Writing to think, or writing to discover your thoughts

I used to work in a university writing centre until quite recently, and the tutors I worked with and I read a great deal and talked a great deal about writing to learn, rather than only about learning to write. More specifically, we talked about writing to think, or writing to discover what it is that you think about a specific topic or subject. All of us were, at the time, working on articles for publication and/or postgraduate degrees, so there was a great deal of both the writing and the thinking that needed doing, all the time it seemed.

But writing and thinking have always been, for me, a sort of ‘chicken and egg’ issue: which comes first – do I read and think and then start writing, or will the thinking only really come when the writing happens? Or do I just write it all down, and then read, think and edit?

Of course, there is no right (or wrong) answer, and we all have different writing tics, tricks and processes to help us get into and stay in our own writing ‘zone’. In this post I’d like to reflect on my own writing and thinking process, which comes first, and why I think that thinking is perhaps more valuable than writing (although hopefully some of it will lead to writing, because sharing our thinking is necessary for others to learn from and engage with it).

Doing a PhD showed me, more than anything else, how much thinking actually goes into producing a lengthy, detailed piece of work that can make a genuine contribution to a field of study. Prior to writing my PhD thesis, I had completed other degrees, but quite honestly I had never thought that hard, and for that long, and in that kind of roundabout, convoluted, complex and also kind of thrilling way before. Even the papers I had published, which were few, had not demanded that level of thought, based on reading, challenging conversations with supervisor and peers, and more reading and scribbling on my own. It is much clearer to me now how important it is to make time, and space in my head, to really think about what I want to say, and why it matters, and to whom it might matter so that I can write articles that my peers will really want to read, and that will make a contribution to practice in my field.

This means that I do a great deal of informal writing before I open that Word file, give the paper a title and start plotting it out in firmer detail, committing myself to one argument. I scribble a great deal in my research and reading journals, and I play around with ideas, letting them kind of just flow until I find one that I think can support one clear and coherent argument. This, in my process, is thinking level 1: messy, informal, scribbly, and ultimately quite enjoyable because there are very few rules. Of course, as an editor as well as a writer in my professional life, I often want to jump ahead 5 steps and edit my thoughts before they have even made it onto the page, so this is a tendency I need to tamp down. Scribbling as freely as possible, at this initial level of thinking, means that many more ideas than can be contained in one paper often make it into my research journal, and although many of the scribbles remain just scribbles, all of this builds my confidence in my ideas as being valuable, and all of it serves as writing and thinking practice, strengthening my researcher muscles over time.

Moving on, once I have found my way to an idea that I like, and that feels like an argument I can actually make and support in an extended piece of writing, like a chapter or an article, I start the plotting process more formally. I think up a holding title, and I craft an abstract that contains an initial form of my ‘tiny text’ (Kamler and Thompson’s illustrative term). I then work on possible subheadings within the paper, and capture initial thoughts about what might go into these sections. I also make a note of readings I have done that would be referenced within the paper. At the end of thinking level 2, creating a skeleton for the paper, I now have a concrete base to build my paper on.

At this stage, though, the thinking behind the paper is still fairly nebulous, and needs to be pinned down, in particular the argument, which is the core of the paper. I use a thinking tool learnt about on a writing retreat earlier this year, and that has been incredibly helpful in making clearer this nebulous thinking and subsequent writing. In essence, I use sticky notes to plot out the key parts of my argument in my research journal. I write down, on no more than 3 stickies what my main claim is. Then I write down, again on no more than 3 stickies, what my reasons are for making this claim. The next step is to write down what forms of evidence I need to use to substantiate these claims. I added a step to this process for my own writing to note what I want the ‘take-home’ message for my writing to be. This process, which is thinking level 3 for me, ends up looking a little like this:


Finally, once I have reached this stage, I feel ready to really write, and I set myself words per day or week targets and start typing the paper. What I love about this 4th stage in my own writing and thinking process is that the writing flows a little more easily in general because of all the pre-writing and thinking I have done to get to this point, but that I am still surprised by the kinds of thoughts and turns of phrase that emerge as I let the writing flow, and as my thinking continues to stretch, change and develop. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling to find yourself reading over a paragraph you have written, and thinking ‘Wow! I didn’t know I thought that – it sounds so smart!’ ūüôā

I suppose, at the end of this reflection, I am concluding that what I tend to think of as ‘Writing’ is the formal processes that turn nebulous ideas into a formal paper that I can submit to a journal. I don’t often count the scribbles, and plottings and ongoing thinking that brings all of that to life as Writing. But, it is all writing, and even if parts of the scribbles and thinking never see the light of day in a formal piece of writing, it all counts in terms of building my confidence, and my capacity to keep thinking and keep writing in tighter, more refined and more integral ways as I grow into my scholarly self.



My PhD is… How do you represent your PhD to yourself and others?

I follow ‘Shit Academics Say’ on Facebook, and the inspiration for this post comes from a¬†post on their feed (similar to the image below).

PhD students have such a range of experiences of, and feelings about, doing their PhDs. A basic sense¬†of human psychology tells us that repressing emotions and feelings, positive or negative, can lead to people feeling alone, odd, alienated, stuck, and depressed. As Meg Ryan said to Kevin Kline in ‘French Kiss’: ‘Express, not repress!’ So, these PhD experiences and emotions need to be expressed, preferably to those who will listen and be able to offer support, and even guidance or useful help. But, in giving voice to these feelings and experiences, it is worth thinking about what we do say to ourselves about our PhDs and how we represent them to ourselves and to others. If our words can speak things into being – feelings or experiences – then our words about our research can be powerful tools that either pull us down or lift us up.

A quick glance into the world of what people are telling Google Search about their PhDs yields this result:

Screenshot 2015-03-17 15.08.01

Other than the rather fun suggestion about a PhD in dance, the three options Google chooses to autocomplete this sentence with are negative: ‘worthless’, ‘boring’, ‘killing me’.¬†The¬†options Google selected are based (if I understand how this works accurately) on how many times people have typed these words into Google to search for resources or help.¬†Why are so many PhD experiences (if this snapshot is any kind of indication) so negative? Why is the PhD more often than not framed as a long, arduous, lonely trudge, as opposed to a challenging, stimulating and ultimately empowering thing? Why is there not, in the more popular discourses around PhD study, more of an emphasis on what the PhD offers a scholar; the ups rather than the downs?¬†People have done research that answers some of these questions, and I’d like to use this post to offer some of my thoughts on why this¬†might be.

I represented my own PhD in different ways at different points. Early on it was a millstone, a source of great anxiety and stress. Around the proposal stage I felt quite excited as my plans took shape and I could see what lay ahead, even though I was still anxious about whether I could actually do what I was proposing. Writing the theoryology was mostly tough, and I said lots of unrepeatable things about the theory, my PhD and academia in general. I was mostly anxious, with small bits of delight in writing a section that looked and sounded really ‘Dr-ish’. Generating data and transcribing it was mainly tedious, although the analysis and writing of the ‘findings’ chapters was actually enjoyable, because it brought all the theory to life. This is a small snapshot of my representation of my PhD. There was constant anxiety, really (I am an anxious person generally), but over and above this there was exhaustion, stress, uncertainty on the ‘minus’ side, and delight, enjoyment, learning and satisfaction on the ‘plus’ side.

A PhD can’t be all plus or all minus, I don’t think. It takes too long to just be one or the other. Although some of my colleagues have loved their PhDs overall, they experienced tough, lonely and frustrating patches. And those who have had a hard time overall have also had moments, even small, where they have felt enlightened, stimulated and elated, even (think of that call to say the proposal was accepted, or being told a chapter draft is done for now because it’s good enough and you can move on to the next one). But the minuses, and Inger Mewburn has made this point in her writing, are often easier to talk about with others than the plusses – perhaps because of the more general discourses around PhDs that highlight the struggles over the enjoyment.

In some ways, it felt to me at times that I needed to make my PhD more of an enemy than I generally felt it was in order to be ‘in’ with colleagues who were struggling. I did not feel I could sit with them and say, ‘Oh, I love my PhD. I am really enjoying it right now. The writing is going so well!’ when they were saying versions of ‘My supervisor is so distant. I have no support at work. I can’t do this anymore’. I could complain about being tired, frustrated, confused, and discouraged at various points, and I certainly did. But I felt hesitance at representing my PhD in more positive terms in front of certain audiences, especially other students who were having a tough time. I am sure I was not alone in feeling this hesitance and, at times, even talking my PhD down rather than up so as not to alienate myself.

We all represent, and misrepresent, our PhDs in different ways and for different reasons: to fit in, to gain a sense of solidarity, to¬†find¬†empathy and care, to work through what we are feeling and try to move past especially negative feelings and experiences. The issue for me is this: if you feel like you spend more of your time talking your PhD and by extension yourself down, you are almost certainly putting up obstacles to completing your research successfully, and you are probably increasing your anxiety and misery. I am not advocating that you start lying to yourself and others and saying your PhD is fabulous when it really is not. If you struggling, and you need help, care and support, you need to be able to ask for it. But, I think I am saying that (hopefully) it’s not all doom and gloom all the time. There are reasons you took this on, and motivations you have, and these could¬†be framed more positively¬†to focus you on your ‘ups’, for example the learning and intellectual growth you experience, the connections with communities of scholars, either face-to-face or virtually, and the personal sense of achievement in taking on and succeeding at such a challenging undertaking.

If you are battling to see the light, consider starting a research journal: write to yourself not just when you are down and your PhD is boring or killing you, but also when you are up: have had a good meeting with your supervisor, or a supportive coffee with fellow PhD students, or a productive writing day. Talking your PhD up more often, to yourself and others, may help to mitigate against the downs, and may contribute to you feeling less burdened by the PhD, and more engaged by, and in, it on the whole.


Keeping track of your study in space and time

I have been asked to speak to doctoral students at the end of the month at a ‘Doc week’ attached to the PhD programme I have graduated from, where we all come together from different parts of the country to attend seminars, share our progress, meet with supervisors etc. These weeks were a big and important part of my own journey. I am going to be talking about my research journey, focusing in on three areas that were tricky for me, and sharing ‘tools’ that have been helpful. So, I thought I’d do a dry run with one of these tools here: the ‘GPS tool’ to help you keep track of your study in space and time, and to help you stay motivated.

GPS – or global positioning systems – as most people know use latitude and longitude to give exact coordinates of different locations or places around the world. If you have these coordinates and a GPS device or very precise map, you can find your way no matter where you are (in theory at least). I am thinking that this idea could be useful for finding or keeping track of your PhD over time and in space. PhDs can be slippery things, in part or whole, and having tools to help you manage the process and work out not just where you are now but where you have come from and where you are going to can be really helpful. So, I’m going to call this one the ‘GPS tool’ and like all tools, it can be adapted for specific use in your own context.

From iconfinder.com

From iconfinder.com

It’s a really simple idea and it probably works best if you try and check in on your study’s GPS coordinates regularly, like once a quarter or every 6 months. If you check in too frequently, especially in the first year when things seem to be moving more slowly than they do in the final year, you may not feel like you are making very much progress and you may become disheartened. If you check in too infrequently, though, the tool may not be that effective because you may have trouble remembering key details. I think checking in every 3 or 4 months is probably ideal. The idea is to use a research or similar kind of journal, by hand or electronically, and write to yourself about: 1) where you started from at the beginning of the period you are tracking (e.g., January – have draft 1 of theory chapter and interview schedules; written to people re interviews and set them up); 2) where you are right now (e.g. March – conducted 4 interviews, transcribed data from 2, have generated data from documents and observations; have started methodology chapter – 10 pages); and 3) where you plan to go between now and the next check-in (e.g. by May finish interview transcriptions, capture field notes, write further three sections of methodology on data generation). Hopefully, this will show you that you have made progress, even if parts of the period you are tracking have involved PhD neglect and feelings of guilt about this; it will also hopefully give you a more manageable ‘to do’ list on the PhD for the next few months.

Tracking your study’s GPS coordinates at regular(ish) intervals can be helpful in a few¬†ways: it can show you that you are indeed moving, and (hopefully) in the rights kinds of directions; it can motivate you to keep moving; it can give you helpful information to bring into meetings with your supervisor/s, especially if you feel you are going to slowly or are worried that you’ve wandered off track; it can also possibly form part of the narrative you tell your readers about how you have done your study, and could be part of your language of description. The trick, though, apart from keeping these GPS coordinates in one place, and checking in regularly, is being honest with yourself. I battle with this – I don’t want to look bad, even in front of me, and so I often make things seem less dire or unproductive than they (too often) are. If we lie to ourselves about what we’re up to with our PhDs (or not up to), we risk derailing ourselves further.

I find¬†it really tough to make long terms plans, even though I made a work plan for a whole year in 2013. I battle to stick to these and I can’t anticipate all the things that will happen or go wrong, or get in my way. Planning for 3 months seems a lot more do-able, and may well make it easier to be honest without the fear of looking bad. ¬†I think I am going to make this tool a more conscious part of my own forward journey with my postdoctoral writing, starting today. Do any of you have tools like this that help you stay or get back on track?

Scribble, scribble … toil and gain?

I am a scribbler. I have piles of notebooks and notepads and bits of paper in folders and scraps of files on my PC full of notes and scribbles and ideas (in various stages of being worked through). This is not really a super-efficient system, because I have too many ideas and notes in too many places, but they are somewhat thematised and organised – it’s a work in progress. The point I want to make in this post has to do with the value of the scribbles, not the filing of these (although we’ll get to that).

When you undertake something like a PhD, you envision from the beginning that final, formal, written meisterwerk you will toil and toil and toil over for at least three years of your life. You think a lot about producing all those words, and this produces a lot of anxiety and also a real feeling of anticipation. A LOT of different kinds of thinking, reading and writing have to go into producing that meisterwerk. It follows that you need different places to do these kinds of reading, thinking and writing. I keep reading and research journals, and I read and write at my desk, on the couch (often results in naps, though), and also in the car on the way to work (often on my phone), or in the garden on a sunny day. I try to make it less like a chore, although this is not always possible. I think you need to see value in doing small, informal, scribbly writing as well as more formal, ‘this goes into the thesis’ forms of writing. You need to see all of the small bits of thinking and ‘percolating’ (my friend Deb’s very apt term) that you do as moving you forward, but it can be hard to do this if you don’t keep track of all of this steady progress.

research journal inside

I think that PhD students put a lot of pressure on themselves to produce pages of formal writing¬†that they can send to their supervisor, to indicate progress and on which to receive feedback and often tend to feel like unless the writing or reading they are doing is ending up in The Thesis, it’s not all that valuable. I’d like to challenge this. I did this to myself, especially in the beginning of my PhD. I made loads of notes, very formally, and kept trying to write chapters way before I was ready to. After I learnt to keep a research journal, I relaxed a little, and started to enjoy scribbling bits and pieces of ideas and thinking, connecting dots or creating new dots to think about. I still worried a lot about producing the formal words, but I could see that the scribbling was slowly but surely moving me forward, especially in weeks where an hour of scribbling the whole week was all I could manage. There were a lot of weeks like this, and if I had not been scribbling I would not have been doing much of anything except searching databases and saving new papers I was not getting around to reading (I’m not sure this counts as PhD work, really).

There has to be a balance between formal and informal academic work – I don’t think you can write a whole thesis in scribbles (sadly). You need to move between informal and formal forms of writing and thinking – the PhD dissertation is a very sophisticated form of academic writing and thinking, and requires a lot of its writer. But, I suppose I am arguing for more value to be placed on the informal kinds of thinking, reading and writing that you can do rather than seeing these as silly, or less worthy of your time. Without these initial and ongoing forays into the scribbles, drawings and informal ramblings, you may try to rush towards doing the formal, academic, this-goes-into-the-thesis writing before you are ready. If you do, this may well reflect in the feedback you receive, and this could end up being demotivating or really hurtful and difficult to deal with.

I think the bottom line, annoying and trite as this may well sound, is that writing and everything that goes into making writing possible is a process, and it unfolds in pieces over time, sometimes smoothly and sometimes in a very bumpy fashion. If we can try to hold onto the process and trust that the product in the form of the meisterwerk will come, we can probably find it easier to indulge the scribbling and drawing and less formal work that can push our thinking forward, can provide more creative outlets for us to do our academic work, and can make for very interesting reading when the process is at an end. So, scribble, scribble, scribble Рthe toil will be worth the trouble ;).

Iterativity in data analysis: part 1

This post¬†is a 2-parter and follows on from last week’s post about generating data.

The one thing I did not know, at all, during my PhD was that qualitative data analysis is a lot more complex, messy and difficult than it looks. I had never done a study of this magnitude or duration before, so I had never worked with this much data before. I had written papers, and done some analysis of much smaller and less messy data sets, so I was not a c0mplete novice, but I must say I was quite taken aback by the mountain of data I found I had once the data generation was complete. What to do now? Where to start? Help!

The first thing I did, on my supervisor’s advice, was get a license for Nvivo10 and¬†uploaded¬†all my documents, interview and video recordings and field notes into its clever little software brain¬†so that I could organise the¬†data¬†into folders, and so that I could start reading and coding it. This was invaluable. Software that enables you to store, organise and code your data is a must, I think, for a study as large and long as a PhD. This is not an advert for Nvivo so I won’t get into all its features, and I am sure that other free and paid-for qualitative data analysis packages like Atlas Tii or the Coding Analysis Toolkit from UMass would do the job just as well. However, I will say that being able to keep everything in one place, and being able to put similar chunks of text into different folders without mixing koki colours or scribbling all over paper to the point of confusion was really useful. I felt organised, and that made a big difference to my mental ability to cope with the data analysis and sense-making process.

The second thing I did was keep very detailed notes in my research journal on my process as it unfolded. This was essential as I needed to narrate my analysis process to my readers in as much detail as possible in my methodology chapter. If a researcher cannot tell you how they ended up with the insights and conclusions they did, it is much harder to trust their research or believe what they are asking you to. I wanted to be believable and convincing – I think all researchers do. Bernstein (2000) wrote about needed two ‘languages of description (LoD)’ in research: the internal (InLoD) which is essentially where you create a theoretical framework for your study that coheres and explains how you are going to understand your problem in a more abstract way; and the external (ExLoD) where you analyse and explain the data using that framework, outlining clearly the process of bringing theory to data and discovering answers to your questions. The stronger and clearer the InLod and ExLoD, the greater chance other researchers then have of using, adapting, learning from your study, and building on it in their own work. When too much of your process of organising, coding, recoding, reading, analysing, connecting the data is hidden from the reader, or tacit in your writing about it, there is a real risk that your research can become isolated. By this I mean that no one will be able to replicate your study, or adapt your tools or framework to their own study while referencing yours, and therefore your research cannot be¬†readily be built on or incorporated into a greater understanding of the problems you are interested in solving (and the possible solutions).

This was the first reason for keeping detailed notes. The second was to trace what I was doing, and what worked and what did not so that I could learn from mistakes and refine my process for future research projects. As I had never worked with a data set this large or varied before, I really didn’t know what to do, and the couple of qualitative research ‘textbooks’ I looked at were quite mechanical or overly instrumental in their approach, which didn’t make complete sense to me. I wanted a more ‘ground-up’ process, which I felt would increase the validity and reliability of my eventual claims. I also wanted to be surprised by my data, as much as I wanted to find what I thought I was looking for. The theory I was using further¬†required that I not just ‘apply’ theory to data (which really can limit your analysis and even lead to erroneous conclusions), but rather engage in an open, multiple and iterative reading of the data in successive stages. Detailed notes were key in keeping track of what I was doing, what confused me, what made sense and so on. Doing this consciously has made me feel more confident in taking on similarly sized research projects in future, and I feel I can keep building and learning from this foundation.

This post is a more conceptual musing about the nature of qualitative data analysis and lays the groundwork for next week’s post, where I’ll get into some of the ‘tools’ or approaches I took in actually doing my analysis. Stay tuned… ūüôā