Thursday, 4 April 2013

Tales from the DPhil, Part Two: Writing the Thesis Like a Novel

Welcome to Part Two of this upstart series, Tales from the DPhil.  Today is the juicy stuff - writing tips!

Last term, I discovered that the single biggest stress- and anxiety-causing aspect of my doctoral experience was my approach to writing the darned thing.

In undergrad and my Master's, I did quite well writing essays by researching a lot up front, creating detailed outlines, and then racing through a draft with a quick polish at the end.  Because I always had hard deadlines, I always made them, even if this required some crazy writing days.

This is by no means an ideal writing strategy for a doctoral thesis.  A term paper can (but probably shouldn't) be a sprint.  A thesis is a marathon.  A three-year marathon.  A thesis also demands consideration, the evolution and testing of ideas and arguments, the honing of sentences.  I was trying to write chapters in big bursts (which didn't work) and then had no time for proper revision.  I became anxious about writing and avoided it.

So, I decided I had to make writing much less daunting.  I decided to write my thesis as if it were a novelI'm quite proud of this revelation.

I've been writing novelish fiction since I was fourteen.  I know how to write a big, multi-part project and just needed to apply the same strategies to my thesis.  I know from experience that I need to write every day, preferably to a very manageable word goal.

Principles that Have Vastly Improved My Thesis-Writing Experience

1.  Come up with a manageable word count and stick to it every day.  I've chosen 500 words, which I think is approximately an hour's writing, but it varies a lot.  It amounts to 2ish sides of A4 or about 3-4 pages in my Moleskine journal or 2-3 paragraphs.  It is extremely doable and non-threatening because it seems like so little.  Also, the more regularly you write, the more natural it becomes.  As a bonus, on the days I force myself to write, I usually end up over-shooting this word goal and write closer to 600 words.  But no matter what, something is better than nothing.  Progress is better than standing still.  And, if you write 500 words a day for one work week, you suddenly have 2500 words.  That's almost a conference paper.

2.  Write first thing every day.  Because I know that if I put off my writing, it probably won't get done and I likely will not get much research done either, out of a general sense of anxiety and procrastination.  Also, writing is always the hardest part of my day.  Everything after it seems easier and more enjoyable.  And, once you've met your word count for the day, you've met a mini-goal, which feels great.  Plus, you don't have to worry about writing any more until the next day.

3.  Don't start with a blank page.  What I've been doing is writing longhand rough words one day and then revising while typing them the next.  This allows me to a do a first pass of revision and gets my writing brain working before I have to tackle fresh writing, which in turns makes tackling the new words less frightening.  In an ideal world, I would also take notes and write down ideas for the next day's rough words - that can be a big help to getting started.

4.  Don't worry if the words are rough/awful.  Once you have words, you can fix them!  If you don't have any words to play with, you can't do anything at all.  It's taken me a long time to come around to revising my academic and creative writing and to find strategies to help me do it.  Sometimes having a pile of messy, meandering words is a gift because it's often so easy to see how they could be improved.  A nicely proofread piece of work can be harder to take apart and put back together again because of its shiny surface.

5.  Realise that words/writing time are not an end but a process.  This is another realisation that made me feel better about my messy, daily words.  I'm not writing just to meet a word count - I'm writing because writing allows me to think through the issues I'm dealing with in a way that research or even outlining can't.  Sometimes I have little revelations while writing.  I realise what my argument is, or discover something new about a text.  I've realised that I need to spend a good portion of every day interacting with my words on the page, whether writing or revising.  If you leave a project for a few days, it's much harder to get back into it and pick up the flow of ideas again.  (Noveling is the exact same in this regard).

I hope these principles might be helpful to any grad school brethren who may be reading this.  Do you have any tips in turn?  (They are always much appreciated - it's very easy to slack off when it comes to writing discipline.)

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Tales from the DPhil, Part One: Tips for Better Living and Working

Hello blog,

Last term, I somehow made the leap from Second-Year Slump levels of motivation and high levels of procrastination, stress, and anxiety (chiefly centred on writing) to high levels of motivation and writing.  Hence, I thought I'd write a bit about the life, working, and writing strategies that helped me out in the hope that perhaps they might help you, too.

This is Part One: Living and Working.  Tomorrow: Part Two: Writing the Thesis Like a Novel.

1.  Get a good night's sleep.  I suffered from some terribly off-kilter sleeping patterns over the Christmas vacation.  There were a few mornings I didn't get to sleep until 7 am.  This was not good for my productivity.

When I finally forced myself to wake up at 6:45 am, I discovered I was much more productive.  The days seemed so full of possibilities and I really got excited about tackling my work.  It's much better to find yourself at lunchtime with a few hours' of work under your belt than to have nothing at all.  Also, I quite like working on my novel over breakfast and coffee for my first working hour of the day.  This allows me to dedicate time to my novel revisions without feeling like I'm stealing time from my thesis.  If I put the novel off, I know I probably won't work on it later in the day.

2.  Find or create the conditions that will allow you to be productive.  I've realised over the past year or so that working at home isn't actually the best for me.  There are so many possibilities for distraction.  The internet.  The dishes.  A nap?  Last term, I discovered three ways to make my working day much more productive.

a)  I solved the internet problem (mostly) by using the Firefox add-on Leechblock, in which you can list the URLs of sites that you know you waste time on and block yourself from accessing them at certain times.  At the moment, I'm not allowing myself access to any social media, the Guardian website, YouTube, or my favourite blogs between 8:30 am and 5:30 pm on week days.  I've also prevented myself from accessing the settings in a way which I don't (yet) know how to disable.  (I could, of course, still go on Twitter on Tim's computer or my phone, but that would require more effort.)

b)  I found a great place at school to work.  The English Faculty has a newish graduate work space which is perfect - just tables in a light, bright room and an almost non-existent wireless signal.  Also, often other graduate students are working in there, which allows for much needed human interaction.  And, because it is purely a space in which to do work, my perception of my work day is much different.  At home, it can be a struggle to log the hours I'm aiming for, especially with the temptation to take breaks or a nap.  At school, however, I can be happy working away for hours with minimal breaks because that's precisely what I'm there to do.  I don't even watch the clock that much.  I work until 5:30 or 6 and then I go home.

c)  I can do this because this is a space I can work in while snacking.  I used to work at home more because I wanted access to food and drink (there is no eating in Oxford libraries).  I can snack away or eat lunch in this work room, however, and it's changed my working experience hugely.  Before, if I sat down to work in a library, I would often almost instantly become hungry, which was incredibly distracting.  I've cut many a work day short in order to go home to eat something. Not a problem when I can eat while working.

3.  Allow yourself guilt-free time off.  When I was struggling (and failing) to meet the hours quota I set myself each day/week, I felt like I was always potentially supposed to be working (unless I was on an actual vacation).  This is stressful!  You (and I) need breaks that don't involve the thesis perpetually nudging your subconscious.  Since Tim has a regular, full-time job now, I also felt it would be really nice if I also had (mostly) work-free evenings and weekend.  After a vacation slump (due to the disappearance of the term schedule), I'm back to full productivity levels, which means that I can actually have evenings to myself, guilt-free.  (Confession: sometimes I'll have half an hour or hour of work to do, but since that often involves reading Victorian novels, that's fine).  It's actually strange not to need to work.  I find I don't quite know what to do with myself.

Tomorrow, I will share with you the secret of Writing the Thesis Like a Novel.  It involves word counts.  And happier thesis writing and revision.

Reader, if you are in a commenting mood, how, when, and where do you best work?