How to set up your writing routine

Everybody has different circumstances and different amounts of time available, so however you setup your writing routine you’ll need to adapt it to fit your needs. With that said, though, there are some basic principles you can follow.

Do the research first

While it is possible to write some content before doing the research, sooner or later you will hit the limit of what you can say with confidence. So if it’s a choice between writing for the sake of writing or doing the actual work the writing is supposed to present, do the research.

See also: Don’t neglect your data!

Of course, in some fields writing is a crucial part of the research itself, and for those writing in a second (or third or fourth…) language then it’s important to practice writing and make a conscious effort to improve.

See also: Writing your way to a PhD
See also: Writing your thesis in a second language

Turn off the internet

Or at least the parts of the internet that distract you. If you reach a difficult point in your writing and your first instinctive response is to check email (then facebook, news headlines etc), then you will be at your most distracted when you need to be at your most focused.

I wrote my thesis with no internet connection at home, removing the need for willpower to avoid online procrastination. For those unable to do this, try using software to block sites during your writing time (I have recommended Freedom in the past, but it’s become less reliable lately- check this list for alternatives).

Let yourself settle

I usually find that it takes me about 20 minutes just to let my brain settle and to focus. At first, my brain is just racing through countless ideas, so I try to relax into the writing rather than rushing to produce words as fast as possible.

One useful technique is to turn the screen off and spend a few minutes with pen and paper to decide exactly what you want to communicate or what points you need to cover. Try to narrow your focus, slow your brain down a little, and just work on one idea at a time.

See also: How to overcome writer’s block

Set achievable targets

When writing my thesis, I set myself a minimum daily target of 500 words per day*. This was high enough to feel like a significant amount of work, but low enough that I knew I could easily beat the target most days. Whether I struggled to reach 500 or easily wrote 2000, both felt good.

You might not be able to produce 500 words per day regularly, so set a target you know you can beat every day.

*I didn’t do this all the way through my PhD, only at the end when I had to get the thesis done. Also, there are times when polishing what you have is more important than increasing the word count- when this happens just make the goal to finish the section you are working on.

See also: How I wrote a PhD thesis in 3 months

Figure out what works for you

Some people find it easiest to get up early and write while they are fresh. Personally, I find it easier to stay up than to get up. You don’t have to copy somebody else’s routine if it doesn’t work for you.

Figure out what writing routine works for you, then try to write during the same hours each day.

Get away from the computer when you need a break

Avoid email and facebook during breaks. Get away from the computer and leave your phone turned off, make a cup of tea, go for a walk around the block… anything that gives you a break from staring at the screen.

Avoid eating at your desk.

Don’t work to exhaustion

I always tried to leave a bit in reserve, stopping work for the day while I still had something to say. Some people panic that they won’t be able to start again if they stop, but by working to exhaustion they make it much harder to start again the next day.

At the end of the day…

Turn the screen off and take 10 minutes with pen and paper to write down any thoughts you have and tasks you still need to do. Give yourself something easy to start the next day with.

Any other writing routine tips?

What works for you? Leave a comment below!

By Florian Klauer – Alternative: http://unsplash.com/photos/-K6JMRMj4x4 Florian Klauerhttp://unsplash.com/post/77731109777/download-by-florian-klauerhttp://s3.amazonaws.com/ooomf-com-files/Ja8Y8wimQLSRT67ls42Y_Typewriter-Apart.jpg, CC0, Link

 

An average blog post on perfectionism

I haven’t published any new blog posts for a while. I’ve started writing a few, but I keep getting stuck with the feeling that I’ve said it all before, that I’m adding nothing new and that what I’m writing now isn’t as good as what I’ve written before.

Some would argue that the solution to this is to just write and not worry at all about quality. If my only goal were to publish something then this would work, but I don’t want to publish rubbish.

The solution is not to let go of all standards, but to redefine them in a more helpful way.

So instead of telling myself, “this isn’t new”, I can ask myself, “is this a useful idea that’s worthy of repetition?”

And instead of asking whether it’s as good as my best, I can just give it my best shot and then try to make it slightly better.

Redefine expectations

Ask yourself what expectations you have of your own writing, and whether they are helping you reach a higher standard or holding you back. Then ask yourself whether you can redefine them in a useful way.

So if you think that your thesis is your one chance to make a contribution to the body of knowledge, try thinking of it as the first attempt in your academic career.

If you think your paper has to be the best ever published, try to think instead about whether it clearly communicates your ideas and addresses the research problem.

And if you worry about other people’s judgement, ask yourself; what’s the worst that can happen?

See also:

Why some perfectionism is a good thing

How to train your inner writing critic

How to overcome writer’s block

By Miguel Hermoso CuestaOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Metaphor and analogy in academic writing

When and how should you use metaphors and analogies in your academic writing?

Metaphors

Metaphors are a way of quickly conveying a sense of an idea using a word that actually means something else.

For example, if I say, “the foundation of a good literature review is a good understanding of the basic problems the literature is trying to solve”, then I’m using the concept of a physical foundation as a metaphor. I could say, “in order to write a good literature review you first need a good understanding…”, but the metaphor conveys so much more because it carries associations with structure and solidity; without a good foundation the building collapses.

Not only is everyday language full of metaphors like this, but technical academic jargon too. In physics, for example, we talk of electrons tunneling and leaping; borrowing pre-existing terms that actually mean something else because there is no other verb to describe what electrons are really doing.

Analogies

An analogy,

It is not enough to simply give you a step-by-step process for writing, because the effectiveness of that process depends on your level of skill. To explain why, here’s an analogy.

Let’s imagine that I spend the day in the kitchen of the world’s best chef. They show me the exact process for creating their signature dish and provide me with all the ingredients and tools I need. No matter how hard or how carefully I try to follow their process I will fail because I lack the basic skills required.

The same applies to writing. You can follow the same processes as a great writer, but this will only work if you have already developed the required skill.

Here, the same principle of skill-dependence applies to both situations, so the cooking analogy can be used to help make the point about writing.

This is the key to a good analogy; it must share a real and specific trait with the thing that you want to describe.

How metaphor and analogy go wrong

While metaphors are useful for communicating an abstract idea, some writers use them the wrong way round; making the metaphor the basis for the entire argument

Going back to the “foundation” example, it’s easy to take the metaphor too far;

A literature review needs a good foundation, and the strength of a foundation depends on the ground into which it is dug. Dig into solid rock and it will be harder work, but you don’t need to dig as deep as you would into softer ground.  You also need to decide how high you want to build, as the heavier the structure, the more stable the foundation needed. Once a foundation is established, it is very difficult to change. Therefore, it is important to decide early kind of structure you want and upon what ground you want to build it.

If you get too caught up in the cleverness or originality of the metaphor you start to forget about the thing you’re actually trying to describe. In this example, instead of using a metaphor to describe the subject, it’s asking what the metaphor can teach us about the subject. The result is nonsense.

Analogies go wrong in slightly different ways. Often, the problem is that the writer doesn’t understand the thing they are drawing an anology with. For example;

When you start writing, just write as fast as you can. Like a professional musician warming up for a performance, they don’t worry about accuracy…

Here, the writer undermines their own argument by picking an analogy they clearly know nothing about, because most musicians would do the exact opposite (starting slowly and tuning up, going for accuracy before speed).

How to avoid these problems

If the only justification you have for your argument is an analogy or metaphor, or if you change the argument to fit the analogy or metaphor, then your argument will be weak. Make sure your argument works without the analogy or metaphor first.

By Gary Bridgman – own work, http://www.southsideartgallery.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

“I worry I’m not writing enough…”

“How do you balance research and writing? I worry I’m not writing enough…”

This is a common enough concern, but for most PhDs you don’t need to write all the time. Instead, you should focus on doing the work required to give you something interesting to write about. If you haven’t done the research, then why are you worried about not writing enough?

Of course it will be possible to write something, but often you will find that it is impossible to continue because you’ve reached the limit of what you can say with confidence. The only honest way out of this kind of writer’s block is to do the research.

“You never want to solve a research problem with language” (Sebastian Junger)

So if you have a ton of un-analysed data sitting on a hard drive somewhere, it makes far more sense to worry about how you’re going to analyse it. Or if you are preparing to gather data, it makes far more sense to practice your methodology.

If you have an imminent deadline for a paper or publication then writing might be the most important thing to do right now. Also, as you approach the end of your PhD the focus will shift towards producing your thesis rather than generating more research content. So there will be times when writing is the priority, but you don’t need to worry about writing all the time.

Most of the time, the research must be the priority.

See also:

Writing your way to a PhD

Monkey-typing

 

 

Signposting your writing

Within every academic domain, there exist certain conventions concerning writing. These may be formally defined, as in the style guides of individual journals, or informally adopted through common practice.

One such common practice is signposting your writing; saying what you’re about to say, saying it, then saying what you just said. But common practice isn’t always good practice, and while some subtle signposting can be useful, most of the time it’s unnecessary, patronising to the reader and dull.

If you have a table of contents or an abstract, and if your writing flows smoothly from one point to the next, there’s no need to outline every single step in advance and  there’s no need to say everything three times. Say it once and move on.

Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist and linguist, gives the following example in chapter 2 of “A Sense of Style

The rest of this chapter is organised as follows. The first subsection introduces the concept of “metadiscourse”, followed by one of its principal manifestations, the use of signposting. The second subsection reviews three issues: the problem of focusing on a description of professional activity rather than an exposition of subject matter, the overuse of apologetic language, and the disadvantages of excessive hedging. Following this, the third subsection explains the issue of prespecified verbal formulas. The fourth subsection covers issues having to do with excessive abstraction, including overuse of nominalization and passives. Finally, I will review the main points of the preceding discussion.

The problem here is that this paragraph only makes sense after you’ve read the rest of the chapter. It does not help the reader in any way, instead overloading them with information they can neither make sense of nor remember. As Pinker puts it…

The problem with thoughtless signposting is that the reader has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to… It’s better if the route is clearly enough laid out that every turn is obvious when you get to it.

Well said. If the writing is good, signposting usually isn’t necessary. If it’s bad, signposting doesn’t help.

Setting up expectations

As I’m writing this I’m faced with a choice. I could say, “the previous section stated that there are problems with signposting, the next will outline other approaches”, but do I really need to tell you what I’ve just told you? No. And do I really need to tell you what’s next? I don’t think so. Far better to say something like, “if such explicit signposting is a problem, is there a better approach?” The signposting here is hidden within the rhetorical question, providing an implicit link between the previous point and the next.

Or I could strip it down further and just say, “is there a better way?”. It’s a natural question to ask, following on from the previous point, and asking the question implies that I’m going to try to answer it. As long as I meet the expectation I’ve just planted in the reader’s mind, no further signposting is necessary.

Or I could strip away all traces of signposting and just say, “a better way is to…”, in which case I wouldn’t need to tell you where we’re going because we’ve already arrived; answering the question before it’s been asked.

Occasionally, cross referencing other chapters is useful. For example, if you say “this will be discussed further in chapter 6”, it indicates that you have more to say about the subject. You can also refer back to previous sections, “as seen in chapter 3…”

If you feel you need a paragraph setting out the scope of a chapter, by all means say something like, “the following sections will outline the primary mechanisms involved in nanostructure formation”, but keep it as concise as possible. You don’t have to list all the mechanisms in advance.

A couple of things to avoid…

When you start a new section, the heading is a sufficient signpost; you don’t have to say what the previous section said; the reader knows because they just read it. If they don’t, it’s better to go back and edit the previous section.

I’ve read a few theses where every chapter begins with “the aim of this thesis is…”; if the reader gets to chapter 7 and has forgotten the point of the thesis, there’s a problem!

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72662
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72662

See also

Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

 

Writing your way to a PhD

I’ve often written about research taking priority over writing, because it’s only possible to write a good thesis if you have well-executed research to report. This doesn’t mean though that writing is unimportant; as an academic, your success depends on being able to use writing communicate clearly and build a coherent argument (in your thesis and in published papers).

There is a requirement in many PhD programmes to produce writing throughout the course of your PhD, and even if this isn’t the case it’s important for many to develop their skills as writers. So while I maintain that the research should be the priority, that doesn’t mean writing should be totally neglected by everyone.

So how should you approach writing throughout your PhD in a way that’ll be useful to you later?

Limit the scope

It doesn’t make sense to start writing thesis chapters from the start of your PhD, because it’s impossible to write with confidence about your research until you’ve done the work, and because your knowledge and view of your topic should change greatly over the course of several years.

If you start by writing chapters it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the task. Many of the students I’ve worked with have ended up with hundreds of pages but with nothing actually finished. The resulting mess is very hard to sort out, which can be extremely stressful and demoralising.

It’s better to reduce the scale of the task. Forget about writing chapters for now, and instead write short pieces with a narrow scope that you can actually finish. Some of these can form the basis of chapter sections later.

Why start small?

Just spending time writing is not enough to become better at it; especially if you just churn out words without thought and switch to writing about something else whenever you hit a block.

To write well you need to be able to assess and adapt your own work (see training the inner writing critic). If you can’t do this on a small scale then you definitely won’t be able to do it on a large scale; it’s much easier to practice and learn with something smaller and simpler than an entire thesis.

An example

During my research I used quite a few different experimental techniques, but because the importance of each one changed as my project developed it would have been impossible to write a good methodology chapter in the early stages of my PhD.

As a way of developing my understanding of the techniques or as a way of practicing writing though, I could have written short essays on each. Taking atomic force microscopy for example, I could have written 1000 words on the historical development of the technique, or the theory behind it, or on analysis and interpretation of data.

By narrowing the focus in this way, limiting the length and the scope of the writing, the task becomes achievable. You can take care over clarity of expression, you can take the time to make sure you understand the fundamentals, you can think about the order of and relationship between a small number of key points and you can rearrange and sharpen up the writing as you go.

Most importantly you can get the writing to look finished, with a continuous flow from beginning to end, rather than developing the habit of always leaving things partially done.

When you come to write your thesis later, you will have these sections of writing to refer back to. There will be much that you don’t use, but you can select the best bits and maybe even improve upon them as you decide where best to put them.

Note: while writing about a subject can help with your own understanding, you must get practical experience of the techniques you want to use too. I spent many hundreds of hours using atomic force microscopes during my PhD- knowing the theory is not enough!

Developing arguments through writing

You can use a similar approach to develop a complex argument by first focusing on small sections with a narrow scope.

This way you can use writing as a means of inquiry, exploring the subtleties or logical consequences from multiple angles. Writing this way can often lead to new insights, simply because you’re thinking intensively about a specific question, problem or idea.

Again, much of what you write won’t end up in your thesis, and you might not know what the most valuable content is until later, but take your time and do it carefully anyway. By repeating this process of narrow-but-deep investigation you’ll start to notice links between your ideas.

Here’s an example; in trying to define what a PhD is, I arrived at the conclusion that it’s about developing the skills of a professional researcher. Later, when writing about the thesis defence, I realised that defending your work in front of a panel of examiners is a form of peer-review, which makes sense if they are testing your ability as a professional academic. Realising what the examiners are looking for (and how this differs from undergraduate exams) then gave insight into other aspects of the work, and ultimately that became the basis of my book.

Thinking deeply about small, manageable aspects helps to understand the whole. You can then construct an argument from well-examined component parts, rather than churning out words without thought and hoping something good emerges, or trying to edit down from a mass of unstructured thought.

See also
Doing a PhD and writing a thesis are not the same thing!

Monkey-typing

Doing a PhD and writing a thesis are not the same thing

A PhD is not, primarily, about writing; it is about research. The writing serves as a means of presentation.

To me this seems obvious, but a lot of people assume that because the final submitted product is a piece of writing, that writing is the primary aim.

So I meet students only a few months away from the deadline who have never even looked at their own data and have no experience  or skill at all in analysing, presenting and discussing research results.

They may have written hundreds of pages, and those pages may superficially look like thesis chapters, but they have nothing – absolutely nothing – in terms of  research content.

You might be a fantastic writer, but if your research sucks then you cannot write a good thesis. But if your research is good then the writing doesn’t have to be fantastic; just good enough to explain what you did and what the results were.

Do the research. Do the analysis. Discuss your results. Repeat. Then write.

Doing a PhD and writing a thesis are not the same thing

Recently, this site was included in a Guardian article listing top online resources for PhD students.

James Hayton PhD: A former nervous PhD student, now a post-doc, shares his wisdom about how to write a thesis without losing your mind.

Aside from the fact that I wouldn’t describe myself as “nervous” and the fact I’m not a post-doc, I would not say that this site is about writing a thesis. It is about doing a PhD.

Writing a thesis is part of doing a PhD, but it is not synonymous with doing a PhD. The thesis is the part that other people see, but it is only a tiny fraction of the work that should go into the research.

Yes, this applies to social sciences and humanities too

Let me make this very, very clear. This post is aimed at social scientists and humanities students too. The vast majority of students I have worked with have come from these areas, and BY FAR the most common problem is trying to write without having done the fundamental research work.

Example: someone gathering interview data but who only spends (over the course of 5 years) about 3 days actually doing interviews. The quality of the thesis will depend on the quality of the data, and the quality of the data depends on your skill as an interviewer. If you have only done 3 days of actual research, there is no way you will have developed the skill required to do it well. The writing will be exceptionally difficult because, fundamentally, you don’t have any good content to present.

 

See also:
Don’t neglect your data
How I wrote a PhD thesis in three months
Writing your way to a PhD

How to find your writing flow

I’m often asked how to find a sense of “flow” when writing. This is a slightly tricky question to answer, because it depends very much on what you mean by flow.

Like all metaphors, the term flow is a concise way of expressing an abstract concept, but it also leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. It could refer to the structure of the argument, where one idea flows neatly into the next, or it could refer to the flow of ideas from your brain onto the page. These concepts are quite different, because one is centred on the reader’s experience and the effectiveness of communication, the other on the writer’s experience and the rate of production.

There is a third meaning, defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, referring to a high-performance mental state experienced by writers (or artists, musicians or athletes) during creative processes. This flow state is one of total focus on the task at hand, to such an extreme that you cease to be aware of your surroundings, of time, of hunger, fatigue, or other discomfort.
During this kind of flow, it can seem like the work is just happening while your conscious self stands to one side (this is the original meaning of the term ecstasy-to stand outside oneself), and often the resulting work represents the very best of your ability.

So to answer the question of how to find your writing flow, we need to be clear what exactly it is you are looking for.

Writing without thinking

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to “write without thinking”, so you can get words down on the page to sort out later. The rationale often given is that over-thinking makes you hesitant or perfectionist, and so writing without thinking helps you overcome that barrier.

While there may be some circumstances where this is a useful approach, and it can help you fill pages quickly, there are several drawbacks;

  • There will be points in your writing where accuracy is crucial, especially if writing about a basic assumption on which the rest of your argument rests
  • Some ideas are harder to express than others, and require more thought and time
  • You will, at times, face problems in your writing which require careful thought and difficult decisions- if you avoid these by writing fast then you are saving problems for later and training a habit of avoiding difficulty
  • The more time you spend writing without thinking, the more messy writing you will have to fix later
  • If you are writing in a second language, writing without thinking may be impossible (and pressure to do so from native-speaking bloggers is unfair)
  • You cannot improve skill by going as fast as possible

Is there a contradiction here? Why is it that writing without conscious thought has all these drawbacks, and yet is the basis of the creative ideal, the flow state?

The contradiction only exists because the definitions are over-simplified, so we need to look a little deeper.

The importance of skill

Flow, as defined by Csikszentmihaly, is more than just acting without conscious thought, and, crucially, it is not always the ideal state for work.

One of the key ideas is the balance between the difficulty of the task at hand and your level of skill in that activity. In order to achieve flow, the task needs to be at or close to the limit of your ability so that it requires your full and undivided attention.

The difficulty may be technical and intrinsic to the task (for example, you may have to do some difficult mathematics to analyse your data), or the task may be technically easy, but under difficult circumstances (such as a tight deadline).

Whatever the circumstances, pre-existing skill is one of the fundamental prerequisites for flow. In the case of writing, this could refer to general writing skill, language fluency or subject knowledge. If you are a good writer, dealing with a subject you know extremely well, in a language you speak fluently, flow may be possible. If you are missing just one of those three-for example you are a good writer, writing in your native language, but the section you are working on is not where your expertise is strongest-then trying to write without thinking is not the best approach.

Other conditions for flow

In addition to skill, there are two other key requirements for flow, clear goals and immediate feedback. The latter of these is crucial; you need to be able to assess your own effort and adapt as you go.

As part of the “writing without thinking” approach, the common advice is to “turn off the inner writing critic”, because this leads to perfectionism etcetera, etcetera. But, as I’ve written before, crippling perfectionism does not arise because you have an inner critic, it arises because it’s badly calibrated. If you read your writing and think, “this is all shit, I’m going to fail”, then that’s a problem, but if you read it and think, “I am unsure about this point”, “this sentence is far too long”, or “this point is repeated” then you can do something about it.

For a skilful writer, these assessments and changes can take place almost automatically. You develop a “feel” for a good sentence, and an instinctive awareness of style, structure and rhythm. The inner critic is not turned off, it is operating at an almost-subconscious level as you work in a state of intense focus.

Developing skill as a writer

Simply writing every day is not enough to improve. Practice does not always make perfect, because it very much depends how you practice.

Whatever your writing ability, you will have certain habits you repeat without thinking. This could be a particular phrase or sentence construction, or it could be a grammatical mistake (mixing “which” and “that”, to give an example of one of my own bad habits).

The faster you write, the more you rely on the engrained patterns established through practice. In activities that require instant reactions (which is rarely the case in writing), thinking can get in the way  of skill and negatively affect your ability to respond quickly, but that does not mean you should always practice without thinking.

Modification of skill requires conscious effort; it means slowing down and thinking carefully about what you do, then repeating again and again and again until the new pattern gradually becomes instinctive and automatic.

Improving writing is no different. If you want to get better, focus on a specific aspect of your writing and give it conscious attention and focused practice. I would do this with short sections of writing, no more than about 150 words, because it has to be easier to edit (or learn to edit) a couple of sentences than to edit an entire draft of a thesis chapter.

The key is to give focused attention, but under relaxed conditions so you can play with the writing and try things out.

Arousal

Flow is not the only effective working state. Csikszentmihaly presented a range of conditions depending on the relationship between difficulty and skill

Challenge_vs_skill

Perhaps the most important of these is “arousal”- where the challenge is just beyond your current ability. This is where learning takes place.

When you face a difficult problem in your writing (often mistaken for “writer’s block”), then simply writing fast, or writing without thinking, or writing “where the energy is”, then you will never, ever improve as a writer, and you will never be able to reach deeper insights than those you already have. Slowing down to engage with the problem and working out a solution is the only way.

You can also find yourself in this state when you have a new idea you haven’t considered before. Not knowing how or if it affects your work, and perhaps not knowing if the idea is valid, it takes some time and effort to think through the consequences.

You can follow the standard advice and just write, spewing words onto the page in a torrent of creativity, but this doesn’t seem a very academic way of working. Surely it’s better to slow down and think a little, to ask yourself what it means and to consider different possibilities?

I do this using a notebook rather than by typing, because it’s faster, it gives me more freedom to scribble down ideas and notes, and because it allows a separation between the processes of exploring and communicating ideas. Many of these ideas I never use, but the ones I do are much easier to write about because I’ve given them due thought first.

Control & Boredom

On the other side of flow there is control, where the challenge is well within your  ability. These are tasks you know how to do easily, which may not require your full attention, though this can easily slip into boredom, especially if the task is repetitive.

Writing a thesis is not all technically difficult; there will be countless boring tasks  such as adding and formatting references and captions, compiling tables, formatting data… This dull-but-essential donkey-work needs doing, and it needs doing well. Now, many will tell you not to worry about details and just get words down on the page, but I think it’s a mistake to leave all the mundane tasks to the end.

I’ve worked with too many students who have under-estimated the tiny, boring tasks involved in preparing a thesis or publication, and end up in a mad panic trying to take care of them all in the final days before submission. While each task may be easy in itself, the sheer number of them, combined with severe time-pressure and the inevitable screw-ups when trying to import references from one piece of software to another, can be overwhelming (see this post on the importance of formatting).

There seems to be an assumption that worrying about details “gets in the way” of creative flow, but this is not always the case. Sometimes taking care of the donkey-work first can remove a block. For example, pausing to run or double-check some analysis can give you the content or confidence to continue writing.

Avoiding the mundane can lead to severe problems. If you have several hours of audio recordings of interviews, listening to and transcribing them is an essential step before you can write anything meaningful about your research results. And yet it is amazingly common to find PhD students who have written tens, or even hundreds of thousands of words without having taken the most basic first analytical steps. Why? Because of the false – and damaging – belief that they always have to be writing.

Sometimes, you need to put creativity to one side and take care of the mundane.

Focus

The common factor in these different working modes is focus-the ability to dedicate your attention to a task no matter how challenging or boring.

This means that when you face a difficulty you don’t immediately know how to solve (whether in research or writing), you stay with it and at least give yourself a chance to solve the problem, even if it means slowing down. Writing “whatever comes to mind” will give you a short term boost in terms of words on the page, but is ultimately nothing more than avoidance. Sooner or later you will have to face the difficulty, so why not now?

You may not find a solution even if you do slow down, but by taking at least a little time to think you can start to understand what the problem is. Only then does it make sense to step away from it to allow your brain to mull it over while you work on something else. Leaving a problem for later should be the last resort, not the panicky immediate response to the slightest difficulty.

Repetitive or boring-but-essential tasks also require focus, and it helps to put some kind of target in place. “Chunking” work so you have short-term milestones to work towards is one way to do this (for example; if you have 30 separate data files that need manually formatting to import into software, set a short-term goal of importing and formatting 5 of them). It also helps to be meticulously careful, perhaps using check-lists to make sure you don’t skip a step.

Whatever the task, cut off any distractions as best you can (turn off the internet!) and see the work through to completion. It’s easy to lose focus when it’s almost done.

Flow is not always the ideal

The main point here is that flow is not always the ideal. Sometimes your progress will be slow because it needs to be in order to learn or to rigorously explore a new idea. Other times you will have to take care of mundane details that, while essential, don’t immediately put words on the page.

It is quite possible to write slowly, carefully and well, taking time to express each point clearly without ever reaching that transcendent state of ecstatic creative flow, For those who do reach it, it’s impossible (and undesirable) to stay in flow all the time.

One of the keys, I think, is to accept that your writing pace will vary, and to have the patience to positively engage with and work through the difficulties that arise without panicking about speed.

Enjoying writing

While writing my thesis, I broke many of the most commonly repeated “rules”. I wrote my introduction first, I took my time to complete each section before moving on to the next, and I took care of details like formatting as I went. Perhaps most importantly, by writing each section in an unbroken sequence in the order it would be read I focused on the flow of ideas as presented to the reader, rather than trying to find my own sense of flow (though I sometimes found it simply by focusing on the task at hand).

This approach meant that sometimes I was slow and difficult, but for me, writing the thesis was the most enjoyable time of my entire PhD. I like the writing process precisely because it’s hard; because working out a solution to a difficult problem of expression is satisfying, It’s no fun if the words come easily, because it’s no fun if there’s no challenge.


More on this topic

In her superb TED talk on creativity, author Elizabeth Gilbert describes her writing process as an often “mulish” struggle to find the right words, but crucially she learned to “show up and do her part” no matter how slow and difficult it is, without worrying about finding flow (she uses the term “muse”, but it refers to the same thing).

Also check out the books, “Creativity” by Csikszentmihaly, and “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (covering some of the same ideas but using different terminology).

The Dettifoss in Iceland on 31 Jul 1972 by Roger McLassus. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
The Dettifoss by Roger McLassus. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License