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by Cally Guerin

I’ve been in conversation lately with a student who is in the process of analysing and writing about his research. He has done some excellent fieldwork and managed to gather lots of wonderfully revealing data. Now that he is mapping out what to do with all that information, the work is starting to feel rather slow and repetitive. When I try to reassure him that he’s doing a great job and that this is what writing a PhD is like, he nods politely but the sceptical look in his eyes suggests he really doesn’t believe a word I’m saying.

At present he is engaged in the slow, careful mapping out of each chapter. Big decisions are being made about what the main themes or categories should be – is that the best heading to characterise the concept? Does that particular block of material work as a single category, or should it be broken down into two or three separate sections? Then what is the best order for these themes? It is necessary to move the sections around, to try out a few different structures, to assess which works best and and to recognise what doesn’t work as well and understand why.

Once the basic skeleton of the chapter is decided (in full knowledge that it may well change again), the next stage of gradually building up the complexity of each section begins. Starting with the juiciest quotations, then interpreting what they mean, linking to the literature, theorising about the bigger picture that is gradually appearing.

I think that one of the discouraging aspects of this is the uneven development of each section as it comes into being. While it feels like a great deal of work – and effort – has been expended, nothing is completed. As key words are jotted down under headings, as reminder notes are made to look up references, as dot-points are added all over the document, the writer can see how much remains to be done. It is a process of going over and over the same ground, gradually filling in the story without reaching an obvious endpoint.

And even when the sections and chapters appear to be written up in full, they will still require a lengthy process of reworking draft after draft. Indeed, it is precisely this iteration and reiteration that Anthony Paré identifies as a crucial difference between undergraduate and doctoral writing.

The final neat, smooth product we see in the completed thesis or published article doesn’t reveal anything of this arduous intellectual work. This is, of course, the same with any form of design that has been through multiple versions before settling on one final form: it looks obvious now that its shape has been revealed. That neat series of six headings might not look like a huge output for a full day’s work, but represents hours of concentrated endeavour.

I think that this is a normal part of doctoral writing, particularly for qualitative researchers, although it can be rather dispiriting. But perhaps your experience is different. Do you have any advice for how to manage this feeling of slow progress?