Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The PhD: Writing in the Middle

Academics don’t often talk about how they write. By how, I mean the nitty-gritty how. Sure, you may set up your laptop in a coffee shop and open up a Word document, but how do you go from blank page to finished thesis?

One strategy is to write blog posts. Many academics are wary of blogging because they’re concerned about letting ideas out there before they’re fully baked.

In my experience, you don’t even need to have a blog to reap the benefits of writing blog posts!

In this post I’ll take you through the steps of writing one particular post, explain why I didn’t finish it, and tell you why I it wasn’t a waste of time.

One of my main research goals for this semester is to write a solid draft of my thesis proposal, something that is done in the middle of a PhD program in the US. I’m tackling this proposal in a piecemeal fashion that feels more appropriate for this early writing stage. To help me Tanya Golash-Boza’s advice to write every day.

Rather than starting a Word document entitled “Ho thesis proposal.docx” and filling it out section by section, I’m taking Tanya Golash-Boza’s advice and writing something towards the proposal every day. That ‘something’ can be anything: a page of a literature review, an explanation of my research questions, a few paragraphs on methodology, or even a blog post.

Blog posts have become my favorite intermediate step in a larger project. They help me zoom out and think about why I’m doing the project that I’m doing and what about the project is most important to communicate.

Since blog posts are generally short and focused, they also help me zoom in to think about individual tidbits of data and singular theoretical arguments. As Heather Davis wrote in a Thesis Whisperer post a few years ago, blog posts are like vignetted thoughts: you don’t have to connect them to the larger argument if they don’t fit or if you don’t see the connections just yet.

Today, I was thinking about a conversation I had with someone a few days ago and made a mental link between that conversation and some ideas that I wanted to explore in the thesis. I sat down, created a blank post in WordPress, and started to tie these two thoughts together.

I was going to write this blog post for a general audience, and I was going to keep it fairly short. No citations, no jargon, no footnotes, no nonsense. Because it was so short, I didn’t even think to make an outline, as I usually do for academic writing.

The lack of a concrete plan for this piece of writing turned out to be both useful and supremely frustrating. I realized halfway through that the link between the conversation and the argument I was going to make was not as straightforward as I thought. I tried out new ways to connect them, but nothing really worked. Then I thought a bit harder about the point I was trying to get across. What exactly was it? What am I trying to convince people of?

All of this re/thinking and re/writing resulted in about one printed page of incomplete paragraphs. After about two hours, I realized that I needed to take a break. At that point, I was so frustrated with the post that I decided to leave it as is.

The post remains in my WordPress drafts. I may pick it up again at some point if I feel like it.

Today’s frustrating-yet-fulfilling writing experience made me think about the nature of blogging as a genre of academic writing. The point of academic blogging is to get a point across to other people, who have an interest in your topic but are not necessarily experts.

In trying to make my ideas intelligible to the imagined blog audience, I had to try to connect the dots for myself. And though the dots aren’t all connected, they’re more connected than they were before I started writing. Even though I didn’t finish my post today, and may not finish it in the future, I got a lot of analytical clarity out of the process of writing it.

Short, focused pieces of writing, like blog posts, are great intermediate steps to larger projects. Writing pieces for a general audience (even an imaginary one) can help you think through your ideas and turn your big project into many smaller ones. When you break down your thesis into tiny, manageable tasks, it does not seem so intimidating.

What do you think? Do you keep a blog where you consciously try to compose for an audience? Or do you write emails as a way to make your thoughts tidy for someone else? What are some of the tactics that you use to move towards writing?

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