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First draft, one week on

August 11, 2011 1 comment

It’s been a week, so I thought it was time to post a quick update.

Forming new habits and breaking old ones is hard. I started off making lots of progress, after an initial burst of writing at the GSBL ‘Shut Up & Write‘ meeting last Monday. If I’m in a conversational kind of mood, I can write very easily – between working at home and running forums over the last decade, writing feels more natural than speaking. But the type of writing is beginning to change as I make progress.

At first, there were lots of loose ends to tie up, or half-formed ideas to follow. Those are perfect for a regular, short timeslot dedicated to writing a lot, like the 25 minute ‘pomodoro‘ sessions that I’ve been using so far. It’s relatively surface-level thought, and they read like a blog post. No real surprise that Jonathan has been using it successfully to draft his Research Whisperer posts so far…

But that initial source of ideas is beginning to run out. It’s not that I have any shortage of ideas to write about. The problem now seems to be that I’m running out of low-hanging fruit to pick, and all the different concepts that I’ve begun working on in Scrivener have begun to get more complex.

Perfect material for a PhD thesis, right? Sure, but now I’m being hit with that familiar emotion that every thesis writer seems to encounter: wondering how the hell I’m going to know enough to do the writing justice. There are worlds of theory out there that I only know the tiniest bit about, and whenever someone says “Oh, so you’d be using something like X then?” I feel that sudden panic. I’ve never heard of that one before. Should I be using it? Do I need to start another literature search, and teach myself that area from scratch? Is it going to be a gaping hole in the thesis that examiners spot immediately? It’s a quick road to madness, I think.

So, plans for the next week:

Throttle back, and write at a more steady rate. This is more of a marathon than a sprint, and I need to find a steady rate that I can sustain for the next five months. I think that 800-1,000 words a day is an achievable goal… at the moment I’m aiming higher, but as the depth and quality of the writing becomes more important, that word count will change.

Find time for a second wind, or ways to help me stay on task later in the day. Early starts have been good, but I’ve been going write-write-write-crash and losing productivity in the afternoons. What I want to do is write, find one area I need to follow up on, read a bit, and then write again before going home.

In the next few weeks, I will need to work on a complete chapter instead of disparate chunks. I read a comment on Twitter about how supervisors need to start seeing completed chapters at some point, because those will make any gaps in the argument much more visible. I agree, but that’s probably another week or two away.

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Project: First Draft

August 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Have you finished a draft yet?” asked my second supervisor. It’s a question I’ve heard (and largely ignored) from many different people over the last two and a half years, but now the timing and questioner are a bit more significant. “You do know that it takes about six months to go from first full draft to submission, right?

I didn’t know that, but it carries an ominous ring of truth. It’s August. I want to finish in February. I haven’t written much in the way of thesis work, yet – my time keeps getting eaten up by posters, papers, conferences, travel, and other work. But it’s time to buckle down and write.

This has always been the intended time for doing it: it’s a month until I start the final round of interviews for my project, and I’ve just arrived back in the country from ICWSM (which I’ll write about soon, I promise!). I have the time set aside, and I think it will take me about five weeks to get a draft together – obviously missing a lot of analysis and the entire final stage of fieldwork, but showing enough direction and ideas to explain exactly where I think the project is going. The target is about 70,000 words, with the completed thesis needing to fit into 90,000.

To do that, I need to write. A lot. Almost 3,000 words per working day, on average, if I am going to take some days off to spend time with Louise (and our new cat, who doesn’t take kindly to being ignored). That will take a lot more structure and discipline than I’ve managed so far – I’m a multi-multi-tasker at heart, and focussing on a single job of this size is something new to me.

Here are the basics, which I’ll be refining as I find what works and what doesn’t:

Structured time. I need to do a lot of different things each day, so I want to make sure that everything has its place in the schedule. Writing time is for writing – not for re-reading articles, looking for extra references, dabbling in new theories, etc. Those things are important, but they need to be done after the words are on the page. I’m planning to write in short bursts, with time for following up material planned for when my writing brain is dead.

Early starts. I can get in to the uni at 8am each day. My department mostly teaches in the evening (JD and MBA subjects), so it’s a ghost town before 10am. That gives me a good environment for working in. I’m more of a late-night person by nature, but have been much more productive in the early starts I’ve had lately – perhaps that eight-hour jetlag is good for something after all.

Regular breaks. The quickest way of burning out on a big project is to avoid taking breaks. Writing something this big is more like a marathon than a sprint, so keeping to a sustainable pace is important. Also, I need to be able to go home at a reasonable hour, and see family and friends on weekends. Where other commitments steal time from my schedule there will be a few late nights, but those need to stay in the minority.

Wish me luck! If you want to see how I get on, I’ll be tagging my writing entries over the next few weeks with “first draft.” I’ll make time for blogging as I go, as I’m sure this will be useful to look back on later.

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