Question your questions. Your research question is the first step to putting your ideas into action. The process involves forming viable research questions that address what interests you, indicate a trajectory for your research, and make a contribution to the field. Yet the first questions you articulate may not be the final questions you answer. Throughout your research, be sure to question your questions. Are you asking the best questions? Might your research take a novel approach if you ask it another way? Does your question have an easy answer? Does it get you where you want to go?
On over-organization. Workshops, books, planners, webinars, retreats–everywhere you turn, someone is promoting a new method for organizing your workflow and your life. It is not difficult to be persuaded by a hard sell trying to convince you that a new product will be just the thing to transform your life. Many academics go from one planning system to another, looking for the right software, hardware, or paper system to match their scheduling needs. Unfortunately, those investments of time, energy, and money spent on transferring your information to a new system and learning its quirks can drain the time and energy you might spend on writing and research. Organization is key to successful writing, but over-organizing can be a terrific distraction.
Noticing: a nip of mindfulness. One of the important concepts in practices of mindfulness is noticing. This can be useful in situations where it is difficult to get started writing, where the process becomes frustrating, and where distractions lead you away from the work you would like to be doing. If you find yourself out of sorts, take a moment and notice what you are doing, how you are feeling, and what you might wish to be different in that moment. Noticing is a basic first step to getting to where you want to be. An analogy for road travelers: it’s not until you realize that you are lost that you pull over and look at your GPS, your map, or ask for directions. Then you can reset your course.
Have a meeting. Rather than have a meeting about your project, have a meeting with your project. Maybe you’ve assigned a pet name to your research project, or otherwise seen that it has some anthropomorphic qualities. Imagine that your project has a persona. Fix it a cup of coffee or a cup of tea. Write an agenda if it would be helpful. Then you two can talk. What’s going well? Where does Project need more help? How has Project been successful? What resources can Project benefit from? What are your concerns? What do you need from Project? How can you help it along? It’s best recommended to not have this project meeting in public spaces…and you both might appreciate some privacy for your discussion.
Get to know your librarian. Researchers have few better allies than librarians, who are themselves trained to conduct research broad and focused, using any and all available sources. Good librarians love good challenges, so they are not only tremendously helpful but may also share your enthusiasm for finding an obscure document, a new theorist, or a new direction for your project. Librarians are also among the leaders at the forefront of digital humanities.Your campus librarian can be a great resource for promoting your scholarly work and helping you develop digital projects.
Keywords. Every discipline has its jargon, as well as its most significant keywords that are used frequently by scholars and others. Yet meanings shift over time, and certainly change from one discipline to another. Your use of these keywords includes all of the possibly connotations and interpretations by scholars who come before you. It is up to you to define your keywords specific to your usage and context. Those definitions can offer clarity, and can also indicate new directions in your research and findings.
Make a junk drawer. In a recent class discussion, a student mentioned the junk drawer in her kitchen, and most of us nodded enthusiastically as she explained it’s not really “junk” but objects that have no place or category. Ticket stubs from favorite concerts or train trips, a doodle on a napkin, the paper umbrella toothpick from a party drink…the junk drawer contains a good number of objects that have emotional resonance. Objects we can’t seem to throw away.
Do you have a writer’s junk drawer? Your digital junk drawer might include paragraphs you deleted from an essay, quotes you planned to include but discarded, notes on project ideas, or even inspirational tidbits. You may retrieve items from your junk drawer, especially in the revision process or when working on a new piece that revisits some of the scholarship you cite often in your areas of research expertise. The junk drawer can also be a good place to visit when you’re looking for a new idea or a way to get your ideas flowing when you begin writing.
Be inspired. This may seem like an impossible request for those of us who struggle to come to the page and begin writing. However, where inspiration appears difficult, it can be made simple. Imagine your positive outcomes. Imagine your success. Imagine yourself deeply engaged in the flow of writing and thinking, and how satisfying that feeling can be. Some of us are inspired by process, others by product. Figure out what works for you and imagine yourself in a space where your goals are easily achieved. It may seem far-fetched, but it can also be inspiring.
It’s going to be hard. If writing and research were easy, would we value our publishing successes so much? There is quite a lot of advice across the Internet (and certainly plenty here at PhD2Published) about how we might make these processes easier. But the work might begin best by acknowledging that it is hard. Perhaps that can minimize the frustrations that arise when what feels like it should flow ends up stalling, and when it is hard to find the place to start.
Finish. Consider finish as both a verb and a noun. Many Western cultures lack good means for coming to closure, whether in telephone conversations or in wrapping up a writing project. The old adage “nothing inspires like deadlines” is as much about creating a terminus as it is about expediting one’s work on the page. Set a date to finish your writing project, and stick to it. When you meet your deadline, celebrate it.
Looking at finish as a noun is also to look at final, as in final chapters. A wise scholar once suggested that beginning your reading with the final chapter of a scholarly book will demonstrate whether the book is useful for your research. The finish line of a good monograph reviews all of the arguments, the conclusions, and the shortcomings of the preceding text. Start at the finish and save yourself some research and reading time.
Exhale. For many readers in the Northern spheres, it’s the season for Spring Break. While a good number of students use the week off for time at the beach, the park, or other leisure activities, faculty might use the week to catch up on projects, cram to meet deadlines, or take care of outstanding teaching responsibilities. If you have time off, make sure you take time to exhale. Take a deep breath, put up your feet, sleep in an extra hour. Relaxation can be a prime remedy for preventing burnout.
Determination. For its multiple meanings and applications, determination is a helpful quality to consider in writing and research. On the one hand, determining precisely what you want to accomplish is a first step in bringing those goals to fruition. On the other hand, approaching your work with a sense of determination and drive can put you in a frame of mind that pushes you toward completing the goals you set out to accomplish. To determine what you can accomplish in a particular block of time, figure out what the best measure is (word count, page count, time committed) and set realistic, manageable goals.