however, I discovered that not only did I need to begin to think more about project management, but that I needed to think about project management in different ways that I had before. After a year of false starts and failures on the second book, I began to reconsider the management of energy levels in academic writing, and develop some habits and systems to make the best use of my energy rather than just my time.
As I described last week, the differing types of energy required during the drafting and rewriting stages means that I measure progress in these areas in different ways: while drafting I measure progress by words written each week and while rewriting I measure progress by time completed each day. But, of course, assessing progress is only one part of the problem. There is still the matter of scheduling the time that is needed in order to achieve this progress, and over the past three years I have developed several habits and systems that have helped:
Set goals for number of drafting and/or rewriting sessions you plan to do each week. For the past three years, my stretch goal has always been to spend three hours drafting and three hours rewriting each day, for a total of 30 research hours per week. I have always considered this ideal as something to aspire toward, and rarely have I achieved it. My actual goal is 20 research hours per week, with a mixture of time for drafting and rewriting.
Set up repeating calendar events for periods of drafting and rewriting, even if these will rescheduled at a later point. When I look at next week’s schedule in iCal during my Weekly Review (more on that in my next post), I will already have two three-hour sessions each day scheduled for drafting and rewriting. Many of these sessions will be moved, shortened, or, sometimes, deleted, but because I have already set these up as repeating calendar events, I receive a constant reminder to keep pushing forward and the amount of work that I should, ideally, be committing to the project.Using repeating calendar events also means that I don’t have to manually add events to my schedule—it becomes just a simple matter of dragging and dropping to where they best fit.
Front-load the week. Every week is different, with different amounts of time spent in meetings or required for teaching preparation, administrative roles, and other surprise tasks and urgent deadlines. While some things like one’s teaching schedule or a regular weekly committee meeting don’t more around a lot, there is still a great deal of flexibility needed throughout the week. For this reason, I try to schedule as many of my drafting and rewriting sessions early in the week so that if things do come up, these can be pushed back to a later date. Beginning each week with a sprint also means that occasionally I get a free Friday afternoon!
Use the Note field in a digital calendar to make a note on where to begin tomorrow. Both creative writers and academic writers agree that it is important to end each day of work by making a note of where you left off and what to begin with tomorrow. Turning this into a ritual at the end of the working day can provide a sense of finality to what one has achieved that day, and set up tangible goals for the next day in order to hit the ground running.Rather than making these notes in the document itself, I add it to the Note field in iCal: this gives me access to a snapshot of my progress on any of my devices, and gives me a record of what I managed to accomplish each day.
Complete a Weekly Review on Friday afternoons and a Monthly review at the end of each month (more on these reviews next week).
Last week I wrote about managing creative energy by dovetailing the drafting and rewriting phases so that one chapter or portion of work can be in the drafting stage while another is being rewritten and revised. The primary reason for doing this is that these two stages of the writing process rely on very different forms
of thinking and commitment. Spending a full day on just drafting or just rewriting is an easy road to burnout, but spending a little bit of time each day on both of these activities becomes much more manageable and keeps the project moving steadily ahead.
On an ideal day I would spend three hours on writing, three hours on rewriting, and three hours on teaching and administration, but, of course, that ideal day almost never happens. Since the academic life is filled with commitments and interruptions that can easily whisk one away from research, I began to think about how best to manage my writing progress alongside these other responsibilities and while keeping the project on track. While I still use the Pomodoro Technique during some parts of a project, I soon discovered that it perhaps wasn’t the most useful way to organise all aspects of the writing process.
Because the drafting phase of any writing project is about creative exuberance, about finding the connections between ideas, and, ultimately, about using writing to think through the argument, focusing exclusively on the amount of time spent in the process may not be the most useful indicator of accomplishment. When drafting a new chapter, I might be reading key sources, writing short summaries and observations, or developing my own lines of thinking and interpretation. After the first or second week of drafting a chapter, I might not have written many words, but at the end of the three months I usually spend on drafting, I had better had something in the region of 10,000-15,000 words that can be further refined and developed during rewriting.
For this reason, I set incremental word count goals during drafting, based on weekly word count rather than time spent writing or daily word counts. By the end of the first month I aim to have at least 2000 words written (most of this time, of course, will have been spent in secondary research) and then in each subsequent week my goal is to complete an additional 1000-1500 words. Thinking holistically about words-per-week allows for the periods of additional research necessary for ideas to formulate while still keeping me on task. And, as I try to integrate digital and analogue tools in my research for their best-intended purposes, I keep track of the growing word count in a rather old-fashioned sort of way: a blank monthly calendar pasted into my Moleskine.
But because the rewriting phase is much more connected to analytical precision, focusing on details, and, ideally, shaping the earlier draft into something accessible to others, I needed to set a much more regimented daily practice for myself in which could maintain focus and built forward momentum. For this reason, I continue to use Pomodoro during the rewriting phrase. I use Pomodoro Pro which not only provides all the necessary timer features, but keeps track of time spent on projects (very useful data for my monthly self-review, which I’ll explain in a future post).
Because drafting and rewriting rely on such different forms of the thinking and energy, it is important to track and evaluate progress using a method best suited for each stage. While drafting, I use a pleasingly old-school method of noting my weekly word count in a notebook to allow for the rise and fall of creative energy through the week while still keeping my work focused. And when rewriting, I use a rather more contemporary time management technique to keep forward momentum through the analytical precision required of rewriting.
I was fairly certain that my second book would be rather a lot more straightforward than my first. My first book, based largely on my doctoral thesis, began life during three chaotic postgraduate years throughout which I seemed to be writing every moment of the day, was next completely reshaped once I began my first academic job, and then finally went through several more revisions while working with editors and readers at Palgrave Macmillian. It was nearly six years of false starts, abandoned topics, and the sort of writerly malaise that frequently besets persons of the tweed.
Surely the second book was going to be an easier undertaking…
For AcWriMo 2015 I have committed to finishing my second book, which, after nearly two years of flat-out work, is now nearly complete. I began the project certain that I had learned from my previous mistakes and knew how to independently manage a book project. When I was writing my first book I became obsessed with time management strategies, and read nearly every book on the topic (David Allen’s Getting Things Done is still a classic, and should probably be required reading for every new postgraduate student). I learned how to manage goals, track progress, and plan my time, and with the constant, supportive motivation from my supervisor and the rest of my PhD cohort I was able to achieve what I had set out to do. But when it came time to begin my second book, I realised that the core support network surrounding research student was no longer there, that no one would be pushing me to finish, and that suddenly I had to apply a very different type of energy to the project.
After several months of settling into a new city and trying somewhat unsuccessful to get to work on my second book, I began to read about the difference between time management and energy management, a theory developed by business writer Tony Schwartz. If my second book was ever going to see the light of day, I needed to understand how to manage the energy required for the project, and, indeed, figure out what that energy even was.
Wisdom abounds about the difference between the drafting and rewriting stages of the writing process—it’s one of first things that composition students learn about—but to my mind, and especially when considered in the context of long-form writing, the vital difference between drafting and rewriting is the nature of energy involved. Each stage relies on radically different forms of thinking, focus, and commitment, and taxes your intellectual and emotional reserves in rather distinctive ways.
Finding the connections
Shaping the argument
Imagining the big picture
Focusing on the details
Writing to think
Writing to be understood
It’s a rare, perhaps completely imaginary, academic who can spend six uninterrupted hours committing words to the page in a first draft; equally as rare is someone willing to spend the same length of time revising and editing an early draft. We’ve all managed to do that a few times with a looming deadline or a conference presentation the next morning, but ultimately it is not sustainable.
What is sustainable, however, is managing energy in a way which allows for these two processes to be interwoven. With a bit of focus, it’s not too difficult to spend three hours drafting in the morning and then three hours rewriting something else later in the afternoon. The schedule that I set for myself took this into account, and tried to make best use of my energy resources by dovetailing these two distinct aspects of the process.
Dovetailing the Writing Process (The Plan)
The schedule I set for myself broke down the year into quarters, and aimed to allow time for the creative exuberance of drafting alongside the analytical precision required of rewriting without burning out. Managing my energy by dividing my attention between these two unique taxing stages of writing meant that I could produce three chapters each year, and, ideally, a full manuscript in two years. In practice the process was a bit less orderly.
Dovetailing the Writing Process (The Reality)
I have kept an Evernote note to organise and record progress on my research since I began my job at City University of Hong Kong. For three years I have reviewed and updated the table at the end of each month. While the table reminds me that I am very close to finishing the second book, it also doesn’t allow me to forget that my writing in 2013 moved around chaotically between several different projects. There was no clear strategy. Two of the articles in which I invested some considerable time (referred to here vaguely as ‘Gatiss’ and ‘Joyce’, and about which no more shall ever be said) ultimately had to be abandoned. I became quickly dazed during drafting and, with no clear sense of how to proceed with the work, left them behind.
But in January 2014 I began my first attempt at dovetailing the writing process in order to better manage my energy and avoid sacrificing any more writing. Although my final record of work isn’t quite as orderly as my initial plans, I did manage to largely achieve what I had set out to do, and (if my AcWriMo goal is achieved) do it with one month to spare. By managing my energy rather than my time, I was able to produce considerably more work of publishable quality than I did during the wholly discouraging year before I began the second book.
Melanie Boeckmann, M.A. works as Research Fellow at the University of Bremen and pursues a PhD in Public Health at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology – BIPS in Germany. You can find her on twitter @m_boeckmann.
It’s only been 2.5 years but it feels much longer. This writing. This folder. This document. The final months of dissertation writing are a mixed bag of feelings. From wanting to quit, to crazy-making impatience, to doubting all merit of anything I have written, to ecstatic joy upon seeing my name in print and the pages piling up, this stretch of the process has its challenges. Regardless of the emotional turmoil that can accompany dissertation write-up season, now more than ever each word written matters. Cue AcWriMo 2014: right on time. This year “writing like there is no December” is particularly necessary to add to the final dissertation word count, to draft the next article manuscripts, and to develop teaching syllabi. So how do I plan to make the most of this academic writing month?
Keep my eyes on the prize
In early November, the thought of freewriting all the words is still joyous. This is bound to change, most likely once other tasks creep up on me and the self-imposed deadlines prove all too flexible. To keep at it throughout November, I plan on repeating this mantra:
The more I write in November, the earlier I am done.
The more I write in November, the less I have to write in December.
And maybe most importantly:
The more I write in November, the greater a Holidays present I can buy myself. Even if that present comes in the form of a submission and defense date in mid-2015.
Join the virtual community – but only AFTER writing for the day
No dissertation writer is an island. The spreadsheet, twitter, facebook, blog posts or good old fashioned emails to fellow researchers all provide options to share motivation, success stories and support. They can also be the siren songs of online distraction. My goal is to check in online after I have done my 500 words for the day. That way I can also better support others struggling. Being able to say “You can do it. I just did!” is better than: “You can do it. I also will… soon-ish”.
Set stretch goals, and embrace failure
AcWriMo relies on crazy ambitious, wonderfully overestimated goals. I can write 200 words any month, this time around it has got to be 500. Or 1000. Or whichever goal scares you a little bit. This month aims at challenging you. And trust me: maybe I won’t write 1000 words a day. But if I have written 235, that is still progress. I bet at least a few times you will not only reach but exceed your stretch goals, and it will feel grand. After all, those are the moments AcWriMo participants live for.
Charlotte Frost and Jesse Stommel met (as they often do) in a Google Doc to do some writing. This time, however, they invited a group of people to join them, and they demonstrated how and why they write together in Google Docs. In the blog post below, you can read the text they generated, but the original Google Doc they used can also be viewed as can the video of them writing together (which we’ve included below). If you have any further questions ask away in the comments section of this post.
My name is Charlotte Frost and I am a Visiting Assistant Professor here at SCM in Hong Kong. I run lots of projects looking at writing in an academic context including PhD2Published and AcWriMo. My other work is focused on digital and new media arts and the history of net art (the latter of which was the subject for my thesis). Jesse and I regularly work in Google Docs together on all manner of things because apart from anything else its fun.
My name is Jesse Stommel and I’m a teacher and researcher working in the US. I teach Digital Humanities and Digital Literacies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m also the Director of Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology. I’ve been working closely with Charlotte for quite a while, and we have begun to inhabit each other’s writing in such a way that we often finish each other’s sentences.
In this session we’re going to:
Use a Google Doc to show how we work together and discuss what works for us
Describe and give examples of public writing.
Show which parts of a Google Doc we use for what.
Address some of the difficulties we encounter as we work in this way.
Demo all of this in a meta-sort of way, so you can watch it unfold before your very eyes.
(And hopefully film this demo so you have something to look at and refer to afterward)
Why Write Collaboratively?
Accountability: Writing together is a huge procrastination crusher. There’s safety in numbers and it makes it much less daunting to look at a blank screen with someone else there – you are NOT alone! (cause someone else is right there with you, prodding your sentences into life!)
Camaraderie: Having someone to talk to and write with and even ask questions about all sorts of things helps (especially questions about writing and academia of course!). It can make it easier to get started (see above) and make the whole process a lot more enjoyable.
Instant Proof-reading and Peer-review: Your partner can read for sense AND mistakes – if they don’t get it, others won’t either. But also, let them find your mistakes and save your blushes later on.
Less Work: If you work on something like this together in a Google Doc (whether it’s a blog post, article, outline, etc.) you halve the work. And, if you’re working with someone like Charlotte [says Jesse] it’s even less than half, because she’s very very prolific.
Progression: It will move your thinking and writing forward AND fast. There’s a difference between ‘thinking writing’ and ‘doing writing’ the former helps you work something out, the latter helps you show what you’ve worked out. A collaborative document can be used for either, but if nothing else, use it for ‘thinking writing’. It’s a sandbox for making sense of something of something.
Why not? Learning is social and doing this kind of work with collaborators helps improve your work and your partners. Writing does not have to be solitary. Sure, some writing prefers to live alone, but sometimes writing wants to live right alongside its readers.
How to Write Collaboratively?
(there’s lots of stuff to consider as you get started, but sometimes the best thing to do is just start putting words on the screen and work the details out as you go). Here are some strategies we’ve found work well:
Time and Place:
Set up a Google Doc and a specific time to meet – as well as the duration of your meeting.
Your work can continue asynchronously outside the scheduled time (especially if you’re working in different time zones) but writing together at the same time is key – so try to do that regularly.
But perhaps only do it for an hour at a time, it’s a tiring practice if you’re working very collaboratively.
Establish the ‘permissions’ you’ll set for the document, who can edit, who can comment, who can read, etc.
Decide whether you want your document open to the web.
If you’re inviting more people to work with you, make sure that you make them ‘editors’.
[currently this document is set up to only allow folks aside from Jesse and Charlotte to view the document — or participate in the chat — though we often open up our documents to a wider group of editors at some point during our process.]
As well as writing your main body of text you’ll also be:
Using the chatbox for live discussion about all things writerly/academia and to arrange what you’ll achieve in your joint writing sessions.
Using the ‘comment’ function to select parts of the document to provide targeted feedback.
Decide how to navigate the various writing spaces together.
We meet in the chat box to get started and to arrange what we’ll do during a writing session, and we’ll often pop back into the chat box when we need to confer about our process.
We’ll also use the chat box as a space for dividing up what each of us will do during a writing session.
Sometimes, we will write in different colors just for fun to distinguish our voices. But we usually take that out as we polish the document.
Other examples of how you can use a Google Doc to work publicly and collaboratively:
Partner with one other person and both use the same GoogleDoc to each work on a different project but so that your progress is witnessed and/or so you can get someone else to periodically review your work and comment on it, etc. (There are anxieties associated with writing in public in this way, so doing this work helps build trust.) Sometimes, Charlotte will work at the bottom of a Google Doc while I work at the top. This gives us some amount of privacy but the ability to “call each other” into our section of the document.
Write in a Google Doc and make it public for viewing and reviewing (you might allow people to comment but not rewrite the text itself). Offering up a piece of work to a specific group in this way is a great technique for obtaining instant peer review.
Example: Arts Future Book is one of Charlotte’s research projects and in this instance she wrote a paper and left it open to public peer-reviewing (using a blog rather than Google Docs though)
Use one Google Doc for a large group as a sort of central repository for content.
You can brainstorm in the same doc and share ideas. and shape it up into something later. An Extreme example:of this is DigiWriMoNovel in a Day (which had about 100 people working in one Google Doc.)
Write collaboratively with one or more people. Take turns to draft sections of the doc (perhaps its an article you’re writing together) and use the comments to discuss each other’s sections and how to combine them better.
Take turns to draft sections but then work on the same paragraph at the same time to review, comment AND edit.
What Difficulties Do We Encounter When We Write Collaboratively?
Stage Fright: It will expose how many times you change a sentence before you finish it (or how many typos you make 😉 Charlotte likes to make typos, as do I. Luckily, we both find typos immensely charming.
Solution: If you see the other person writing at the speed of light you can lose your train of thought. Just carry on in your own way at your own pace until you feel comfortable. One of the most important things you can lean is that we all write differently and we have to find our own practice for ourselves.
Disagreements: It’s easy to get attached to your writing and hard sometimes to let someone else into your process. Occasionally, you will find yourself unable to share a common voice.
Solution: Decide in advance how you’ll resolve your writing issues with your writing partner. Agree to Skype, meet, or just agree to differ on what ever the issue is. Sometimes, you might decide that you want to write certain sections of a document independently, while continuing to collaborate on others.
Technical Problems: Technology can be temperamental. Occasionally, the gods of technology just don’t rule in our favor.
Solution: If you lose more than 15 mins to lost connections/Google Docs not refreshing it might best to just give up and work alone or on something else. But work out the next time you CAN meet and stick to it.
Ownership: Who owns this document? Who gets to decide its boundaries? When we work together in this way, who is the “author” of a document like this?
Solution: While we have both clearly been co-composing this particular example, what if one of us were writing and the other were primarily editing and offering feedback? If you set out to work on something together, even if one of your writes more of it, we think it’s probably best to just agree from the start that the work will be collaborative. This kind of work can’t be quantified in a cut and dry fashion. The production of one word is sometimes more difficult than the production of 10. Actual writing isn’t the only thing you bring to the table when you collaborate and we find that the balance of the work evens out in the end.
This Google Doc workshop was offered as part of the Improving Your Academic Writing workshop series Charlotte gave at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong as part of AcWriMo 2013.
This is a guide by Charlotte Frost to the many different stages of producing a piece of academic writing. Often we lump all these stages together and get overwhelmed. Here you’re reminded there are at least 10 different stages to academic writing and that by treating each differently, you can break your writing into more manageable chunks. If you think we’ve missed a step or you have a different way of thinking about one of these 10 tasks then please tell us more in the comments section.
1. The mental preparation stage
Before you do anything, take 5-10 minutes to purge your mind. Write down everything that’s whirring around in your head from errands you have to run to things that are worrying you. It could take the form of a list, a scattered network of things or even a diary entry (why would so many people write diaries if it wasn’t so incredibly useful in making sense of your own head? And besides, therapists can be really expensive!) Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees, so sitting down and writing whatever comes to mind can be a good way of getting some of the distracting ideas out of your way. You might even turn up something useful for your work. But either way, empty your head of all these details before you start. You might also like to keep this page to hand while you’re working so you can continue to dump the distractions.
2. The note-taking stage
Never just read, never just take notes. Always make these as active and targeted as possible. I made my own summary cover sheet during my PhD without realising someone else had already devised a better one in the 1950s called the Cornell Note Taking System. There are 3 principles/parts of the Cornell note page. A large right-hand section for writing brief notes which you complete at the time of reading/listening. Two smaller sections to the left and to the bottom where you draw out the essential themes and questions of the piece and write a brief summary. There are even tools to create Cornell note page templates for yourself here and here.
4. The brainstorming stage
You might not need this stage. If you’ve got all your notes beautifully organised as per the Cornell and literature survey matrix techniques, all the arguments you want to make might be perfectly clear to you. It might be as simple as just taking each set of notes and fleshing them out. However, sometimes we get stuck or need to combine a lot of different ideas in one section. This might need a different approach. First brainstorm it. Give yourself five minutes and write down everything you can think of that relates to the topic at hand. Be as fast and as unfiltered as you can. Take no time to over-think any choice. Even if it seems random, put it down. And as long as you’re working on the same project, never destroy this early catchment area of ideas. Something that seems irrelevant for a long time can suddenly take on meaning later.
5. The mind mapping stage
Take your brainstorming and make a proper mind map with the ideas. This is the time when you organise the ideas and give them structure. The Thesis Whisperer uses a ‘spider diagram’ approach for mapping out ideas and has a worksheet to help you do this. Or there’s the Tony Buzan technique, which he claims is set out to mirror the way we think. For Buzan’s method, the key is that nothing by the central topic is enclosed in anyway, rather all ideas are written along the sides of each connecting line. This way, he says, everything has the potential to connect to something else. Really the main difference is that you can get more on a Buzan map, which is great for really complicated/intricate ideas or ideas you’ll want to add to as you go along. I’ve kept Buzan-style maps for topics and added over several months to keep an overview in once place.
6. The ‘Tiny Text’ stage
The Thesis Whisperer suggests that once you’re through researching and brainstorming, you write a ‘tiny text’. This is like a conference abstract that will give you the structure for the work you’re about to produce. I’ve combined several approaches to this and come up with a 7 part template. As soon as you’re ready to work on your paper/chapter/section, run it through this system writing just a sentence for each point.
Focus: Broadly important fact or relevant story (In….)
Literature: What has been said already? (It is argued that…)
Gap: What hasn’t been said already? (However….)
Urgency: Why is it important right now? (Without….)
Question: What needs to be asked? (This research asks…)
Methods: How (By analysing…)
Implications: What practical or philosophical impact will this have? (This research shows…)
Credit: Gerald Graff, Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, Karen Kelsky, Inger Mewburn
7. The splurge/spew stage
Open up a document and if you’ve collected lots of organised notes, copy and paste/type them into the document. Now write up all the connecting sections as fast as you can. Or, if you’re working without these prepared notes, just write as much of the argument as you can in one session. If you do it the second way round (without the organised notes) use [insert here] to leave yourself clear markers for the material that will need adding such as summaries of other texts, quotes or examples. (But either way, use the ‘tiny text’ as a structure to keep yourself on course and be quick about it).
or rather the thinking writing stage
This is the stage where you are using your writing to tell you what you’ve got. You aren’t ready to show those ideas to the world yet, instead, you’re going to think them through in words on a page. For many of us, it is only at this point that the actual ideas come out. You might know you want to connect so-and-so’s theory with such-and-such but it might not be until you try to do this in words that you see just what the implications of that connection are. The point is that this is the stage of writing where you make it work for you, you use the act of writing to think through your ideas.
or even the keep it pacey
If possible, you do it fast because you’ll see much sooner if you’ve got enough of an idea/argument. If you can do this rough draft in one sitting, you’ll know straight away if you can make this point/write this section with the research you’ve already done, or if it’s too thin and you need to read/think some more. But (as I’m about to say) don’t over-think this part, it’s about getting words and ideas down in what ever form they take.
and certainly it’s the uncritical stage
Indeed, this is also the uncritical stage. When trying to think-write and/or rough-draft, you just want to get ideas down and nothing more. Even if you can write a pretty solid draft at this stage (thanks to being well read/prepared) you want to just write it up and leave it alone – don’t even think about editing at this point. This is not the time for that! In her book from the 1930s, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande described it as the stage of writing where you turn off your inner critic and let your thoughts run free. And she suggests that to make sure you don’t criticise your work, you shouldn’t read any of it back at this point. She urges you write your words and walk away. Tools for plain writing that can help with the uncritical, fast, splurgey stage of writing include: 750 Words; WriteRoom:DarkRoom.
8. The ‘doing writing’ stage/the draft
Another way to think about what happens after the ‘thinking writing’ is the doing writing. You’ve got your ideas down, you’ve read them through, there does seem to be a substantial argument to make and enough material to do it with. Now you turn your writing around. You’re not using the act of writing to think, you’re using it to do (to show, demonstrate, argue – fight, even). Look at each sentence and convert it from a thought or rough idea, to a statement that presents that idea clearly to others.
which might also be the therapy stage
I wrote a blog post for AcWriMo and PhD2published in 2012 on using 750Words as a writing therapist. Basically, when I get to a certain point, or when I get stuck, I use an empty doc/writing app to ask myself questions about what I’m doing and whether I’m achieving it. I literally ask myself: what’s the problem with this section? And then, as I answer myself, I find – and write my way out of – the issue. In the example I used for the blog post, I’d lost track of why I was trying to summarise ideas about new materialism. By the time I’d asked myself a set of questions about this, I’d found what I was stuck on AND I’d written about it and much of what I’d written turned out to be perfectly useable in the actual draft. Your supervisor can’t talk you out of every confusion so you need to learn to do it yourself.
9. The critical stage
If you follow Brande then at the very earliest, the next day is the first point at which you can turn your critical voice back on. This is when the editing begins and you’re invited to need to release your inner critic. If you’ve got a lot of writing done, preferably without over-thinking it, you now ask questions of that work and begin to shape the material into something more coherent. Let your critical side be a bit brutal, chopping irrelevant parts, making substitutions and forming better alliances between sections.
10 The darling-i-cide stage
‘Killing your darlings’ is the name given to the brutal part of editing when you take out the parts you love but which are clearly not contributing anything to the argument (a ‘darling’ is often an overly wordy or self-indulgent sentence/paragraph). In fiction this might even mean taking out an entire character, or some elegant phrases that don’t move the story forwards. In academic writing it’s probably a tangent or an idea that fascinates you but distorts the argument at hand.
or rather, darling exile…
There are two ways to make this easier on yourself.
1.Use strikethrough. That way you can read the document without these parts and confirm in your own mind that they do have to go before you actually delete them.
2.Don’t delete them at all, just banish them to another location. Start a document, note or folder for all the bits you take out. Trust me, for every thesis there’s a huge archive of unused material that means a great deal to the thesis writer (perhaps it even contains the nugget of an idea they started with). But you have to be tough. What your thesis needs to do is make a point and make it clearly. The best way to help yourself achieve that end goal is to remove anything that will get in the way of clarity.
This is a guide by Charlotte Frost to setting up a regular communal writing session. The focus here is on the type of group that meets primarily to write with company, get support, and hold themselves accountable. If you run other types of writing group – where you offer feedback or target different writing tasks – please tell us more in the comments section.
To run a regular writing group you need to start by arranging at least one set time a week that a group of you can all meet, at a designated location, for about 2 hours. Usually it takes a least 2 hours for a writing session to be productive. Using a Doodle Poll can help you narrow down your time-slot options.
To begin with, make sure you have a regular location so people can get into a routine. Consider in advance if there is a kitchen close-by where participants can store and prepare refreshments and also whether the space you have chose permits the consumption of food and drink. You might also consider the availability of power points and how the room is set up – for example can you all sit together or will you be distributed around a busy library? If the latter, you might find your writing group doesn’t really feel like a group and the support and accountability working together can provide will be diminished.
You should also get everyone to agree to rotate who brings refreshments or each contribute to a refreshment kitty. If you have a kitchen nearby tea and coffee runs will be easy. We all have writing rituals and having the right hot drink often features heavily in these so don’t miss this part out. And remember that the odd indulgent cake doesn’t go a miss when you’re struggling with a section of writing.
To build a format for the session, it’s worth beginning each week with everyone taking just a couple of minutes to each publicly identify the following:
What the ongoing project is.
What you have achieved since the last session.
What will be achieved during this writing session.
What is proving problematic (this can range from theory you’re struggling to understand to getting your citations in a tangle, just say what’s bothering you.)
When everyone has announced their goals and issues, agree to work for an hour without interruption. If people wish to eat or drink during this time, they must agree to keep noise and disruption to a minimum. After the hour is up, everyone is given 15 minutes to get something to eat or drink, to chat, visit bathrooms and generally refresh themselves.Agree to work for the remaining time (if in a 2 hour session) or for the next hour and then take a break again. You might even consider buying a timer so that everyone can see (and hear) where you’re all at in the session. It could even be a Pomodoro timer and you could run your group in 25 minute sessions. If you do do this, remember that, initially, some people might struggle to get the hang of working in such short blocks.
Its really important to make writing group meetings habitual. Encourage all participants to be consistent and attend every session. Help them see you must all take joint responsibility for making the group work. Of course sometimes there’ll be a schedule conflict or an emergency, but try making playful punishments up for no-shows – like they owe everyone a cookie or some proof reading next session.
At the start of the session remind everyone to turn off/silence their mobile phones and to bring headphones if they want to listen to music. Let people know upfront that they are allowed to leave the session at any time, but they are not permitted to make or recieve calls and if they are working in pomodoros to take their 5 minute breaks very quietly and wait for the whole group to break before making too much noise.
Mix It Up
Location. Although it’s useful to have a set location, if everyone can make it, why not try a new venue every once in a while. How about all meeting in a coffee shop or at someone’s house. Different locations can refresh your thinking.
Games. Get everyone to write a writing task on a piece of paper (these might include footnotes, editing, introduction, conclusion…). Fold up all the task papers and put them in hat/cup/jar. At half time, invite everyone to take a task out, announce it, and commit to working on that for the rest of the session.
Themes. Sometimes you might like to dedicate a writing session to a particular issue or project type. If you’re doing your PhD how about a literature review session. If you are early career academics why not have a session where you all work on job applications together. If you do a themed session, be sure to leave some time to discuss the issues you faced.
Procrastination jar (as devised by Dimitrina Kaneva). Tell everyone that each time they get distracted they must write down what distracted them on a piece of paper, fold it up and put it in a hat/cup/jar. At the end of the session, pass the receptacle around and get everyone to read out at least one distraction. This provides light relief but it can also help you stay focused next time as you’ll have had a public reminder of what gets in your way.
Free-write/brain-dump. All take 10 minutes at the start of the session and write down everything you can think of that relates to your writing project. Just get it all out onto paper or into a Word document (or similar) and don’t you dare think structurally or critically. This will clear your mind and give you a number of places – literally listed on a piece of paper/screen – to start.
If your group is willing, you might all agree to become a test audience for each other’s work. You might dedicate a writing session to giving each other feedback on previously circulated material. Or you might all agree to offer feedback on any drafts emailed to the group. However, if doing this, set some ground rules. Perhaps everyone is only permitted to share one draft per writing project and only with a long lead time.
If you can’t assemble a whole group of other writers to meet and write with you, find just one. Buddy-up with another writer and try and work together using the same principles described above. And when you can’t write together, make a point of checking in with each other to listen to problems and progress. Your email/call to check on your writing buddy might mean the difference between them finishing a draft this month or next.
And if you can’t write as part of a group in a physical location, use the #acwri (#acwrimo during November) tag to keep in touch with other writers virtually.
Charlotte: Well, 750words, I’d like your help in writing about how I use 750words as a sort of writing therapist.
750w: Ummmm, a what now? A ‘writing therapist’ do you think you might have lived in the US too long?
Charlotte: Ha ha very funny – and you’ve just alienated all the US members of the PhD2Published community! Besides, regardless of where I live (or whether I say aluminium or aluminium), I know this writing therapy thing works. All I need is a computer, an internet connection and a muddled brain – this last one is easiest to come by.
750w: Go on…
Charlotte: I discovered 750words last year during AcBoWriMo (now AcWriMo). James Smith, a contributor to PhD2Published mentioned it and I tried it out a few times. I really liked several of the features. For a start, there’s the interface. When you write using 750words – which is a web-based writing application – all you have is a white screen. There are no formatting options or spell-check, and all you see as you type is the name 750words (bottom left) and the time and your word count (bottom right). And when I say it’s web-based I mean that you don’t download any software or anything, you just go the website and type, and all your entries are safely stored in a fluffy cloud in the sky – that’s how cloud computing works, right?
750w: Sure! Why not…
So anyway, these two features alone had me very interested. Many writers rave about the benefits of a stripped back aesthetic where all you can do is write and all you can see is writing. But the fact none of this writing is being stored in my own computer, for me at least, adds a beneficial lack of commitment. Not only am I stripped of the task of naming my document and thereby assigning it to some area of my work before it’s fully formed or ready to be categorised, but I can treat it as more of a rough working space. There’s something about not having to directly take responsibility for the work in terms of naming or storing it that is very freeing. And as a result, I’m often a lot more daring in what I try out in 750words. It’s like, I don’t know, taking some kind of a holiday from my own computer and thereby from my normal writing life. It’s very liberating.
750w: Right, so you get a bit drunk and promiscuous with your writing in 750words, is that what you’re saying?
Charlotte: Er, that’s not quite how I’d put it but OK. Although that’s certainly not all that happens. What I find is that it’s also quite a confidence-building tool. If you’ve ever battled with yourself all day for just 300 academically precise words, it’s great to know you can probably bash out 750 rough ones in about 18 minutes (My personal best according to the stats 750words give you. Another interesting feature by the way that brings out just enough competitive instinct to encourage still more writing.)
750w: But a good therapist would do more than boost your confidence, they’d help you work through specific problems. How do I, er, we, do that?
Charlotte: About a month back I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love as part of a summer binge of reading memoirs. If you don’t know the book, it’s about one writer’s attempts to get over her divorce and find new meaning in life by living in Italy (and eating), India (and praying) and Indonesia (and randomly falling in love). Anyway, early on in the book Gilbert describes a moment of utter despair lying sodden in tears on her bathroom floor as she realised her marriage was over. She explains how in feeling so lost and alone she develops a writerly coping technique. Basically, she writes questions in her note book like: ‘what should I do now’ and discovers is that the answers just sort of come to her. At first the Brit in me bristled at this. I was all: ‘Oh yeah, nice one Gilbert, you’ve clearly happened upon the sensibly minded goddess of automatic writing – not the one the Surrealists used to pen-pray to obviously!’ But then I thought about it logically. She wasn’t saying her pen magically started forming the words on the page, she was saying that the answers just came out that way, which is obvious when you think about the fact she’s a writer; of course she’s going to write her way of all this mess.
750w: But what does this have to do with 750words?
Charlotte: I’m getting to that. Jeez, anyone would think we were being timed here or something. Oh, wait, of course we are.
Not long after I read Eat Pray Love I found myself struggling with a section of the book I’m writing. After a few hours of writing it first one way, and then another, I realised I was at an impasse – although I resisted crying on the bathroom floor. I tried reading for a bit to sharpen up my thinking. It didn’t work. I tried calling a friend. She didn’t pick up. So I thought, let’s try this Gilbert thing and let’s see if 750words is a good neutral space for summoning up a writing spirit.
I opened the application and just wrote myself a question. Something like: ‘So, what’s the problem then?’ and I set about answering it. Something like: ‘I’m struggling to write a section about how new materialism and media archaeological approaches help us recognise the way the physical qualities of an archive contribute to the knowledge they hold.’ I continued by asking myself: ‘And why are you telling us this?’ And I went on: ‘Because I need to show how art history as a discipline has had a strong relationship with print that has naturalised certain ways of thinking about art – ways that are best conveyed through print. And what I need to do is argue that with the arrival of digital technologies we have new ways of storing information that contribute new ways of thinking about, say, art.’ As I went on, I discovered that by asking myself a set of very simple questions I could pull the essential ideas out of the knot in my head. On top of that, I discovered that some of what I was writing was perfectly usable. More exciting than that, it was pretty darn good. Having been shaped by the very questions I needed to respond to, the passages I was writing were neatly pre-empting the thoughts of an enquiring reader.
750w: So that’s it then, it’s not hippy stuff, you just find 750words an excellent space in which to unpack your thoughts?
Charlotte: Er yes, OK then, if you want to put it that simply! Now stick that in your cloud and, um, fluff it!