New year, new writing plans, new chances to ‘fail better’

Samuel  Beckett famously wrote: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. Maybe he said it out loud. Nevertheless, he made a valuable, and often underestimated, observation here that applies really well to writing and research. I find, and I know many others do too, that writing and research are not really about trying, failing and then succeeding, but about trying, failing, learning, and then failing better (and on and on).

If I could rewrite my PhD thesis now, there are a few things I would do differently, better, having learned so much from the one I did write, which was better than the MA thesis that came before that, which improved on the Honours mini-thesis. You see where I am going here, I think.

writing image

Every paper I write is hopefully better than the paper before. But to improve – to try again and fail better – you need to become a more conscious and reflexive writer. You need to learn about yourself as a writer, take on advice, feedback and critique, and work to make changes and improvements where these are warranted. Otherwise you may just feel like you are trying and failing, without the bit about getting better at it.

This takes some work. I like, in my writing courses, to think about the possible learning in two areas: personal habits and needs, and writing habits and needs.

Area one, for me, involves things like: where and when I write most productively, the kind of atmosphere I need to write, how I react to and take in critique and feedback, and the time it takes me to read, think, write, revise and so on. I do best in the mornings, but I have a friend who is writing fiend between 11pm and 5am. I like to write in bed, but my back prefers that I sit properly at a desk – and actually, I am more focused and disciplined if I am at a desk and my back is not aching. I like quiet – not dead quiet – but loud noises are distracting and annoying. I also have ‘writing mixes’ on my iPod, and I plug these in and listen while I type when I really need to block out the ambient noise around me. I write fairly quickly, but only after a fairly long period of reading, thinking and scribbling in my research journal, and plotting outlines, so paper writing schedules need to take this all into account. These are the kinds of things it is useful to become very aware of, and work with, rather than against. So, trying to work in a noisy cafe, at lunchtime, and get a paper done in 2 weeks would be madness for me, and I would fail worse. But, if I recognise my personal (writing) needs and limitations, and work with those, I could (and do) more often than not fail better – in other words, get my writing done.

home-office

In terms of writing needs, here I include actual nut and bolts stuff. For example: have you been critiqued (as I have many times) for writing overly long sentences? Do you use too conversational and colloquial a tone, so that your writing sounds flippant at times? Do you under, or over-explain theoretical or technical terminology? Do you overuse certain words and phrases? Do you over, or under-punctuate your writing? If you have received feedback on your writing on these, or similar issues related to style, tone, referencing, and so on that can reveal tendencies or patterns – such as my overly long sentences and occasionally overly chatty or strident tone – you can start to moderate your writing, trimming the longer sentences, making the tone more formal, less strident, more engaging without being chatty, and so on. You can begin to be aware of your writing from your readers’ perspective, and anticipate how they may take in your text, and what needs to be there, or not there, to make it more readerly, and enjoyable to engage with.

repetitive learning

The main thing I want to learn this year, as a writer, is not how to succeed: it is how to keep learning from my failures (and the things I get right), so that I can keep working, keep trying, and fail better, and better each time I write a paper, or a book chapter, or a proposal, or a blogpost even. I think, perhaps, if we change our writing mindset from success versus failure, to failing better each time, versus learning little to nothing about our writerly selves and writing, we could all probably be kinder to ourselves, and become happier, less anxious writers. Am I right on this one? I hope so.

Happy 2018 everyone!

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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.

What if I’ve got it all wrong?

Readers of my blog will know that I have finished my PhD, and am now working on postdoctoral research, and the seemingly endless process of trying to write, receive feedback, revise and (please universe) publish my research. So, I am not in the middle of the chaos and confusion that can often be so much a part of working on a PhD thesis. But, I am in a different kind of chaos, trying to work out what research I really want to do now, trying to find new questions to ask and find answers to in higher education that will make my research relevant, and useful, and trying to work out which theoretical and methodological tools and frameworks will help me do all of this.

I am currently at my alma mater for a week of research meetings, workshops and seminars centred around doctoral support for PhD scholars in the programme that I was part of while doing my PhD. Today, I spent the afternoon listening to a researcher I am going to now be working with, and whose work I have found very useful, talking about theory and how to use theory in educational research. I love and hate seminars like this one in equal measure: I love them because they always offer me new ways of thinking about my own work, and what I am doing with the theory and data I am using; I hate them because they always make me wonder whether what I have been doing up to this point is actually all wrong.

One of the things I heard early on in my PhD process, and fairly often, was that I couldn’t just buy into my theory wholesale; I needed to retain some kind of critical distance. I needed to be able to see what it offered my study, and defend that, but also see possible occlusions in what I could see with it, or blindspots to be aware of. I must confess that I did, and still do, find this difficult, and unsettling. During my PhD it felt impossible to do this because I really needed the theory to be right about the world. I needed it to be robust, and strong and able to just help me answer my research questions and get to the end so I could graduate. I was afraid to be too critical, and then find holes, and then be unable to live with the holes and then feel like I was wrong and would have to start again. I didn’t, in the words of a wise therapist I once consulted, know how to hold the ambivalence – to be right and maybe also wrong at the same time, and work through that.

This ambivalence – where I like the theory I use because it makes sense in relation to the questions I am asking and the work I am trying to do, but where I also see now how other kinds of theory could complement or even replace it in certain ways – is still hard to hold. I have rather bought into the theory I use, and I really do like both it, and the community of scholars I am now part of because we all have this theory in common. It’s useful, and relevant. BUT, the danger, I feel, is that I am still not always able to see possible occlusions and blindspots, and some of these have been pointed out to me by peer reviewers of papers I have written. These comments are helpful, but also invoke great anxiety: what if I still have it all wrong?

I had a conversation with the researcher who spoke this afternoon, after the seminar, and it was heartening to be listened to and taken seriously (I hope). But it made me feel so young, in career terms, and so naive about some of the work I am doing, and I wondered, driving home, whether I am actually reading enough, or thinking enough, or thinking about the right kinds of things. I know this is what I’ve signed up for, and I can see how far I have come and how much I have learned, and that I am always going to have things to learn and a distance to travel in my thinking and writing. But, man it’s exhausting. All this writing, all this thinking, all this reading, all the seminars and workshops and scribbles and peer reviews – it just goes on and on and on. When you have a day where you learn useful things, but also stop and wonder, quite seriously, if what you have just learned calls into question theory and methods which you have invested much time and energy in learning about and using, it can just feel flattening.

I know, rationally, that my research is probably okay. Good, even. I know that I am driven, as I think we all should be, by the problems I am working to find solutions to in my context, and by the questions I am asking that I really want to answer, and that if I am finding theory that helps me work in this way and is relevant, that’s fine. I know that I have learned enough to be more comfortable than I was two years ago, with being wrong. I can hold, for some of the time anyway, a kind of ambivalence without wanting to rush too quickly to a resolution that does away with doubt or confusion. But, tonight, I am tired. Tonight, I just want my theory and methods to be right, and I don’t want to wonder if I have it all wrong. Tonight, I want my research to change the world just as it is, without peer review pointing out all the things I have not seen or thought about yet, and need to look at and think about next.

There’s no moral here: just a recognition that it’s really normal to feel like you have no idea what you are doing. It’s really normal to be close to finishing a PhD, or even to have one, and still wonder if you’ve got it all wrong. I think that if you never wonder if you’ve got it all wrong, you never get to push yourself to work out whether indeed this is the case. Research is not really about proving your assumptions right. Research is about trying to find out whether you have the right assumptions to begin with, and where you do have blindspots and where where you might have got it wrong, or at least less right, so that you can keep pushing yourself to do the kind of thinking and writing work that makes your research relevant, useful and transformative in your context. To adapt a well-known phrase: a pesquisa continua*!

*The research continues (Portuguese)