This edited article was first published in 2015 on the RED Alert blog.
Whatever your area of research, if you’re doing a PhD, it all comes down to being about the writing.
You may have been put straight into the field, or a lab, and been gathering data from day one; or, like me, you may have had to locate your project in a body of literature and use that as your reference point.
As PhD candidates, our days are collectively filled with experiments, note-taking, reading, procrastinating, being distracted, tidying up our references, drinking coffee, and especially feeling guilty. Above all, however, it is about the writing.
At the end of our candidature, we’ll submit an original, written contribution to our field. It should be a well-written, considered document that is 60,000 – 80,000 words in length. A PhD is, in its essence, an apprenticeship in academic writing.
That said, writing is more than just words on a page.
It’s a way of formalising and refining our thoughts, of coming to new ways of understanding. We’ve all had the experience where that great idea that seems to make perfect sense in our heads leaves us tongue-tied or utterly confused when we’re tasked with articulating it or putting it to paper.
Writing, therefore, is a kind of journey in itself, a means to express our synthesised, or yet to be synthesised, ideas and thoughts about an area. I’ll be the first to admit that have not written nearly enough because – let’s face it – it's not easy to write.
Some words of encouragement though: it gets easier the more you do it. This is where ‘Shut up and Write!’ (#SUAW) has been a life-saver for me. These communal writing sessions are run at most Australian university campuses, so you may have already heard about them.
In case you haven’t: ‘Shut up and Write!’ sessions are an organised, communal writing activity that is based around the pomodoro technique.
This technique, formalised by Francesco Cirillo, is based on 25-minute bursts of writing (pomodori), with short breaks of about 5 minutes in between. The intention is that you switch off all distractions (like email, mobiles, and social media) and single-mindedly write for each pomodoro.
The writing you produce will not be perfect, but the more you write, the more you realise that first drafts are rarely good writing. It took me a while to really appreciate what Robert Graves once said, that ‘there is no such thing as good writing. Only good rewriting’.
To get the most out of them, I’ve found that it’s best to do some preparation for #SUAW as it’s not always easy to produce four to five 25-minute bursts of writing without having topics ready, or doing some structured reading in advance.
Ideally, the sessions should be free from editing, referencing, or refining of any kind – just straight out bursts of ideas. Thinkwell (Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns), through their 'Turbo-charge your writing' session taught me this valuable strategy about first draft writing. It’s also good to ‘stop the car on the top of a hill’, another great tip from Thinkwell. It means - when applied to #SUAW - that you stop writing as soon as the timer buzzes. This lets you pick up your writing again immediately after the break, and minimises your potential drift into less than helpful tangents.
For me, these writing sessions have two key benefits.
They allow me to get ideas out of my head and onto the page, where they can be adjusted and improved. I find it a lot easier to rewrite than it is to get those initial thoughts out. There are also benefits that extend beyond the page.
They are extremely helpful from a social point of view. We all know that the PhD experience can be isolating. This may not be the case if you’re working in a lab with fellow scientists but, for me, a part-time PhD student in business and social science, there aren’t many opportunities to work alongside other researchers.
SUAW provides an opportunity to meet other researchers and share ideas about improving writing and coping with the other stresses of balancing a PhD with work and family commitments.
It is my hope that by writing throughout my candidature, it will mean I’m not writing my way out of a corner in the final months, but assembling the writing that I’ve formed throughout my studies.