Welcome to 2018 and Happy New Year!
Some of you may be back into the full swing of work, if so, good effort. Some of you may be slowly returning or battling through days with minimum motivation. I am certainly the latter.
It’s a difficult time of year to remain engaged and motivated, particularly in academia. Campus is a ghost town, many colleagues have not yet returned, there is no bustle from students, its wet, dark and all of the joys of Christmas (sleeping, eating, not working etc.) are long gone.
It’s a bleak picture, but getting off to a good start will help banish those January blues!
As a first year PhD student you may now be thinking about your annual review; the main submission for your first year, which now seems impending and will quite likely creep up very quickly. If you haven’t started writing yet, I would urge you to start doing so now. Not only will this help towards your submission but the practice will be invaluable.
For prospective/ new PhD students, I would recommend getting writing as soon as possible. I really think it will make things easier in the long run and I am glad that I had the bulk of my first literature review under my belt by Christmas.
Here, I am going to list 5 reasons why starting writing early is helpful for a PhD student but first a little about where this inspiration came from.I started writing early in my first term, back when I was eager and it
was light outside. However, my progress slowed as my task list grew and writing was being put to one side in favour of more immediate tasks.
Enter Hugh Kearns, author of ithinkwell.com. Hugh advocates for the notion of ‘snack writing’ and all of the benefits that it affords. Snack writing is short bursts of writing, academic or otherwise, on a semi-regular basis. This can be task focused or even just for practice.
Snack writing is in contrast to ‘binge writing’, which we are probably all too familiar with from our undergraduate or masters days. Binge writing is when we write specifically for an impending deadline and dedicate large chucks of time to the task and the task only, likely with a dose of anxiety thrown in.
The ethos of snack writing is ‘make it regular, make it count’, the idea isn’t to write every day, this would be unrealistic. It is merely taking an hour or two, 2-3 times a week to write.
I decided to try it, to see if it works. Here are the key benefits that I have discovered in the process:
1. Your output will be greater.
As I said, the first draft of my literature review was, pretty much, finished by Christmas. This may not seem like a great feat to some of you, and to you guys, I tip my hat! However, there are many other projects and responsibilities to get side tracked with and it can take some time to settle into the swing of things. It is easy to get swept up by more urgent tasks that can lead to the neglect of your own project and I’m sure writing is the first thing to go.
Snack writing will allow you to keep on top of your writing and engage with the other tasks too!
200 words, 3 times a week is 2400 a month. Easy.
2. Your writing style, speed and quality will improve.
Practice makes perfect as the old saying goes. Regular writing will help to develop fluency and accuracy. Many famous writers advocate for regular writing practice as a way of developing quality. You can’ expect to produce a quality thesis without practice and development.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut” – Stephen King
3. You will create more drafts.
Each draft will be an improvement on the last. Gone are the days when you write an essay, check your spelling (if that) and hand in with a few minutes to spare. That approach doesn’t cut it anymore I’m afraid folks, so give yourself time to improve and develop your work.
Quality comes through revision
4. It will help you structure your days.
Typically, PhD students’ days are self-structured. We manage our own time completely and, at first, this can be a challenge. Planning in snack writing will help you consider how you are spending your time. When do you write best? For me, it influenced the way that I planned my time. I started using my electronic calendar to greater effect and colour coding those tasks that were self-imposed and that I could move around. This really helped my efficiency and productivity.
5. It will help your idea development.
Writing enables you to see connections between ideas and can help develop your own thoughts and plans. You may end up reading more to fill gaps in your knowledge, which will become more apparent when you start to put your ideas on to paper!
Learning can come through writing
So, you are all going to go away and start snack writing now, right? Probably not. Yes it sounds like a wonderful idea but putting it into practice and overcoming the ill-conceived ideas about how you write best (yes ill-conceived, I said it, you all know it’s true). The points below are all things that I have either said myself in the past, or have heard fellow PhD students say over the past few months. Each of these barriers can be broke with regular practice.
“I can only write under pressure”
Leaving writing until the last minute leaves you no other choice. However, during your PhD life, deadlines will be few and far between. Likely, when deadlines are approaching you will also have numerous other responsibilities that you cannot forgo, like teaching or marking. So, balancing your workload from the outset and having the foresight to start things when you have the time is crucial and is something that you are expected to be able to do. Also, leaving things until the last minute leaves no room for improvement through practice or revisions.
“I need the inspiration”
If you are already a PhD student, I hope for your sake that you do have some inspiration already. Draw on this or find your inspiration by engaging with readings, attending relevant talks or professional development workshops. If you are not yet inspired to write anything substantial, start smaller. An annotated bibliography or blog may help you get going. See my post from June 2017 on blogging as a PhD student.
“I need to read more first”
Ah, a classic! This one can always be pulled out of the bag. The key here is reading and writing; the two are not mutually exclusive. Your reading can inform your writing and your writing will help direct your reading. The two go hand in hand and engaging in both tasks will help progress your knowledge and research.
“I have more important tasks to do”
I would question the validity of this statement. You will have numerous important tasks to do throughout your PhD, yes some will be more urgent than others but writing is still important. Break up your day and plan to fit it in. It doesn’t take much to factor in a couple of hours writing a few times a week.
I am advocating for this method because it has worked for me and I believe that it can really help with learning, development and motivation. However, I do recognise that everyone is different. Have you found this method helpful? What other strategies do you use?
I hope that others may find inspiration in snack writing – good luck!