writing a lot – starting the PhD, and finishing it

When you write, you must write a lot, but that does not mean you will publish a lot, which means that when you are writing, or when you have finished writing, it might be that no one knows that you are, or have been, writing. It might be that no one particularly cares that you are, or have been, writing. Or not.

That’s Hayley Singer writing about creative writing. But she could be writing about any kind of writing. Academic writing even. Academics write a lot, but it’s not all written for anyone else to read.

During the doctorate you will write a huge amount. Much, much more than the total number or words in your thesis. Right from the start.

You start writing as soon as you start thinking about approaching a supervisor – you make notes and private jottings about your ideas for a worthy project. Through writing and rewriting and rewriting, these private texts become ready for the particular reader you have in mind. The words are made to work. Your initial approach must explain your ideas as well as persuade and interest your potential reader/supervisor. 

This process – private writing converted via multiple rewritings to something tailored for particular readers, written for a particular purpose and with a particular result in mind – carries on throughout the doctorate and beyond. 

Private writings are always about making sense of what you are reading, hearing, seeing, thinking. You make notes of the various texts that are pertinent to your topic. You keep a formal research journal or a reading journal or .docs where you store possible ideas. Or a file where you just keep track of how you’re feeling and responding to the doctoral process.

Writing to make sense means you devote a specific time to it. While writing is always incidental, it is good if you can carve out a regular writing slice in your day, or night.

You may be working towards or already have a regular writing time where you sit down and write each day, or nearly each day. You may also find it helpful to have some add-ons to this regular writing habit too. You can talk with a trusted companion before you write, not all the time, but a regular writing oriented chat. You might be one of those people who generates a lot of text via participating in writing groups or through SUAW sessions or your own timed writing sprints.

Whatever your choice of regular writing processes, you will end up with a load of words.  

Making sense of what you are thinking and doing doesn’t stop when you start to send words out into the world to readers other than yourself. Every time you write you clarify a little more what you want to say – that’s your intention. You aren’t just recording. You are actively thinking through the writing. Through selecting. Through choosing categories and terms. Through interpreting texts. Through translating the thoughts of others into your own words.

And because doctoral work – any scholarly work – requires sustained deep thinking, you have to write all the time – and do a lot of rewriting.

Most dissertations get rewritten several times. As do journal articles and books. (Blog posts maybe less so!). When I look at my file for the most recent co-authored book, I see six formal drafts before the submitted manuscript. But each chapter had previously been several chunks and tiny texts (abstracts) before being compiled into a first draft. There are probably more like ten or eleven writing stages for each submitted chapter. Indeed, I can see that we had at least three versions of a book structure map before we even started on the abstract and chunk stages. So loads of words before we even got to something we could see as chapters.

This number of drafts is pretty common. Much the same happens with doctoral thesis writing/rewriting. Expect loads of versions and iterations. If you are starting the doctorate and you want to finish it, then it is as well to get your head around the reality of writing a lot.

And writing a lot, as Hayley Singer suggests, without it necessarily going anywhere to anyone else, let alone being published. Writing just for you. Writing to make sense.

This is not depressing. Academic writing is an integral part of scholarly work. Trying to separate out the writing from the rest of our work is likely trying to remove a spider from its web. While webs exist in many forms, spiders need their webs in order to live. OK, so most spiders don’t actually make webs and don’t need them to live… so yes, it’s not a great metaphor. But go with it. Just imagine the minority of spiders that spin webs, and then you get the point. Scholars can’t get by without writing. 

Writing is a habit. Writing is routine. Writing is not extraordinary. It is simply the way we do our scholarly work. 

Photo by Jason Gardner on Unsplash

If you get a moment, do follow the link to read Hayley Singer’s essay. It’s beautifully written and there’s an extraordinary account of how she wrote her PhD while bedridden.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in rewriting, routine, writing and thinking, writing as work, writing routine and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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