Why writing from day one isn’t nuts

Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Locat...
Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Location : seen outside Rewley House of Kellogg College, Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Hayton wrote a guest post at The Thesis Whisper, decrying the (very widespread) theory that to write a good PhD, you need to write as you go, or – as he puts it – write from “day one”.

I can only speak from my experience, as an English DPhil student at the University of Oxford, but I’ve found it essential to write as I go, for the following reasons:

1. Writing is rewriting.

The most valuable part of writing is rewriting. For me, rewriting is not always exciting – much of the material is already familiar to me, and I’m refining/redirecting/clarifying, not charting a course into the (thrilling) unknown. Nevertheless, it’s that critical eye which refines your thesis and makes the messy first draft (second draft, third draft…) better. I dread the thought of returning to my thesis between submission and viva (obviously praying I get that far! And not jinxing it! And knocking on wood and frothing with neurosis!) and realising that – although no thesis is ever perfect – just one more rewrite would have fixed things. If you don’t write from day one, you have much less time left to rewrite. Hayton says that it’s difficult to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago. This is COMPLETELY true because it is BILGE and you’re a MORON and why didn’t your supervisors stifle you at birth. On the other hand, realising something from two years ago looks like relative bilge is testament to your own progress since then; something I’ve found strangely affirming. Moreover, there will probably be something you can salvage. It’s easier to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago than to return to a chapter that doesn’t exist.

2. Writing is revealing.

Writing shows up the flaws in your argument; the paragraph that doesn’t fit; the stylistic tic that you need to spot; and, sometimes, the glorious link that couldn’t be made until ideas were made adjacent on paper. The more writing you’ve done, the more likely you are to see the strengths and weaknesses of your research. Writing from day one isn’t fun – not as much fun as a glorious library wallow without concept of producing results – but it does acquaint you with your research-self.

3. Writers have readers.

It is very, very hard for your supervisor to get a sense of where you’re heading and what your strengths actually are if you’re all talk and no hand-in. As ever, I’m very lucky in my supervisors, but in my 1st year a remark from the then Director of Graduate Studies (made at a general session for new research students) stuck with me: “A great way to get your supervisor’s attention is to hand something in“. If you’re only making notes and plans and following your own discursive research leads, it’s very hard to get the feedback which is so valuable early in your PhD, by averting disasters or pointing out obvious omissions. Sooner than you think, too, you’ll be wanting your fellow research students to look over your work, or you’ll need writing samples to win scholarships or even jobs…

4. Writers don’t just write theses.

Your thesis draft is the source of conference papers, podcasts, job applications; it’s a repository of fascinating miscellanea which frankly bear NO relation to your stated topic but which might turn into fascinating articles at some point. Writers are also teachers, and in a climate which seems to value research-led teaching, a clear research identity (and an idea about what constitutes good writing in your discipline) is much easier to model if you’re settled in your own written work.

And, finally, breaking my nice if semi-hypnotic/creepy structural streak:

5. There is no bloody time.

There isn’t time. There definitely isn’t time. Not in the UK. There’s time for reading and exploring and doing conferences and archive trips and all, I promise, all the attractions of graduate school life but there is not time for all these activities without any suggestion of written results. I teach and research-assist alongside my thesis, currently while applying for jobs and attempting to have a social life and see the people I love. Many doctoral students also have spouses, mortgages, children, and a pressing need to graduate before their funding expires (mine ends in Sept 2013) or before self-funding becomes still more untenable. You can’t be a seminar-going, committee-member, sociable, fulfilled, profile-building graduate student and then write your thesis. You have to do both at the same time, and make the best fist of it you can. There’s no blueprint for writing a thesis, but you’d have to be an extraordinary person (or just extraordinarily hurried) to sit down after thirty months’ research and write 100,000 words in the final six. More power to James Hayton, if he can manage it – but I can’t, and I’d advise any new researcher not to try.

Stupid Days, Clever Days

Or, as I knew it today, "Chateau Despair".In first year, I went to absolutely every training seminar going, in the hope of insights into the DPhil process (and, you know, how to get my hands on some money). A Highly-Acclaimed Shakespeare Scholar was at one of them. I can’t remember what the seminar title was, or whether the following observation was made generally or to me in particular.

The Acclaimed Shakespeare Scholar was talking about her own experience as a DPhil student, when she used to experience a phenomenon she called “clever days” and “stupid days”.

…there was a pause in which everyone present contemplated what The Acclaimed Shakespeare Scholar having a “stupid day” might look like, and the degree to which it would have resembled any one of us functioning at our intellectual best, if we were lucky.

The gist was that the aforementioned scholar had been intrigued and frustrated by her tendencies towards “clever” (i.e. productive, insightful, positive) and “stupid” (frustrating, unproductive, what I’m having as I write this post) days, and their apparent lack of trigger. She’d tried mapping them to see if they followed a pattern – any pattern, even down to her own hormones. They didn’t.

If I am very tired, or very stressed about non-work-related issues, a “stupid day” is not surprising. Today, I am a bit stressed. I am going away soon; I am flat-hunting; I am being thwarted in affordable theatre-ticket-buying and the economy is on fire thanks a Cabinet containing four hundred millionaires and sixty-three baronets. But the fact remains: I am less stressed than I am stupid. Today, I feel incredibly stupid.

Yesterday, I was prolific: 1,368 words, less demented than the previous batch but still full of semi-colons and square brackets containing words like EXPAND and MORE HERE. Sometimes, when I write a lot, I get nervous. I worry that the amount of rewriting I’ll need to do outweighs the net value of what I’ve written, and that waiting or writing fewer, more polished sentences, might have been better. Even though one piece of first-year advice was “start writing sooner”, by the end of the day I was crowd-sourcing advice and reassurance from the vast number of essay- dissertation- and thesis-survivors on my Facebook.

My lovely friends rallied in praise of word vomit, owt being better than nowt, not getting it right but getting it written, and (my personal favourite) the fact that “a blank word document at the end of the day during the DPhil is the stuff drunks are made of”. I definitely felt better about those 1,368 words.

Today, though, has felt  like a stupid day. I have written some words, but couldn’t tell you how many – they’re dotted all around, and some are in note form. This is certainly not my first “stupid day”, but I think I did manage to turn it around, and on reflection, felt inspired to write this list:

DPhil Techniques For Rescuing A Stupid Day

1. Edit what you’ve written. Rewriting is a thousand times easier than re-writing, with the satisfaction of creating an infinitely better end-product. I think when you’re in a real fug about work, though, there’s the danger of hacking at it too hard, so edit carefully. Style-edit only,  concentrate on the piece of the chapter written longest ago, or (this works best for me) turn to a completely different chapter. I like this last one because it reminds me there was life before this chapter and there will be again (n.b. in no way a doctoral drama-queen) after. Also, rewriting inevitably involves generating new words as well as cutting, so if you’re in a co-dependent relationship with your wordcount, there’s some redemption there.

2. Write like you’d talk. I have rough/first drafts of so many paragraphs and chapters styled by a near-manic determination to get the words out at all costs. Sometimes the trigger has to be “so, in 1888, you’ve got these two things happening at once, because in the autumn you get these murders in Whitechapel and…” in order for the academic style to take over subsequently. There’s a gulf between being blocked on paper and unable even to speak. So don’t write; talk on paper. This technique is essentially about tricking yourself, and variations include:

  • Typing in a word processor other than your usual (e.g. TextEdit not Word for Mac, in my case), or in an email which you send to yourself to read the next day,
  • Rewriting the last paragraph by literally writing it out again – you’ll be unable to help making improvements, and will probably have your “flow” back by the time you need to start on fresh content,
  • Switching from laptop to longhand, or vice versa, or
  • Imagining what you’re writing is a conference paper, rather than a section/chapter, and coming up with a series of “Pithy Quotation or Alliterative Amusement: Thing and Thing in Time or Place”-style titles for it.

3. Read something relevant to your research. Usually my “stupidity” derives from ignorance. I don’t know what to write because I don’t know about something. In that way, blocks can be really useful because they show up the gaps in your knowledge early, at the first-drafting stage, when you have the most scope to do something about it. Embrace the deadlock and deal with it. For me, this ties in with another comment I got on my facebook post, with which I strongly identified; I only feel I’m thinkingproperly once I’m actually writing. The act of selecting, refining and arranging my research tells me where the gaps are.

4. Read something new/marginally relevant to your research. If I’m tangled up in a chapter, reading something apparently unconnected can act as a catalyst for reshaping/reframing my thoughts, by forcing me to step outside whatever I’m currently working on.

5. Get out of the library. Today, I realised that part of my problem was that I was going stir crazy in the Lower Camera. Decamping to Caffe Nero, rehydrating and reading my work on printout gave me a sense of perspective. God knows that the genuine excitement of working somewhere new is one of the most pathetic aspects of student existence (as a finalist, I spent a few days up Parks Road in the Rhodes House Library and it really was like going on holiday, I know, tragic, it’s best I’m kept here quietly and allowed to look at books), but sometimes it works. Fresh air and sunlight and a little stroll to sort out the Deep Vein Thrombosis, etc.

6. Do something useful. I always have a to-do list full of tasks like THE BANK and POST INVOICE and BUY WHITE SHIRT and REPLY TO THAT EMAIL, DO YOU WANT TO BE HOMELESS/FRIENDLESS/JOBLESS. Creative procrastination or quality break? Doesn’t matter, but if your writing is really going nowhere, fill the pause with one of the other things playing on your mind. Sometimes, if the real problem is that I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the demands on my time, clearing a few bite-size to-do tasks redirects me to the main event.

7. Do something fun, without feeling guilty sometimes. Occasionally. In moderation. While constantly apologising/justifying. Work/life balance is important (I’m told). There’s a bit in Gaudy Night (1935, and therefore totally an appropriate Guide To Life) where the mad-eyed, overstressed finalist complains to the Dean of Shrewsbury College that her mind feels blank and empty, and is told that is as good a reason as any to get outside and play tennis. I prefer, um, champagne and kosher cookies with my housemates (in no way what just happened) to healthful sport and Vitamin D but I STAND BY the fictional advice of the fictional Dean.

Today, when I finally got out of the Bodleian, had a walk and could think, I remembered a Word document in which I’d jotted down thoughts about the chapter section I was trying to write. I opened it and discovered that it was much more comprehensive than I remembered – no continuous prose, but the basis for it (and rewriting notes, of course, is a great way to trick yourself into writing again). So, my stupid day was rescued by the existence of the clever days.

Although the champagne, cookies, and housemates helped too.

If you have other strategies for getting through the stickier bits of writing, I’d love to hear them, below.

Love’s Labour’s Lost: last night in Merton Fellows’ Garden | DPhil supervisor

The last night of Love’s Labour’s Lost was amazing. Firstly, we managed to get back outside! Due to rain (and the threat thereof), we hadn’t performed in Merton Fellows’ Garden since opening night: although I was very fond of the chapel space, I think I was in the minority among the cast, most of whom were definitely glad to get back to the Herm and the bench and the trees. The weather was balmy, warm and still. I so wish we’d done more performances – everything was so much better on Monday night, and although Friday, Saturday and Sunday were all better than I’d expected, by Monday we had a really strong show with so much potential. I had a terrible case of post-show-blues on Tuesday (hate everything, never gonna be onstage again, nothing else has meaning, life is worthless, weep); our cast was becoming so cohesive, and a last-night party in my home college reminded me how horribly I’m going to miss the place, come August. I should say I haven’t behaved quite so badly onstage since school – Phil and I were viciously corpsing each other all night, hopefully without audience notice, and the Muscovite scene came close to hysteria when one of the beards fell off. This, even without the bottle of sherry (oh yeah, we know how to live) being passed round by Dan on the Sunday night.

An American tourist stopped me in the street yesterday to tell me I was ‘awesome’ as Moth – it completely made my (very long but very enjoyable day). I was on my way to a certain college – ladies and gentlemen, I have a DPhil supervisor. I may even have two (except I am HORRIBLY FRIGHTENED of both the additional possibilities, note to self work on this). My DPhil supervisor is beyond brilliant – she’s my first choice for supervision by about nine hundred years, and has been since Michaelmas of my first year (because, you know, I am in a constant state of evolution and flux). Admittedly, I don’t yet have a research proposal, place, or funding, but it’s nice to think that should the great fruit machine of postgraduate possibility vomit out 3 7s or similar, I’ll have someone willing to teach me in October 2010.

Still unemployed come September. I must say, getting job rejections definitely becomes easier; quite often, when I get the emails, I can’t remember what the job was for in the first place.