summer reading – or – not all reading is the same

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Academics often look forward to doing their own work in summer  – the work they can’t get to during term time. We write bids, papers and books during our <break>. And one of the ways we get ourselves into the right writing frame of mind is to read – and think about the reading.

I’ve got a few reading things on the go over summer. I have a bid to write, and a few papers. Indulge me while I describe what this actually means I am doing. I hope to show you that all reading is not the same. We read different things for different purposes, and because of that, we do different things with the texts.

The bid – reading for what’s not there

The bid Im working on is with an external research partner. I have worked with her a lot. We have known each other for about fifteen years but started seriously collaborating about eight years ago. We’ve now done funded research and written together and co-supervised. This is a long term research relationship and that means I have a fair idea of the kinds of things that she and her organisation are interested in.

Recently, and without particularly trying to, I had an idea for a research project. It just happens to be something that my research partner and I have idly talked about over the years. In a tiny Eureka moment, I realised that the idle conversation was actually a research-project-in-waiting. I emailed my colleague and sketched out the idea. She was enthusiastic, as I knew she would be. But then she said that she was particularly interested in one aspect of the idea. In fact, it was something that worried her. And it was something her organisation would be interested in having investigated.

This was great feedback. This was now our idea. I let her comments sit for a while and then had another aha moment.  I went back to her by email again and said “ Well why don’t we make that the research question?”  And an affirmative response came back.

I ‘d begun by then to get into the literatures. I wasn’t starting from scratch here.  I already knew quite a lot of the areas and texts I needed to include, and I knew some of the key writers. But as I systematically noted and mapped, I could see that there was almost nothing about the very thing we were/are looking at. (A small hooray. But there was plenty of material about related topics which tellingly left it out. So, as we thought, there was something for us to do.) I even found one person noting the gap – very helpful. We can  be confident in saying that there is still a significant as well as useful contribution we can make through our proposed project.

I sent my preliminary scoping to my research partner. We then met face to face to chat, decide whether to proceed and if so, to agree a potential research design. My research partner also promised to add a few more texts for me to look at. My job now, as this IS my job, as my research partner has another job, is to write a draft by the end of August.

Writing the bid will thus involve more reading. If only half of what we read goes in the bid text, that doesn’t matter, as we have to be sure we know the fields we are straddling and say that to the reviewers through carefully selected references.

The reading and thinking I’m doing here are to kick off and position new work. We clarified an “industry” problem and then looked to see what research there already was. And here, we were looking as much for what there wasn’t – and what could be – as well as what there was.

Other reading

While the bid requires quite focused reading, as does a paper I’m writing, I also want to use the summer to do a bit of tough reading about something that I would like to understand better.

Now, I routinely read several journal articles a week. I’ve talked before about the app Browzine, which is attached to my university library’s journal subscriptions. I have thirty journals in my version of the app – journals where I usually find papers of relevance to my work. The app alerts me every time a new paper is published. Courtesy of Browzine, I skim quite a lot of new papers each week, and read a few in depth. Those I think are potentially useful, I store in the app library. I generally don’t take any notes of any of these readings unless I’m going to use them straight away. This reading is simply about keeping up to date in the field.

I also usually have an academic book or two on the go on my ipad. I can pick this reading up if I’m hanging around inbetween meetings, or if I’m on the train. These are usually books associated with a particular project, or books that might be useful for teaching. So I may well take a few notes associated with these books. Quite often, as I use ebooks, I simply highlight the text and export the highlights to ipad notes where they are saved. I can add my own comments into notes as well if I want. I sometimes transfer these notes to endnote when I have an immediate use for them.

And there is a small category of books that take time and concentration. These are the tough books. Sometimes during term time, I can read tough books as I have a sliver of down-time. But summer is where I really do burrow into the more difficult texts. And often, as now, they are a cluster of related writings – they all refer to each other, and to key foundational texts. So, as it happens , a couple of those key underpinning books are on my summer list too. Reading a set of associated texts means I have a better chance of grasping a strand of work in the field. I know the cluster of researchers and their shared concerns, their reference points, and the kind of rhetoric they use to argue and explore.

Tough books are generally philosophical or dense sociological texts which I might draw on at some point in future. But they immediately help me to get to grips with wider discussions and debates in the field. They provide “fuel” for thinking, now as well as later. They allow me to think anew about an ongoing intellectual problem I’m wrestling with.

The tough books are ones I need to work with and on. This doesn’t meant making lots of notes. My reading emphasis is on comprehension –  reading through and thinking in the first instance. There’s a lot of stopping and starting as I digest. I might make a few highlights on a first reading, but most probably not.  I generally write a page or two about these books after I’ve finished reading them, to consolidate the ideas and argument. This page always goes into endnote at the completion of the first read. I may well then go back and revisit specific passages which I want to think about further. (Just in case you are curious my summer list is Braidotti, Manning, Winnocott and Whitehead)

A list of the kinds of reading that I do, in term time and over summer, would be organised into the following categories:

  • Keeping up reading. Journal articles as they are published via Browzine. Skimmed or read in depth. Stored or not. Usually not noted unless immediately of use.
  • Project based reading. Focused reading in a particular area for teaching or research or perhaps book or paper writing. If for research/writing, these texts are always noted and mapped in a doc, and end-noted.
  • Casual reading for teaching, interest or potential research. These are usually ebooks which are highlighted, and these then stored in ipad notes.
  • Tough reading which provides resources for difficult problems I’m working on, long-term. I might note these books but I always write some kind of summary afterward and endnote this together with the bibliographic details.

Oh, and yes I read other things too. I belong to a book club which meets monthly, and I usually also get through another four of five works of fiction a month too. I have always been a reader – but that’s another story.

 

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Posted in academic writing, Endnote, note-taking, reading, reading routine, scan-reading | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

patter is eight and celebrating with writing skeletons

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Happy birthday to me

July is patter’s eight birthday and this is my 784thpost.  That’s a lot of words. At about a thousand per post, well, there’s about ten books worth buried in this blog.

I’ve had a bit of a look back over my very first posts. I can immediately see that my writing has freed up a lot since I first started. I’m a lot less fond of the orthodox paragraph and sentence than I used to be. But the reader I was writing for hasn’t changed. I was clear at the start that I was writing for doctoral and early career researchers and those who work with them. And I still am.

There’s so much stuff now sitting on this blog that even I can’t remember what’s there and what isn’t. In my look back I noticed that one of the earliest posts was about using writing skeletons.

Writing skeletons were good, I said at the time, as a way to get the hang of how other academic writers structured their arguments. I’d add to that now. Id probably explain more about meta-commentary as a way of staging an argument. It’s not just the content that matters but also the moves you make to string the content together.

I now also always emphasise that writing skeletons are a good way to help you sort out what you want to say. Forcing yourself to write small and get the key points down in the right order saves a lot of time when it comes to writing the final thing. A writing skeleton is a tiny text that can do big work.

So in honour of the writing skeleton and patter’s birthday, here is one new skeleton to use when thinking about the warrant for a paper – be it conference or journal. This is one I use in writing workshops around papers and chapters and sometimes the thesis.

Example One:

  1. There is a growing research literature on ….. ( broad topic)
  2. Researchers have examined ….., ……, ….., ……., and ……… ( examples of aspects of broad topic with one or two references after each)
  3. However, there is as yet little which addresses …… (the focus of this paper, also an aspect of the broad topic)
  4. The inspiration for this project came from…. ( either your reading, an experience or seeing a policy effect or social phenomenon)
  5. This example suggests that….. ( what you think the example might show about your topic and why you need to research it)
  6. My research set out to test this assumption or investigate further or explore the (specific issue) by…. (describe the research in brief)
  7. The paper reports on ….. ( the results that you are discussing)
  8. I will argue that …..

And here is one of the originals. An oldie* but a goodie.

  1. The thesis/chapter/paper builds on and contributes to work in the field of …..
  2. Although a number of studies (   ) have examined ……., there has not been a strong focus on ………..
  3. As such, this study provides additional insights about ……
  4. This research differs from previous studies in ………….   by identifying/documenting/ ………….
  5. In doing this, it draws strongly on the work of ………… and …………. who……………

It’s important to remember that a finished skeleton may not be your actual text, the one you give you supervisor or send off to a journal. You may want to play with these somewhat dry bits of prose. But these skeleton tiny texts are a very handy ways to get to your final text. Once you have the content and logic of the moves worked out you can focus on how best to say them.

 

*Adapted from Dunsmire, P (1997) Naturalizing the future in factual discourse: a critical linguistic analysis of a project event. Written Communication 14 (2) 221-264.

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writing a journal article – how many references?

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I’ve been asked about how many references go in the literature section of a journal article. A supervisor had offered a view – one reference per sentence is best, perhaps two. But, the person asking me said, they had seen papers with lots more.

How many is too many? What is not enough? What to do?

This is both an easy and a pretty tricky question to answer. The easy answer is that there are no rules. There aren’t even any strong conventions – different disciplines have different habits when it comes to referencing. And different reviewers have different views. What’s more the actual topic of the paper matters too – some papers just need more literatures than others.

My starting point is that citations are actually little actors in your text. They do things for you – or against you. Before thinking about numbers, it helps to consider what is the work that you want your citations to do.

So here’s three things to think about. Just to start off.

(1) Where do you want to place yourself?

A journal article isn’t the place to do a comprehensive literature review. You’ve done that before you write the paper. What’s needed in a paper is enough references to ground your research in the field and make the contribution of the paper clear.

The implication of the need for brevity is clear. If you can’t write something comprehensive then you have to be economical. You have to cite just enough to signal the location of your paper – where the paper sits in relation to others – and what the paper calls on that’s already been done.

And this may mean referring to some key literatures in the field. Citing key texts and authors shows the reviewers and readers that you know the topography of the field and who’s who and what’s what.

Choice is crucial when you’ve only got a few cites to play with. If you refer to a bunch of secondary sources, or attribute a key term to someone who isn’t considered the key source, or cite a bunch of people all of whom have different views but you suggest that they are the same by grouping them together, it’s bad news. You are actually saying to the reviewers that you haven’t much idea about the field.

A corollary of the key figure citation strategy is that you will end up referencing the same old bunch of people, those who already have loads of citations. You may not want to do that.

So counter to this approach, you may want to situate yourself in relation to another category of researchers in the field. This is where the politics of citation comes in – you may choose for example to signal your own position in the field by citing people of colour or women or people from the global south. Or if you are studying a place or texts different from your own location you may choose to cite scholars from that place, drawing on local knowledges and research.

But placement isn’t really about numbers of citations. The politics of citation is about what you cite and what you might think about in choosing who and what to use.

(2) How do you want the reader to read you?

Another important question is readability. This is probably not such an issue for you if you’re using a footnote citation system. Your citations don’t get in the way of the reader. But if you are using something with parentheses, then packing a sentence and paragraph with references can make for hard reading. It can be tricky for a reader to pick their way through a very dense bit of prose, particularly if it also has long sentences, multiple clauses and lots of nominalisations.

My preferred method in choosing how many citations to use connects with the look of the prose.

  • If my text looks like it is choking and it’s hard to pick out my words among the references to other people, then that’s probably a sign that there are too many citations.
  • If the balance of citations to my text is heavily in favour of other people then I am not really managing the argument. I’m standing in one spot lifting up placards and not actually moving anywhere at all.
  • If it’s all them and not me I’ve lost my voice and become a serial lister.

Yes, you may need a bit of a list somewhere in order to make your case, but not at the expense of what YOU want to say. So the numbers questions relates to your visibility and voice in the text.

(3) How do you want to express your scholarship?

Now I know that some people think that citation loading is a sign that you are well read and a proper researcher. Bristling with brackets means knowledgeable. Stuffed to the gills means erudite.

Well, to some extent that’s true. But quantity is not the only way to show you know what you’re writing about. Both citing key figures, or offering a counter reading of the field and who gets cited in it, signal that you know what’s what in the field.

However, sometimes too few citations are an issue. I can’t tell you the number of times I read things like – there is widespread agreement in the field (one name and date) – or – researchers generally agree that (one name and date). If you are only going to cite one person in this kind of sentence, there had better be a good reason for there being only one. With these kinds of ‘many’ claims it’s probably better to have a couple or three references, and also say e.g. The moral is that if you say multitudes then you need to evidence that in some way.

And citing yourself? Well yes of course you can, especially if you are building on work you’ve done before. But too much self citation looks like you don’t know anything else, or worse still, you don’t value the work of other scholars.

Mmm.

So how many references to literature in a journal article? Well, it depends.

Im sorry. That’s a non answer. Or perhaps it’s an answer which says that the number of citations follows the way in which you think about the work that citations do for you.

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PhD by publication

I’ve been asked a few times recently about the text that accompanies published papers for the PhD by publication. So who am I to refuse?

This is a slide show that I use to raise some key questions that people doing a PhD by publication need to consider. This is necessarily a brief overview.

I do not cover the different rules that apply to PhD by publication in different countries, nor the different processes of examination. Nor do I talk about the processes of putting papers into journals and how that might make things tricky for PhDers. The slide show focuses on broad questions of writing the actual additional text.

Posted in academic writing, examiner, journal article, journal publication, PhD by publication, viva | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

the joys of creative re-description

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Working with data is a creative process. Yes I know data word has got to be systematic and thorough. You can’t make up your results. But working with data is also always about interpretation. And interpretation, at some point, is about a creative idea.

And where and when do you get creative? Well, one place where it can be very helpful to have a creative idea is when it comes to saying what you think are your major results or The Result.

The creative moment comes when you dream up a re-description, a new name for something. Your research has said that a, b and c are important. If there isn’t already an existing name for a,b, and c then you get to create the name for what a.b.c mean. You decide on what this new category (a.b.c.) is going to be called.

The idea of re-description comes from the US philosopher Richard Rorty (1). Rorty differentiated between argument and re-description. Re-description, he said, was a way to think about a better world – if you offered novel, interesting and attractive re-descriptions of what the future world might be, then people would become interested.

Now Rorty’s writing about re-description isn’t entirely popular with other philosophers, but it does have some resonance with what you may need to do with your research. The idea of offering a novel term is one which is helpful when you come to think about your claim to the production of knowledge.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you make up a new term if there is a perfectly good one out there already. That’s not only a waste of time but it’s also a problem. Simply inventing new words, as if you’ve found something new when you haven’t, suggests that either you don’t know the literatures well enough to know the existing term, or worse still, you want to claim something is your idea when it actually isn’t.

So you do have to be careful when it comes to coining new terminology. But let’s imagine that you actually do have a new constellation of results that are different to what’s already out there in the world. Then you get to name it. The you get to be creative,

Let’s see what that might mean.

Say you have a new something to be named, something a bit different to what’s out there but part of the same family. You’re probably looking for a new adjective + existing name. So think about the noun that’s already in use. And then what the new bit is that you can add.

If you are a scientist there might be rules about how  invent a name. But lots of scientists do get to name new things. New bits of theory. New plants or insects or fish or animals that have somehow escaped the eye of science up till now.

And if you have got something that doesn’t belong to a pre-existing family, then you get to decide the whole new name. Like… String theory. Pulsar. Just to name two.

Let’s make up an example. Say I’m working on something where there’s already a lot of research. Academic writing. So my noun is writing.

Now imagine I have done some research about writers of articles rejected from journals. My research shows one group of papers where writers feel so terrible that they can’t go back to the papers ever again. They stick them in a drawer and can’t face them, can’t even bear to talk about them. But they can’t forget them.  The papers don’t go away. They are in a kind of writing limbo.

I’ve also found another group of people who find rejected papers a challenge. They get annoyed, yes. They might even stick the papers in a drawer. But they can’t bear to dump them altogether because they see this as a waste of effort and a hurdle to overcome. They rewrite. And resubmit to another journal. And another. But the papers comes back and back and back, journal after journal. And these writers just won’t give up. They keep trying and trying.

So I have two kinds of writers with two kinds of papers. Now is my chance to be creative.

Let me see.

I’m going to call the first abject writing because the papers are in the process of being cast off, but never actually get there.

And the second? Well I’m going to call this sisyphean writing after that poor fellow who had to keep  trying to roll the rock up the hill no matter how often it came back down.

Or perhaps. But i wont’ bore you with my brainstorm about possible names. They were just my first thoughts. I can do better I’m sure. Fun, eh.

When we researchers develop more than one term for our research results, then we are actually building a new vocabulary. Our new vocabulary might help other people to see things differently, start a conversation or they might extend what we did.

And this kind of creative re-description is often how we signal our claim of adding to knowledge. We have given a new name to a set of results –  our work with them, the patterns we have produced, the constellation of results we have made, has produced something not quite like everything else out there. So we have a new term.

The act of re-description is creative, and legit.

Play. Enjoy.

 

(1) I first saw redescription used in relation to research in a chapter by John Laws in the book Using social theory. Thinking through research. This version is my application of his insight.

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a thesis (often) needs A Big Idea

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Everyone knows that the thesis has to make a contribution. No probs. Well yes, there are actually probs. At the end of the research it can be hard to find one. Contribution, where is it?

You’re exhausted from generating all that data and trying to make sense of it. You have descriptions of what you think you can say – and categories. Categories galore – themes and key points. And you can talk about how at least some of this is new. But you can’t seem to get past what you have done. You are just too close to your data.

The too-close stuck-ness often appears at one or two points in thesis writing- (1) not being able to work out how to break the results up into chapters or (2) not being to write a ‘discussion’.

What’s stopping you? Well maybe what’s missing is The Big Idea that is going to make everything come together and hang together.

A good (social science, arts and humanities and some sciences) thesis depends on you finding your Big Idea. The one sentence which sums up what it is that you think you now know that you didn’t when you started. The one sentence that lets you construct the chapters and say what they add up to.

Let me give you an idea of how The Big Idea might work. Suppose I have researched people who are writing their PhDs. I’ve interviewed them and read their texts.

I can see from the interview transcripts that the interviewees often experience periods where they are unsure of what they are writing. I can see that most of them are reluctant to make claims that are too bold. I can see that most of them struggle with structuring their text and they fall back to the default IMRAD structure. I look to see what is lacking from their accounts and I see people variously not yet knowing how to write a big argument and not feeling suitably expert.

What Big Idea might encapsulate that set of results?

In this case it was – yes this was an real research project done by Barbara Kamler and me – it was the notion of text work/identity work. The idea that text and identity work were inseparable and produced and reproduced each other. Gaining authority over the text led to the doctoral researcher feeling more like a researcher. Presenting at a conference as an expert on a topic made the researcher feel more like a researcher and they carried that sense of authority back into their writing and wrote a little differently.

So if we had written our research as a thesis or scholarly monograph, then Barbara and I would have structured our text around The Big Idea of text work/identity work. And it might have looked a bit like this:

  • The problem – doctoral writing and doctoral researchers struggling with writing
  • Introducing key concepts – writing as a social practice, theories of identity,
  • Reporting methodology research design and audit trail of the research
  • Writing in progress, identities in formation– the various processes used by doctoral researchers to get on top of their text
  • Texts in formation – analysis of some texts and interview material to show where and how doctoral researchers were able to make identity and/or text shifts or were stuck
  • The literature review and discussion of results as key sites for text work and identity work
  • Introduction and explanation of the notion of text work/identity work, examining the practices and organisational cultures that supported and hindered tw/iw formation
  • Concluding by naming the contribution – text work/identity work with implications for practice and policy, referring back to the discussion.

Well, we didn’t write this book.

(But a lot of the material can be found in the book we did write for supervisors Helping doctoral students write.)

Finding the Big Idea isn’t always easy. And of course some people do get away without one. However, most people do need The Big Idea to make their argument.

The Big Idea is your one minute answer to the question, What did you find in your research? And you don’t have to wait until someone asks you this question. You can ask it of yourself, particularly as you are working with your data, what it is that you think that you can see emerging? And as you get to the point where you start writing, ask the What did you find? question then – it’s a really helpful start to planning your thesis structure.

Focussing on Your Big Idea is not as scary as ‘making the contribution’, ‘discussing the results’. The Big Idea is a scaffold to the necessary thinking and writing. Getting hold of it and saying it in simple straightforward words also helps you write an abstract or a road map, plan chapters by amassing the pieces necessary for storyboarding or writing chapter Tiny Texts. That’s because starting with your problem and working right to the Big Idea – drum roll, Ta Da – gives you the red thread that will guide the reader through the text.

Do I write like this? Oh yes absolutely. I always sort out my Big Idea when I start to write a paper or a book.

And it was actually my own PhD supervisor who taught me that The Big Idea was helpful as a writing process. He once gave me twenty four hours to come back to him with my thesis chapter outlines. He didn’t suggest I needed a Big Idea, as I remember it, but I found I had to have one to get my task done within the time limit he set.

And afterwards I learnt that getting The Big Idea and an outline made my writing go really quickly. (Thanks Richard.) So I do the same. I always ask for The Big Idea from the doctoral researchers I work with too.

See also:

Take home point

PhD contribution

Original contribution

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Posted in academic writing, argument, Big Idea, contribution, thesis | 5 Comments

writing targets – word count, time spent, or chunks?

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Many people swear by writing goals. Perhaps it’s all about time. Timers allocate a given number of minutes for each writing session – say thirty minutes each morning, or a couple of hours two or three times a week. Or perhaps they are less motivated by time and more by the number of words written. Word counters set themselves a target for each and every writing session – five hundred words, a thousand, two thousand words. They don’t stop till they’ve churned out the required amount.

I tend not to do either of these. I find time and word counts both interrupt my train of thought often at inappropriate moments. So instead I write in chunks. I’m doing that right now as I’m book writing under deadline pressure.

I thought it might be of interest, particularly to thesis and other book writers, if I described chunking. Perhaps you do something similar too.

To begin, I spend time writing an initial road map – a tiny text – for the paper or chapter. I then amass the various bits and pieces that I think I’m going to use – quotations, bits of data (my writing mise-en-place). Chunks might also include pieces that have been written in thirty minute pomodoros, but in my case they generally don’t. Sometimes I put these pieces in a separate document, organising the bits into the order of the tiny text. I often have various books and PDFs open on my desk top and on the floor.

At this point I’m ready to write chunks. I always start with the introductory chunk, as this sets the tone and argument thread for the whole piece. After I have the intro done I revisit my tiny text and make any adjustmentsI need to. I then work out how many steps there are in the argument to come. Each step is a section of the paper with heading. Each step is a chunk. I can then match the number of chunks I have to write to my available time.

My current book is made up of chapters, each of which is about 7000 words. So after I’ve finished each introduction draft I typically have three or four chunks left to do for every chapter.

My preferred method is to write a chunk in one sitting. Occasionally it takes me two sittings to complete a chunk. But mostly it’s a chunk every time I sit down to write. And almost always, at the end of completing a chunk, I spend some time thinking about the next one. I make a few notes about what comes next so I know, when I return to the writing which may not be the next day, what I was thinking.

My chunk writing is always about assembling. Writing paragraphs is about placing the collected materials into surrounding text. It’s much more analogous to making a mosaic where the outline is already traced out, and the pieces are standing by. The text needs to be composed, put together, glued with new words and sentences. But unlike a real mosaic, a written chunk can be deconstructed and re-assembled if it isn’t pleasing.

So writing in chunks is not the same as writing to a word count or writing to time. Chunk writing usually looks and feels a bit stop-and-startish while it’s happening. I work consistently at the screen but swap between referencing, copying, or cutting and pasting. Sometimes it becomes obvious that I need something not at hand and I’ll either stop and find it, or leave a marker that I can come back to at the end of the chunk-writing. I do a clean-up at the end.

Chunk writing always seems quite creative, seeing the various elements come together. I like to keep the flow going so that, in reality, I spend more time on writing new text than in inserting or hunting and gathering. I also try not to edit what I’ve done too much as I know that this is a first draft. I’ll get another go. And another.

Writing a chunk of text, of variable length, but usually between one and two thousand words – sometimes a bit shorter or longer – usually takes me the best part of a morning.

And invariably in between chunk writing sittings I‘ll have a few thoughts about things that I have left out, or things that I need to do differently. I write these down on anything – back of an envelope, or notepad – and I begin the next chunking session attending to the forgotten and omitted. I find that beginning a chunking session adjusting the existing text sets me up for what I aim to do that day.

I like chunking. I find it’s a remarkably efficient way of writing. I can generally get a book chapter draft done in four or five sittings, sometimes even only three.

For me, the magic trick in writing in chunks come from focusing on one step in the argument at a time. I keep the current step at the forefront of my mind. I don’t worry about what’s come before or what is to come next. I don’t get distracted by the whole. I just focus on this bit. Here. Now. You write a whole, not a part. You stop when you’re done. And it’s very satisfying to make the last full stop knowing that you have advanced the chapter by taking that one more step.

Perhaps chunking is something you might want to try too as an additional goal-setting strategy. It doesn’t have to be all about word or time count. Or perhaps you have another strategy altogether?

 

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