I’ve decided to take a break from poetry and prose, to talk about writing itself. This time last year I was enjoying Christmas as best I could whilst most-way through writing up my thesis. I follow a lot of academics on Twitter who ask or vent about writing. For this specific problem, I read Rowena Murray’s ‘How to Write a Thesis’ which suggests you first write then critique. During my PhD project I did just that, and had managed to publish two papers in a decent journal. So I was practiced in academic writing and had plenty of material to use for my thesis. However what I found when writing it all up was I felt an immense pressure of the deadline I set myself to submit on time, for two reasons.
If I submitted late I would incur fees which I couldn’t afford; and
I was fortunate enough to have a job lined up, but I had committed to a 3 month writing up period before starting the post.
This meant I had to focus intensely but not let the pressure become stress. During the summer of my second year I had done a course on ‘writing for well-being’ and learnt some techniques which helped me cope and also produce. The two of those I have applied the most are automatic writing, also known as morning pages, and a mindfulness diary. The first is a tool to warm up before writing proper, sort of like the running and push ups that come before training in sports and martial arts. The second is a tool to record and reflect on progress, no matter how small.
Technique 1: Automatic Writing
For this you need a blank page and something to write with. It can be pen on paper or using a computer, personally I often use my blackberry as it has a physical keyboard and these days has cloud documents such as Google drive (shame they didn’t go with Android sooner but I will save laments for poetry). I get a pang of anxiety when I see a blank page but this can be the starting point anyway when writing so it’s time to get going. Just write whatever stream of consciousness comes to mind for 20 minutes or 2 sheets of A4, whichever is sooner. You may find all that comes to mind are problems, or personal stuff like family birthday presents you need to buy. Like I said, first write then critique. You may find your own style of doing this but for me the flow generally goes:
I feel anxious/sad/frustrated/happy (the last one mostly when the writing was progressing or my wife was with me).
I could do such and such
I think I’d prefer to do this and that
- There’s a cat outside the window
- Never mind that
But really I would choose this
I decide what to do first.
- We’ll get a pet once all this is over
So in the time it took to drink a coffee I had a clear mind and prioritised a single task out of a 50,000+ word document. Morning pages are used by successful authors who can churn out page-turners so they may help you too.
Technique 2: Mindfulness diary
Mindfulness is quite a buzzword these days, but diary seems rather quaint on the face of it. My wife takes pleasure in mindfulness coloring books, but I’m terrible at sticking between the lines and write instead. This for me is simply giving yourself a compassionate talking to. The basic technique is to write down three things you enjoyed that day. Small or large, it doesn’t matter. When I first did this I listed a decent sandwich for my lunch (since you asked, it was often ham, coleslaw, cheese, lettuce, cucumber, tomato and grainy mustard), getting to the library at a good time and starting work with less than 10 mins procrastination. All good things, all good things. The second part of this is to list three things you are looking forward to that day, so for me these were eating lunch with mates, achieving a writing goal and having dinner with my wife. When in the last month of my thesis deadline I merged this with a productivity planner, the sort of thing where you split the working day into 15 min slots to account for your time. I adapted the two for my needs, here’s what I did.
Took a pad of A4 paper, started a fresh sheet and wrote the date (Keep It Simple Sunshine).
Wrote what I had just done, anything, even personal stuff.
Categorised each thing, marking it:
- [T] for Thesis
- [A] for Admin
- [P] for Procrastination
- [W] for Well being
So preparing a figure, writing any thesis content was labelled [T]. Emailing my professor or the graduate school was [A]. Checking Twitter was clearly [P] as this was not conducive to preparing my thesis but being human every so often it couldn’t be helped. Eating lunch, making coffee and even toilet breaks were [W], things that didn’t produce thesis content but necessary to be human (I’ll keep it clean). Each item had its own line, so every small work I did on the thesis had an entry. Soon the pad became pages of mostly [T] entries, some [A] bearing in mind even important emails don’t often help with producing work, some [W]. Inevitably [P] came at the start of a work session or when I was fed up with sitting still. Like I said, these were like a compassionate talking to, allowing myself to write and stay reasonably sane.
At the end of this I submitted and didn’t incur any fees, I graduated the same summer wearing a formally flouncy hat. These two techniques helped me express emotions, turn data into results and words into a title. There are limitations to this, as it can eat into writing time but as I’ve described, setting sensible arbitrary limits of 10-20 minutes mean you can worry and plan then get back on with it. Also editing is essential for quality writing, but that’s outside of the scope of this entry. I see having something to edit as a logical first step, to then critique and re-draft. I encourage other writers, academic or otherwise to find what works for them (and listen to their tips) as there are clear benefits to be had from productive writing.