writing more than one thing at the same time – part three, managing


Writing several things at once is often called multi-tasking. This is a term I try to avoid, as it focuses on an action – ‘tasking’. Tasking has two problems – first of all, it doesn’t really highlight the thinking involved in managing multiple academic activities. And the focus on action leads very easily to considering techniques. Like scheduling. And planning.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to scheduling and planning. They are important and it would be silly of me to suggest that they aren’t. But there is more scheduling and planning involved in writing several things at once. There’s a lot of intellectual work.  Multi-writing is equally – and at the same time as tasking – multi-thinking.

Thinking is always involved in academic writing. Writing is a process of making sense and communicating that sense-making. Writing is sorting out and crafting the thinking – honing ideas, sharpening argument. This thinking-writing is tricky at the best of times but becomes even trickier when it involves the production of diverse and concurrent texts.

The good news is that the work of writing-thinking in multiples can be supported through the use of a reflective tool.

A little caveat before I go on. This post is, like the previous two, particularly directed to doctoral researchers who are writing alongside their big book thesis – or the selected papers that will form their thesis. It’s important to understand that PhD by papers, like the big book, needs to be thought of as a thesis, a coherent whole right from the start. Not atomised papers, but an entire text. But that’s another story – suffice it to say that here, when I say thesis, I also mean PhD by papers.

As I’ve suggested, it’s very helpful to write things that are going to support your thesis. Things that assist your argument, test out your analysis, allow you to take a few risks with the writing itself.

And when you are writing these alongside thesis texts, you can also make what I think of as a ‘Running Writing Record’. A Running Writing Record might be a single document, a digital or analogue journal or a sequence of files, with one for each new alongside text. A Running Writing Record is a tool, yes, and one that supports the thinking process.

A thinking reflecting tool – the Running Writing Record

If you understand writing alongside the thesis as connecting – testing out and strengthening – the thesis analysis and argument, then your Running Writing Record is the place to answer the following questions:

  • What ideas from this additional writing are going to be useful for the thesis?
  • What data/ analysis /argument do these ideas appear to work best with?
  • What ideas in the additional writing appear to be interesting but perhaps now best left aside?
  • What more work do I need to do in order to bring these ideas/analysis/argument into the thesis?
  • What other interesting possibilities came to mind while I was writing this additional text?

If you also understand the writing alongside the thesis as supporting the development of authority and voice then your Running Writing Record will contain answers to these questions:

  • How does this genre of writing differ from the thesis?
  • What new things did I have to learn to do in this alongside writing?
  • What writing experiments did I undertake? How ‘successful’ were these and what did I learn from them?
  • What signs are there of my emerging academic writer identity and voice in the additional writing? What are they? Are these useful for the thesis? How might I develop these further?
  • What other kinds of writing might be helpful for me now?

Keeping a Running Writing Record does take some time of course. Not a lot and it is something that can be done in short bursts. A Running Writing Record is a form of reflection amenable to prompted free writing and could therefore easily be done at irregular intervals during and after thesis writing and reading.

There, that’s it. That’s what I have to say about managing writing several things at the same time. Well, perhaps not quite all.

I probably do have to conclude this little series by saying something about time. You’d feel cheated if I didn’t, if I just referred you to Raul Pachego Vega’s everything notebook or Thesis Whisperer’s time-management software reviews. I’m not going to duplicate what they’ve already said – but yes, I do have one little tip of my own. And it’s less of a tool and much more about the mindset that underpins managing your time well.

Keep In Touch

It is very important when managing multiple writing tasks to Keep In Touch with all of them. When you have to focus primarily on one bit of writing, it becomes easy to lose track of where you are with others. The result can be that when you then finish your alongside writing, you return to a thesis that you last saw and thought about a few weeks or days ago.

You might wonder where on earth to start. What were you up to? What were you thinking? It can take some time to remember where you were, to retrace your thesis steps and pick up your trail of activity and thought. You can avoid this time-wasting catching up by avoiding serial writing, producing one thing after another.  You can maintain work on multiple tasks – most experienced academics do and it is possible.

Writing more than one thing at once doesn’t mean devoting equal time to everything. It may simply mean doing a bit of daily reading for a thesis chapter or paper while writing a conference paper. It may mean doing a little bit of data analysis everyday while writing a book chapter. It may mean doing a bit of free writing about potential approaches to your discussion while revising a journal article. Doing something each day keeps you in touch with the thesis. It means you don’t forget where you were up to.

The Keep In Touch approach does, of course, mean that you have to think of each day, week and month as consisting of ongoing strands of activity. There is the reading, analysis and writing for the thesis, and there is reading, analysis and writing for other texts. Sometimes there will just be thesis work, and at other times the thesis work will shrink to make way for the other writing.

And the thesis activities don’t go away. They continue, albeit in smaller time slots. You keep working at the thesis and you always know where you are with it. (And of course there are other regular activities to fit in too, but I’m sure you get what I’m saying here.)

So – to sum up – it’s important to get your KIT strategy together as it is a key to keeping all of the various strands in play. And under control.

And now there it is – my two bits worth on the time and tools questions of writing multiple things at once – keep a Running Record to support reflection about connecting and learning, and developed your Keep in Touch strategy to manage writing more than one thing and the one time.

Image credit: Flickr Commons *hb19 (R.I.P)

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, academic writing voice, authority in writing, reflection, reflection on learning, time, writing and thinking, writing more then one thing at once, writing regularly and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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