Lighten up your writing up!

Today’s post comes to us from the wonderful Mariam Attia.  It was originally posted on the LANTERN (Language Teacher Education Researcher Network) blog at the University of Manchester, and she has kindly given us permission to repost it here!  It is full of practical advice about how to approach the writing up stage.  I’ve had the privilege of working with Mariam for some years now, and am delighted to share her wisdom with you.

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Lighten up your writing up

Following email communication with members from the doctoral community on the topic of writing-up, I suggested moving the discussion to the blog for possible wider participation. I thought I would start this thread for sharing thoughts, ideas, pleasures, and pains of writing-up with the hope of turning it into an enjoyable process of creative production especially for those of us who have just embarked on this journey.

I begin by throwing in some tips or reminders based on my humble experience in this respect. The following points are in no particular order as many of them are answers to questions, or issues we have already discussed. As an advance warning, this post is pretty long!

1) Writing-up requires good time management and total concentration. Personally, I only got into writing mode when I stopped conferencing. I used to print out monthly Outlook calendars and divide my work into detailed sections, for example, time for library visits or online searches, time for reading and adding colored posted notes, time for organizing themes/ thoughts in Word, and time for writing. When you allocate time for writing, it’s a good idea to be specific (e.g. ch 3 intro, rather than just ch 3). Because you are very much on a self-regulated schedule, it is important to stick to your plan, but at the same time be realistic. Factor in breaks away from your thesis, or you will end up like this…

2) As part of planning your writing-up, you need to keep an eye on the general flow in the library. For example, in August MA students will be actively working on their dissertations; hence methodology books might not be available. They are more likely to be back on the shelves around mid-Sept after postgrads complete their coursework and before the new start of the new term.

3) One of the advantages of planning your writing-up is to lessen the feeling of guilt that you may be carrying around when you are not doing any writing. There’s always a lingering thought of: “Maybe I should be doing some writing-up instead”. Though we all know that we need breaks, unfortunately, only a few of us know how to turn relaxation into positive energy that can enhance the quality of our production afterwards. Also, if you are not feeling well physically or psychologically, there is no point sitting by your desk and deceiving yourself into productive work. Of course, if you are unwell for a relatively long period of time, that’s another story.

4) It is important to note major distracting factors to your writing. In my case, one of the main ones was the Internet. For other people, it might be the phone, friends, shopping, TV, football.. etc.

5) I think writing-up is highly dependent on where your PhD falls in your daily plan. It is natural to have several commitments in life. If your writing-up ranks high among your priorities, probably you will get it done faster and more effectively. Minor things then get moved around, and some times, totally cleared. Of course, you will always have this dinner out or that movie, but when we mark our diaries, it is always good to place these things around your writing-up plan rather than the other way round. Otherwise, you will get everything done.. except your thesis.

6) Ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?”, and try to connect your work to principles and values important to you. For example, if the answer to this question is “because I want to get it over and done with!”, this will result in an attitude to writing different from say “because I want this to make a real difference to my field” .. and don’t be surprised if you fluctuate between different answers.

7) Because writing-up is the last station in a long PhD journey it is normal that you will get questions like “when will you finish?” or statements like “oh, I thought you were already done!”. It’s good to ‘try’ to consider such remarks and – all the expectations behind – as a motive to finish up your writing. However, don’t let them put you under constant pressure, so that your PhD becomes a box that needs to be ticked off before you can enjoy anything else in life. Unfortunately, many times we perceive life as a series of boxes to be ticked. We move from one stage to the other without giving ourselves the chance to reflect on achievements, celebrate change, or appreciate the opportunities we have been given. Instead, as we progress, our vision is always fixated on an unidentified future moment of happiness which, in reality, never comes.

8 ) I am also not in favor of a PhD that drags on, which may result in losing momentum, forgetting one’s data, feeling constantly guilty, in addition to the possible distress placed on your supervisors and people around you. Hmm.. For the same reasons, I am also not in favor of long holidays in the middle of writing-up for you will need time and energy to get yourself back into the right mindset.

9) Make sure to back-up your work. Yes, it is s very basic piece of advice but saves a lot headache. For every day I did some writing up, I opened a new dated file. Yes, you will end-up with many files for the same document, but this helps you keep track of the development of your work and, if necessary, revert to a certain point in your argument (that you were pursing before) and start again from there. I also had a file where I inserted all deleted passages or unfinished ideas, just in case I needed them again (and once in a while I did). Every day, before going to bed I used to send that particular dated file to myself by email, and every now and then I will back up all the files on my external hard disk.

10) There is a host of online dictionaries, thesauri, and concordances around. Make use of them. In other words, try to ‘compose’ your thesis rather than just ‘write’ it. You can also share a chapter or two with specialists in your field (other than your supervisors).. and you already do that to a great extend through conferences.

11) I used to add references to Endnote after deciding on their relevance to my work (people are different in this respect). When I had the references imported, I was able to add them to the text (through the cite-as-you-write function) without interrupting my thought processes. The software also helped me build an automatic bibliography (which I still had to review in the end), and facilitated sending complete references to other people. JRUL provides advanced Endnote courses by Steve Mcindoe, who is also very helpful with individual Endnote inquires.

12) There is no need to fix margins or even font type or size, for the university has its own submission criteria. When all your chapters are ready, and you add them together to form the bigger document (fantastic feeling!!!), you then fix these things and add the table of content.. etc.

13) Word count can be a challenge. Too many or too few? My advice: a) just say what you feel you need to say, b) planning a chapter ahead might give you an estimate of the size of each section, c) if your supervisors don’t bring this point up with you, simply forget about it!

14) On my bulletin board, I used to have sections for methodology, lit review, conclusion etc, where I just stuck whatever came to mind regarding that specific area, e.g a quote, a question for supervisor(s), a problem.. etc.  Before our meeting I used to collate these notes type them into an ‘agenda’ and bring it forth.

15) I highly advice recording supervision meetings during writing up (actually, I am in favor of recording all meetings at all stages of a PhD), for it gives you the chance to listen to their feedback over and again afterwards. It also elevates that stress of having to focus on what they tell you, document it, and also express your own opinion about certain sections. Recording meetings also helps you listen to yourself again. Sometimes, you present a narrative or a story to your supervisors, they approve of it, but when you reproduce it in print, it is not as expressive or vibrant. Listening to yourself again, helps you retrieve your own rich description and detailed accounts.

16) Also, to save your time and that of your supervisors, it is important to factor in time for proof-reading your text before turning it in to them, and as we all know, when you plan to send something long (e.g., a whole chapter) it is better to ask them in advance when they would like to receive it, send it right on time, and to give them sufficient time to read it before you see them.

17) If your supervisors suggest changes to your document that might not be totally clear to you, ask them if they have a former thesis where this is exemplified. I have found reviewing other people’s work a powerful way of improving my own.

18) The best place and time for writing is a very personal matter. For example, some people do all their writing at home, and are mostly active in the evening, others like working from university offices and are active in the morning. Some people can write in different places (e.g. café or park), while others prefer to stick to their desks. My advice is to never take a person’s advice on this. I tried.. and it has just disrupted my body clock and wasted my time.

19) Towards the end of writing up, I occasionally suffered from insomnia for I often got new ideas when my head rested on the pillow. I read about this problem  and found some advice to overcome it: a) Switch off your laptop a good time before going to bed and do something different b) Do not study in your bed (and if possible study away from your bed), c) keep a notebook next to your bed for recording ideas as they emerge.

20) It is a good idea to have your thesis proof read/ edited before submission to avoid any sneaking typos here or there, and also to enhance style (esp. if you are a non-native speaker of English like myself). If you want to do that then there are two things to bear in mind, a) book your editor in advance especially if your submission date is around the same time as MA dissertations for editors might be very busy, b) set aside some cash for that.

21) Reviewing your writing can be very addictive. Toward the end I just couldn’t let go. I loved working on the text tweaking this or changing that. Setting a deadline for submission is, therefore, crucial.

22) Writing-up does not have to be a lonely process. Share it with others. When people ask you about your work, don’t just tell them “well, yeah. Still writing up”, but tell them exactly what you are doing.

23) One non-academic tip: Walk (even if you go to a gym)! I found long walks a very good way of organizing thoughts and gaining clarity and also to vent occasional frustrations. I used to walk everyday even in the coldest days of December (before submission). Now when I walk down Anson Road where I sometimes had my writing-up walks, I recall aspects of my thesis, sections I was thinking about, diagrams I wanted to develop, titles I wanted to change.. amazing! In addition to the possibility of enhancing your writing, walking also prevents you from gaining those extra pounds because of long hours of sitting by your desk, especially in the cold winter days when there is not much to do outdoors anyway.

24) One more non-academic tip: Reward yourself! Yes. Every time you complete a chapter or an important section, treat yourself to something you like.. and we all know how to treat ourselves 😉

I think one of the profound moments of writing-up is when the personnel at the university bindery hands you your work in the form of an object or a book. It’s very much like handing you a newborn in hospital. You knew it was coming, but when it arrives, it changes your life forever!

Best wishes,

Mariam

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