Writing in the middle

This post is from Calvin Ho, a social scientist interested in the effect of international migration policies on individuals, communities, and industries studying at UCLA in the United States. You can catch up with Calvin’s latest work and thoughts on his blog.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 10.46.57 amAcademics don’t often talk about how they write. By how, I mean the nitty-gritty how. Sure, you may set up your laptop in a coffee shop and open up a Word document, but how do you go from blank page to finished thesis?

One strategy is to write blog posts. Many academics are wary of blogging because they’re concerned about letting ideas out there before they’re fully baked. In my experience, you don’t even need to have a blog to reap the benefits of writing blog posts! In this post I’ll take you through the steps of writing one particular post, explain why I didn’t finish it, and tell you why I it wasn’t a waste of time.

One of my main research goals for this semester is to write a solid draft of my thesis proposal, something that is done in the middle of a PhD program in the US. I’m tackling this proposal in a piecemeal fashion that feels more appropriate for this early writing stage. To help me Tanya Golash-Boza’s advice to write every day.

Rather than starting a Word document entitled “Ho thesis proposal.docx” and filling it out section by section, I’m taking Tanya Golash-Boza’s advice and writing something towards the proposal every day. That ‘something’ can be anything: a page of a literature review, an explanation of my research questions, a few paragraphs on methodology, or even a blog post.

Blog posts have become my favorite intermediate step in a larger project. They help me zoom out and think about why I’m doing the project that I’m doing and what about the project is most important to communicate.

Since blog posts are generally short and focused, they also help me zoom in to think about individual tidbits of data and singular theoretical arguments. As Heather Davis wrote in a Thesis Whisperer post a few years ago, blog posts are like vignetted thoughts: you don’t have to connect them to the larger argument if they don’t fit or if you don’t see the connections just yet.

Today, I was thinking about a conversation I had with someone a few days ago and made a mental link between that conversation and some ideas that I wanted to explore in the thesis. I sat down, created a blank post in WordPress, and started to tie these two thoughts together.

I was going to write this blog post for a general audience, and I was going to keep it fairly short. No citations, no jargon, no footnotes, no nonsense. Because it was so short, I didn’t even think to make an outline, as I usually do for academic writing.

The lack of a concrete plan for this piece of writing turned out to be both useful and supremely frustrating. I realized halfway through that the link between the conversation and the argument I was going to make was not as straightforward as I thought. I tried out new ways to connect them, but nothing really worked. Then I thought a bit harder about the point I was trying to get across. What exactly was it? What am I trying to convince people of?

All of this re/thinking and re/writing resulted in about one printed page of incomplete paragraphs. After about two hours, I realized that I needed to take a break. At that point, I was so frustrated with the post that I decided to leave it as is.

The post remains in my WordPress drafts. I may pick it up again at some point if I feel like it.

Today’s frustrating-yet-fulfilling writing experience made me think about the nature of blogging as a genre of academic writing. The point of academic blogging is to get a point across to other people, who have an interest in your topic but are not necessarily experts.

In trying to make my ideas intelligible to the imagined blog audience, I had to try to connect the dots for myself. And though the dots aren’t all connected, they’re more connected than they were before I started writing. Even though I didn’t finish my post today, and may not finish it in the future, I got a lot of analytical clarity out of the process of writing it.

Short, focused pieces of writing, like blog posts, are great intermediate steps to larger projects. Writing pieces for a general audience (even an imaginary one) can help you think through your ideas and turn your big project into many smaller ones. When you break down your thesis into tiny, manageable tasks, it does not seem so intimidating.

What do you think? Do you keep a blog where you consciously try to compose for an audience? Or do you write emails as a way to make your thoughts tidy for someone else? What are some of the tactics that you use to move towards writing?

More posts like this

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21 thoughts on “Writing in the middle

  1. Jayne Meyer Tucker says:

    This is really similar to the ‘ story’ and ‘ snowflake’ technique I recently learned at Thesis Boot Camp. Although the end product may not be used the process really helps you get clearer with your argument!

  2. drjensjhansen says:

    About two decades ago, believe it not, blogs were non-existent. Yes, there were columns and opinion pieces in magazines, and yes, some people even opted to become frequent, sometimes narcissistic commentators! But for those who were completing long hours of thesis construction, heuristics such as a blog simply weren’t in the frame. In fact, so ancient is the era to which I refer, that personal computers were only just beginning to become ‘tools of the trade’ for thesis builders.

    I had one – a Mac with a huge memory of 240 Meg in Toto. It was a wonderful tool because now my writing could be organised into files and folders for retrieval and tinkering as the mosaic that became the final ‘opus magnificus’ was constructed. Now here’s my point: within that construction site, I created a folder called ‘Journal Jottings’. It was simply a repository for sundry written items – big and small. Potential thesis titles, for instance, were slotted into Journal Jottings; theoretical postulates which I’d thought of or about were similarly stored. Methodological discussions with myself were posited there.

    It was an essential dimension of what I did. It worked splendidly and I’ve subsequently suggested to many others that they devise a mechanism like that for their own work.

    To a large extent, therefore, you’ve created an updated slant to my now ancient ‘Journal Jottings’ by proposing that candidates ‘get it down’ via the canvas of a blog, be it published or private.

    The important thing is to capture thoughts as they arrive: we think to write and we write to think, and those thoughts invariably have wings. So that means we need to trim those thought-wings before they take flight. As you’ve done here, capture and process your blogs because you never know, you might even develop a paper or a strategy that can be shared with others via valuable forums such as this one.

    • janenecarey says:

      My thesis jottings from 2007-10 were accommodated in an electronic journal from Splinterware called iDailyDiary. The basic version is free, the one you pay for costs peanuts. I even mentioned it in the chapter of my thesis where I reflected on my process (it was a creative arts PhD, so you are expected to do that…)

      “In writing this chapter, I have drawn upon the electronic journal I kept throughout the four years of doing my PhD. Into its capacious, date-ordered, fully-searchable storage system I tossed all my plans, questions, musings, worries, insights, lists of must-read books, and, most importantly, full records of the interactions I had with my research participants. From this I have been able to construct some “confessional tales”, John van Maanen’s (1988) term for ethnographers’ reflective accounts of the problematic feelings and difficult situations that they encountered in their dealings with the people they were studying. Such candid outpourings can be an enlightening and entertaining guide to the vicissitudes of research as it is lived, as this extract from the diary of renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowksi illustrates:
      ‘Yesterday I slept very late. Got up around 10. The day before I had engaged Omaga, Koupa, and a few others. They didn’t come. Again I fell into a rage.’ (Malinowski 1967, p. 67).

    • abnormaldata says:

      I do my ‘journal jottings’ in a research journal kept in Scrivener (thanks TW!). It makes it both easy to keep topics organized and allows me to link ideas related to each other. And eventually, that text can be a starting point for a publication (also written in Scrivener!).

  3. M-H says:

    This is a great way to describe ‘writing to think’. All those bits and pieces may or may not become connected to something bigger, but they are valuable ways to nut something out for yourself. I do this all the time.

  4. Alistair says:

    I use “OneNote” an often ignored programme in Microsoft Office. It is the most under rated piece of software on the Planet. It works like a Multimedia sketchbook, notebook, diary You can create multiple notebooks on your computer or better still save to the cloud for access to your notes wherever you are. Its great for collaboration and group working, notebooks are easily shared and more than one person can be working on the same page at the same time. I often transfer writing that I think may have wider appeal onto my blog. The cross referencing and search functions are almost magic helping to find notes you have lost track of. It also works on mobile devices. “OneNote” is available as a free download as a standalone…

  5. browney237 says:

    I find blog posts great way to summarize my thoughts of the previous few days. It’s not like “Dear Diary” more a summary of thoughts written with a couple of my specific followers in mind.

  6. Ruth Ann Herd says:

    I was publishing a few of my notes on facebook and I enjoyed reading the feedback on them.However,in the past few months as I got deeply engaged with my thesis the notes were made and not published and then I went back to writing in my journals and notebooks as ideas were coming so fast I just start writing them on documents giving them a name and filing them in the appropriate chapter folder. I find the process of writing fascinating and now telling my friends to start relishing it and make every bit of writing count.

  7. Pacifica Graduate Institute says:

    Great strategy. I’m always looking for tips and advice on how to improve my writing. I never thought of dividing the work into pieces that were not actual parts of the regular writing structure. The challenge will probably be on how to make the connection between all the different posts you have created. Thanks for the idea.

  8. deskbound says:

    I recently had a conversation with my supervisors about writing. I am getting conflicting messages from our university’s graduate school (write every day!!!) and my supervisors (don’t write until you have something to write about, concentrate on data collection, and don’t show us any of your writing until you have a full draft manuscript because we are too busy to teach you how to write like an academic). Does anyone else have this problem?

    • Dr Jens J. Hansen says:

      Writing critically, like fitness and sports training, takes practice and reading your own writing objectively but critically also takes practice. From my early days as a physical educator, I seem to recall that exercise gurus said ‘train, don’t strain’ and ‘little and often is better than big and too late’. And with regard to reading your own work critically, leaving it for a minimum of a day typically allows you to rest and resume your reading in a fresh state of mind.

      But it’s also a matter of ‘voice’. When writing, we need to adopt the correct voice for the writing genre we’re using. That very obviously means that we must use a different voice if we’re writing for children as opposed to sometimes crusty examiners who want to prove their worth by picking a thesis to bits (whilst hopefully also praising it).

      One thing that I find to be useful, irrespective of the voice being used, is to deal with ‘writus interruptus’ by adding three hashes to the end of my inputs ###. That means I can easily search (Control F) for where I’m up to and quickly get myself back in the groove or voice. A thesis student I know follows that strategy too, but she always puts in a wee note to tell herself what she was thinking about when the interruption occurred.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you very much for the blog! I am one of those people who are wary about letting out their raw ideas into the www. However, I have used my blog a few times to test new ideas or share thoughts. Some remained in draft form, some got published, and it was fascinating reviewing the published ones a couple of years later, to see what I was thinking at the time and to revisit some of them. I do not have many published blog posts, and I publish infrequently, so reviewing my posts is easy :).
    I am a post-doc now, and have a part-time teaching position, but I am still eager to do research – trying to get funding for it, at least. Right now, my favourite technique for writing is to apply with a paper to a conference, write an abstract and, if the paper is accepted, I begin with a ppt, which works as a plan and draft for me. I can even make notes to slides, then re-work them into the finished paper. If I have a chance, I then write a solid article for conference proceedings. I did this for my recent paper on the ‘Representation of India through European Eyes’, and I posted both the ppt and the finished paper in my academia.edu account (https://bangor.academia.edu/AnastasijaRopa), under Conferences and Drafts respectively. For this paper, I also created a short note in my weblog. Once, I got it the other way round, first writing a journal article and then giving a paper :), on the Middle English poem ‘Capystranus’, which is a fascinating and bloody, fast-paced account of the siege of Belgrade by the Turks and its delivery by a Hungarian general, Prince Hunyadi, with miraculous intervention from God. The poem reads like a script for a Hollywood movie, really, and I was inspired by it. Both papers I mentioned are out of my field of research, so I drew on a lot of resources to prepare them, and apparently it worked, as I got both articles accepted and forthcoming!
    Another way for me to get myself organized and inspired for a project is by creating a poster or something visual, a challenging image that crystallizes my ideas about a project. I work a lot with medieval art, so finding suitable image is not a problem. Most often the poster ends up in my folder, but potentially I can use it for my blog. My first published article, ‘An Alternative History of the Grail Quest’ (http://cem.revues.org/13538), began with an image

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