Category Archives: Writing

Writer’s Block

There are few things more terrifying than a blank word document. Especially when you’re meant to be working on a 100,000 word thesis or, in my case, a 70,000 word book manuscript. Faced with the blank page, where do you even start?

For the past several weeks, I’ve been stuck in a rut. Overwhelmed by the scope of the task ahead, I’ve done everything short of actually writing my chapters. I have, for instance, meticulously organized the various notes and incomplete ideas that have accumulated on scraps of paper over the past five or so years. I have also read until – gasp! – there’s nothing left on my to-read-for-the-book pile. I’ve even made attempts at writing, though these half-hearted false starts have either been deleted (if typed) or crumpled up into a ball (if hand written) in abject frustration.

And then yesterday I remembered a piece of advice offered by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: set yourself short assignments. For many of us, the simultaneous need to write and seeming inability to do so can induce a host of panic induced psychoses. But focusing on the enormity of the task is, Anne advises, “like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up.” Instead, she suggests focusing only on what you could see through a 1-inch picture frame, honing in on a 1-inch piece of the story (or argument, as the case may be).

So instead of stressing about my book manuscript, I’ve set myself a new challenge of 1-inch proportions:

  • Write 1000 words a day (for 30 days).
  • Those 1000 words can be about anything topical to the book.
  • I’m not bound to write sections in any particular order.
  • I am allowed to use my now meticulously organized notes.
  • Write exclusively in OmmWriter.*

We’ll see how it goes… The best case scenario is that after 30 days I will have approximately half of a draft manuscript. At which point, filling in the gaps isn’t such a scary proposition. Trying to stay positive one day in, I’m choosing to ignore the worst case scenario. For today, I just have to finish one short assignment.

* I have (repeatedly) tried and failed to enforce self-disciplined writing using both Word and an old fashioned notepad. Unlike these traditional writing platforms, however, OmmWriter does not confront you with a blank document or tempt you into distraction with formatting options.

Self-discipline

A PhD is all consuming. Unlike other jobs that you can leave at the office, a PhD takes up residence in your head (and your living room). It goes home with you in the evening. It hangs around on the weekend. It even accompanies you on holiday (if you’re lucky enough to get one). Of the many PhD students I’ve known over the past 5 years, I have only encountered one who successfully maintained a 9-5, 40 hour work week.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Regardless of your work pattern, sometimes we all need a break. In fact, studies have shown that working more than 40 hours per week does not increase productivity in the long run. It can be incredibly difficult with 12 articles still to read and a draft chapter due next week, but you need to learn to discipline yourself and the PhD-monster lurking over your shoulder. I’m still learning, but am getting better.

One aspect of successful self-discipline is actually getting the work done; setting reasonable expectations and following them through. Several weeks ago, I set myself the goal of writing uninterrupted (no talking, checking email, searching the internet or fidgeting with my phone) for at least 30 minutes every day. It turns out that even this modest task is easier said than done. So I bought a kitchen timer – a hot pink one that sits on my desk and reminds me of my writing obligation. Once I set the timer, writing becomes my sole occupation until the ticking stops and the bell signals that I’m allowed to stop. I’m not suggesting that you run out and buy your own kitchen timer, just that you think about how you might manage your working time more effectively and in ways that enhance your productivity without requiring that you enslave yourself to your PhD.

My second tip for successful self-discipline is little rewards. Once you’ve accomplished whatever it was you set out to do, allow yourself a treat. Take a short break, go for a walk or, better still, bake some brownies!

Delicious Fudge Brownies

(Adapted from ‘On Delicious Fudge Brownies’ in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, by Gideon Defoe)

  • 200g dark chocolate
  • 210g butter
  • 40g vegetable oil
  • 5 eggs
  • 400g sugar
  • 50g honey
  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • 125g flour
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • chopped nuts (optional)

Melt chocolate and butter together in a pan over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into a baking pan lined with parchment paper and bake for approximately 30 minutes or until the centre is set. Leave to cool on a wire rack before cutting.

Making up for Lost Time: Some thoughts on working from home

It has been a while since my last post. The Christmas holidays soon gave way to January; February came and went in a blur; and here we are. Time flies – whether you’re having fun or not. (And particularly when you’re coming up against a deadline, whether for your PhD or a journal publication.)

I also made the decision that I wouldn’t post merely for the sake of posting. There is far too much nonsense populating the internet already without me adding to it. For the past several weeks I haven’t felt like I had anything worthwhile to say.

…And then Marissa Mayer (the CEO of Yahoo) announced that Yahoo employees would no longer be allowed to work from home.

For many PhD students, working from home is not so much a choice as an inevitability. When I was completing my PhD, office space was at a premium. Those with teaching responsibilities had priority, but with three of us sharing a tiny room containing two desks, the only time I set foot in that cubbyhole was during my office hour. I could be wrong, but I suspect that my experience was not all that unusual. I had a friend at a different university who even held her office hour in a coffee shop.

So, given that many of us work from home – for lack of an office or otherwise – how can we make sure that we work from home effectively?

The decision at Yahoo has prompted a fair bit of discussion on this topic. The Guardian, for instance, recently posted 5 “Golden Rules” of working from home. I found two of these particularly relevant to my experience of writing a PhD thesis from home.

The first golden rule is to “make a sacred space.” Even if you aren’t going in to the office every day, it is still a good idea to have a dedicated workspace. Easier said than done, you might be thinking. Few PhD candidates that I’ve known have had a spare room that could be converted into a home office. Odds are, you’re probably living in a shared house or, like me, in a studio apartment. Even in cramped conditions, it is still possible to carve out a little corner for your regular workspace.

The other option is to adopt a coffee shop. I wrote my entire Masters dissertation and the better part of my PhD thesis at Starbucks. I would aim to be there by 9:30am and would often stay until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Whenever possible, I would sit in the same spot. Whether at home or in a coffee shop or someplace else, your sacred workspace should be somewhere that you actually like to be. You’re unlikely to be at your most productive in an environment that you hate (like my 3 person, 2 desk cubbyhole of an office). I’ve yet to find a coffee shop in Brisbane where I can work as effectively as I did in York. Now when I work from home, my sacred space is my kitchen table.

The second golden rule is to “go on a digital diet.” For many of us, checking our email (or facebook or twitter) has become a compulsion. The internet can be particularly seductive when you’re meant to be writing a thesis chapter. Pausing to check a reference on the electronic library catalogue is the first step down the slippery slope to online procrastination.

The Guardian rules suggest rationing your time spent online, using an internet blocker if necessary. I’ve found that it is best if I get up and start writing as soon as possible. If I can get from the bedroom to the kitchen table without doing anything other than brushing my teeth and making a cup of coffee, it will be a good writing day. By contrast, if I check my email first thing in the morning (which, coincidentally, generally happens on days that I’m in the office), I almost inevitably end up succumbing to the various other demands on my time and am lucky if I get any writing done at all.

As in all things, moderation is key. And, for me, the key to cutting down on digital distractions is to implement a working-from-home routine that cuts out those distractions altogether for at least four hours. If I need to check an obscure reference or follow up on a particularly relevant journal article, I make a note of it and do all of my checking in the afternoon.

We all work differently – the main thing is to get the work done. As a PhD candidate, you have the luxury of setting your own hours and maintaining your own schedule, but you should still be putting in full days. Establishing some rules of working from home for yourself can make the difference between a drafted thesis chapter and a whole lot of lost time.

Publishing from your thesis: 3 reasons to start now

We all know that publishing is part and parcel of being an academic.

As a PhD student, publishing can feel like one of those things you should be doing but that can easily be put off for another day (or year) while you concentrate on your thesis. From the outside, academic publishing can also seem very opaque. How on earth do you actually get started?! I’ve written about this elsewhere.

While you might be able to come up with any number of reasons to put off publishing, I’m going to suggest three reasons why you should start carving out publications from your thesis now.

Reason No. 1: By the time you finish your thesis, you won’t want to look at it anymore. At least not for a while. After spending four years slogging away on your thesis and thinking about little else besides your research topic, you’re going to want a break. You might only need a brief hiatus and feel compelled to revise your chapters into journal articles after a few months. Or, you might be completely fed up with your topic and move on to something new. Meanwhile, your thesis will sit idly by on a shelf, full of papers-that-might-have-been, collecting dust. The only way to make sure you don’t find yourself in this second scenario is to start publishing from your thesis before you have the option of setting it aside (i.e. while you’re still working on it).

Reason No. 2: It is possible to write chapters and papers in parallel. PhD students often worry that working on journal articles will distract them from finishing their theses. For some people this might be a reasonable concern, but I suspect that they are in a very (very) small minority. The content of your thesis chapters is also the content of your journal articles – you just need to package it differently. True, repackaging takes a bit of effort and a chunk of time. You should be well compensated, though, by peer review feedback that will improve not only your article, but your thesis as well. As an added bonus, you automatically avoid (at least in part) the dust-collection scenario described above.

Reason No. 3: A 2-year embargo isn’t as long as it seems. Many (most?) universities now require that you submit your thesis electronically so that it can be deposited in an online repository. The upside is that it makes your research widely – and freely – accessible without any extra work on your part. The downside is that it makes your research widely – and freely – available, which may deter reputable publishers. It is often possible to request an embargo that will delay the online publication of your thesis. I speak from experience, though, when I say that two years isn’t as long as you think it is. 23 months after submitting my thesis, I am finally ready to turn it into a book, have a proposal under review at a reputable publisher…and am trying to extend my embargo…

My point is that your opportunities to publish from your thesis after submission will almost certainly be limited. If not by lack of interest, than by lack of time. So, gather ye rosebudsseize the day, start publishing from your thesis now.

Here are a few resources that might help you get started:

  • Belcher, W.L. (2009). Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Huff, A.S. (2009). Designing Research for Publication. Thousand Oaks: Sage
  • Johnson, N.F. (2011). Publishing from your PhD: Negotiating a Crowded Jungle. Farnham: Gower.

 

Writing for Academic Journals

(a.k.a. everything  you ever wanted to know about academic publishing but were afraid to ask)

As a PhD student, it can seem like publishing is something you’re supposed to know about – and participate in – but no one ever explains how to get started. I remember being embarrassed to ask questions about the publishing process. I thought everyone else knew what to do and was (secretly) submitting articles to journals. I felt lost and a bit left out. It was only in my third year that I realised we were all in the dark and feeling equally isolated.

I recently spent some time chatting with a group of current PhD students about how to approach the publishing process. They shared similar anxieties to those I had harbored for so long and had many of the same questions. By bringing these issues out into the open, hopefully this post will alleviate some of the fears that accompany submitting an article to a journal for the first time. It will also offer some tips on how to approach the publishing process.

So, how on earth do you get started??(!)

The first thing to do is to think carefully about which journal you want to publish in. In many cases, it makes sense to publish in the journals you read. There are several reasons for this. Most obviously, your research (and therefore the topic of your eventual article) will be closely aligned to the sources you’re already using. Some journals will be more relevant than others, of course, but you should be able to identify two or three journals that you use most regularly – those journals should be among the first you consider publishing in. Other reasons for choosing to publish in the journals you read include (a) that you’re already familiar with the format and style of articles published in those journals and (b) you will likely be referencing articles previously included in those journals, demonstrating to the editors and reviewers that you’re familiar with not only your topic but that specific journal’s content.

PhD students often wonder what level of journal they should target. Your supervisor can give you some advice here. My own opinion on the matter is that you should aim for the journal most suited to your research. If that happens to be a top-ranked journal, go for it – but put in the work required for your article to belong there. At the very least you’ll get some thoughtful feedback that you can use to revise and resubmit your article elsewhere.

Once you have narrowed your list down two or three potential journals, the next step is to go to the journal websites and find the author guidelines and style guides. These can be tricky to locate, but are always hidden somewhere. The author guidelines will include things like what type of articles the journal publishes and acceptable word counts. They will also provide details on which citation system you should use, the number of heading levels you’re allowed and how many keywords you need to include with your submission. Read these guidelines carefully. Knowing exactly what each journal is looking for in an article will help you decide which journal to target for the type of article you want to write.

Having identified which journal to target, you can start to plan your article. You need to package your article so that it looks and reads like it already belongs in that journal. So, when you’re writing your outline, think about your audience (i.e. What is their level of expertise? Do you need to include a literature review? Will they care about methodology?). Only use the number of heading levels specified in the author guidelines and try to format the body of your paper so that it resembles other articles found in that journal. Thinking about these things at the outset will save you a lot of time later on.

Now start writing.

In reality, though, there really shouldn’t be that much new writing to do. The advantage of publishing as a PhD student is that you have content ready and waiting in your thesis chapters; there is absolutely no need to start from scratch. You will, however, need to edit this content and rearrange it into a stand-alone paper. And once you’ve drafted your paper, test it out. Present it at a conference or departmental seminar and see what kind of response you get. You can also ask for feedback from people whose standards you trust but who you know will also be kind, either in your department or further afield. Getting critical feedback at an early stage from people who know and care about you is always preferable to getting the same feedback from a reviewer who happened to be in a particularly foul mood when reading your paper.

With a lot of work and a bit of luck, your paper will be accepted. Hooray! But bear in mind that’s the just beginning of a whole new process that includes making stylistic corrections, copy editing and reviewing proofs. I suspect you’ll find, as I did, that writing for publication in academic journals – particularly as a young academic – is about the journey as much as the destination. When in doubt, it never hurts to stop and ask for directions.