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In this writing seminar we concentrated on writing conclusions. Although none of us (bar one, I think) are at the stage of writing the final conclusion chapter to our theses, the suggestion was that thinking about the conclusion earlier in the process can be useful.
In particular, by considering your conclusion you are forced to make a reality check, to see that your thesis is really focused on the things that you most wanted to discuss. Thinking about the conclusion throughout the project can also help to prevent what I would call “project creep”, which is when you allow your subject to continually grow, and thus constantly move the finishing post.
We discussed the fact that introductions and conclusions bear a striking resemblance to one another, because both summarise what you are talking about, in particular the value of what you are about to say or have said. However, in general the introduction should concentrate on the value of the questions you have decided to ask, whereas the conclusion should concentrate on the value of the answers you have found, or the arguments that you have drawn out, in your thesis. Many people seemed to find this distinction helpful in thinking about writing both introductions and conclusions.
Before you ask, no I don’t think that I can link any of the words in the following list with robots or robotics, although maybe the Czech or Slovak etymology for Robota might link with the same Latin root as Roborant, but I doubt it. Anyway, these are the twenty-four words that have recently been identified as at risk of extinction by the compilers of the Collins English Dictionary.
Abstergent Cleansing or scouring
Agrestic Rural; rustic; unpolished; uncouth
Apodeictic Unquestionably true by virtue of demonstration
Caducity Perishableness; senility
Caliginosity Dimness; darkness
Compossible Possible in coexistence with something else
Embrangle To confuse or entangle
Exuviate To shed (a skin or similar outer covering)
Fubsy Short and stout; squat
Griseous Streaked or mixed with grey; somewhat grey
Malison A curse
Mansuetude Gentleness or mildness
Muliebrity The condition of being a woman
Nitid Bright; glistening
Oppugnant Combative, antagonistic or contrary
Periapt A charm or amulet
Recrement Waste matter; refuse; dross
Roborant Tending to fortify or increase strength
Skirr A whirring or grating sound, as of the wings of birds in flight
Vaticinate To foretell; prophesy
Vilipend To treat or regard with contempt
I’m personally working with embrangle and all its derivatives at the moment!
This seminar related to bottlenecks in your research. Rather depressing when the whole thing feels like you’re stuck in the neck of the bottle, like a cartoon character with your head bulging out, or should that be in?
The key is to stop procrastinating (ha!) and just to start. So if there’s a section in your thesis that is weighing heavily on your mind, and you don’t know what to do about it, start writing using one of the techniques from the first session. So for example, use freewriting, freefalling (the one where you make the text white on white so that you can’t make edits) or writing in a different genre. Even if you only do 20 minutes to start with, you should gradually find that you’ve worked through the bottleneck and gone some way towards writing the section that was causing all that anxiety.
The second of the seminars was about managing resources. Speaking personally, and as an interdisciplinary researcher with a lot of resources on the go at the same time, my bibliography and research notes are in a real mess. I’m pretty sure that I’m doing better on my computer than I would be with a card system, but only barely!
This disorganisation is leading to a certain amount of anxiety, as I always feel that my research is out of control, and keep thinking that I’m missing out lots of things I meant to mention. Time to sort it all out before its too late!
Part of my problem up until now has been a deep seated hate of EndNote. It works ok, inserts citations into Word documents etc., but it is so painful to edit references and make notes. I also couldn’t find a satisfactory way to organise my references into themes and chapters (and I tried using keywords and groups).
I have decided to switch to Zotero (on the advice of a friend, and after a quick trial run over the last couple of days). I still have the EndNote files as a backup, but from now on I’m organising and note-taking in my new browser based interface (much more satisfying and less clunky).
Anyway, on to what I took away from the seminar…
Never just read a resource (unless you decide after a quick look that it’s of no importance to your research). Make your read through worth while, even if you don’t have time to make exhaustive notes, always record a summary and a critique, so that you’ve got something to jog your memory when you see the reference again.
The summary, um, should be a summary.
The critique should: identify problems you see with the text and identify aspects that are particularly pertinent for your own research.
I’m sure I knew that I should have been doing this all along, but I haven’t. Maybe everyone else has been much better and more organised than me. However, all is not lost, and next week I’m going to work on categorising my resources in Zotero, deleting the things I now know are of no use and writing quick summaries and critiques for resources where I haven’t already done this. (Yes, that probably is a huge number, even though I have lots of notes for many of them, but I’ll work from the most relevant to the least relevant).
Plan Y is based on an idea from the first Moving Forward seminar: trying to write in a different genre, but with a twist. I have been trying to write to a deadline this week, but I’m experiencing the same old problem of being unable to move along with what I want to say. I seem to get tied up in prose.
Having tried free-writing, but finding that it just leads to the same old rants, I have decided to try something new. I have Plan X’s Radical Über Chop-up Document to work with, and I’ve decided to just write my first draft as if I was giving a presentation or a lecture. The twist is, you see, that really I’m not using a writing genre at all, it’s more like trying to access the way that I’d explain it to an audience directly, face to face.
The reason that I think this might help is that I almost always feel more clear over what I’m doing when I’m talking about it, as opposed to when I’m trying to write it down in “scholarly prose” (whatever that is). Last week I even recorded myself talking through the chop-up document, because it helped me to get on with reviewing the document rather than miserably trying to work at improving it from beginning to end. This did help, but when I went back to writing my positive ideas fell apart too quickly.
So, Plan Y:
- Write as if I’m presenting the material live, talking it through, using my examples etc.
- If I get stuck then record a section and then write from the recording
Obviously I’m aware that this will only result in an early draft, and it’ll need to be rewritten to make it a “real thesis”, but at least I might end up with the precious draft to work with . I’m hoping that by accessing the speaking as opposed to the writing parts of my brain I’ll bypass all the negativity that keeps on tangling me up in knots.
This morning was the first of the “Moving Forward” thesis writing seminars. It was mostly to do with writing block, which while it is still there to an extent is not currently my major problem.
The seminar was worrying to start with, as I began to wonder how useful it would be for me, and there were (as usual) many people from sciences and social sciences and not many from arts, humanities and cultural studies. However, it was good, and there was lots of writing time which worked pretty well for me.
The standout thing I took away was the rather depressing fact that writing never gets any easier. It is always like getting into a cold pool for a swim – every day starting to write is going to seem like a really bad idea, and you’re only going to begin to feel better once you’ve taken the plunge and got going.
So, I could finish on that note, but that would be bad! Here’s an idea:
Sometimes I can dive in if I promise myself I just have to do 20 minutes – this doesn’t always work, but if you remember to take a short break after that initial 20 minutes you may well find that you’re ok to continue and write for longer. Even if this doesn’t happen, at least you’ve done that initial 20 minutes!
What if the 20 minutes just doesn’t happen? Well, if I’m just time-wasting (ie browsing/networking) then I suspect (although I haven’t done this very often and should do it more) that I need to remove my internet connection!
If you’re just stuck then try free writing, although I’d try writing about a specific piece of your thesis in this way, rather than just babbling, that way you are more productive, and will hopefully build up your focus so that you can continue on thesis-related stuff.
What is free-writing in this context?
Well, I think I’d describe it as writing for yourself. The element of freedom is more in the style, rather than in the content. Don’t worry about being academic, don’t worry about your supervisor reading it, use “I” to focus on your argument. You can use this piece of writing later, rework it so that it fits into whatever style you need to use, but if you start like this it really is much easier. It also has the advantage of making you write more about what you think, rather than just piecing together what other people have said.
If you find that you can’t flow with your writing, ie you keep stopping, making corrections, going back and editing etc. then a suggestion from this morning’s seminar was to switch your screen off, use a white font on a white background, use a small font so that you can’t read exactly what you’ve written. This sounds extreme, but I think it would help if you find that you’re thinking too much while you’re writing. You want to write something that says roughly what you want it to say rather than being perfect (in any respect).
Trying to write an interdisciplinary PhD thesis is great – really, it is exciting and you never get bored – but as I suggested in my previous post, it is also confusing and demoralising a lot of the time. The problem is that, however much you enjoy your research, eventually you want to run away from your computer screaming.
So, I’d got as far as breaking writing block, and getting (many) words down onto paper. The problem that remained was how to get those words into the correct order! I was still procrastinating, and feeling afraid of “chapter documents”.
Enter the Radical Chop-up Über Document (RCUD).
My supervisor asked my what my strategy was in writing my chapters, and I said “err”. As I clearly had no strategy she suggested the RCUD. I am still working with this technique, but the bare bones are:
- Create a new document
- Save it, and make sure the name contains the word “radical” somewhere. Note that this is essential, it may sound silly, but you need to be reminded that what you are doing is “radical” otherwise you’re never going to chop it all up.
- Now open up your other documents in turn and cut and paste the best bits from them into your new document.
- But, as you do this you must be radical.
- Don’t take pieces that you don’t think are good enough
- Feel free to write yourself notes in capitals
- Put subtitles in for the sections as you add them
- Reorder sections at will
- Cut bits when you find you’ve written a better version elsewhere
(And I’ll have to add other instructions as I work out what they are!)
I find that this is helping me to put together my chapters. Previously, when I have tried to write a chapter from beginning to end I have become paralysed. I have constantly felt that I’m forgetting important stuff, and I have ended up writing loads of detail on areas outside my main focus of interest.
The radical document works for me because I have lots of documents where I’ve written some good bits and some bad bits, and I also have notes from many presentations and even a couple of lectures that are also relevant. My brain is too small to hold all the ideas I have for my chapters at once, and by using this technique I don’t feel that I’m leaving things out all the time.
I wonder if that’ll help anyone else. At least by writing it down here I’m going to remember to use it again!
I have decided to write a bit about writing.
The title says “challenges and opportunities” rather than problems or issues, or even impossibilities, simply because that’s what we used to say when working in Information Technology. There were never problems, and even the word issue went out of fashion, but there were always challenges, and sometimes opportunities. There are a number of IT people out there who would smile to read that heading, and immediately know what I was about to discuss!
So, what’s my “problem” with writing? Well, I just think that it’s really difficult. In fact, I’m having so many “issues” writing my PhD thesis that I’m currently taking part in a seminar series called “Moving Forward”, designed to help me work more productively and optimistically. Someone pointed out that the title, “Moving Forward”, made them think about personal relationship advice, and when I thought about this I realised that it is about a form of relationship, the one between me and my thesis.
So, before I talk more about the seminars and the writing ideas that they have sparked off for me, here is a summary of a few of the problems I’ve been wrestling with recently:
- Panic over too many resources
- Writing block
- Structuring, both the whole thesis and individual chapters
- Fear of failure
I expect there are more, but that’ll do for now (and just writing these ones down makes my heart race.)
And here are some of the strategies I’ve already tried to improve the situation (and turn those challenges into opportunities)!
- Free writing each and every day – just 15 minutes a day, about anything at all to start with, and then gradually working down to more thesis related ideas.
This really does work to break writing blocks. You must remember to write constantly, don’t stop to think, and even just write nonsense words if you get stuck. The idea is to write slightly ahead of your detailed thinking, and therefore to avoid listening to negative thoughts (“You can’t do this”, “You can’t say that” etc.) and also positive, but tangential, thoughts (“I need to check that reference”, “Didn’t I see something about that on a web page”, immediately followed by going to check the reference, or looking up the web page etc. and therefore a complete stop in writing).
- Planning, replanning and planning again
I find it hard to break up my topic in a way that supports what I (think I) want to say. I’m getting used to the idea that each of my thesis plans is a positive step, but that things may still change in the future. I still haven’t cracked the structuring challenges within each chapter.
- Using spreadsheets to plan and record chapter word counts and progress
This method got me to write in bulk, and therefore made me realise that I can do this, I can write that many words. However, the chapter I produced didn’t say what I wanted it to say. I let myself go off on tangents, and lost my focus.
- Using a timesheet
This does help me to prevent my procrastination time overtaking my working time, although I’m not using my timesheet at present (not sure why, maybe it got too depressing).
For me, procrastination is all about fear of failure, so getting myself to write (at all) and planning what I’m doing so that I feel it’s under some level of control all helps. Even though that chapter I wrote under pressure of weekly deadlines and keeping a progress spreadsheet was pretty crap it did prove to me that I could produce words on paper!
But, where has this left me? Well, I have a new challenge, just how do I go about making two coherent chapters out of all that free writing and attempted chapter writing (and presentations and lectures) that I have in files on my computer? Because, just trying to start at the beginning and work to the end certainly isn’t getting the sort of results I want…