I have been writing.
Der, you say!
You are doing a PhD, what did you think you would be doing?
Well I knew I would be writing, I just didn’t realise there were so many different way to do writing.
I have been doing nothing but writing for the past 6 months (if you don’t count the complete meltdown when I decided to build a deck instead, but that is for another post).
Here are the main practices I have tried and how well they have worked for me:
1) Drafting – I tried the usual essay approach to writing a chapter – involving organising a plan, writing an outline, then fleshing it out with quotes, then writing my own ideas/comments in between, then reworking for flow. Some days I would sit all days and write 50 words, other days, words flowed like wine.
This looks like it should work, but sadly my brain does not work well with this approach. I spent months organising the vast amount of information I have into 15,000 words (one chapter), and it did not give me a particularly good rough draft.
2) Boot Camp – for those that don’t know, boot camps for writing involving sitting in a room with other writers, writing as much as you can in a set period of time, with NO EDITING ALLOWED. I did this for my second chapter and surprisingly after a weekend had achieved as much writing as I did in about 2 months with the more traditional approach I used for my first chapter.
Boot camps are useful if you want a really rough first draft, and you have a fair idea of what you want to write about. I will be using this technique for my next chapter. While the writing looks rougher, the ideas are still there and it is just a useful as any other rough draft I have done.
Check if you uni has a ‘shut up and write‘ session, which is a regular, weekly, slightly smaller version. Uni Melbourne has one every Wednesday morning, 9.15 at Tsubu.
3) Redrafting – This takes FOREVER! So get your rough drafting done as fast as possible. I thought I had a pretty good rough draft of that first chapter, until I read it again. HOW COULD I WORK ON IT FOR SO LONG AND IT BE SO SHIT? OK, maybe it wasn’t completely shit, but I am still working on it months later, and it is not because I am a perfectionist.
THERE IS NO POINT PUTTING YOUR HEART AND SOUL INTO A ROUGH DRAFT – JUST WRITE IT. I was only really working out what my chapter was about as I was writing it (this may just be a humanities thing). My arguments only became clear and focussed as I wrote them up. And they have become more focussed with each subsequent draft, and many of those sentences I perfected early on, got cut.
4) MOVE ON – Don’t keep working on one chapter. When you write a new chapter/section there is a ripple effect on the one’s you have already written. So move on and keep writing. The faster you write your first drafts, the more time you will have to come back and make your thesis work as a whole.
5) Take some time off – Sometime I feel like I will never ever finish, other times, I feel if I just write constantly, I will get it finished sooner and be able to get on with the rest of my life. BUT A PHD NEVER ENDS, IT IS ONLY ABANDONED.
The need/desire/guilt to write takes over your life, it is a shadow that follows you around, infiltrating every activity in your life, even your dreams. I am a psychotic bower bird, constantly scanning everything I encounter in case I can use it to feather my thesis nest. BEWARE – THERE IS NO END POINT TO THIS, THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SOMETHING MORE YOU CAN ADD.
It is really useful to walk away for a day or two, or even a week or two, and FORGET IT!!!!!! When I come back I am always pleasantly surprised, it is not as bad as I thought and I can see more clearly what needs to be done.
Some helpful stuff:
Scrivener is a great rough drafting program. It is cheap and easy to use, the layout makes sense and offers multiple way to view your work – from a straight read to index cards – and you can shuffle your works very easily.
Pat Thompson has lots of great post on the writing process.