writing more than​ one thing at the same time – part one, connecting

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When people like me offer writing advice to doctoral researchers, they/we often focus on separate kinds of writing – the thesis, the conference paper, the journal article. However, the reality may well be that, just like their supervisors, doctoral researchers are writing several things at once.

Even if they/you are writing a big book thesis, doctoral researchers usually want to present at key conferences, and may well be keen to get their work out there in journals ahead of graduating.

But, these days there are also all kinds of pressures on doctoral researchers to publish alongside the thesis, not least of which is the need to have some publications to present in the job/postdoc stage. The press to publish early is not necessarily a good thing for the work, let alone for the researcher, and publish-early is clearly a situation which favours some people and types of research over others.

In writing about multiple writing projects, I’m not condoning this kind of expectation, nor am I suggesting that everyone who does a doctorate should continue in higher education.

But if doctoral researchers do decide, for whatever reason, to engage in multiple writing tasks at the same time then there are a few issues to consider. These go to both understanding and managing the process of multi-writings.

There are three big issues related to creating some coherence* between the many things that are written at the same time. These are (1) connecting, (2) authoring and (3) managing. This post deals with the first of these.

Connecting

It is helpful – but not always possible – to be able to make links between the various things that you are writing. If possible, it’s great to be able to make one piece of writing help another.

Making connections between projects can be quite tricky for researchers who have been working on multiple projects for a long period of time – they may find themselves writing a book about one project, generating papers from a second, and writing work-in-progress conference papers about their latest and third project. It may not be possible to make these texts all talk to each other, although it’s clearly a bit of a bonus if they can. (I’ve currently got four funded arts research projects, a policy book and a few chapters on leadership on the go – and these don’t all talk together. Sigh.)

Doctoral researchers are much more likely to have only one big project that they are working on. The question of connections between writings is therefore highly relevant and possible.

Connecting means thinking past the cv dimensions of writing and publishing – writing multiple texts is not just about putting it out there, making links with like-minded others and getting some early feedback. These are all likely and fine reasons to write things alongside the big book. But there are other good reasons to think about why multi-writing alongside the thesis might be good for the thesis itself.

Let’s go back to big funded research projects for a moment. Here, writing and publishing are often done during the project. The researcher, or research team, don’t wait till the end to write. Yes, well sometimes they do, of course; when the writing happens depends on the nature of the research itself. But quite often, a working paper, conference paper or journal article on part of the project – or several of these types of texts – are written to develop the take on literature, the theoretical framework and/or the analysis. This mid-way writing precedes the final research report and any summative papers/book.

But it’s not that helpful if the mid-way writing is a major distraction from the end product. That’s what supervisors are often worried about, they advise doctoral researchers not to write anything but their thesis. Get it done first, then write, they say.

Nor is it helpful if a doctoral researcher tries to publish something that is premature, underbaked, not just ready to see the light of day.

But… The writing that happens during a research project can be very formative. It helps shape the work to come. Writing conference papers and journal articles before a project finishes can be extremely helpful in determining the overall direction that the analysis does or does not take.

So what kind of formative writing might be useful for a thesis?

Well, one kind of paper that can be very productive and help the wider work is to try something on for size.

It’s very possible to use a conference paper or journal article to develop an in-depth analysis of an aspect of the research – something about method or partial results for example. It may be relatively easy to take a piece of the data and test out an analytic or theoretical approach and see how it goes and what it does. There may be a theme or early morsel that is worth developing ahead of the whole.

This trying-it-out is probably the most common way to approach multiple writing from a project. The writing that is done about a part of the work advances thinking about the whole.

The mid-way text may well be different from the final summative text and may even ask different things of the writer and writing (I’ll talk about this in the next post), but the connection with the whole project is very strong. The intellectual contribution is what makes formative writing connective  – and good to do.

Another reason for multi-writing is to build a foundation for the wider work.

Sometimes a concept or idea that is important for the overall work may be written early. Why? Well, perhaps it may take too many words out of the total allowed for the final text. What to do?  Write it first.

It’s sometimes helpful in a big summative text to be able to refer back to a publication in which a particular idea was explored. You can then summarise succinctly, and use the idea to advance your argument. You can save thesis words by writing a key foundational idea first.

My arts education colleagues and I have just done this. We’ve written a book chapter which develops a particular idea and argument, a literature-based paper which proposes one line of thinking about the purposes of arts education. Having written the book chapter, we are now able to refer back to it other publications and the final report. We can summarise the chapter contents without having to do all of the nuancing and finessing. We made the case elsewhere, now we can just state it.

Thinking about connections and the work that writing before completing the big paper might do can also create the conditions under which you can say no to out-of-scope opportunities and tempting invitations. You may not want to always say no of course, and that’s a different discussion. But it is very useful to ask yourself when that conference information, call for papers or invitation to write a book chapter comes along:

  • How will this new piece of writing help my overall thinking?
  • What can I try on for size?
  • Is there an opportunity here to build a foundational concept for my overall argument?
  • How does this writing connect with the whole?

And if there is a positive answer to one of these questions, then maybe the additional writing will be worth doing.

And more on all this next week – I look at authoring issues when writing more than one thing at the same time.

*I’ll write about the incoherent or barely coherent writing agenda at a later date.

Image credit: Tomas Sobek on Unsplash.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, connecting, writing more then one thing at once and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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