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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Paper writing: crafting an introduction

I am in the fortunate position, this year, of teaching a short course to early career researchers and postgraduate students on writing an article for publication. I will write more about this another time, but it seems to me, from research I am doing and practical work I have done with these writer-researchers, that much is expected where too little support is given. By support I specifically mean constructive, formative spaces where they can write, obtain feedback, get formal input and guidance from experienced researchers, and work on finding their own voices.

Over the course of a few posts, I will be writing about different parts of paper writing to create part of this space here, focusing on writing in the social sciences for the most part. This post tackles part one of any paper (after the title and abstract): the introduction.

Introductions are, to my mind, a tricky section to get right. Too short and you may leave your readers wondering what they are reading and why; too long and you’ve got more detail than you need. A good introduction needs to do three main things: scope the field you are writing into and outline the debate/conversation/area of study you are contributing to; indicate what your contribution is going to be; and give your readers a sense of where the paper will be taking them as you make this contribution clear (an outline). This sounds really simple, but a good introduction that grabs your readers’ attention, and draws them in so that they want to keep reading, can take a while to craft.

Funnel for introductionsA useful image to have in mind when planning your introduction is that of a funnel (left). You need to start off answering for your reader these questions: at a broader level, what area of research is this paper connected to? What debate/conversation/issue are you connecting with? Why is this research important? How has it been done? For example, if you are writing a paper about student engagement in a specific course through a new method of assessment, you would need to start by introducing your reader to pertinent issues in the area of student engagement in learning in higher education – what helps or hinders it, what the point of student engagement and learning research is, and so on.

But then you need to bring this in a bit – narrow in a little more on which aspect of this larger area of study you are interested in – student engagement in learning through assessment. You would focus on this, briefly setting out (with relevant references) how student engagement and assessment have been connected in research, but also pointing out gaps or areas that have been under-considered thus far.

Then you can really narrow in on your paper: what is the argument this paper will make, contributing to this area of research, and this particular gap or under-considered part of it? Here you can also set out, for your reader, what shape or form the paper will take, so that they know where they are going. You may be arguing that involving students in creating and assessing tasks, rather than simply completing set tasks and being assessed, is more conducive to their engagement in learning. Thus, you conducted a study in which you set up this kind of activity, and tracked students’ engagement and experience in some way. This paper will be reporting on that, and arguing that students should be more engaged in creating learning activities, rather than only doing them. This structure should assist you in creating a clear, coherent and focused starting point for your paper.

It’s hard to say how long introductions should be – the shape an introduction takes sometimes depends on the field in which one is writing, and sometimes on the length and purpose of the paper. Generally, though, for a 6000-7000 word paper, the introduction should be about 10% of this (600-700 words). But, one could (as I have seen done) include the literature review in the introduction as an extended contextual framing of the conversation/debate/field of research one is contributing to, and in this case it will be longer (albeit with sub-headings to make it less dense and more readerly). Look carefully at papers in your field, and in the journals you want to publish in, and see what they are doing. Try to follow the dominant examples, as this is more likely to be well received by editors and reader.

building blocks

My advice, if you struggle with introductions, is to write a first draft quite methodically, part by part. Use the funnel and focus on the three areas you need to cover. Give yourself roughly 10% of the total length of your paper, or 10% of your page length. So, for a 6000 word/12 page paper, you would have a 600 or so word/one to one and a half page introduction. You don’t need to be too stressed if you are over or under this – the main point is that you have adequately set out the metaphorical space in which the paper is being written, as outlined above. If you find yourself going way over this guiding limit, you may need to consider that you are trying to do too much in this one section. Stop and ask for feedback if you get stuck, and ask for input around the three focus areas.

In a doctoral thesis, I would say that you write the introduction last, when you know what you want to introduce. But a thesis and a paper are quite different in this respect. I think it’s useful and necessary to craft a strong draft of the introduction first in paper writing, because you need to create a clear boundary to stay within. One paper = one good, well-made argument. You need to set out, for yourself as the writer, what you want to say, why you want to say it, and how you will go about saying it so that you don’t go too far off track, and end up with too many arguments, and too much extraneous writing and detail. Although you can and probably will revise it later on, a strong introduction will provide a solid foundation for the rest of the paper.

Finding a problem to solve: searching for your doctoral thesis

I am working with a new PhD student, as a co-supervisor. He is just starting out, and recently emailed us with a slightly panicked email about what title he should have for his PhD? He sent a few ideas, wondering if they were too broad or too narrow or off-topic. My first response was to think: never mind about the title yet – we’re still trying to work out what the study is about! But he was genuinely concerned, leading me to wonder where this panic about his title stemmed from. It became apparent that he had to write down a title on a form in order to register, and he was worried that this would commit him to sticking with that title from now on. We could reassure him that this was just a form, and had no bearing on his PhD proposal or final topic. But it also pointed us to a bigger conversation: how to search for, and find, your PhD.

Bureaucracy and forms aside, do we fixate on finding a title before we have located a problem we can solve? I remember (and have proof in my research journal) scribbling down several possible titles early on in year 1 of my own doctorate, long before I knew precisely what the parameters of my study would be. Unsurprisingly, they were largely discarded along the way and I ended up somewhere quite different. I still do this in writing papers. I think it is, quite simply, because playing with words and titles is more fun, and immediate, that spending months reading, writing and speaking about my research in the effort to find a problem that is small and focused enough for me to research and write usefully about.

I do think that having some notion of a title might be helpful – it gives you a basic search area to focus on, and a way in to your reading, writing and speaking journey. But it should be seen, at this early stage, as a movable placeholder, rather than a limitation. In other words, you know you want to say something about, for example, teaching in Physics and how students learn effectively, but you remain open to further refining and reading around that issue, as opposed to discounting any reading that is not strictly about what you think you are researching.

map

I have written here about research problems, and return to the notion of a corridor of doors: at the early stage of a research project, like a PhD, you don’t want to have too many of those doors already closed. If you know the answer or solution already, why do the research? You want to remain open, read widely, and as you keep your reading journal and start to piece the field together, you then start closing doors to refine and focus your study on one problem you can viably research and respond to, making a useful and original contribution to knowledge in this field.

The reality is that you have to spend about a year reading, writing reading journal or annotated bibliography entries, making connections, taking a few wrong turns and doubling back, and talking a lot with your supervisors and peers about your study, working out where it needs to go, why and how. A great deal of the writing you do in this first year will not go into the thesis (although hopefully much of it will end up in your formal proposal*); it will be writing in your journals, writing for yourself, writing for your supervisors to guide you and offer feedback.

All this reading and informal writing can feel, at times, frustrating: you’ll read papers and even books that will be profoundly helpful, and others than you will never cite or include. You will write many words that will never progress beyond drafting/thinking/scribbling stage. I often felt as if my time was not being well-spent, especially as a part-time student with so many other things to do, if the reading was not exactly relevant, or the words were not all for The Thesis. At times, I felt I was paddling around in a circle, rather than slowly crawling forwards towards a complete thesis.

But, with hindsight, I can see just how much I gained from all that reading, scribbling and talking, even if none of it is now visible in the final thesis I wrote. In writing for myself, and giving myself permission, if you like, to just read and not panic too much about my topic or title, I slowly read and wrote myself into my research problem, locating, refining and focusing it until I was doing just one PhD (instead of the apparent four I initially proposed to my supervisor!). I found my voice through becoming immersed in the research in my field, both directly connected to my PhD and indirectly as well. I gained confidence that I was making a useful contribution as I wrote, and spoke with more knowledgeable peers, about what this contribution could be.

one way signWhile the original spark of an idea, and impetus for doing a postgraduate degree by research may find you and light you up, driving you forwards into a PhD (or MA) journey, the searching for and refining of a specific, clear and viably solvable research question or problem is a long process. Before you fixate too much on a topic, or sexy title, take the time to open yourself up to reading in and around your idea, write for yourself and your supervisors, find your researcher voice, and try your ideas out on peers and colleagues. You won’t, of course, be reading indiscriminately, but try not to hem yourself in too much with a title or topic that limits you before you have searched your field and found your PhD within it.

*In most South African PhD programmes, most of the first year of a doctorate is spent developing a formal PhD proposal, which then has to be approved by a ‘higher degrees’ committee before ethical clearance is granted and a student has permission to begin the study proper.

Slogging away, slouching and sailing: developing a research work ethic

Recently I read a post on one of my favourite blogs written by Susan Carter on managing emotion in doctoral supervision, and in doctoral writing. What stood out for me were her comments on managing emotions around producing written work for comment and feedback. She comments that she no longer gets emotional about her writing; as an experienced academic she knows it is part of her job, and something she just has to do (and likes doing). She comments that students and academics would be helped by having a ‘workerly’ approach to writing, and also by learning to manage emotions that can lead to writing blocks or paralysis.

This notion of a ‘workerly’ approach to academic writing has been floating around in my head since I read her post a few months ago. I think I have developed a more workerly approach to writing in the last two years especially; I have chosen an academic career and I do know that producing publishable writing is something I need to do as part of this career. I like writing, and while I don’t enjoy all the kinds of writing and reading I have to do, on the whole I derive pleasure from these scholarly activities.

But I still get emotional about my own writing; I still get stuck, and down, and worry about whether and how I will get up again. I do, however, get up. This being down and getting up and carrying on has to do with being resilient, and part of this is developing and maintaining a work ethic about research and writing. By this, I specifically mean working more consciously on what Susan Carter speaks about in her post: learning to manage emotions so that they do not block your progress, and being a little more ‘workerly’ about your writing.

Waiting for the mojo (can leave you waiting a long time)

I, like many writers, have what I think of as my ‘writing mojo’. I am sure many of you have experienced the mojo when it is strong – the ideas flow and the words come and the sentences hang together, and you sail through a morning’s writing that leaves you with a pretty brilliant piece of work to send to a supervisor, or build on tomorrow. These mornings are what keep me going, sometimes – knowing that on the days when the mojo seems weaker, days of sunny sailing through writing are still possible, and will come again.

The reality is that most mornings or days of writing are not necessarily like this. They see me slogging away at a measly 100 words, slouched over my computer, getting up every ten minutes because I can’t concentrate for longer, or find the right word, or figure out what I want to say. I agonise over synonyms, and wonder if I have used ‘like’ too many times. I edit, more than I create. It is hard, painful work. It makes me feel frustrated, and inadequate, and slow.

This is me when I am working on my writing, metaphorical quill in hand, completely idealistic task list mocking me gently

These emotions are difficult to manage. But manage them I must, otherwise the mojo may not return. I am learning that all that slogging is necessary for the brief bright mornings of sailing through my writing to be possible. If I spent all my writing time waiting for the mojo to be strong, and the ideas to flow, I might be waiting a very long time, and I’m not sure I’d get much writing done at all. This, then, is when I need to be workerly in my approach to my writing.

Planning and pragmatism

Being workerly, to me, means being pragmatic, and planning my time as carefully and realistically as I can. It means instead of messing around on email, I need to make myself sit down for two or three pomodoros to read two or three relevant papers and make notes. It means setting myself one task for a morning or a day: writing an introduction, or coding a small set of data, and holding myself to that task until it is done. This, for me, is slogging. It is the work of being an academic writer that is often boring, and tedious (especially coding and transcribing data), and it feels like trudging through treacle because I’m not actually producing something tangible to show for my time spent at my desk (yet).

Yet, in the midst of this slogging is where my work ethic is formed and strengthened. The ability to push through the tedium, boredom, frustration and anxiety and continue to do the small tasks that make the mojo stronger and make sailing through the writing possible is part of what it is to be an academic writer. It requires fortitude; sometimes it probably feels like you are being unkind to yourself when you have to make yourself work on part of your paper or PhD on a Saturday morning when the week has been long, and you are tired. But all those little tasks, especially the difficult ones, build your work ethic and your researcher resilience, and they move you forward.

mojo giftThere are no easy answers to building and strengthening a work ethic, especially when you are a part-time student with many other demands on your time and headspace. But it helps me to remember that the mojo isn’t magic: it’s created over time through many small, seemingly unconnected tasks that all add up to a finished project if I sit up straight and slog away.

Making the most of an hour a day

I have realised, looking through recent posts, that there is a bit of a theme emerging: that of a slightly aimless and depressed writer trying to get off the couch. I feel I should break this theme with a different kind of post, a more optimistic one. Although I have no regrets sharing this low patch of feeling aimless and stuck and unable to get off the  couch – the downs are as much a part of working on a PhD or research project as any other part of it, and an important part to talk about – I do need to get going again. And the only person who can really get me going again is me. So, this post is really about how to make the most of the time you have, and be as productive as you can be.

Many of my readers, and colleagues, are part-time writers and students. Writing and reading and thinking about research is squeezed into the odd hour here or there, or if you are lucky, a research day a week, a weekend, or even a sabbatical from work. But, for the most part (and this was the case for me during my PhD), research has to be fitted into everything else, and not the other way around. For much of my own PhD I had, at most, about an hour a day, most days. Then I had to put the PhD down and do my real job, and be focused on other things. After work, there were extra-murals to fetch and carry from, kids to spend time with, suppers to cook, pets to feed and so on. So, these brief hours here and there were precious and I needed to learn to make the most of them.

From commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

This is  not easy. I have written here about finding time to write, and about what that means: less physical hours in the day, and more space in your head to actually think and write productively when the physical time is created. It’s no use making time to write and then having to spend that time just getting back to where you were the previous time you set aside an hour or two to work on your research or writing. You’d just be treading water, becoming increasingly frustrated, and struggling to move forward. Each hour, ideally, needs to move you one step further to a finished thesis, or paper. Thus, you need to make the most of these hours that you can create AND, very key, create as many of them as possible in a consistent manner. Think of these hours as stepping stones: too far apart and you’re stuck in the middle of the river, looking for a place to put your feet and finding the leap a bit scary. Ideally, they need to be fairly evenly spaced, so that you find each step in front of you manageable.

I have also written here and here and here about things you can do to manage your research time effectively, and work on creating a balance between time for your PhD/MA and the rest of your professional and personal life. What I am working on now is creating links between the hours and minutes I set aside to work on specific projects. I read recently that when you are working on a piece of writing you should end off such that your thought is not quite finished, so that you can pick it up again and keep going. The problem with this, for me, is that I might not come back to that piece of writing for a few days, or even a week, and then that thought may have left me. This writing time then becomes about trying to get back to where I was before I left off, rather than picking up the thought and carrying on with it usefully. My trick now is to end off a block of writing time with some brief notes to myself in the form of a holding text, pointing ahead to what I want or need to think, read or write about next time. Thus, when I do pick it up, whether the next day or the next week, my time will be used moving my writing forward. This is one way I create a link.

Another way I am creating links is by getting better at managing my physical time week in and week out. I am learning to keep much more detailed writing TO DO lists, breaking projects into more realistic pieces (such as ‘Read three papers and make notes’ set aside for three or four pomodoros in a morning; ‘draft introduction’ set aside for an hour or two one morning, and so on), and then working out, along with the kids’ stuff, and my other work and home stuff, exactly how much time I can set aside for these pieces and when. Then (mostly), I stick to this, and find that (when I can get it to work) the stepping stones connect together quite well, and I move my writing forward quite productively. A bonus is that I enjoy writing like this more, because I am moving forward with each step, and not going sideways or backwards.

Finally, a common theme in many of my posts about writing: I practice self-kindness. I do not beat myself up (too much) when I can’t quite make it all work out. But, without structure, some organisational skills and planning, and a way of holding myself accountable, I would do very little. Thus, in order to make the most of each hour you can set aside, you do need clear goals, consistency – whether you can make this an hour a day or a few hours over a week or so – and good planning. The more you can get to your writing and research, the more the writing comes and the research plods on, and the more productive and enjoyable that time will become.