writing – pleasure and/or satisfaction?

As AcWriMo 2021 finishes off, so am I. The self-imposed discipline of producing the first draft of a short book ( 50k words) in a month is just about over. I began the month with 14k words in hand and finished with just over 51K. A good effort.

Better come clean though. 51k is not quite as impressive as it seems, as the book is based largely on patter blog posts. There was already a bank of material available for me to work with. However, I did have to rewrite existing text into a somewhat less bloggy ‘voice’, wrestle discrete chunks into a structure that made sense, write new material to fill the gaps and turn some posts into exercises. New work was required.

At the end of this month I do feel a strong sense of satisfaction – I’ve got the draft done. But I can’t say it was a pleasurable process. 

Some dictionary definitions say that pleasure is a sense of satisfaction, happiness and enjoyment. Similarly, satisfaction is defined as fulfilment of expectations, goals, wishes and needs or the pleasure derived from attaining these. Pleasure and satisfaction are one and the same thing. Well I beg to differ.

Before this month, I hadn’t thought a lot about whether there was any difference between satisfaction and pleasure. Whether one was possible without the other. And I accept that they might be the same most of the time. But I have a somewhat different perspective now. I do think pleasure and satisfaction are not necessarily the same.

I normally find writing a pleasurable process. Even when the going is tough and I need time away from the desk thinking through a knotty problem, the process is enjoyable. I can’t say the same for this book. I haven’t really enjoyed getting up early every single day and spending at least thirty minutes at the desk. I don’t mind doing that for a few days a week. My regular writing habit is actually not every day, but most days. But I’ve found the relentlessness of November pretty hard.

Despite not finding the writing pleasurable, I was however well satisfied with the progress that I was making. I was buoyed by being able to file completed chapter after chapter as I ploughed on through the month. And it was a truly satisfying moment on Sunday morning when I had the first draft done. Today I will put all of the chapters into one document and set up a new folder for redrafting. I might even take another moment to congratulate myself too. But was this a good time? Did I feel pleasure in the writing? Do I want to do a book again in the same pressure cooker? Not on your Nellie.

I have written this many words in a similar time frame before. More than once. So the 51k word count in this time frame isn’t that uncommon. I write quickly. I usually relish the creativity in finding the words to express an idea. A well-turned sentence is particularly pleasing. Writing is pleasurable in part because it is also surprising thinking. I enjoy seeing the argument develop and unexpected insights appear in spite of my best laid plans.

At other highly productive writing times I have been excited by the process of putting-thoughts-into-text. And this could have been the case this month, even though I was working with known material. But I had signed myself up to AcWrimo.

AcWriMo – or rather, the way that I interpreted AcWriMo2021 – placed the emphasis on end point, the product. The writing became the means to an end, rather than something good in itself. And my sense of must-reach-the-end wasn’t helped by having a research report due at the same time – even though I wasn’t first authoring it (heartfelt thanks Toby), there was still a real deadline with a public launch attached. So November was dogged writing to reach one full draft and another final text. Well, I got the job done.

But I’m really not doing this again. I’m not ungrateful to AcWriMo2021 for giving me the push and structure to make a writing leap forward. But this year’s experience has made me swear that next time I won’t be writing anything as potentially pleasurable as a book in such a compressed time frame. I want to let the writing spool out in a less pressured way. I want the writing to find its own measure, its own rhythms.

So when AcWriMo comes around next year, I might set myself a goal of writing for pleasure, rather than writing for product. And I imagine the pleasure wont come at the expense of being satisfied. I’ll be doubly pleased this time next year. Don’t let me forget.

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check for the passive voice

Passive voice. Put simply, the active voice is when the actor, the person doing the action, is named. The writer does not name the actor when using passive voice.

Ironically, the first sentence above does not name the actor – it is as if action of writing in the active voice just magically happens. However, in the second sentence, the writer is responsible for naming who is acting – the writer.

So that’s what happens when you use passive voice. The active agent disappears, and the focus is on the recipient of the action. Let me illustrate again.

Academic writing is typically weighted more to the passive voice than the writing found in newspapers, magazines and fiction. (That first sentence, and this one as well, are both written in the passive voice.) We academic writers are so accustomed to reading passive voice that we really only notice when there is too much of it, or not enough.

Too many sentences in the passive voice puts even the experienced academic reader to sleep. But too many sentences in the active voice may give the reader the sense that they are not reading a scholarly work.

We might ask ourselves – why is passive voice such a strong academic writing convention? Perhaps it’s because the passive voice creates an illusion of objectivity. The text appears to deal only with facts. Research results appear untouched by researchers, events, places or times. Conclusions appear logical and unassailable because writer-researchers and their decisions are removed from consideration. Researcher’s interpretations, interests, cultural positioning and their beliefs are excised – it is as if the human has no possible bearing on what is reported and argued.

But academic writing doesn’t have to be like this. If the omniscient, but absent. researcher is not your preferred (epistemological) position then you might want to check your use of passives. Check knowing that writing in passive voice is a choice, not a matter of blindly following convention -nor is it simply about opting for a particular readable style (although that is very important).

It’s good to have some strategies that you can use to help you make decisions about how and when to write in the active and/or passive voice. Here’s one approach. It is a strategy for revising.

Read through your text underlining the sentences are that in the passive voice. You can often find passive voice by looking for sentences that use the verbs am, is, was, were, are, been, has, had.

Once you have located the sentences using the passive, you can then visually assess the balance. If the weighting seems rather skewed one way or another, you can then do some targeted rewriting, adjusting the passive/active ratio. But before reaching for the mouse and keyboard, it’s very helpful to check where the meaning becomes clearer through the switch.

Of course I’m not suggesting you need to write entirely in the active voice. There are actually some circumstances where you may decide to keep the passive voice. But in order to decide what these are, it is helpful to assess your underlined sentences and then decide what to do.

When you find a sentence written in the passive voice ask yourself:

  • Is the use of passive voice typically used in my discipline for this purpose? 

e.g. Interviews were chosen as the primary method of data generation. Do I need to follow the convention? Or do I have a choice? I chose interviews as the major data generation method.

  • Do I want to emphasise the thing, material or object rather than the actor? 

e.g. The vaccine was trialled and approved in record time.

  • Do I want to leave the agent un-named?

e.g. Risks were taken during the research.

  • Am I unsure about exactly who the actor was/is? 

e.g. The postbox had been yarn-bombed several times. ( Can I find out? Should I find out?)

  • Is the active agent too complex for me to explain here? Will the explanation act as a distraction and a major side-alley I don’t want to go down?

e.g. Thousands of koalas were killed in the 2019 bushfires

  • Do I want to make a generalised claim?.

e.g. Clear writing is preferred by readers. (Can I say that readers prefer clear writing? Do I then need to back this statement up?)

Then consider

  • If my use of the passive voice obscures the actor, is this really what I want to do?

e.g. Care home residents were left vulnerable during the pandemic.

  • Does my use of the passive voice hide important information that the reader needs to know, information that I need to insert?

e.g. Research has indicated that mask wearing is important. – who are these researchers? Where are their studies? Can the reader check them?

  • Finally, ask, is the recipient of the action more important than who dunnit? Does my naming of the actor distract from the most important point of the sentence?

e.g. Student failure was attributed to covert forms of discrimination. Covert forms of discrimination were held responsible for student failure. These two variations put either student failure or covert discrimination as the most important aspect of the sentence, not who was reporting.

So there you are, nine questions to use to check the passive voice. And if, as a result of your diagnostic reading, you want to switch sentence to the active voice, the easiest first step is to identify the actor. Then start your new sentence with them. After that, you can finesse the syntax.

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the disappearing writer – a redrafting strategy

Academic writers often lose themselves when writing about literatures. It is easier to be textually confident when writing about what you did yourself than to summarise, synthesise and assess other people’s texts. Particularly if those texts are produced by more experienced and well regarded writers. It is even more tricky to put your analysis of the literatures to work in your own interests.

Anywhere in your text where there is a discussion of other people’s work is  a prime site for revising and refining. Advice often confines the focus for revision on a literature “review”. But you are likely to have used literatures all the way through your text – to establish context, to locate your work, to show what you have used to build your study and analyse its results, to establish your research design, to explain the contribution.

Whether you have a standalone literature chapter or a section of text, it can be very informative to look for a pattern of writing in which you disappear. The disappearing writer syndrome is a product of a particular approach to literatures work – you discuss other people’s work first, usually in the form of a laundry list, and then briefly refer to your own. The brief reference to your work often lacks specificity.

Here’s an example of the disappearing writer

A number of papers examine how Art can develop students’ creativity. These include a two-decade classroom-based autoethnography (Gaw and Fralick 2020), the six-year 52-school Oklahoma A+ Schools project which identified increased creativity as one of the largest detectable outcomes (Barry 2010; Thomas and Arnold 2011), the SPECTRA+ Arts Integration project (Luftig 2000) and the global Community Arts Zone (CAZ) project (Griffin et al. 2017).  Art’s benefits to creativity have been detected in students’ use of iPads and other digital content creation (Drotner 2020; Sakr 2019). A study from Israel used students’ performance in other art forms (performing arts) as an early predictor of their levels of creativity (Milgram 2003). Others suggest that ACD integration leads to more creative thinking (Land 2013; Allina 2018). Commentators have contentiously suggested that art lessons (available to only 26% of African Americans; Mitra 2015) should be replaced by lessons in creativity (Gregory 2017). The research highlights the value on creativity of improvisation (Sowden et al 2015), the students’ self-expression (Roth 2017), the supportive role of adults (Kouvou 2016) and exposure to contemporary art (Dear 2001). My research draws on this body of work.  

It is clear from this paragraph that the writer has read, summarised and synthesised a body of work about art education and creativity. Key points have been established. However, the author and their research comes last in the paragraph – other people’s work is discussed, their own comes a distant last.

Furthermore, if we look at the verb following the author and verbs allocated to other writers, we can see that the writer is drawing on, while others have detected, used, suggested, contentiously suggested and highlighted. The verb ‘drawing on’ also shows the writer beholden to the work of others, rather than being a confident selector and user.

What’s more, we don’t have a clue what of the above literature has been used in the writer’s own research, and how. We simply know that it matters, somehow.

It is not necessarily a problem to devote space in a text to another person’s writing. There will likely always be some writing in literatures work which does discuss a key writer or two and their works. But discussing one author especially germane to your study is not the same as showing how a particular group of texts have informed your research.

So what to do? Step one. Read for this pattern – a big listicle of other people’s work followed by a vague reference to your own – when revising. Found some do this? Step two. Try the easiest rewriting tactic – simply reverse the order of things and put yourself first. This switch automatically requires you to manage the introduction and discussion of the literatures texts more authoritatively, and with more detail. Rather than disappear, the writer comes first.

I have begun to rewrite the listy paragraph using the put-the-writer-first strategy.

My research investigates the ways in which Art education contributes to creativity. There is already evidence that there is a strong correlation between art education and creativity: a two-decade classroom-based autoethnography (Gaw and Fralick 2020) of the six-year 52-school Oklahoma A+ Schools project identified increased creativity as one of the largest detectable outcomes (see also Barry 2010; Thomas and Arnold 2011;  the SPECTRA+ Arts Integration project (Luftig 2000) and the global Community Arts Zone (CAZ) project (Griffin et al. 2017)).  Researchers have suggested that: students’ performance performing arts is an early predictor of their levels of creativity (Milgram 2003); students’ use of iPads and other digital content creation leads to creativity (Drotner 2020; Sakr 2019); and that ACD integration leads to more creative thinking (Land 2013; Allina 2018). There has even been a suggestion that art lessons (available to only 26% of African Americans; Mitra 2015) should be replaced by lessons in creativity (Gregory 2017). Most pertinent to my research topic is research which suggests the value of improvisation (Sowden et al 2015), students’ self-expression (Roth 2017), the supportive role of adults (Kouvou 2016) and exposure to contemporary art (Dear 2001); I built these insights into the research tools I used ( see Methodology and Methods)

Your text won’t look exactly like this of course. This is not a sentence skeleton. And this is a far from finalised draft. It is simply the next stage of drafting.

But you can now see the argument moves in the redrafted paragraph – this is my research, there is evidence to show that my research in this area is warranted, I have used some of the research as a building block – and their effect. The paragraph is about the writer’s research.

Switching the author to the front of the text has shifted the focus away from other people’s work to their own research. And note the authoring verbs which show that the writer is taking researcherly actions – investigating and using – activities on a par with those whose texts are discussed – and making evaluations through the use of a qualifier – most pertinent. In a literatures chapter these moves may occur over a long series of paragraphs rather than one. In a journal article, there may be very few.

However, the switcheroo move to find the disappearing writer often works for rewriting both long and short engagements with other people’s work.

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revising? start strategically

Whether you are revising your own writing or responding to reviewer feedback, you need to work out what to do. But you also need to work out where to start. 

You may have made a revising plan or written out a list of reviewer recommended changes with your proposed actions next to them. That’s good. But you aren’t finished thinking about revising just yet. There is still the task of working out your re-writing strategy.

It is important to find the best place to begin revising. Choosing somewhere to start does have the immediate effect of making the task seem more manageable. But there is another reason for being selective. Revising one aspect of a text often has knock-on effects on other aspects of the writing.

To avoid getting in the situation where you do a whole lot of work and then find that the last thing you do makes a lot of what you’ve already done completely superfluous, you need to choose your starting point very carefully. It is debilitating and frustrating to go down your list of changes, make a series of small adjustments and then come to something which is much bigger and which wipes out pretty well all of the modifications you have just made. It is crucial to locate the textual alterations that will affect the entire piece. 

So, rather than simply start at the top of your list of changes, you need to find the most significant. The improvement that makes the most difference is likely to be something that affects the whole text – changing the structure of the paper to make the argument proceed logically, using a different theorisation, writing a new introduction which sets up the problem differently and which will match the conclusion. But sometimes a change may appear small but have considerable re-writing heft –  for example making a small section less stodgy and more lively opens up and steers revising the whole text.  

If you aren’t entirely sure about where to start and what to start with, choose a smallish number – no more than 4 – things to begin with and get them done. This may be revising one section of the text rather than the whole, or it may be following a thread throughout. When you have completed your initial number of changes, go back to your list of revisions and make another selection.

But it may be, as you were working on the first four things, that you can also see a need to start elsewhere. Being flexible, not assuming you just start at the top of the list and work your way down, and continuing to diagnose your writing while you are revising, is a sensible. And often time-saving.

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revising? try a four step approach

Many people approach revising as if it is a single shot process. They tell themselves, “I’m just going to sit down now and revise my paper”. But revising and refining a text are not one activity, they are several. The writer who thinks that revision is a onesie could be setting themselves up to feel daunted by the magnitude of what needs to be done, and potentially frustrated if it doesn’t all come together in the one big writing stint.

At a minimum, revising consists of four interconnected, interlocking and circular steps:

  • reading your text 
  • diagnosing problems 
  • generating solutions – deciding on what needs to be done and in what order, and 
  • re-writing. 

These steps do not necessarily happen serially and separately. But they don’t always flow seamlessly into one another either. You are highly likely to need thinking time in between at least some of them. After reading and diagnosis, you may decide that you need to go back to checking out literatures or looking at your data analysis. You may also want to check your diagnosis and proposed solutions with a supervisor, a peer or writing mentor.

To avoid revising-refusal or revising-fear you can organise shortish periods of time around each of the four steps. Using shorter sessions for daunting revisions has the advantage of making the task seem more do-able. Expectations are lowered too – the writer tells themselves, “I don’t have to finish it all today. All I need to do in this writing time is to read my text and begin to identify the problems, I don’t need to do everything now”. Read first and then a second writing session might see the writer read again, complete their diagnosis and begin to develop solutions. A third session might focus on textual changes and sorting out the order in which the changes need to be made. The final session(s) is tackling the text itself.

Of course it is possible to do all the steps in one go. But most of us need more time on revising than the single go. And we benefit from the mulling over spaces in between them.

You can support your revising by writing notes to yourself in the margins of your text. Or you can make a simple table to serve as a guide to writing. Your table can be broken down into chunks of time, with particular revision chunks allocated to specific diary slots.

Problem in the text, page number. You can also cut and paste in the beginning and end of the text at issue. From… to.. DiagnosisRewriting solution
   
Column headings for revising plan

You could also add a fourth column – time and date.

Of course, it is not necessary to be so systematic. It is quite possible to move through the steps for revising without breaking the task up in this way. However, if you DO find yourself unable to start revising and find yourself gazing longingly at tempting reasons to procrastinate, then the act of developing a staged plan can help.

Making a plan means that you are taking charge of what revising you will do, how and when. You are standing back to assess and evaluate your own writing. You are putting your writer self to work on improving your text.

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what’s all this reading about then – starting the PhD

When you begin the PhD you will be told to read, and read a lot. But you’ll find not any old approach to reading will do. It’s a particular kind of reading that’s expected. So it’s important to get a grip on the complex task that you are being asked to do. In the first instance your reading helps you to:

  • Scope the field or fields that you are in, so that you understand what is relevant to your topic, and what is not. You also need to get clear on the “core” of your discipline(s) and its threshold concepts – the ideas that anybody doing any topic in the discipline, including you, need to take account of. Knowing them also means you can understand and join in the conversations in your disciplinary community.
  • Map the field in relation to your particular topic so you can see key themes, major players, and the big debates that will frame your work. Some of these key texts and ideas will become building blocks for your research, but some may become blocks that you want to challenge.
  • Focus in on the literatures that are most germane to your topic. You are not expected to know all of the literatures in depth, only the texts that are most germane to your topic. These are texts that will help you refine your question or hypothesis, will provide you with “stuff’ that you can use – be this conceptual and/or theoretical ideas or analysed material. Focusing in on texts relevant to your research interest also helps you to spell out the warrant for your research, to consider how best to research it, and to establish what your research will contribute to existing understandings.

I’ve written a lot about reading and literatures work over the years, expanding on these three aspects of reading. Here’s a selection of posts that might get you started off. They are geared to supporting you to form a clear idea of the purposes of reading and the evaluative attitude you might adopt. There’s some early reading strategies too.

Working with literatures– understanding what is meant when we talk about “literature” 

Love the uncertainty – discusses the time necessary for understanding the field and what’s relevant to your topic

Thinking about literature as a resource – understanding your reading as a support for your own work 

How to start your literature review – outlines three alternative strategies to get you going

Reading against the literature – offers some strategies for critically assessing the field and its omissions and emphases

Working with literatures – take a hands on hips stance. Explains the need to stand back to evaluate what you are reading, not simply take the text at face value

Getting to grips with new literatures – Asking questions of the text avoids reading without focus – questions are always related to your topic, but here’s an example of what it looks like. Also see

Preliminary sorting  – the importance of categorising literatures into things you need to read, and things you just need to know exist

Mapping your literatures – discusses types of maps and how you might approach making a map. Read this in conjunction with 

The art of scan reading – how it’s possible to get through a volume of stuff and not feel overwhelmed

How old are the sources – addresses the question that many people have about recency versus history of the field

Of course, reading also means taking notes and storing the information. And I’ll get to that in just a minute or so.

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understanding academic writing – starting the PhD

Writing is a crucial aspect of doctoral work – indeed all the scholarly work you will undertake from now on. Writing is integral to scholarship. Whether you are in or out of higher education, if you are researching, you are writing. Writing and its associated activities reading and talking, are the major ways in which we make sense of what we are doing. Writing is how we communicate results, ideas and interpretations to others.

But there is “stuff’ that can get in the way of writing. 

It’s very easy to compare yourself as a writer to your peers. Perhaps they write more than you do. They never seem to fret over a blank screen. They seem supremely confident, whereas you feel very uncertain. But you already know that comparison is really unhelpful and unhealthy. Appearances can be very deceptive. Don’t give in to the temptation to make yourself feel inadequate. Everyone has their own writing history which has led them to the doctorate, and everyone has different approaches to and experiences of writing. The reality is that there are many writing routes through to the thesis. The important thing is that you find your pathway, the one that works for you.

If you have a tendency to look sideways at other people’s apparent writing successes, then just remember this. If you have made it into a doctoral programme, you are by definition good enough at academic writing. Throw any notion that you can’t write out the window, now. If you already think you are good at academic writing, that’s a fantastic start. You’re here, so you are. 

The doctorate is the time to build your own repertoire of writing approaches. But these new strategies may be not exactly what you’ve been doing up till now. Scholarly writing is not quite the same as you’ve done to get here, and that you will do from now on. For a start it’s ongoing. And it’s also different. Let me explain this a bit more. 

You may have developed some writing habits that stood you in good stead in your previous study and perhaps professional work. They may not stretch to the kinds and volume of writing you now have to do.

The PhD is a long haul.  There are not a lot of deadlines. Your institution will set a few milestones and your supervisor will try to get you to plan and set regular goals – these are often built around writing. Setting goals is important because you can’t leave things to almost-the-last-minute in the doctorate – you need to be building up your knowledge and know-how throughout your candidature.

The PhD is a lot about information work – gathering “stuff” together, storing and labelling it so you can find it again, cultivating and working it so that it grows and changes over time.  Writing is your friend in this endeavour.  

At the start of the PhD you will need to become much more systematic at using writing to support your reading – in tasks like note-taking, summarising and synthesising. It can help to keep a reading journal and/or another kind of document or journal in which you record your developing ideas. So you do have to write, and write regularly.

If you find the volume of PhD writing difficult then there is advice and support to help. You can use voice-to-text software, which is improving all the time. You can join a regular Shut Up and Write session, or start one of your own. You can join one of the increasing number of online writing rooms. And you are now likely to be able to access writing workshops in your university. 

However, this writing also needs to help you to move away from being a “student”. 

I said earlier that scholarly writing was different from the writing you’ve done up till now. And it’s not just about volume, frequency and regularity. It’s also about the kind of writing you need to do.

Scholarly writing is not the same as undergraduate or taught course writing. The thesis, just like journal articles, chapters and books, is different from essay writing. In an essay the student’s job is to say everything there is to know about a topic. The good taught university student can reasonably expect good marks for coverage and clever interpretation, and outstanding grades for giving a brilliant answer to the question someone else has set. 

But as a researcher, you now have to argue and persuade – you write in relation to your topic, you use literatures and evidence to support the case that you are making. So getting practice at writing for another reader – your supervisor – is very helpful. Helpful if you can see this writing for your supervisor as learning how to become scholarly, rather than a performance you have to get right. When your supervisor comments on your writing, it is not about whether you are correct or not. Their comments are designed to support you to make the shift to thinking and writing as an expert, as an authority.

You generally don’t get to know how to write as if you are expert straight away. So do be forgiving to yourself it this doesn’t all jell at once. It’s learning – it takes time.  

And the academic writing you do is based in your particular discipline. Every discipline has a load of writing conventions, particular terminology and hidden rules you need to know about. Getting on top of these “hidden” aspects of writing happens over time. But your supervisor is likely to be very helpful here too, they can make these covert practices more explicit. 

However, it’s good to know that academic writing generally isn’t just one homogenous thing – even the most apparently stodgy disciplines can encompass various genres and styles of writing. While a few rules, such as citation to acknowledge when you’ve used other people’s work, rarely go away, there is often more room to move in academic writing than is sometimes acknowledged.

So it’s important that at the start of the PhD that you don’t try to copy what appears to be the academic style of writing. Your job at the beginning of the PhD is to get on top of ideas, lexicon and argumentation. And you can use your writing to help you think through all of the “stuff” and the experience, and to communicate your current thinking clearly and economically. 

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starting the PhD? 25 things to consider

Are you just starting a PhD? Worried? Excited? Nervous?

Fear not.:There’s lots of support and help available to you. Your institution is likely to provide an induction programme where you’ll find out about all the internal procedures and timelines you have to follow. But there’ll also be more. You’ll also get details of what training is available to you. Your institution will encourage you to make connections with your peers, and to engage with what’s on offer outside your faculty.

There’s also veritable truckloads of advice available to you from other sources – facebook and what’s app support groups, youtube, twitter accounts, and books which address doctoral progress, writing the thesis and examinations.

I’ve written a fair few posts over the years about starting the PhD. And had a few guests write about early doctoral issues too. I’ve gathered twenty five (well actually twenty six) together here, so you don’t need to go rummaging through the patter archive. And I do answer questions in the form of new posts if there are things missing from this getting going list!

Getting down and dirty with scholarly cultures

Getting to grips with “the university” – this post looks at what it means to work in a very peculiar particular kind of organisation

Learning new vocabulary – the post talks about the process of acquiring a new disciplinary and research lexicon

Being “critical” – looks at what it means to evaluate and develop a “helicopter” view of your reading

Write and write regularly – well what it says, the importance of setting up a regular writing time, space and habit

Choosing your words – this post examines the strengths and limitations of using academic phrase banks to underpin your academic writing practice

Don’t try to write “classy” – this post looks at why explaining your ideas clearly is a better goal than trying to sound “academic”

Keeping a journal – it’s a very good idea to keep track of your reading, experiences and ideas

The very first thing you are asked to do in the PhD – read and write

Refining your research topic – looks at how you focus down the big messy idea you started with

Digging into the reading – this post offers some beginning strategies for actually getting going, choosing between all of the texts that are on offer

Putting the search into research – offers some advice on how to approach the process of searching

Searching the field – this post suggests that a key task in initial reading is not just to find material relevant to your study but also to get a handle on your field 

How to start your literature review – Three different approaches to the big reading and writing task

Finding the literatures you need – offers some strategies for locating the work relevant to your project

Comparing and contrasting papers – this post is a take on what you need to do when you are reading

Seven prompts for writing with literatures – this post offers strategies for doing the early writing your supervisor will ask for

How much should doctoral researchers read? – suggests its better to think about what’s desirable and possible in the time

Why supervisions can be hard – looks at moving from being marked right and wrong to being asked questions which extend your thinking. It’s good to also read this post Troubleshooting research supervision

Some practical issues 

Selling up and leaving home – tells the story of moving countries to do a PhD and all that this means

Money matters – talks about the importance of thinking about costs and budgets for the whole PhD period

Tech matters– sorting out your computer equipment and software is pretty important

Managing expectations – this post looks at some of the predictable “tough points” in the PhD ahead

Anticipate tasks and timings – this post suggests that it is helpful to get a long term overview of what happens when and why

Setting up your routine – advice on developing the habits that will get you through the long haul

Get organised now – this post suggests that being in control of where you work, and how you work, is key to success.

Don’t panic – talks about PhD highs and lows and that feeling that you don’t know what you are doing. Relax, everyone feels this.

Photo by Will O on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, reading, reading routine, routine, starting the PhD, writing regularly, writing routine, writing to learn | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

ruthlessly realistic with annual plans

Ah, another new academic year. Time to make plans. Take stock. Write goals. Start filling up the diary.

Given the disruption we’ve experienced over the last eighteen months, it’s really tempting to think that it’ll be possible to get back to something like our usual routine. This year there’ll finally be time to catch up on all the things that were put aside. Abandoned, but not forgotten.

Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to work out that a normal workload plus catching up is likely to be a lot more than there is actually time for. After all, the usual workload in your average university is generally pretty demanding. So why now think of adding even more?

If this is you – and it has been me until quite recently – then it’s time to get realistic.

First of all, let’s not assume that this year is going to proceed smoothly. I don’t know about you, but I am starting out with hybrid teaching – some heavily-masked face to face, and some online. I’m pretty uncertain about whether this mix will continue or will be disrupted. Perhaps I will need to replan and revise my course, yet again. And there’s some field work happening in my biggest research project, but who knows if that will go on. So I may need to be “flexible” about teaching and research. Not much point in making plans which don’t allow for change.

In the light of potential changes, I’ve thought about my diary in two ways – time that I will need if things go on as they are now. And additional time that will be needed if things get worse again. If research has to be reorganised, if different methods are required, if there’s a need to give people in the field some space. Not forgetting teaching which may retreat to the safety of the virtual, with accompanying challenges, more students working remotely in different time zones with different kinds of access.

After going through this matching-jobs-to-diary exercise, there’s quite a bit of time already committed – blocks for teaching, meetings, mentoring, admin, research – and some contingency time shaded in, just in case.

But what about the absent writing and publishing? Writing the things that I am committed to, and the things that I want to do. Writing has taken a battering in the last eighteen months. I am way beyond way behind, particularly on big writing projects. I have been saying no to most new writing projects for some time but I am still left with a big list of writing must-dos and want-to-dos.

Just like a lot of people I get pretty agitated when I am a very long way behind where I need or want to be. I feel really overwhelmed by having too many tasks due at once, and too little time. Adding writing to my annual plan surfaces this likelihood.

So here is where a bit of ruthless self-management comes in handy. I’ve just made a list of what’s in my two categories of writing – the must do and the desirable. I’ve looked at how much time each of them will take. I’ve plotted this writing time against the time I am likely to have if things go as well as they might this year. I’ve also looked at what time is available if things don’t go to plan. And I’ve had to prune back everything but the essentials.

There was writing that I wanted to do that I probably won’t get time to do. Rather than continue to feel bad about never getting to it, that writing is on the back burner now, rather than having it haunt me for the entire year. I still have a list of things I want to publish, but I know most of it wont happen straight away.

And I’ve made some decisions about the things I do outside of my workload, things that take up a fair bit of time. I’m giving up on the vast majority of external talks and workshops I usually do. For the foreseeable. My diary exercise showed me that there are some important jobs that won’t be done if I keep the outside work in.

In a nutshell, looking at what I can actually do, given the likely year, has pushed me to be more realistic and pragmatic.

This more granular approach to annual planning – matching commitments and desirable activities to the actual time likely to be available, and allowing for contingencies – feels pretty alien to me. In the past I’ve had much looser plans. But I really don’t want another year of feeling submerged in the alligator pool. Being realistic does restore a sense of autonomy and control. I have made choices about what I will try to get done and what I won’t. And I’m prepared to revisit my goals and plans again during the year, if events really spin out.

PhDers in particular also need to plan realistically. Working backwards from submission date is a key to working out what needs to be done, by when. Thinking of the Phd as project to be managed can really help. But if the PhD demands don’t meet the available time then you, like me, need to make some decisions about how to adjust your programme. This is not about giving up, but discussing progress with your supervisor, using the provisions available to you for modifying your timeline, finding peer groups and institutional programmes that can help you to keep going, and seeking help if you feel in need of additional support.

Don’t wait till you feel like it’s all too much, as I did last year. The trick is not to ignore either demands or time, but to take charge of them.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Posted in pandemic, planning, time | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

making the most of research leftovers

You all know about leftovers. The bits of a meal that you couldn’t quite finish. The remnants that end up in a plastic box or a covered bowl in the fridge. Mostly you get round to eating them for lunch afterwards, yum. But occasionally you find a long forgotten leftover lurking behind jars – it’s no longer so appetising. Perhaps it’s become an inedible science experiment. Still, it’s great for the compost.

Researchers also often have leftovers. Yes, research leftovers. Research leftovers can be little scraps of stuff. The odd bit and piece that just didn’t make it into the final argument. But sometimes the leftovers are rather more substantial. Data we’ve not used because we just had too much. Extra data generated just in case, but only needed as general gist. A test analysis rejected in favour of something more persuasive. A theorisation abandoned as a more plausible approach muscled in. A vignette excised because it didn’t fit within the word limit. A set of interesting categories that weren’t robust enough to support the current argument. A side story we had no time to tell.

A lot of us end up with research project leftovers. Once upon a time I interviewed a group of people who I thought were going to be important to my study. The interviews ended up being quite peripheral to the issue I was focusing on. I didn’t need to say much more in the final text than they weren’t much involved, and then wonder why. But I did then have interviews surplus to requirements. Leftovers. I never used them I’m afraid and I still have vaguely guilty feelings about people’s gift of time and words even though they did help me understand the situation I was researching. But I can still muster up echoes of frustration about ‘wasting’ data. I had stuff there that I might have been able to do something with. But I didn’t.

You’d think I’d have learnt from that experience but alas. My colleague Chris and I always generate a lot of material in our funded projects. But the pressure to publish and get more funding in limited time frames means we never quite get around to using it all. We have leftovers. But we are getting better at going back to this data and thinking about what it might have to offer.

I hope those of you doing PhDs take some comfort from the fact that it’s pretty common to have research leftovers. We just don’t talk about them that much. But if you ask, you will find that it’s not entirely unusual to generate stuff that you don’t get around to working with. Mostly this is not about a lack of will, and more often the practicalities of contemporary scholarship. I’m also betting there’s many a PhDer who has had to unwillingly part with painstakingly generated ‘stuff’ in order to craft the thesis text to a word limit and get it submitted on time.

But here’s the thing. Letfovers can be re-used. All those little scraps, jottings, worked samples, playful experiments, reluctantly abandoned theories, unloved interview transcripts and apparently irrelevant cross tabulations might just be the basis for a something new. Rather like turning the leftover vege stew into a pasta sauce, it is often the case that apparently stand-alone research bits and bobs can have a life of their own.

It’s always worth keeping an eye on the research leftovers. Keep them somewhere handy. Make sure you know where you’ve put them in case you work out how to re-engage. Keep an ear out for any insistent whispers that there is still have some life left in the material. That these fragments were not spent effort, they can still be interesting and useful. They can be re-approached and re-worked and re-imagined.

Leftovers often come into their own after you’ve been awarded the Doctor title. At the time when you want a rest from the thesis. When you just can’t face the text or the data again. It’s too soon. You’re over it. But well-meaning others are telling you to get going. And you do want to get cracking and write and publish. Put yourself out there as the newly Doctored scholar. But you feel the energy draining away every time you sit down at the computer.

Or perhaps you are the more experienced researcher who is just feeling stale. Perhaps you too just can’t face going back – to a research report that ought to become something else, to the stuff that ought to become a book or the killer article. Or it may feel that you’ve got nothing much to say. That you’re worn out, drained, done. You can’t line up for more peer reviews. You’ve had enough of publication churn – but you know you must.

This is a pretty good time to check out the leftovers. There may well be something that you put aside that is now suddenly tempting. Maybe there’s an idea worth pursuing. There’s material here that might just say something new. The stuff seemed a bit off-piste at the time, but now you look at it, there might be something there. Or there’s an entirely new project just waiting to be developed.

Don’t give up on the research leftovers. They benefit from being warmed up again – lo and behold, they’ve matured and got more tasty. And once you’ve found the reusable stuff, how about a bit of a brainstorm, a bit of a free-write to see what you might be able to do. Generate a few possibilities. Get creative. Playful. Think laterally.

Perhaps those leftovers are different enough from the PhD, or the funded project, to get you going again. (And if they don’t, that’s OK too.)

Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, data, data analysis, leftover, Pat Thomson, research | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment