Monday, 15 February 2016

The write stuff

As a PhD student, I spend a lot of time googling things like 'improve your productivity,' 'stop procrastinating' and 'planning tips.' I also hear about lots of different work strategies - some people like to keep a timesheet of their hours worked, for example, while others find that writing first thing in the morning or late at night is best, and so on.

One of the main things I've learned about my writing process during the PhD is that I tend to work best for short, intense periods of time. After about one-and-a-half to two hours my attention wanders and I'll begin to lose the impetus of my argument, start repeating myself or just find that I'm editing what's already on the page.

I now like to do my writing in several shorter bouts throughout the day, and I like to have something specific that needs doing. I have a tendency to under-estimate how much time tasks will take, but I've learned to break each task down into smaller chunks to try to mitigate this. So instead of saying, Today I need to draft my analysis of Text XYZ (a task that could take days if not weeks), I'll be more specific, for example: In the next hour, I want to write 200 words of analysis on TEXT XYZ using theory ABC. And if I manage to accomplish that task before the time is up, I can keep going if I'm feeling energetic, otherwise - hurrah, it's early recess! And I don't feel guilty, because I've met my target. In this way, I'm able to stay more motivated by feeling like I'm making good headway.

I've also tried: bribing myself, pulling all-nighters (especially for deadlines), getting up really early (like 5am) to write when it's still dark, free writing, recording myself and transcribing my blather, and more. Some worked, some didn't, but it's still good to experiment and find out what suits you.

Here are some tools I've found consistently useful during my PhD journey.

Tech support

There are lots of different strategies and apps out there to help with productivity, but here are a few that work for me:

1. The Pomodoro technique 

These 25-minute sessions help me focus for brief, intense periods of time, especially if I find I'm not on task or having a hard time getting started.

2. Rescue Time 

I use this app to help me meet specific goals in terms of hours worked. I've also used Rescue Time to find out how I'm using my time throughout the week. Read Fritz Siregar's review of RescueTime for a good overview of the app's pros and cons.

3. Pen and paper

Getting away from the computer and all its distractions to just focus on writing some raw material is always a good move for me. I find having something to work from when I get back to the computer is a relief and removes the immediate stress of the blank page and the blinking cursor.


1. Shut Up and Write

These meet-ups with other writers using the Pomodoro technique offer productivity and companionship at once! View UNSW's Shut Up and Write page for dates and times.

2. Friends

I live a long way from campus so I don't get to see my fellow PhDers as often as I'd like, but sometimes if I'm struggling to make progress I'll call or text a friend and let her know my goal for the day or the week. We'll check in with each other regularly and keep each other on track. Having someone to hold you accountable can be invaluable. Sort of like having a nice, imaginary boss.

3. Blogs

Again, there are so many blogs and websites out there with advice on everything from writing a research proposal to formatting your bibliography. Here are some I check in with regularly:

The Professor Is In

Thesis Whisperer

Grad Hacker

PhD Life

And for comic relief...

PhD Comics


It's not easy

Writing isn't easy - it's work. Even at this late stage of my PhD, I'm still finding ways to con myself into sitting down at the desk and bashing away on the keyboard. Most of the time it's a struggle, but on (very) rare occasions - usually when I've solved a difficult problem - it's very satisfying. Satisfying; not necessarily enjoyable.

I'm really interested to hear what other tips PhD students have to help with writing and productivity. Do you go to your lab from 9am-5pm? Do you work weekends? Do you set yourself a minimum word count for the day, or do you prefer to go by number of hours worked?

Looking forward to hearing your suggestions!

Monday, 8 February 2016

Abstracts and revisions

Over the last couple of weeks I've been working on major revisions for a chapter on indigenous science fiction, which looks at the work of Australian writers Ambelin Kwaymullina, Ellen van Neerven and Alexis Wright. This chapter is challenging because of the cultural negotiations it entails and the breadth of scholarship I have to draw upon, along with the practical challenge of dealing with three different writers with distinct styles, perspectives and bodies of work.

This is the fifth draft of this chapter, and the third version my supervisor will see. It has been by far the most troublesome chapter and it's frustrating to be so close to the end and still struggling to put together a convincing argument. Earlier in my studies, I would have thought the latter months would be spent polishing and proof-reading, rather than still doing so much writing. The same is true of the novel: I didn't think I would still be drafting new scenes this close to submission. But one of my supervisors reassured me by saying that she, too, was writing a lot of material at the end of her PhD, because it's at that point that your argument is clearest in your head, so it makes sense that there's a lot to write. You're clarifying, you're making new connections, you're getting deeper and sharper with the analysis. So I'm telling myself it's all ok.

There's also been the challenge of transitioning from writing a novel to writing a dissertation. Though both are certainly creative and critical acts, there are different challenges and different joys to be found in both. In coming back to the chapter, I now have to think in terms of an argument and evidence, I have to think about structure, language and voice in a different way - in terms of expressing authority or of corroborating evidence, for example. I find this kind of writing more straightforward than fiction, but at the same I feel as if there's less freedom. The theoretical component of my thesis is quite conventional, and so is the language I use. At times I find myself becoming bored with my own writing and worry my examiners will also be bored. Does anyone else experience this? Should I be freer with my syntax and lexicon? But shouldn't a PhD demonstrate proficiency in academic conventions, including writing style? But I also don't want to fall into the senselessness of academese. But shouldn't the thesis also be original? But then - but if - but, but, but... You see, I could go back and forth like this forever.

It's not all been drudgery and self-doubt though. One of the biggest landmarks I reached in the last couple of weeks was lodging my Intention to Submit form, which has to include the submission date, thesis title and abstract. This form is supposed to be lodged two months prior to submission so examiners can be appointed in advance. You don't have to submit on the date you stipulate on the form, but it serves as a guide and gets the process of locating examiners underway. You can also update your thesis title and abstract prior to submission, so nothing is absolutely fixed in stone, but it's still exciting to reach this point and have some kind of formal acknowledgement that the finish line is in sight, even if it still feels like it's at the end of a rainbow.

It was only when I was filling out the form that I realised I hadn't written an abstract since my last Annual Progress Review over a year ago, and my thesis has changed more than I thought since then. It was actually a good opportunity to revisit my overarching argument, update it and have something in place that will guide my next round of revisions. It'll also come in handy for my next task, which (hopefully) will be the last significant piece of writing I do for the PhD - writing the introduction and conclusion.

I'm planning to post more in the coming weeks. The last few weeks have been hectic with this troublesome chapter but I'm hopeful that it's an improvement on the previous drafts. Surely it couldn't be worse. Surely?

P.S. Try the Postmodernism Generator for an academese LOLapalozza.

P.P.S. For those of you who are getting close to submission, check out this page on the UNSW GRS website for the procedure and forms.