Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Writers' Lab: Write, write, and write some more.

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Chris Keyworth to the Writers' Lab. Chris is a final year PhD student in Health Psychology based at the Centre for Dermatology Research, University of Manchester, UK. Chris’s PhD is examining health risk communication and lifestyle behaviour change in people with psoriasis. Twitter: @ChrisK_UofM

One of the best pieces of advice I was given before starting my PhD was to spend the majority of my three years writing. Not thinking, not planning to write (although yes these are key elements to writing and doing a PhD generally), not writing endless to-do lists or downloading those journal articles to your IPad that you will ‘read on the train’, but writing – words on paper. The PhD journey ultimately ends with one thing – the thesis. Without it, there is no PhD. Coming to the end of my PhD, whilst there is still long way to go and a lot of writing to be done, having a basis for my thesis has really helped me.

‘It will be alright on the night’

Cramming all of your writing into the final stages of your PhD is something that I would not endorse. ‘The 3 month thesis’ that we hear about, for me, is nonsense. Writing should evolve over the course of your PhD. Even though drafting, redrafting, and redrafting your redraft is often a pain-staking process; this really does strengthen your writing skills. I sometimes look back at my masters and think ‘did I really write that?’ Being able to write effectively and communicate with a scientific audience (and otherwise) is a fundamental skill for academics. An iterative writing process can only serve to strengthen these skills.

The idea of writing an entire thesis in the final few weeks or months of your PhD fills me with dread. Understandably, lab-based students generally (but not always) spend their first three years of a four year PhD in the lab – and use their final 6 months to a year writing up their findings. This is all well and good, but nothing can prepare you for the undue stress and pressure you will feel at the prospect of cramming your writing into the final stage of your PhD. I am fortunate enough to have received good advice about writing early on in my PhD.

 ‘Is it me or is it cold in here?’

To use an old clich√©, starting is the hardest part. I hate that clich√©, but yet it rings true. Students (and perhaps academics in general) are all too familiar with that common routine we go through before deciding to type those words on that empty page of our word processor. Make cup of coffee, check emails, get side-tracked by an interesting journal article, make another cup of coffee. Procrastination is a fatal trap that PhD students in particular fall into. Beware of procrastination early on in your PhD when the common thought pattern is ‘it’s fine, I have three years to write this’. We procrastinate, we do anything we can to avoid writing. We convince ourselves the conditions are not suitable to write. ‘It’s too dark in this room’, ‘it’s too light’, ‘it’s too cold’, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow instead.’

Find something that works for you

When it comes to writing, I do like my own space and it is important to find something that works for you. The office, at home, or in the local coffee shop. In my case, the library out of term-time is a great place to work. All the students have gone home, all the books are usually in, and the great peace and quiet, perfect! But it is important to find somewhere where you work best.

The ‘2 hour rule’

Knowing when to write, and how long for, is pivotal. Try blocking out specific time slots in your diary so you have it written down, this seems to be effective for me. Think of it as a written contract with yourself. Research suggests that if something is written down, and even signed (but you don’t
need to go that far!), it is more likely to be followed through. Think of the ‘2 hour golden rule’ which is just about enough for most of us. Give it a go – just write – for 2 hours. You’ll be surprised how productive you could be in a relatively short time-frame.

Break it down into small manageable goals

Writing does not have to be overwhelming. To borrow a term from the health psychology literature, think SMART goals; be specific (number of words), make it measurable (track your progress via the word count), achievable (you know you can write 200 words), realistic, and timely (give yourself plenty of time before an impending deadline). It is not feasible to write 5,000 a day. But think about 200 words every day for 3 years – there is your thesis.

Think about when you are most productive – is there a certain day of the week or time of day when you are most productive. I am definitely a morning person, which is when I tend to focus my writing on. Strangely I often get a ‘second wind’ on Friday afternoons which powers me into a relaxing weekend. The point is you will discover your own writing habits, and make the most of the time that works best for you.

Let your writing guide your reading

It is all too easy to become immersed (and potentially lost!) in the literature, particularly in the early phases of your PhD, but also when it comes to writing generally. My advice would be to let your writing guide your reading. As you write, you know the areas you need to read more about. This not only allows you to develop that all important word count for your thesis, but more crucially, it helps uncover gaps in the literature, and therefore formulate your research questions.

Most importantly – enjoy!

Another piece of advice I can give is to quite simply enjoy writing. It can be very rewarding seeing your name up in lights in that internationally-renowned journal. I am far from being a writing guru, but I merely pass on some words of encouragement that writing need not be the devil’s work.

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