Recently I Tweeted a link to an article called “How to write 1000 words a day for your blog” which I thought had some good productivity tips for thesis writers. @webnemesis wrote back: “ would like to see someone write a blog post on how to write 1000 words of substance for yr dissertation every day”. Of course I answered: “Challenge? Accepted!”
When I was nearing the end of my PhD, I added up the number of words I had to write and divided them by the number of days of study leave I had left. Then I freaked out and had to have a little lie down. According to my calculations I had to write 60,000 words in 3 months.
After a cup of tea (with maybe just a whiff of scotch in it) I contemplated this problem and made a PLAN, which was cobbled together from all the advice books on writing I used in my workshops with doctoral students. A case of eating my own cooking if you will. This PLAN worked for me and I share it with you here.
The PLAN works best closer to completion, when you have absorbed a lot of information about your topic and have thought about it for awhile. The basic premise is: “there is no such thing as writing, only rewriting” and that half the struggle of a thesis is to get stuff out of your head and onto the page in order to start the rewriting process.
Step one: spend less time at your desk
Now close that Facebook window and listen to Auntie Thesis Whisperer for a moment. The secret to writing at least 1000 words a day is to give yourself a limited time frame in which to do it.
What’s that I hear you say? “Are you crazy Inger??”.
Well, as I’ve said before, just because Mr or Ms Bottom is paying a trip to Chair Town it does not always follow that productive work is being done. If you give yourself the whole day to write, you will spend the whole day writing and, in the process, drive yourself bat shit crazy.
One of my supervisors once said “Doing a thesis is like mucking out a stable”. His point was that you have to tackle it one wheel barrow load of shit at a time - if you stay in the stable too long, the stink will kill you. So dedicate less than a quarter of the day to making some new text and then take a break and return later to clean it up. This sounds counter intuitive, but trust me – it works.
Step Two: remember the two hour rule
I think most people only have about two really good, creative writing hours in a day - two hours in which new ‘substantive’ ideas will make their way onto the page. Most of us are in the best frame of mind for this after breakfast and before lunch – whatever time of the day that happens to be for you. So writing new stuff should be almost the first thing you do when you sit down to your desk. Personally I find it hard to resist the siren call of the email, but if I am on deadline I do an emergency scan then close it until lunch time.
Step Four: start in the middle
When I am on deadline and need to generate words I don’t even attempt to write introductions, conclusions or important transitions. As Howard Becker in his excellent “Writing for Social Scientists” said: “How can I introduce it if I haven’t written it yet?”.This attitude is echoed in “Helping Doctoral Students to Write” , where Kamler and Thomson recommend that thesis writers think about their work in terms of ‘chunks’ rather than chapters.
A chunk can be anything up to two pages long – the text between each subheading if you like. No doubt you have some scrappy notes which you can transcribe or cut into a new file as a ‘seed’. Once you have planted the seed, just start adding on words around and over it – this builds a chunk. Don’t worry about where it fits yet – that’s a rewriting problem.
Step Four: Write as fast as you can, not as well as you can
This advice also comes from Becker, who points out that thinking happens during writing. The surest way to slow the process is to worry too much about whether your thinking is any good.So give yourself permission to write badly. If you can’t think of a word use another/equivalent/filler words: don’t slow down and start to think too much.
Do this ‘free writing’ in bursts of about 10 to 15 minutes. When you need a rest, review and fiddle with the text – maybe plant a new seed – then move on to another burst. It’s likely you will produce more than 1000 words if you do this for two hours – in fact I usually did around 3000. It’s grueling and bad for your back and shoulders, which is why the two hour time limit is important.
Step Five: leave it to rest… then re-write
Because you are writing without judgment, most of the words you generate in step four will be crap. Carving off the excess crap in the editing process will reveal the 1000 words of beautiful substantive text you are after. But take a break before you attempt this, or you wont have the necessary perspective. Go and have a coffee with a friend, walk the dog, watch some TV – whatever takes you away from your desk for a couple of hours. Then come back – maybe after dinner – and start sifting through, massaging and editing.
Be strategic about this editing – some parts will be easier than others. But do try to pull some ‘finished words’ – even if it’s only a paragraph – back into your draft each day. This gives you a sense of achievement which is important for morale.
So that’s how I wrote 60,000 words in three months. When I present this method in seminars it invariably horrifies those people who like to write line by perfect line. I’m sympathetic to the reasons people like to write that way, but it seems to me that they suffer a lot more pain than perhaps they need to. I’d love to hear your views on this and any tricks you have to share.