Create an emergency. Noting the similarity between “emerge” and “emergency” inspires some word play that leads to creative thinking about deadlines. Many writers will agree that deadlines can be a strong motivator: when you finally reach the point where you absolutely must get your writing done, there is little choice but to put everything else aside and focus on meeting that deadline. Now imagine creating a microdeadline that is an emergency: I absolutely must finish this paragraph/abstract/outline/chapter before I do anything else. On deadline, we’ll excuse ourselves from obligations to family and friends, let the call go to voice mail and let email go answered. What might emerge if you create a small space of no contact with an urgent deadline for yourself?
Host Pat Thomson will moderate a discussion on the challenges of setting and meeting academic writing goals. Everyone is welcome to join in with their questions and insights about productivity in academic writing. At this time of year, many writers are trying new approaches and making new resolutions; in this chat, we will consider why those resolutions are so hard to keep. Are we setting unrealistic goals? Are we saying “yes” to too many non-writing activities? Are we trying to find time to write without giving up anything else? Are we sticking with writing approaches that haven’t worked well for us in the past? Are we getting discouraged by the lack of immediate results? Are we assessing our own writing too harshly? One thing that we know often hampers attempts to develop new habits is trying to do it alone. While writing is often a solitary task, we can still gain solace from a community of other writers. The #acwri chats are a way of building that community and creating a space for writers to share their experiences with all facets of academic writing. Please join us on January 22 to be part of this valuable forum. In addition to questions and comments about goal setting, we welcome suggestions for topics for future chats.
What will you call it? When I teach public speaking, I encourage students to title their speeches in progress, often as a first step in writing. That title may never be spoken, or known to anyone but the speaker, unless someone read a written version of the speech. Perhaps even better than writing a thesis statement (which often seems to vex undergraduates), the title helps students remember what they are working on and stay on target as they are researching and writing. This method can be useful for any essay or manuscript in progress. Giving it a title is also a way of making it manifest.
Did you make a resolution? Now make a plan. A goal without a plan is likely to go unfinished. We’ve talked about setting microdeadlines here before, and breaking big goals down into small pieces can make clear how to meet your goals in a manageable system. If you set a project goal, try to get an idea of all of the component parts. You might then set a backward timeline: if you know that you want or need to have that article finished by mid-April, how much work do you need to do each day or week in order to complete it on schedule?
Is your resolution to write every day? If so, determine if you can adequately manage that. That some days are quite full with other responsibilities may make daily goals difficult, so setting them quite small can be helpful. And if you miss a day? So be it. Set it aside and get back on track. It’s easy to abandon daily resolutions when goals are met for a day or two. Don’t give up, and don’t give up hope!
Forgo resolutions and write a statement of purpose instead. With the new year around the corner, many of us have given thought to what we hope to accomplish in 2015. From quitting one habit to adopting another, many aspirations are affirmed on new year’s eve. While we often resolve what to do, how often do we articulate why we want to do it? As a writer, researcher, and scholar, what is your fundamental purpose? Examining why we do what we do can facilitate progress and productivity. Your statement of purpose can also be a reminder to stay on track when struggles arise.
Writing the sonnet. A poet friend who was working on his MFA thesis had a unique method for settling his writer’s block. He typically wrote free verse poems, structured by his own style and aesthetic. But when struck with times where he struggled to find a rhythm, he would lean on traditional rhythms to get started.
This isn’t meant to suggest that you transform your data into iambic pentameter, but rather that you might use that meter, a haiku, or an acrostic as a quick remedy to the frustration of not having a place to start.
Put a new spin on your research topic. Filmmaker and artist Ze Frank describes his process for getting unstuck by considering the extremes of something: What if we had a scarcity of X? What if we had an overwhelming amount of X? Sometimes it is difficult to step away from our set relationship with our topics and see things from a different perspective. Yet doing so can provide new insight into our areas of research expertise. Even ridiculous questions can yield helpful perspectives. If aliens landed on earth and I had to explain X, what would I say? If a baby put X in its mouth, what would it taste like? What color would this thing be? If it were part of a cargo cult, why would it be revered? Do we cherish X? Do we deplore it?
Watch a chilldren’s show. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, which has just been released on DVD/BluRay in the US, might be one option, although it is certainly not the only children’s show rich enough in intertextuality to also delight adult viewers. A little bit of Teletubbies or Sesame Street can go a long way to clear one’s head and bring us back to the very basics of communication. When dealing with complex ideas and trying to articulate them, simple can be a good place to start.
Matt Lawson is a final year funded PhD candidate in film musicology. His thesis is entitled ‘Scoring the Holocaust: a comparative, theoretical analysis of the function of film music in German Holocaust cinema’. You can find out more about Matt at his website: www.themusicologist.co.uk, and follow him on Twitter @MattLawsonPhD.
After a fantastic month in Germany, I am now back in the UK. Is it a case of proudly looking over what I’ve achieved, or licking my wounds after an unproductive month? Well I’m delighted to announce that it’s the former! I have had one of my most productive months of writing in the short history of my PhD.
It was always going to be a challenge working in a foreign country for a month, but they say “change is as good as a rest”, and the different scenery and culture helped a great deal with my productivity.
After my interim report stated that I’d made a solid start, things got even better in the following week, meaning—and I take a deep breath as I type this—I have returned to England with a final first draft of my PhD thesis! It’s an incredible feeling, and one I didn’t expect when I flew out on October 31st, but the month away has propelled me into a very strong position.
How did I make it work for me? Well, as previously highlighted, I made use of daylight hours by sightseeing, hiking, taking photographs and generally forgetting about research. Mentally and physically, this was important. Then, when it got dark at 4.30pm, I wrote until around 9.30pm each evening, with breaks for drinks and a meal. I repeated this Monday to Friday, and took weekends off.
Over the course of three weeks, I managed to write 14,000 words using this method. The final week, it was decided early on, would be a break as a reward for working hard. I cannot recommend taking a week off enough. It is the first time in over two years of PhD research that I have truly abandoned my research for a week. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t check emails, I didn’t even open my laptop on some days. The impact on my wellbeing was incredible. From feeling proud of my efforts, but also a little stressed to say the least, I returned to England invigorated, refreshed and as enthused as the day I began my PhD journey. As I tweak and polish my thesis in the run up to Christmas, I have already promised myself two weeks with no PhD over the festive break.
In conclusion, I look back with fondness on a country and experience which worked wonders on my PhD productivity, and perhaps there is something to be said for a 3 week/1 week working pattern, giving the body and mind time to recover before the next stretch of research.
Engage in bracketing. This is a tip that comes from conflict management, and it carries over well to research and writing. When we are engaged in conflict, many different issues and concerns might come to the fore. If those issues create a digression, the original source of conflict might get lost and might never get resolved. Instead, the effort toward resolution turns into an even muddier puddle. In managing conflict, you should be mindful of those side issues and point out that they should be bracketed for a later conversation, once the current conflict is resolved.
As interested, engaged researchers and writers, we often find side interests that might take us down rabbit holes. This happens even after you have stopped reading your email and shut down your internet connection. Keep a notepad or an open document where you can jot down the “save for later” topics and keep yourself on track.
Matt Lawson is a final year funded PhD candidate in film musicology. His thesis is entitled ‘Scoring the Holocaust: a comparative, theoretical analysis of the function of film music in German Holocaust cinema’. You can find out more about Matt at his website: www.themusicologist.co.uk, and follow him on Twitter @MattLawsonPhD. His mid-point AcWriMo reflection follows below.
So – half way through. How are things going? Well, this weekend (Saturday 15th/Sunday 16th) is one I have designated as a weekend off. I will be watching Germany score many goals past Gibraltar in Nuremberg on Friday evening, and then allowing myself a little sightseeing and relaxing on the Saturday and Sunday.
‘What about the PhD?’, I hear you ask. Well, it’s going satisfactorily well! I know that doesn’t sound like I’m dancing around the Alpine lodge in excitement, but I’m content with my progress. Let’s do some number crunching. I arrived in Germany with 57,096 words, and as I go into my free weekend, that has blossomed to 65,281. I’ve worked on ten of the eleven days up from my arrival on 2nd November up to and including Wednesday 12th November, giving me an average of 818 words per day. That’s good going. I was aiming for 1,000, but with my thesis being in a fairly ‘completed’ state, that would perhaps be overdoing it. My realistic aim now is to head back to England with my thesis anywhere in the 70-80,000 range. Whether that is 70,001 or 80,000 remains to be seen, but I’ll be delighted with anything in between. That will give me three weeks before Christmas to edit what I’ve written, print, bind and hand in a full first draft.
What I would also like to mention in this instalment is how I have kept myself sane while I have been here. As mentioned in the previous post, isolation and loneliness are two of the down sides to a doctoral programme which have affected me deeply over the past year or so. I won’t lie: there have been evenings where I have felt these keenly since the beginning of the month, but I have coping mechanisms. One of these, which can only be good news for my mental AND physical health, is to walk ridiculous amounts during daylight hours, and work at night. It seems such a shame not to experience the country I have so kindly been given access to by my funding body, and with the sun going down at around 4:30pm, it seems counterproductive to sit inside pretending to write my thesis while I looking out of the window at the blue skies. I have clocked up countless miles up mountains, down valleys, around lakes and so forth, and have been back in my accommodation by 4:30pm each day to commence 4-5 hours of writing once it’s dark. It’s worked a treat, and my productivity is helped by the fact that for some of the walk, I’m planning what to write when I return!
This weekend off will give me a good chance to try and forget about the PhD (ha!), and clear my mind before the start of the next working week. To be honest, I’d quite like some horrible weather, because then it’d force me to some extent to stay inside and get lots done. At the same time, given what I’ve mentioned above, getting out and about is important. A PhD sometimes causes us to lose touch of reality somewhat, and there’s nothing that screams reality like being up a 6,000ft mountain wondering how you’re going to get down!
Half way through, and my report would read ‘satisfactory progress, but could do better’. Without putting too much pressure on myself, I’m hoping for a decent next couple of weeks to return to England knowing I’ve done everything I could have done to give me the best possible chance of handing a first draft in that I’m both happy and proud of.
‘Write like there’s no December’, is one quote I’ve seen banded around with regards to #AcWriMo. I like that a lot. However, I know that there’ll be a December, and that feeds my Alpine procrastination somewhat…
Gillie Bolton author of Inspirational Writing for Academic Publication gives us some practical and motivational advice.
- Make a timetable and stick to it. Make firm diary commitments (even for sessions as short as 10 minutes) for writing time, and treat them as if they are UNCANCELLABLE meetings. Turn off email completely; switch phone and iPad right off.
- Start writing using the 6 minute dumpª. And CARRY STRAIGHT ON writing. Don’t do any of the other million and one things which take me away from writing. Use the time as if it were a train journey: I have to finish this section by the time the train pulls into Paddington Station (this is how I’ve written this blog post).
- If I get the wobbles, I send my Internal Saboteur back to hell, and invite in my Internal Brilliant Academic Writing Adviser to tell me, amongst other things: ‘You Can Do It!’
- Set myself up for my next session by leaving this writing part way through a section. Either I don’t rush to complete this one, so I can begin satisfactorily by doing so next time, or push myself to write at least notes beginning the next section. This way I never start with that terrifying thing to any writer: The Blank Sheet.
- Don’t allow myself to edit (Phase 3) too soon: focussing on grammar etc when I should be thinking of ideas or structure, is a killer.
- Instead of wasting time trying to work out a research or computer skill – I make an appointment with someone who can teach me (University Library; Apple do brilliant lessons in how to use the Mac; etc).
- When I am really STUCK, I:
- Make a date with a trusted, confidential peer to discuss it with.
- Try going somewhere else to write (cafe / park / bed / …).
- Write a letter to the kindest wisest person I can possibly imagine, asking their advice on my writing. And write their reply myself. This is my Internal Brilliant Academic Writer, or my Internal Mentor. I often ask their advice: they are ALWAYS available.
- Change my type of writing for a while. to 6 minute writing dumpª for example.
a. 6 Minute Dump:
I take pen and paper (seems better for emergencies than keyboard), and scribble for at least 6 minutes whatever is in my head, telling myself NO-ONE NEED EVER READ THIS. I might write anything: our minds do hop about when we let them. If I’m blocked, just the change of focus can unblock, or perhaps I can write about what the block is and explore what to do about it. Sometimes I frantically write about something completely different: clearing out whatever is on my mind (birthday present / a huge row with my partner / … .). Then I reread what I’ve just written and reflect on it in writing.
Now I am much better focussed for academic writing.
Keep things in perspective. So what if you didn’t achieve your goal today. Who cares if you spent valuable writing time on Facebook or went out on the night you’d promised yourself you’d write. These things happen. In fact, sometimes these things happen because we really need a break! If you ditch your writing for something else don’t beat yourself up about it, just see it for what it is: a bit of time out. Feeling guilty about not writing is a waste of your time and energy and it will only make it harder to write in the future. Guilt will gnaw away at your self-esteem and when you do actually get down to writing, you will be filled with thoughts of failure. Keeping a record (like our 2014 accountability spreadsheet) of your progress on a project can really help with guilt because it will keep things in perspective. It will also help you see patterns forming – if there are any. For example maybe there’s a reason why you regularly struggle to write at a certain time.
Say no to people in a way that shuts down negotiation. Many of us just can’t say no. For early-career academics it can be frightening to turn down an offer to contribute to something. We worry that we’ll get a bad reputation or that we’ll skip over something that might be CV gold dust. We say yes through a fear of missing out, a really bad grasp of time management or worst of all, guilt. But if you want to finish that T/D/A/P/C you HAVE to say no and in a way that can’t become a yes, when you inevitably get a second begging email 2 days later. Don’t use language that allows for any wiggle room ‘I don’t think I can right now’ or ‘I’m really over-stretched’, phrases like that are just open doors to a good negotiator! Don’t list the things you have on your plate right now because let’s face it, there’s no standard ‘to do list’ length. Sure you have 100 things to do, well big whoop because the person who asking for your help has 110! Quantifying like this is just a way of not saying no! And certainly don’t counter-offer with a reduced task because that reduced task is going to magically grow over night – and who’s to say that the person asking isn’t already giving you a reduced task in the hope of building on that. Just say NO! Keep it kind, quick and closed! For example ‘Thank you so much for thinking of me but unfortunately I am not able to contribute at this time.’ You know what, copy and paste that exact phrase right now and keep it somewhere handy because you’re going to need it!
Stow your inner critic. Many of us undo our good intentions by letting the critical voice inside take over. We write a sentence, we edit that sentence, we rewrite that sentence and so forth…Try it this way: write as much as you can of what you’d like to say. This will vary from person to person. Personally I like to get an entire draft done before I pick it apart. Other people find this difficult and do better writing a section or a set of paragraphs. Whatever you do, try and complete a substantial portion before you turn to your inner critic to evaluate things. In fact write it and leave it to marinade for a while if possible. Then return to it for a designated ‘editing’ session. Only now should you unleash all that critical power and get that text into better shape. Criticise too soon and you’ll get caught in loop.
Bring it! Being an academic isn’t easy but then, that’s kind of the point. We’re supposed to think really hard, I mean, that’s what we signed on for right? Sometimes this gets the better of us. We all have moments of feeling over-stimulated, overwhelmed or over-stretched. And sometimes we need to seek refuge and and a bit of R ‘n’ R. The rest of the time however you gotta bring it! And what I mean by that is energy and a positive attitude. One way to do this is to try and start everyday with some positivity. Before your feet even touch the floor when you wake up in the morning, take a mental inventory of three things you’re grateful for. Any three things! You might choose people in your life or, if you’re like me, you might choose food! (I’m grateful for Hong Kong pineapple buns and milk tea nearly every day!) Notice how differently you feel when you start off like this, rather than from a state of stress. And notice how it impacts your writing if you sit down with the right attitude.
Get support. AcWriMo is all about building a support team. It’s all well and good having a great PhD supervisor or a lot of fantastic colleagues but they won’t always be there at 2.00am when you’re freaking out about citation styles. The beauty of AcWriMo is that you’ll virtually meet people from all over the world with a range different of experiences and many of those people will be online at 2.00am! Find people to connect with during AcWriMo and continue to nurture those relationships after the month is over. These are your people, treat them well! You might find them supporting and advising you on all manner of academic life. You might even find them inviting you to present your work at their own institution or letting you know about jobs that might suit you.