Tag Archives: Thesis writing

Can You Have Too Much Writing Time?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a former student, asking for some advice about managing a summer of writing. With her permission, I am sharing her email and my reflections on our conversation.

Dear Rachael:

I’ve taken the summer off teaching with the aim of making considerable progress on my dissertation. I’ve only once had a big block of time for writing during the degree (very early on), and it was terribly unproductive. And terrible. Although I’ve made progress with writing, I’m oddly nervous that I won’t maximize my time and will have forgone a summer of income for nothing. I’ve made a writing schedule for the summer that I believe is ambitious but reasonable, but I would like to have another pair of eyes on the plan. I’m especially interested in your feedback, as someone who thinks extensively about dissertation writing and productivity.

My first thought upon receiving this note was that the student was right to be afraid of too much time. A generous block of writing time is an opportunity, not a solution. As with any opportunity, you need a sound strategy in order to take full advantage. If you find yourself thinking that time itself is the solution, you may not be engaging in the planning necessary to make the most of that time.

At this point, you may be thinking that having too much time is better than having too little: if we simply don’t have enough writing time, all the strategic planning in the world won’t remedy that problem. But just because too much time can be a good problem to have—and I’m sure some of you are desperate for more writing time—doesn’t mean that it can’t still turn into its own productivity challenge. The student’s letter had a telling detail: she had already experienced the perils of having too much time with not enough to show for it. Until we have had that experience, we may think wistfully that more time would be better. Unfortunately, far too many of us are familiar with having failed to take advantage of ample time.

Think of all the conversations that take place among academic writers in late August. “Yes, I had a good summer, but I didn’t get all the writing done that I had hoped.” Sound familiar? This reflection is often followed by one of three different sentiments:

But I needed a break, so I’m okay with how I spent my time.” In other words, there may be times when foregoing writing in favour of recharging is the best decision.

But my goals were unrealistic, and I’m happy with what I did get done.” In other words, if our goals are truly disproportionate to our time, we may fail to meet those goals while still having been productive.

And now the term is about to start and I can’t believe that I let the summer get away from me.” In other words, I needed to write and I had the time to write and still I didn’t meet my goals.

The first two sentiments are good moments for self-reflection. When deciding how to use our time, we should definitely be aware of the need for real breaks and of the tangible limits to what we can accomplish in any given time. The third sentiment requires a deeper kind of self-reckoning. Having had time to write and yet having not taken full advantage is a profoundly frustrating experience. Since it is still April, I thought now would be an apt time to reflect on the process of devising an effective summer workplan.

If you want to make sure that you maximize the benefit of a significant expanse of writing time, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Create a timeline: What needs to be done and by what date? By explicitly defining your goals, you can move from a hope to a commitment. “I’m hoping to finish chapter three … ” can easily lead to “I didn’t get as much done on chapter three as I’d hoped I would.” Starting instead with “I’m going to finish chapter three …” puts us in a much stronger position. Of course, we must be realistic and rational about our timelines; however, once the timeline makes sense, we should endeavour to treat it as a commitment.
  2. Create a realistic breakdown of the task: The next step is to break the task down into composite parts. (This breakdown may show us that our original timeline was flawed; if that is the case, you can tweak that timeline before proceeding with this step.) “Three months should be plenty of time” becomes This number of days means that I’ll have to do that amount of work every day.” At this stage, it is crucial to resist any sort of magical thinking. A summer is never endless and it rarely involves a complete cessation of all other tasks. We need to count the number of weeks, subtracting those weeks that will be spent on crucial, restorative leisure. We need to count the number of days per week that we can realistically write, subtracting those days that need to be spent on other sorts of work or relaxation. Most importantly, we need to count the number of hours per day that we can write, subtracting those hours that need to be used in other ways. Not only do we need to leave time for all the other tasks that comprise our work lives, we also need to account for the fact that we can only consistently write for a certain number of hours per day.
  3. Create concrete interim tasks: With our committed timeline and our realistic breakdown, we are then able to define the constitutive tasks of each working session. Without this third step, it can be way too easy to let our writing time slip away. Let’s say you have four hours a day to write. First, make sure that you also have a couple other work hours in which to do all the writing-adjacent things that will need doing; needless to say, if you have four work hours per day, you won’t actually have four writing hours. If you have an open expanse of time, you can divide it up into writing time, non-writing work time, and leisure time. If you legitimately have four hours for writing, you will need a plan for how to ‘spend’ those hours. You won’t be able to do this all at once, of course. In April, you can’t know how you will use your time on the afternoon of August 16th. But it is a crucial habit to get into, at least for the near future. Its value works in two ways. One, if we have a concrete goal for our writing time, we can’t be satisfied with just having put in the time. And, two, the accomplishment of the concrete goal can give us a sense of satisfaction. If we have general tasks—of the ‘work on chapter three’ variety—we can end up doing very little or we can can end up doing lots while still feeling like we haven’t accomplished something specific. It is crucial to be flexible about these goals: writing is a mysterious process and you may be wrong in what you think you can or should be able to do in a particular time. This flexibility, however, shouldn’t be allowed to turn into imprecision. Precise interim goals are tremendously useful, even when they ultimately need to be revised in the face of the vagaries of the writing process.

This planning process is designed to help those of you with an expanse of writing time in the near future make the most of it. But what if, as is likely for many of you, you are looking at a summer with writing pressures and a lack of writing time? Perhaps you have to teach or work over the summer or perhaps your family responsibilities will ramp up as school ends for the year. As you face this tension, it can be helpful to remember that a shortage of time can be a manageable problem. Just as we sometimes err in thinking of time as a straightforward solution to writing problems, we can err in thinking that a lack of time must be an insurmountable obstacle. To be sure, a complete lack of time is a legitimate obstacle, but a shortage of time need not be fatal to our plans. When writing time is scarce but writing is still essential, it makes sense to think about how you will fit writing in without waiting for stretches of time that may never come. The planning process laid out here can help writers manage long stretches of writing time, but it can also help you maximize scarce writing time within the confines of a full and busy life.

2015 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I’d like to take a quick look back at the past year. My first post of 2015 was my attempt to articulate what I found so troubling about the tone of Steven Pinker’s 2014 book on academic writing. In this post, I argue that the value of Pinker’s insights on writing are obscured by his overly broad characterization of what ails academic writing.

I followed this defence of academic writing with a somewhat related topic: how we use metadiscourse. In this post, I talked about the evolution of signposting, suggesting that even boilerplate metadiscourse can be transformed into something that informs the reader while being well-integrated into the text. I think this notion is important because the prevalence of clunky metadiscourse shouldn’t be treated as an argument against the value of effective metadiscourse in academic writing.

My next topic was a very different one: whether I should use the singular ‘they’. At the simplest level, I decided to do so (spoiler!) because this blog is a place where I can pick and choose among style conventions as I wish. But, more generally, I made this particular decision to embrace the singular ‘they’ because I believe that it is necessary, correct, and beneficial.

During our summer term, I taught a thesis writing course. At the end of that course, a student sent me an interesting email questioning some of the assumptions animating my discussion of productivity. This note gave me a welcome opportunity to think more about the ethos underlying the notion of productivity, especially as it pertains to graduate student writers.

In lieu of writing a reasonable number of new posts this year, I spent an unreasonable amount of time classifying my old posts. What I came up with was an annotated list, published in September as How to Use this Blog. This list is now a permanent page on the blog, allowing me to update it as needed. It can be found by using the For New Visitors tab. This list is a good way to see the type of topics that I have discussed here and to find groupings of posts on particular topics. If you are interested in finding out if I’ve covered a specific issue, you might prefer to use the search function (located near the top of the left-hand column).

After a short post previewing AcWriMo 2015, I ended the year with a post on the way we write our presentation slides. In this post, I discussed the possibility that our presentations may suffer if we compose slides in the same way we compose our other written work.

As you can tell from the brevity of this list, the past year was a relatively quiet one here on Explorations of Style. The blog is now five years old, a milestone which has given me the opportunity to reflect on what comes next. While I will continue to publish new posts, my main project for the upcoming year will be to rework some of the older posts. I’ve learned so much over these five years—from readers, from students, from colleagues, from other bloggers—and some of my original posts need updating to reflect that development.

As always, I’m happy to hear about topics that you’d like to see discussed or questions that you’d like answered. In the meantime, thanks for reading and good luck with your writing!

Productivity: An Ethical Response

At the end of a recent course on thesis writing, I received an interesting note from a student, Ann Sirek. We had spent our final class talking about productivity: what impedes thesis writing and how we can overcome those impediments. Ann wrote later to say that our conversation had inspired her to think about the challenges of thesis writing from an ethical perspective:

The writing of the dissertation could be viewed not so much as a patchwork of duty, obligation, punishment, and even self-effacement, but as a fulfillment and culmination of a certain kind of personal maturation, that comes, as all maturation does, with some travail and adversity. Sometimes in the name of virtuous discipline, violence gets perpetrated in subtle ways, and that kind of discipline paralyzes creativity. But, if I reward even the slightest flicker of creativity and growth, I start developing habits of creativity, rather than habits of fear. From this point of view, times of chaos and non-productivity require balancing out with intentional times of quiet and stillness in an attitude of self-compassion (eg. yoga, meditation, prayer, music, painting, etc).  I think you were getting at all this, but obliquely. The ethical paradigm that rewards growth and creativity is quite different to the one that adjudicates and punishes. This insight from the world of ethics might bring to awareness a question worthy of consideration. Is writing a dissertation more about obligation and getting stuck in one’s own limitations, or is it more about creativity and exploring my own personal, undiscovered potentials? For me it has been about increasingly fostering my own creativity and turning away from voices that would adjudicate and make me anxious about failing. I may not be the exemplar of PhD perfection, but I am getting towards the finish line, and that’s the goal for most of us! My comments are not meant as a critique of you, but rather as a sharing of my own process and my own work with the intention of perhaps reassuring someone else in the same boat! Thanks again for this very excellent course and for your warm teaching presence!

I was so pleased to get this thoughtful response from Ann because it gives me an opportunity to address something that is obviously missing from my discussion of writing productivity. When we treat writing as something to be managed or as a chore or as a necessary evil, we are foreclosing the possibility that writing might be joyful or that we might use the occasion of writing to be kind to ourselves. Ann is absolutely right to see a notion of discipline inherent in many versions of productivity; while we often think of self-discipline as positive, it’s important to be mindful of what we are doing when we view writing as something that has to coerced out of us. Coercing or disciplining ourselves into being productive writers can preclude us from seeing writing as valuable way to express our developing selves. Reflecting on Ann’s observations allowed me to think more about my usual approach to writing productivity. That approach—both here and in the classroom—tends to focus on two things: the value of admitting that writing is inherently hard and the importance of acknowledging the systemic obstacles faced by graduate writers.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I talk often about the inherent challenge of academic writing. And I definitely see a great deal of benefit in acknowledging that difficulty. Doing so allows us to ask this crucial question: ‘how can we write through the difficulty?’. Like many people, I’ve been thinking of late about the influence of William Zinsser on the way we approach writing. I often return to this passage: “Writing is hard work…. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard” (On Writing Well, 2005, p. 12). As a teacher of writing, I feel obliged to offer a bit of pragmatism: you don’t need to enjoy writing, you just need to get down to it and work through the difficulty. It seems so important that each struggling writer be reminded that the problems aren’t theirs alone—everyone struggles with writing.

Second, I also think it is valuable to recognize that the inherently difficult task of writing may be hard for reasons that are beyond our control. We need to be sure that we don’t use discourses of productivity to overestimate the power of the individual to minimize systemic hurdles. Encouraging people to write in an atmosphere that neglects their barriers to writing seems genuinely wrong.

While I believe that these two approaches are valuable for most writers, I’m intrigued to engage with the ethical challenge that Ann has raised here. Any approach that is premised on the notion that writing is hard has to confront the hazards of negativity. While I don’t think that the writing-is-hard narrative is necessarily negative, it can easily crowd out a more positive attitude. On the other hand, I often worry that encouraging people to find joy in writing seems a bit risky; the last thing I want is to annoy students or to make them feel that they ought to be enjoying the writing process more. My yoga teacher is able to deploy, at the absolutely perfect moment, the phrase ‘with joy’; the class always laughs because her suggestion comes just when practice feels the least joyful. Being reminded to do something that’s important to us with joy—when it’s done right—is a gift. But done wrong, it can just make everything worse.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a dichotomy between effective pragmatism and unattainable idealism. That dichotomy is false because Ann is illuminating a third possibility: productivity through meaningful self-awareness. In her vision—which is a lovely one—productivity comes from self-realization which in turn comes from self-awareness and deliberate self-care. We don’t discipline ourselves into productivity; instead, we nurture ourselves into productivity. This view doesn’t diminish the trials of writing but rather reframes our response to those trials.

I would love to know what others think. How do we define our work in order that the completion of that work becomes an authentic and satisfying expression of ourselves? If we confront the undeniable challenge of graduate writing by turning it into an unpleasant task that must be handled with discipline, are we in danger of damaging a valuable dimension of that work? For me, this comes down to a set of questions about what sort of writing advice is likely to do the most good. Do you want tools for disciplining yourself through the daily slog of writing? Would you rather be encouraged to view writing as form of self-expression that can be drawn out if we are sufficiently attentive and kind to ourselves? Or perhaps something that tries to encapsulate both approaches? Again, many thanks to Ann for raising such provocative questions.

2014 in Review

Happy New Year!

As I begin a new year of teaching and writing, I thought I’d take a quick look back at the year past on Explorations of Style. If you are new to reading this blog, this post will give you a quick recap of what I talked about last year. As always, my favourite topic was revision. I had three posts on different aspects of the revision process: managing paragraphs breaks effectively; using topic sentence paragraphs to assess cohesion; and dividing the revision process into manageable stages.

On a broader note, I began the year by reflecting on what constitutes writing. The first comment on this post—from Patrick Dunleavy, whose work on writing I highly recommend—suggested that I was “coming over a bit metaphysical.” Which is fair enough, I’m sure—this post may have been one of those that was more helpful for me to write than it was for anyone to read. What I hope came through, however, was the value of broadening our notion of writing enough to include the important conceptual work that can happen during the revision process. On a similar theme, I also indulged myself with a post on another favourite topic: the way writing is best understood as a form of thinking.

On a much narrower note, I talked about the Oxford comma and my conviction that as much as I’d like to be prescriptive about its use, I’m not sure that it’s possible to do so. While I still recommend using the serial comma, I’m unable to do so on any grounds that transcend the simple benefit of shared stylistic conventions.

On the topic of productivity, I had a post on the way that a desire for productivity can sometimes lead us away from making progress on the things that are most important to us; being productive is a worthy goal, but we still need to prioritize. Productivity was also on my mind over the summer, as I had the opportunity to offer my first dissertation boot camp. This fabulous experience led me to reflect on the way that public accountability can help us to manage the tensions between writing as a solitary act and our need for community. And no blog on academic writing would be complete without some mention of AcWriMo, a month-long experiment in accountability and productivity.

Finally, I spent some time this year reflecting on the relationship between academic writing and social media. Thinking about my writing here and on Twitter led me to a post on the way we write for social media. I was also thinking about social media when I wrote about the way graduate students need to learn how to navigate a world of advice. Given the growing prevalence of insight that originates somewhere other than our local precincts, it is important to think about the provenance, relevance, and value of the advice we encounter.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing in 2014! If you have any questions or ideas for future posts, I’d love to hear them.

Silent Sociability

One of my first tasks upon returning from my sabbatical was to run a dissertation boot camp. Although dissertation boot camps are a well-established way of supporting doctoral writers, this is the first time we have offered one at the University of Toronto (we did offer a very successful research article boot camp earlier in the summer). We had sixteen participants (doctoral students from a wide range of disciplines), and we met for three days, from 9-5 each day. Our days were made up mostly of writing, with breaks to discuss strategies for pre-writing, productivity, and revision and to consider the particular challenges of thesis writing. The overarching theme for the three days was silent sociability. A writing retreat of this sort involves both silence and sociability and thus presents an opportunity to reflect on the ways that academic writing relies on both.

First, the silence. When planning the boot camp, it was obvious that our writing time would be silent in order to make it hospitable for everyone. While not everyone likes silent writing time, as demonstrated by the number of people writing in every Starbucks one visits, quiet would obviously be essential for a group like this. People who preferred some background noise were able to use headphones to create the sound scape appropriate for them. But that’s just the outer writing environment; I was more concerned about the way that the boot camp might support the creation of an inner quiet.

By inner quiet, I mean nothing more than the ability to withstand distraction. The boot camp model offers a kind of externalized discipline: we turned off our Internet access and created a norm of sustained writing. But that only worked for the three days that we were together; we all need that sort of distraction-proof writing time without the benefit of artificial constraints. To get that, we must understand the nature of the things that distract us from writing. We all have what I’d call ‘legitimate’ distractions—preparing for teaching, administering a research project, engaging with the scholarly literature, etc.—and we need to vigorously protect our writing time from those sorts of encroachments. We also have what I’d call ‘pure’ distractions. Those pure distractions are generally things that aren’t inherently interesting or important but that become suddenly compelling when writing isn’t going well. We all need to find a way to live with those writing challenges without taking refuge in distraction. In order to resist distraction, we need to be committed to carrying on with a piece of writing even when it feels too hard. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I think the best way to learn to co-exist with our writing challenges long enough to solve or manage them is to accept those challenges as normal. When we normalize our obstacles, we increase our sense that we all need routine strategies to help us handle the inevitable difficulties of academic writing.

Second, the sociability. Acknowledging the need for sociability in academic writing is important for two reasons. Most writers need some sort of accountability, some way to externalize the ongoing pressure to write. When a goal is very long term (i.e., ‘I have to finish my dissertation by next spring.’), it doesn’t necessarily provide the immediate motivation that we need. Instead, many dissertation writers need to create accountability by finding some peer group that will support writing. Most writers also need some sort of community to combat the inherent loneliness of academic writing. Accountability and community can be found in the same place, but that won’t necessarily be the case. The important thing is that doctoral writers find company—virtual or actual—to help them remain productive and to allow them to experience the pleasures of a scholarly community. Once this boot camp was complete, the participants emphasized how much they had benefited from writing quietly while in the company of a sympathetic peer group.

Overall, the three days of the boot camp were a very fun experience, at least for me. I got more writing done than usual; our daily schedule (I’ll include that below in case anyone is interested) had four hours of quiet writing time, which is considerably more writing time than I normally find myself with. I also learned a great deal from the conversations we had about writing. I may have been leading those conversations, but many of the most valuable insights came from the participants, who were able to frame their own experiences in ways that were helpful for a group of students from widely divergent backgrounds. It was inspiring to be writing with so many talented and generous graduate students—I’m already looking forward to doing this again.

Daily Schedule

9:00 – 10:00           Thinking about Writing (Instructor Presentation/Discussion)

10:00 – 12:00         Writing

12:00 – 12:30          Lunch Break

12:30 – 1:00             Lunch Break/Discussion (Writing Process)

1:00 – 2:00               Writing

2:00 – 2:45               Discussion (Thesis Writing)

2:45 – 3:00               Break

3:00 – 4:00              Writing

4:00 – 5:00              Open Time (Writing/Discussion)

2013 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I thought I’d take a quick look back at 2013. In response to my own students’ interest in introductions, I began the year with a general post on the benefits of a standard ‘three move’ introduction. I returned to this topic a month later to address the more specific challenge of structuring a thesis introduction; given the length and complexity of a thesis introduction, it is crucial to have a strategy to help position the various elements in a manner that will make sense to the reader. Introductions made a third appearance in a post on managing the move from a research problem to a particular response.

Early in the year, I had a note from a graduate student with a question that summed up a great deal of the struggle of doctoral writing: Shouldn’t I already know how to write? The short answer to that question is an emphatic no: academic writing is a particular skill and most of us need time and effort to learn how to do it well. The post then delved into the way that this pernicious question can undermine confidence and dissuade graduate students from the necessary and challenging project of learning how to be proficient academic writers. The question of our status as academic writers was also addressed in my 100th post, which looked at the notion of academic writer as an identity.

One of my favourite things about writing this blog is the opportunity to engage with interesting material from other people’s blogs. Like many writers, I often don’t know what I want to say until I see what someone else has said on the topic. Over the course of the year, I was inspired by many people: William Germano on reader awareness; Peter Elbow on understanding incoherence; Melissa Dalgleish on finding community in graduate school; Pat Thomson on autonomy and doctoral study; Lee Skallerup Bessette on writing without inspiration; Susan Carter on writing aversion; Thomas Basbøll on the paramount importance of the paragraph; and, lastly, my yoga teacher on observing without judging.

While I felt that I didn’t spend enough time this year on writing at the sentence level, I did manage a few posts on nuts-and-bolts issues. Having already covered all the more controversial punctuation marks, I was left to consider the use of the period; in fact, I think the decision about when and how to end a sentence is a fascinating one. Punctuation also came up in a discussion of parallel constructions. My own over-reliance on the phrase ‘of course’ led me to write a post on the rhetorical significance of presenting something as obvious. And in response to a perennial question about finding good books on writing, I provided a brief annotated bibliography of books on academic writing.

What blog would be complete without a little bit of navel gazing? In my first post back after summer vacation, I reflected on the nature of the expertise presented in a blog such as this one. Part of the value, for me, of the advice found on social media is the way it requires us to be a reviewer as well as a reader. The advice on this blog might be good or it might be terrible. And even if it is good for lots of people, it might be terrible for you. In deciding what writing advice to take, we are honing our understanding of the writing process and of ourselves as writers.

As always, I spent a lot of time looking at the various ways academic writing challenges us. In a post on reverse outlines, I discussed how easy it is to write an aspirational outline instead of an honest one. I also discussed the disorienting effect of returning to our own exploratory texts. Since we all struggle with the time-consuming nature of writing, I devoted a post to the pace of academic writing. Taking a broader perspective on writing challenges, I looked at what imposter syndrome means in the context of academic writing.

My favourite post of the year was on the concept of contribution and voice in academic writing. In that post, I argued that voice can be a nebulous concept and that it may be better to focus on articulating our own contribution. Over time, we all strive to develop a clear and consistent voice, but, in the short run, explaining our particular contribution is perhaps a more pressing goal.

It was a pleasure to participate in Academic Writing Month again this year. Over the course of the month, I used the interesting questions and comments from the Twitter feed as the basis for posts on a range of topics: the many forms that not-writing can take; our sources for academic writing inspiration;  and managing the demands of multiple projects.

I ended the year with a post on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. In this post, I drew on material that I had used for a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to share the webinar here on my own site; I’d also like to thank the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog for sharing the post on their site. The post itself links to many posts from this blog’s three-year history to explain my approach to confronting, accepting, and surviving the anxiety of academic writing.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing. As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions for topics for future posts.

The Pace of Academic Writing

Chances are, if I praise a graduate student’s writing, I will hear something like this:

“Thanks, but it takes me so long.”

“It should be good, I worked on those two pages for three weeks.”

“Sure, but I’ll never be able to write a full thesis at this pace.”

It is rare, as I discussed last week, for anyone to express contentment with their academic writing. And it is common for those who have produced something they are happy with to feel that they spent too much time on it. Since the amount of time spent on writing is such a common concern, I thought I would suggest a few ways to think about the pace of academic writing:

1. Try to speed up by working towards a first draft without allowing yourself any early editing. There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. Even if you aren’t going to use a true freewriting approach, you can still force yourself to keep moving forward without giving your inner critic a chance to mess you up. Since writing more freely can leave us with a more chaotic document, I recommend using the ‘rough edit’ approach to make sure that you’ll be able to work with your text later.

2. Try to appreciate that writing simply is often a slow process. To figure out what we need to say, most of us have to produce a lot of words that may not end up in our final document. If you view that creative process as simply inefficient, you may end up feeling that your writing process is too slow; if, instead, you try to think about that process as both positive and inevitable, you may be able to change your own attitude towards efficiency and efficacy in your writing process. Since it can be hard to pull the plug on ‘perfectly good writing’, I suggest creating a repository for material that doesn’t appear to have a long-term future in your text.

3. Try to see how speed differs depending on what you are writing. Some aspects of your writing will take a long time, while others will yield to your attempts to speed up. Unfortunately, starting—for many people—can be the slowest part. These initial molasses moments can be frustrating in and of themselves and can also lead writers to extrapolate a dismal future: if it took me this long to write this much, my entire thesis will take a million years. Understanding and accepting the slow start without projecting the same pace throughout can help you persevere.

4. Try to identify the appropriate amount of time in the context of a given project. In other words, maybe there isn’t such a thing as too fast or too slow. Instead, it may be helpful to do a serious accounting of how much time you can give to a particular project. Some parts of our writing will simply take longer to write. But the pace of writing can also be affected by the amount of time we have; we may write the first three-quarters of something at a leisurely—or even torturous pace—only to find ourselves with no option except to pick up the pace to meet a deadline. This pattern can be instructive since it lets us know just how fast we can write. It also highlights the value of apportioning our time more rationally. The end stages of writing are the most significant, and we don’t want to shortchange them just because we are out of time.

If you do want to write more quickly—and again I’m not sure that is always the best aim—I suggest starting with your own writing temperament rather than with someone else’s notion of productivity. Last year, as Academic Writing Month wound down, I wrote a post in which I tried to provide an example of how to reflect on one’s own writing challenges. Once you have a better understanding of your own writing predilections and pitfalls, you can then take advantage of other people’s insights into productivity. Much of that advice will fall flat if it is taken as abstract truth; instead, we all need to figure out what productivity means to us and what strategies will get us where we need to go. The best pace for you may be faster or slower or some combination of the two depending on your writing temperament and the demands of the particular project.

Moving from Problem to Response

Earlier this year, I had a post on the basic structure of an introduction, using a concept derived from Swales and terminology derived from Booth, Colomb, and Williams. In a subsequent post, I went on to talk about how to use this model to craft an effective thesis introduction. In both posts, I stressed the great importance of explaining the significance of addressing the problem before turning to the response. But I realized later that I’d neglected to talk about a related issue that often arises in an introduction: How do we move from problem to response? 

In some cases, the progression from problem to response can be quite simple: a general context naturally narrows to a specific problem, creating space for a particular response. In these cases, the general topic tends to be well understood, leaving a narrow area still to be grappled with. Usually, when a writer gets to this point, the transition to the response is made quite easily. However, there are other cases in which the problem is broad, making the transition to a narrow response more difficult. Since most research projects benefit from a narrow focus, it is essential that we understand how to move between a broad problem and a narrow response.

In these cases, the general context doesn’t naturally narrow to a specific problem. Instead, the context leads to a broad problem: “However, we don’t know enough about X”, where X is a broad area that hasn’t yet been satisfactorily investigated. It is crucial for a writer in this situation to recognize that the thesis itself won’t be able to address that broad area. What the thesis will be able to do, however, is to use an example of X to begin to develop our understanding of X as a whole. To be clear, there is always a specific problem, but in some cases that specific problem is simply being used as a way of getting at the broader problem. Perhaps we don’t, for instance, understand how any compound works under some particular circumstance; the thesis won’t look, of course, at all compounds: it will look at an exemplary compound. Similarly, maybe we have identified a broad phenomenon that has been under-examined, so we look at a particular text or use a case study to ground the inquiry. However, in these cases, when the specific response doesn’t just flow from the problem, writers sometimes falter.

What is needed is an explanation of how the narrow response is a useful way of getting at the broad problem. This task isn’t particularly difficult but is often neglected. There’s no one particular route that must be taken: the essential thing is that the reader is given a bridge. Otherwise, the reader will encounter a broad statement that not enough is known about X, followed by a very precise statement of what the current research will undertake to do. Just as the reader needs to know why addressing a particular problem is significant, they also need to know how the response serves to address the problem. In those cases in which that transition isn’t obvious, the writer must fill in that space. Needless to say, the key issue will be justifying why this particular response—why this compound, why this text, why this case study—can be used as an entry point into the broader problem.

In general, I recommend that all thesis writers pause before elaborating the specifics of their research project. Writers often feel more comfortable in the realm of the response; the task of providing a specific description of what the research will actually do can feel like a bit of terra firma. Unfortunately, out of a desire to reach that shore, writers often rush though necessary and important transitions between problem and response. Pausing at that point can help remind the writer of their obligations to help the reader to understand not just the research procedure but also the way this research will address the underlying problem.

Thesis Writing Groups

Last week, the Hook and Eye blog had a great post on finding community in graduate school. In particular, Melissa Dalgleish talked about the value of her writing group. In her words, here’s what they talk about:

Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis.

I’ve mentioned thesis writing groups in the broader context of finding autonomous sources of support for thesis writing, but I haven’t talked about them in any detail. While I was working on this post, @AnkeBrock sent me this link to Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s very helpful round-up of possible writing group configurations. I see no need to create a duplicate taxonomy, so I will instead provide a few potential questions that can be used to identify your own optimal type of writing group:

  • Accountability or support? Do you just need some form of structure to make sure you write or do you actually need the support of writing in a disciplinary context?
  • Friends or colleagues? Would your ideal support group be a warm and friendly place or do you like a more formal environment?
  • Connected or independent? Do you want this support in the context of your own department or do you need to go further afield for your support (within your broader university community or in an online space)?
  • Easily distracted? Could a writing group be a distraction for you? For some—especially if they find themselves in a group that involves extensive peer review—a writing group can become an obstacle to their own writing, rather than a source of support.
  • Role of the supervisor? While most groups that I see are completely independent of the supervisor, some groups do have some supervisor involvement. Some function with the supervisor present; others are composed of writers who share a supervisor without the supervisor being there. If the supervisory relationship is challenging, the latter can be particularly useful; the group can help to decipher unclear advice and can try to compensate for insufficient support.

I think the benefits of a good writing group are obvious: community, accountability, provisional feedback, broadening expertise, developing a range of useful collegial skills. But any thesis writer should also be alert to the potential disadvantages: a drain on time, a locus for competition, another source of anxiety. Overall, I think the benefits will outweigh the costs for most writers, but it is useful to be armed with a little insight before entering into any situation that may affect your life as a writer.

Explorations of Style has been busy lately due to the reblogging of my post on understanding incoherence in academic writing on LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog. Welcome to all the new readers! If you would like to follow the blog, you can do so by email, RSS feed, Twitter, and Facebook—all the options can be found in the left-hand column.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From Mark Carrigan in the @LSEImpactBlogblogging as ‘a distinctive space between academic research and journalism’.

From @korystamper, a must-read for National Grammar Day. Don’t be the ‘Batman of apostrophes’–nobody likes that guy!

From @KJDellAntonia, some questions regarding the lack of policy about parental leave during graduate study.

From @thesiswhisperer, her always-helpful monthly newsletter for February.

From @docwritingSIG, practical advice to think about formatting issues throughout the thesis writing process.

From @RohanMaitzen, a discussion of sharing our own blog archivesThe old stuff can be just as good as the new!

From David Perlmutter in @Chronicle, a great essay on dealing with advice: the good, the conflicting, the malicious.

From @seburnt, a helpful blogroll on language teaching.

From @dratarrant in @PhD2Published, a great reflective post on online academic knowledge production.

From @readywriting in the @academiccoaches blog, creating better work-life balance through greater awareness of time.

From @RohanMaitzen, an interesting, honest account of intellectual engagement and traditions of academic discourse.

From @Chronicle, an essay by Laurie Essig on manners and multitasking.

From @ProfHacker, some questions about sharing your teaching materials with students online.

From @PhD2Published, a step-by-step description of turning a conference panel into a special issue of a journal.

From Inside Higher Ed, some thoughts on being strategic in deciding what literature to cite in your academic writing.

In case you missed this lovely little video from a Toronto book store the first time it made the rounds.

Once you understand the genre of the research article, you can use it for anything, even romance.

From Inside Higher Ed, a follow-up to @thesiswhisperer‘s post on niceness in academia.

From @CShearson, a helpful explanation of the difference between ‘intensively’ and ‘extensively’ in academic writing.

From @fishhookopeneye, the life-cycle of writing an article. I’m relieved to learn that others also ‘procrasti-bake’!

From @thesiswhisperer in @PhD2Published blog, valuable reflections on blogging, identity, and sharing expertise.

From @qui_oui, balancing thesis writing, professional development, and paid work, while still finding time to think.

From @MacDictionary, a post on International Mother Language Day and the rise of English as a lingua franca.

Have you ever felt that our existing punctuation marks just weren’t enough? Have you ever needed the ‘andorpersand’? 

From @readywriting in the @academiccoaches blog, a post on the link between enthusiasm and voice in academic writing.

From The Monkey Cage blog, an interesting reply to David Brooks’s ‘data’ column.

From Ruth Starkman in Inside Higher Ed, a great collection of questions on the role of digital scholarship in professional advancement.

From @ProfHacker, using Facebook as a way to bring primary historical sources to life.

From Geoffrey Pullum in the Lingua Franca blog, a defence of adverbs and a call for careful, nuanced writing advice.

From @Chronicle, an example of thoughtful word-by-word editing of academic writing.

From @drdjwalker, introducing the Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, a collaborative, open access e-journal.

From @kyliebudge in @thesiswhisperer blog, an argument for an exciting thesis writing retreat. Would it work for you?

From the New APPS blog, a discussion of tacit knowledge in academia: how do graduate students learn what they need to know?

From @cplong, interesting thoughts about the value of adding an internship to doctoral education in the humanities.

From @DocwritingSIG, interesting account of the types of writing support available to doctoral students.

From @GradHacker, thoughts on increasing productivity within the time that you already have.

From @ThomsonPat, distinguishing your method from your methodology.

From @scholarlykitchn, a taxonomy of confusionCan’t decide if this sort of detailed diagnosis would help or confuse!

This Phillip Lopate piece in the New York Times made me wonder about the similarities between academic blogging and essay writing.

From Stephen M. Walt, a call for better academic writing. I don’t fully agree, but I like the way he frames ‘discovery versus presentation’.

From Barbara Fister in Inside Higher Ed, why suing librarians isn’t the answer.

From @LSEReviewBooks, some advice to help you decide if you should be podcasting. But I still can’t decide!

From @scholarlykitchn, a short survey on privatizing peer review. And here are the results.

From @LSEReviewBooks, @PJDunleavy gives a helpful account of the decline in the status of books in social sciences.

From @charlottefrost, interesting reflections on @PhD2Published: how it works, what it takes to run, where it is going.

Structuring a Thesis Introduction

A few weeks ago, I had a post on writing introductions, in which I discussed the standard three moves of an introduction. This model works very naturally in a short space such as a research proposal or article but can be harder to realize on the bigger canvas of a thesis introduction. Many thesis writers struggle with the need to provide adequate contextualizing detail before being able to give a satisfying account of their problem. Truth be told, this inclination—the feeling that our problem is so complex that any explanation will require extensive background—can be a bit of a graduate student weakness. Understanding that your thesis can be explained in a compressed fashion is often a step forward, if for no other reason than it can give you the wherewithal to answer the inevitable questions about your thesis topic without the stammering and the false starts and the over-reliance on the word ‘complicated’. I suggest that thesis writers take every possible opportunity to articulate their topic under severe space or time constraints. One possibility: look to see if your campus is having a Three Minute Thesis competition.

When I approach a thesis introduction, I start from the assumption that the reader shouldn’t have to wait to hear your guiding problem until they have the full context to that problem. You have to find a way of giving them the big picture before the deep context. Let’s take an imaginary example. You are writing your thesis on the reappearance of thestrals in the 1980s in Mirkwood Forest in the remote country of Archenland after a devastating forest fire caused by mineral extraction in the 1950s.* How are you going to structure an introduction in such a way that your reader doesn’t have to read 10 pages of bewildering and seemingly unconnected background? When a thesis writer attempts to give the full context before elaborating the problem, two things will happen. First, the reader will labour to see the significance of all that they are being told. Second, the reader will, in all likelihood, struggle to find connections between the various aspects of the context. Once you have explained what we need to know about thestrals, you will need to discuss the topography of Mirkwood, the endangered species policy framework in Archenland, the mineral extraction practices commonly used in the 1950s, and the way forest fires affect animal populations. If you haven’t started with your problem—the thing that brings these disparate areas into a meaningful conversation with each other—your introduction will begin with a baffling array of potentially disconnected bits of information.

The simplest solution to this problem is to provide a quick trip through the whole  project in the first few paragraphs, before beginning to contextualize in earnest. I am picturing a thesis introduction that looks something like this:

  1. Introduction to the introduction: The first step will be a short version of the three moves, often in as little as three paragraphs, ending with some sort of transition to the next section where the full context will be provided.
  2. Context: Here the writer can give the full context in a way that flows from what has been said in the opening. The extent of the context given here will depend on what follows the introduction; if there will be a full lit review or a full context chapter to come, the detail provided here will, of course, be less extensive. If, on the other hand, the next step after the introduction will be a discussion of method, the work of contextualizing will have to be completed in its entirely here.
  3. Restatement of the problem: With this more fulsome treatment of context in mind, the reader is ready to hear a restatement of the problem and significance; this statement will echo what was said in the opening, but will have much more resonance for the reader who now has a deeper understanding of the research context.
  4. Restatement of the response: Similarly, the response can be restated in more meaningful detail for the reader who now has a better understanding of the problem.
  5. Roadmap: Brief indication of how the thesis will proceed.

What do you think about this as a possible structure for a thesis introduction? While I realize that it may sound a little rigid, I think such an approach is warranted here. Using this type of structure can give thesis writers an opportunity to come to a much better understanding of what they are trying to say. In other words, in my experience, thesis writers tend to feel better after reconstructing their introductions along these lines. For some, it may prove a useful way to present their introduction in their final draft; for other, it may just be a useful scaffold, something that they can improve upon once everything is on a surer footing.

Using this structure can help the writer craft an introduction that responds to the needs of the reader, rather than the demands of the material. Typically, the thesis introductions that I see provide an introduction to the topic but not necessarily to the piece of writing. Writers—especially writers in the throes of trying to conceptualize a book length research project—often forget that the audience’s ability to engage with the topic is mediated by the text. Introducing your introduction is one way to meet your key responsibility to guide the reader through the text. The thesis reader’s journey is a long one—why not do what you can to ensure that your reader sets off with the maximal understanding of their destination?

* With apologies to J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.