Notes to self. Overwhelm and disorder are common to the writing process. Not only is it a challenge to keep papers, books, and electronic files in order so they are easy to access and use, it is also easy to get distracted. Sometimes a question will lead to an hour-long rabbit hole of searching for another source or pursuing an idea not immediately relevant to your writing project. An easy reminder to stay on task is to write your thesis statement on a sticky note and post it on the corner of your screen. It’s not there to nag you but to help you stay focused.
Read out loud: another old standby. Reading out loud can reveal your clunky sentences, your unclear ideas, and your weak transitions. Reading out loud can also reveal a beautiful turn of phrase, a just-right articulation, and a resonant idea. A few variations on the theme may be useful as well: have someone else read your work out loud so you can hear a different articulation of your writing. Or, by recording yourself reading, you can listen to what you have written and be able to make notes and edits at the same time.
Print out a hard copy. An old standby, but a good one. When you need another perspective on your writing, print out a hard copy and read off of the page instead of the screen. A hard copy is helpful for both proofreading and editing, and can also be a useful way to get at seeing significant changes you might want to make to the piece you’re writing. Bring scissors, tape, highlighters, colored pens, and whatever tools might be helpful to the table.
Tell your Mom. This is an idea inspired by my friend Gil Rodman, who challenged his students to write complex concepts in readable terms. If you’re struggling to sort out your theories or ideas, pick up the phone or sit down with someone who is not familiar with what you are researching and tell them about it. There’s no better evidence that you know your material than being able to explain it to someone…and perhaps even interest them in the topic at the same time.
Set early deadlines. A brief anecdote: my cousin asked if I could drop him off at the airport to travel home. When I asked what time his flight was scheduled to depart, he wasn’t entirely honest with me. By modifying the flight time, he built in a cushion of comfort so there was no panic about getting to the airport on time.
Set early departure times for your abstracts and article submissions. Putting something on your calendar the week before it’s due will bring it to your attention earlier. Additional time to start thinking about and working on your submission might potentially alleviate last-minute, rushed writing.
Have your day of hate (bear with me). Mentors will say you should select your research topic carefully. If you choose to study something you love, you might end up hating it. It happens. Should you find yourself having a serious wrestling match with your topic, wanting to scrap the whole thing, and wishing you had made a different choice, go with it. Throw yourself into the negative space until you exhaust all of the possible complaints. Then go for a walk, play a video game, or engage in some other activity you enjoy. Don’t think about or go back to your project until the next day. See how you feel when you come back to it, and plan to have a day of reconciliation with your work.
If there’s one thing I do a lot of, it’s write. Everything from my diary (which only I read), to my PhD thesis (which if I’m lucky three people will read) to my blog (which is open to all). I’ve always rather enjoyed writing; a helpful quality in a social scientist.
I haven’t always wanted to be a social scientist though. Growing up, I was dedicated to a career in fashion and planned my subject choices and work experience around being a fashion journalist. In my sixth form leaver’s book my English teacher wrote that he looked forward to seeing me as a future editor of Vogue. Now my main ambition is to publish a social theory text on consumption or material culture. Sometimes people find it difficult to comprehend the path I’ve taken to date, but actually, is a fashion journalist all that different to a scholar of material culture?
I recently attended a career and leadership development course and completed a MBTI psychometric questionnaire. The report suited me perfectly (apparently I come across as mysterious, which I like, so I won’t spoil it by saying which type I was) and matched me up to jobs such as writer, sociologist, teacher, artist, counsellor. I’m a conceptual thinker, creative and value driven. Being a fashion journalist would have suited the creative part, but perhaps didn’t fit with my values. This is clearly the case, as I directed my undergraduate dissertation to ethical fashion, followed by an MPhil on the same topic, leading to a PhD on consumption and its social role. I am very fortunate to have had the space to explore this; I doubt fashion could have ever fulfilled my inquisitive nature and desire to make a difference.
So now I’m able to do the two main things that I enjoy—I’m writing up my PhD in human geography and planning an academic career in the social sciences, whilst I continue to blog about ethical fashion for my own blog and others. Both roles stem from a desire to investigate the wider world, to find out about stuff that interests me. Both involve desk-based research as well as getting into the field for interviews and observation. Both involve writing up that research in order to communicate on a broader platform. And both allow others to engage with my ideas, provide feedback and become part of a wider conversation. Clearly, there are huge differences too and I’m sure many academics would be livid to hear me comparing academia to journalism, but I do believe many of the processes are the same.
Starting a PhD in human geography was a steep learning curve, simply due to the change in subject matter, not in the way I approached writing. Yes, I had to learn some new lingo but now I’m nearing the end of my PhD, I can see that an interdisciplinary background has helped rather than hindered in the long term. It allows me to draw on a broad range of literature, using them as I see fit to build up my argument. One thing I did struggle with at the start was the use of first person. I had been trained before to take a more report-like, business style approach to writing which becomes difficult when you need to discuss and highlight reflexivity as a researcher. My cultural/social geography PhD research draws strongly on ethnographic techniques; hence I had to learn to adopt a narrative approach to my writing and not be afraid to situate myself within my topic.
The fact that I was blogging in a fashion role before my PhD meant that blogging about academia was a natural progression. Not only do I write about PhD life for our departmental postgrad blog, but I also use my academic work as a basis for popular writing on consumption and shopping issues. I’ve found a happy medium where I can have two interlinked elements of my life, and both feed into each other. I hope in the long term my broad networks will lead to interesting collaborations both inside and outside of academia, and mean that my research has a use outside the ivory towers (which is happening more and more across academia anyway). Sometimes I still feel like I have a lot of catching up to do in the social sciences, but no academic knows everything and I intend to make the most of my interdisciplinary background as a strength rather than a weakness.
Keep a recycling file. Whether in the process of moving material from an outline to the document you’re writing or editing a piece toward completion, it’s likely that you’ll be deleting some significant chunks of text. Instead of trashing them, put those sentences and paragraphs in a recycling file. “Unused” or “save for later” work just as well. Later in the revision process, you may find a place for that concept or quote. Or, it may spark a new project or be just the idea you need for the next essay you’re writing.