Iterativity in postgraduate writing: making peace with the mess

Lovely husband and I were talking recently about a workshop we both attended on postgraduate study, and our respective conversations with our own postgraduate students about what postgraduate study involves them in, specifically the over-and-over again nature of the reading, writing and thinking. Iterativity, we concluded, is the name of the game at this level, and in post-doctoral academic research; yet, it is an aspect of working at this level that produces much frustration, self-doubt and struggle.

Ernest Hemingway famously said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. He was, certainly in my experience, right. If you look up writing advice on Pinterest, you will find many soundbites to inspire you; for example: ‘First drafts  don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written’, ‘A crappy first draft is worth more than a non-existent one’, and writing first drafts as being like ‘shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build sandcastles’.  There is truth in all of these inspirational tips: first drafts are messy things: often incoherent in parts, full of both useful and useless information, lacking a proper focus. But, they are where we start any writing, and the key word here is ‘start’: writing is a non-linear, often chaotic, process, where we learn as we write, and our thinking develops with each round of feedback and revision.

This ‘logic of discovery’ is at odds, though, with the ‘logic of dissemination’ that we display in our finished thesis: the iterative process that produces the thesis is hidden from the view of the reader, as they are presented with our neat, polished, coherent argument. Many postgraduate students start their thesis process believing that these two logics are the same: that you start with Chapter 1, and the process unfolds neatly and logically from there. They become frustrated, then, when this turns out to be a lie:  when the truth is multiple drafts and mistakes, time spent writing paragraphs or pages of writing that have to be deleted when they are no longer relevant, and sometimes unexpected changes to your research questions, theory or methodology as the project evolves. This frustration can breed self-doubt if not carefully managed through supervision: many students believe that the more drafts you have to write, the worse you are as a writer; so many students I have met erroneously believe that the best writers don’t write that many drafts, and don’t make that many mistakes or revisions.

The opposite is the truth. The more successful writers, and postgraduate students, have learned to embrace the chaos and the frustration; they have learned to manage a balance between having a clear research plan and letting that process evolve so that they can still be surprised by what they find, or learn, as they write and work the data. This is a hard thing to do, live in a space where you know probably less than you don’t know, and where you have to be okay with the not-knowing, and move willingly between knowing and not-knowing over and over as your research moves forwards. This requires not just mental fortitude, but emotional resilience.

Researching and writing a thesis feels, at times, as if you are on a many-roaded route, trying to keep your eye on the GPS when it’s giving you more than one possible route and asking you to choose the best one to get you to your destination within minimal traffic and in good time. You may choose one route, and then find halfway you’ve made an error in judgement, and then choose to turnoff, and take a back road back to the main route you were on. There may be unexpected detours that the GPS didn’t know about and so couldn’t warn you of. You may feel like you are going around in circles at some points, and in a lovely, free-flowing straight line at others. A research degree, especially a PhD, represents a long road, with several possible routes to your destination. And it’s not a straight line. You may have to re-drive parts of the route at times, or try out different parts of the route than you expected to. But, if you try to trust the process, and make peace with taking your time and living with a bit of mess and non-linear chaos, you will hopefully get to your destination in one piece, and with a really good understanding of the area you’ve been driving around and around.

In research terms, this means getting more comfortable with the iterative nature of research, writing, and thinking. You cannot expect to write a chapter once, and be done. And you can’t expect to read something once and fully understand it, especially if it’s pivotal to your project, like theory. Writing multiple drafts, making mistakes, including knowledge and reading you don’t need along with that which you do, and making revisions that improve your writing, further your thinking and push your research forward is part and parcel of valuable, challenging postgraduate study that makes you a more capable researcher. Doing worthwhile research that pushes your field forward will require you to have a really firm understanding of that field, and the place your research can occupy within it. This means getting a bit lost sometimes, but having the means (through supervisors, peers, reading) to find your way onto your route again.

Terry Pratchett’s soundbite on first drafts is my favourite: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. If you see your thesis as a story, evolving as the characters and plot take shape, and as the twists and turns reveal themselves through working with theory, methodology, data and analysis, it can be easier to embrace that uncertainty, and iterative rounds of writing, feedback, revision, and rewriting that push your research, and you as a researcher, forward. You start by telling yourself, and move to telling your supervisors, examiners and finally your wider audience – and you make a contribution that is valued and relevant. It won’t happen in a nice, linear way, but the depth of knowledge you gain, of your field and the research process, will be worth all the ‘driving’ in the end.

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