by Cally Guerin
AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) is finished again for another year, and the concerted effort all around the academic world to focus on writing for one month has paid off for many researchers and doctoral writers. Conversations with my local AcWriMo group have reminded me how some doctoral candidates have really great ways of pushing their writing along step by step throughout their projects (what Rowena Murray calls ‘serial writing’ in How to Write a Thesis). It seems to me that the concept of ‘writing up’ at the end of the project is a very good way to make writing both stressful and boring. Not many people can sit at the computer and write effectively and productively for 8-12 hours a day, day in, day out! Instead, here are some ideas to help doctoral writers be more efficient in their writing.
I really like Pat Thomson’s concept of storyboarding to identify the thesis structure, which in turn helps organise the writing. Patrick Dunleavy also offers some hints about how to build the writing into the process all along the way: Storyboarding research: How to do smarter, proactive planning-and-realization of projects, reports and articles, from the outset.
Importantly, storyboarding reminds us that there are lots of sections of writing that can be started early. For example, the Methods section can be advanced as soon as the project design is settled – researchers have to know what they are going to do before they start doing it! Also, the decisions about why that’s the best design to find specific, robust answers to the research questions can be recorded while the thinking is still fresh. While the final version may be different from what is written in the first few months of the project, the core material is likely to remain constant.
If an ethics application is required for the project, this writing also provides a very useful written document that usually includes short sections on the research methods, as well as the rationale for the project and its design. All this writing can be further elaborated for the thesis. For more on how valuable it is to write an ethics application, see my post here.
Claire’s post on “How to make a great Conclusion” is another way to get some of the material ready early and simplify the writing process towards the end. She suggests keeping a list of the big ideas along the way, so that those early insights from fresh eyes and brains are not lost in the exhaustion many face at the end of thesis writing. The thinking that happens during the process is easily forgotten a couple of years down the track when the work has become so very familiar to the author.
Preparing the graphics
Lots of complex thinking and decision making occurs during the process of developing the figures, tables, charts and graphs to be used for the research. Tracking this thinking – recording notes about what, how and why decisions were made and any associated queries – provides a wonderful head start when it comes to writing about those illustrations. For many researchers, the figures are their starting point for planning the written document, and writers save time by simultaneously getting words onto the page.
Preparing for meetings with supervisors
Some doctoral writers report that it takes a lot of time for them to prepare for formal meetings with supervisors. Instead of seeing this as a distraction, that preparation can feed into useful writing.
On the one hand, written records or summaries of meetings can be mined for useful chunks of material: a summary might provide a useful structure that can be expanded; or nicely phrased explanations can be lifted and slotted into the thesis.
On the other hand, recording the meetings provides a really helpful source of writing material. Clear explanations from the doctoral candidate can be transcribed and edited to suit the written document. The ability to record is an advantage of meeting online in videoconferences such as Zoom, but lots of PhD candidates make a habit of recording in-person meetings too – with supervisors’ permission of course!
Talk about the slides
Similarly, it’s useful to record and then transcribe explanations, discussion and comments about slides used for presentations. This is especially good for those writers who find it easier to talk than write. Slides might focus on a series of points to be made on a topic, or a set of figures displaying results. The visual cues can spark a range of ideas that don’t seem to be expressed when sitting in front of a document and trying to type. Slides have two big advantages: they break the ideas into chunks that often represent individual paragraphs; and they are easily sorted if the structure needs re-organising.
More tips from AcWriMo
I asked my AcWriMo group about their efficiency strategies and use of other tasks to support their writing. Here are their tips.
Ruby Nguyen: I learned how my writing is most productive when I have a secondary task that feels just as important and cognitively stimulating to me, makes use of one or more of my creative skills (it helps fuel creative thinking), sort of has a deadline and sort of has some connection with the writing project. I’ve also noticed how mindless embroidery work really helps me think through my writing, like how to structure my ideas, how they are connected or even how to phrase complex or tricky ideas, etc. It’s similar to how you come up with great ideas or remember things you forgot in the shower or while washing dishes. But in this case it also keeps my creativity and organisation motor running.
Katherine Llorca: I have found the obligation to stop writing each day just as important as the obligation to start. It seems to be a way of training myself in sustainable writing practices! By avoiding burning myself out on any one day, I have (almost) managed to sustain a daily word goal. The dailyness of it has been important too. If I’d had an objective for the week, I would no doubt have gone all out at some stage and then slacked off for a few days. But it is when I slack off the writing that I lose the connection to my research. So avoiding these moments of disconnect has kept my engagement alive and the ideas ticking over in the back of my mind when I’m reading, when I’m washing up, when I’m walking etc. And watching the words pile up each day has really boosted my confidence that, if I can just keep up a regular practice, I can finish the thesis.
Anne-Marie Jean: The new tip I have been trying this month is to hand write some of my notes (my wrists have been achey from a lot of typing and this helps, plus I find it more creative sometimes) and then I dictate the notes into a Word Doc rather than typing them out. It’s also helpful because if I have an idea and am not near my computer I can just write it on paper and dictate it into my phone whenever I have time.
There are lots of ways we can progress doctoral writing before the last few crunch months. What writing tasks can be done while waiting for experiments to conclude or while analysis is running? While waiting for supervisors to provide feedback on a draft? I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for writing efficiently.