Dear Thesis Whisperer (from Joanne Hall)

Editor’s note: One of the nicest things about running this blog is that I often receive ‘thank you’ letters by email from PhD students, especially when they complete.

Often they tell me the most important thing they have learned, or give me tips and ideas for a post based on their experience of doing a PhD. I thought I would start sharing some of these letters with you in a “Dear Thesis Whisperer” column.

Here is the first, from Joanne Hall who recently submitted her thesis in maths at RMIT.  When she isn’t studying maths Joanne volunteers with Girl Guides,  plays in puddles with her son and discuss geeky things with her husband.

June 14, 2011

Dear Thesis Whisperer

I have just submitted my Thesis. Hooray! Thanks for an excellent blog, it has helped me immensely. Now that I have a bit of time, I thought I’d share an idea that I have found useful. The separation of research from writing.

When you know a topic really well, as happens towards the end of a research degree, a lot of important facts are in the forefront of your mind. Sometimes your memory fails and you find yourself thinking `who?’ or `how many?’ or `when?’. It is tempting to stop in the middle of a paragraph to search for the fact. Don’t do it. This will kill the flow of ideas.

I take this advice from Sci- writer Cory Docotorow. When writing, don’t research. This sounds counter intuitive, especially when writing to obtain a research degree. Getting ideas written down is difficult. Finding facts is a much easier if tedious task. But it is a waste of creative energy. This is no disrespect to my colleagues in experimental or social sciences who must undertake months of labwork or fi eldwork to find facts (I study pure mathematics.)

I use the symbol XXX in my writing:

`In XXX Schwinger discovered that …’ or ‘XXX is the smallest number for which …’

When I have done a solid creative writing stint (maybe 30min), I then switch to the easier task of chasing down the facts required to fill in the blanks. I can go through and find all the places where I have written XXX and fill in the blanks:

‘In 1960 Schwinger discovered that’ or `14 is the smallest number for which…’

Ideas are the valuable part of research, but if not written down, they can be lost. Facts can be retrieved. You read it somewhere? You can find it again. I also use XXX to surround pieces of text that need fact checking. e.g:

‘A quantum state is described by a XXX density matrix XXX.’

I have a bibliography item XXX, so that I can include a reference that I can’t remember.

In summary, collecting facts is an important task in any research project, however it is not a task that should be done in the middle of a sentence.

Keep whispering,
Joanne Hall

If you would like to send me a “Dear Thesis Whisperer” letter you can find my details on my contact page.

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16 thoughts on “Dear Thesis Whisperer (from Joanne Hall)

  1. Karenmca says:

    This is a very sensible observation, Joanne – you make a good point. I’ve done the “XXX” thing myself when writing, because it does at least mean you don’t lose your flow.

  2. Sarah Thorneycroft says:

    I am so guilty of this – I can spend half an hour on a sentence trying to chase up facts and references (and, admittedly, getting distracted by interesting-looking links along the way…). Thanks for the little reminder that this is ridiculous :).

  3. Dael says:

    Excellent advice, thanks Joanne. I like the idea of getting three big kisses too, when we get back later with the right facts/quotes to fill the blanks

  4. Radhika says:

    My first draft is littered with square brackets housing asterisks from when I can’t remember a fact but know I have it [***]. Losing your momentum is a dreadful thing.

  5. ginger megs says:

    I’m learning to just keep on writing while I’m in the flow, although I change to a vivid red font that jumps out at me for the bits that need revisiting with correct details. I’ve changed to vivid red because it’s o-so-easy to miss the sentences that need revision, and hand in a draft that has all sorts of factual gaps in it!

  6. pravinjeya says:

    I agree that writing and research should be separated except when you’re doing theoretical or reading research, because it is quite possible that you get inspired in the middle of making notes.

  7. Kylie says:

    Congratulations on finishing Joanne! It’s really interesting to see that you use the exact same technique that I do to keep the writing flow happening. I thought I was the only one with XXX through my early drafts. I even make my XXX red in colour so that I can easily see them in amongst the black text when I go back. It’s a great system that works. I just need to be stronger in my use of it as sometimes I do go searching for a fact in the middle of writing and it does break the flow.

  8. Anna says:

    I use [TK: FACT], [TK: Citation], [TK: Date], or even [TK: WRITE THIS SENTENCE BETTER]. I don’t know why my brain says caps are sometimes necessary but other times not, but whatever gets me through the paragraph, right?

  9. Helen says:

    Fantastic! just found this site about a week ago, while procrastinating… at first I thought it was highly ironic that I was reading blog posts about procrastinating while procratinating!!! However, I have now started using Scrivener and started doing this XXX thing. I’ve just written 1000 words in 2 hours and feel amazing. Thank you so much, Those little green bars on Scrivener are like light at the end of the tunnel.

  10. Steve Moss says:

    I do something similar in my writing (although I have been guilty of procrastinating by undertaking further research while writing), in that I use the word processing highlight tool to identify areas that need further attention during the editing process.

    I add “(refs)” in the text (if I cant remember the reference author(s)) and highlight them all in yellow.

    • Steve Moss says:

      Sorry on phone and hit publish by accident …

      I also add “(figure X/table X)” and highlight green for all table and figure references. Similarly, I add “???” In the text and highlight it pink if I am unsure on a particular item in the text.

      This makes it easy to identify the areas that need attention! I can also use the commenting system to add extra information to certain areas, to remind me what I was thinking for example.

      I find all this really helps during editing 🙂

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