If you don’t know James Hayton’s blog, the Three Month Thesis yet, you should. James did his PhD in Physics in the nanoscience group at the university of Nottingham where he developed an interest in productivity. He now lives in Barcelona – because he can (I know I would if I could!).
In this post James takes issue with the advice that many research educators, myself included, give to students: that you should write from day one. I’m always willing to listen to a contrary opinion! So take it away James, convince me I’m wrong…
I admit, I haven’t done a humanities PhD (I’m a physicist), so I don’t have first-hand experience, but no matter where you sit on the science-humanities scale, there are some general principles that apply to research and writing.
So I’m just going to say what I think, and you can correct me if you think I’m wrong.
Why writing from day one is nuts…
Things almost never work out exactly the way you thought in the beginning. If they do, then your research isn’t going beyond the obvious.
“But”, you say, “writing is a good way to develop ideas!”
Maybe, but writing in the form of a thesis, which is a formal report, is likely to stifle creativity and add undue pressure. A better way is to write many ideas on paper, do exploratory reading and research, and then see what ideas arise as a result.
Then you can start to solidify and refine ideas and your research methodology. Work out what questions you want to answer, and explore further. Take notes, of course, but writing in the form of a chapter from day one? Why do that to yourself?
Anything you write in the first year is likely to be sh*te
It takes time to get to know your subject and develop a deep understanding of the key ideas and how they link together.
The lit review I wrote in my first year was awful, because
- I didn’t know the difference between a good paper and a bad one,
- I didn’t know what was relevant,
- I didn’t know where it was heading, because I hadn’t done the research yet, and
- it was full of clichés and lacked any real insight of my own
Not a word of it went into the final thesis.
Was it a useful exercise? Not really. If anything it delayed me from getting on with actual research.
Learning vs Pressure to Impress
When I wrote that literature review, I put myself under a huge amount of pressure.
The idea was to get to know the state of the art in the subject. Because my focus was on the task of writing, the pressure of wanting to impress my supervisor, giving the appearance of knowing the material, I didn’t actually learn that much.
The time would have been better spent exploring a much smaller area and getting to know the basics in those early stages.
It’s very hard to edit writing when you come back to it 2 years later
If you write about a subject or idea but don’t complete it and go off an explore another idea, you’ll be left with endless pages of half-baked sections which you somehow need to pull together later. It’s even worse if you have multiple versions. Often this mass of writing becomes a burden rather than a useful resource!
It’s very difficult to delete sections and to make wholesale changes
Separating reading and writing
Not every paper or book you find should go into the thesis.
But if you are reading and writing at the same time then you end up sitting there with a new paper in front of you, trying to paraphrase someone else’s writing, trying to force it into the thesis without a developed view of how it fits into the overall picture, or whether it’s relevant at all.
Instead, approach the literature around a very specific sub-topic or focused on answering a specific question, and then read as much as you can without bias. Then write from an informed position after you’ve had some time to think!
Research must precede writing, otherwise you’re doing nothing more than dreaming up nice ideas.
Some say that writing from an early stage helps you learn the craft of writing.
True, but a crucial part of the craft of writing is finishing things (often the hardest part for thesis writers). If you develop the habit of always leaving things for later, then it’s a very difficult one to break.
So instead of trying to write chapters which end up full of holes, why not write short interim reports on your findings once you’ve done some exploratory work? You can then finish them by raising open questions and giving a plan for how you’re going to explore further.
Effectively, this is like tidying up every few months, rather than creating nothing but mess for 3 or 4 years and then trying to tidy up at the end.
Why are humanities so different in approach?
I have been told that, in the humanities, there is no clear divide between the research phase and writing.
But so often, humanities students have to wrestle and fight and struggle to tidy up the mess of years of writing.
Why not separate the processes and develop your ideas first, then move on to formal writing when you know roughly what you’re going to say?
Maybe there’s something going on here I don’t understand, but it seems to me that if so many smart people end up so stressed, perhaps it’s the approach of aimless writing which is broken.
I agree that aimless writing is usually unproductive writing James. Trying to shoe horn your work into chapter format too early is usually the kiss to death to creative thinking. But what do you think? Which parts of James’ advice do you agree with? Which parts are you not so sure about? Let’s have a debate in the comments :-)