When my son was born I was obsessed with parenting books in the way only first time parents are. Most of the advice seemed to be on the subject of sleep.
The sleep literature is extensive because babies are bizarre creatures who spend most of their lives fighting to stay awake. The cruel irony is, if you let them follow this basic instinct, your child will become overtired. For the uninitiated this is when your cute, cooing infant turns into a raging beast who wants to sleep, but is so over stimulated they just can’t.
My son is now 9 and all I can remember of this advice is the phrase: “sleep breeds more sleep”. In other words: the more sleep your baby has, the more easily they will go to sleep. I have a theory that just as sleep breeds sleep, writing breeds writing. When I started this blog I thought I would only be able to write it for a couple of months before I ran out of ideas. As it turns out, I was wrong.
Writing a lot is a good way to breed more ideas. Yet the most common lament I hear from students and academics alike is that they aren’t doing enough of it. I wonder if we academics are a bit like big babies sometimes: more writing would be good for us, but it’s hard sometimes to get stuck in. I don’t know about you, but I find writing most enjoyable when I am fully engaged it all ‘flows’, but it can be terribly hard to get into this state.
@jasondowns helped me understand this difficulty better when he sent me a link to an interview with the writer Tobias Wolff on the subject of writing. The article is well worth a read for the way Wolff describes the working life of a writer. Wolff points out that most professional writers are quite boring people because the characteristics which make one a good writer – such as the ability to work alone – are quite anti-social. Many of us do a PhD because we like to teach; teaching is profession where you talk for a living. By contrast writers spend most of their time in their own heads struggling with their own ideas. If you are a social person by inclination it’s not surprising it can be a struggle to write for long periods of time.
The anti social nature of writing as a process explains why we can be so easily distracted – or find it hard sometimes to just sit down and get on with it. Wolff says simply: “All I need is a window to not write”. How true this is – for me at least. In fact, over the holidays I found myself starting to clean the fridge just to avoid going back to the keyboard.
This is one of the reasons why regular habits are the writer’s friend. Again this blog is a good case in point. When I started last July I had been vaguely wanting to write down some thoughts on the topic of doing a thesis – both from my own experience and from my work with PhD students at RMIT. But I lacked a format which was going to encourage me to write. Writing into a word document felt like writing a thesis again – and I was so, so over that. Writing a blog feels more like you are talking to someone, not just putting words on a page. As soon as you hit ‘publish’ your words are out there. Delightfully, people write back in the comments section and let you know what they think.
Blogging feels more like a social act than a writing act. Maybe in here is a little insight which can help with the writing of a thesis.
Writing may be an anti-social process, but all writing is a still a social act – otherwise we would keep these ideas in our heads and never commit them to the page. If you are struggling with the unsocial nature of the writing process it helps to bring your audience into sharper focus. Since your most important audience is your examiners, one thing I recommend all students do sometime in second year is to write an examiner profile. This is easy for you students in the USA as you will will already know your panel, but for people in the UK and Australasia the examiners are outsiders who will not have seen the thesis before. You will have to imagine them, so why not use some techniques from fiction writers? A writer might use a series of questions to ‘sketch’ their character in words. I found a good list on the Bubble Cow blog, which I have changed into a list to get you going:
Write a one sentence summary describing your examiner’s current academic position
What sort of things does my examiner already know about my topic?
What is my examiner interested in theoretically?
What methods does my examiner like to use?
What might my examiner expect to learn from reading this thesis?
What annoys my examiner?
This little exercise will help you form a ‘picture’ of your examiner in your head as you write. I encourage you to show such a list to your supervisor to make sure that you both are on the same page about who will be reading the work when it is done. Once you have spent a bit of time developing up this ‘examiner’ you can then imagine them sitting by your side, reading the page you are drafting. Talk to your examiner in your head – what do you think of that last sentence? Do you agree with that idea? No? Maybe I need to fill you in on a little more theory?
While you do that, I might go and finish cleaning the fridge.