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.
“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.
Brief update this time – I’m spending a lot of time in and around hospitals at the moment, trying to do what I can to help my family though a difficult week.
I’ve been trying to collate together ideas scattered across many different areas, in an attempt to link things into large enough themes make decent chapters. It’s also helped me to spot what I haven’t found or written yet. Being able to see the thesis as a project with a known shape and structure makes writing it much, much easier – it’s no longer an amorphous mass of text with no beginning or end to the work required to complete it. Once you can name it and put boundaries around what it should contain, you can get stuck into the real work: getting those ideas on paper and into a form that can be drafted and shared with supervisors and peers.
There are three main themes that I’ve begun drawing out of my fieldwork so far, and each will form a chapter over the next six months. At the moment, this is what they look like:
Blurred lines: personal and professional identity. This will look at one of the things I find really interesting about micro businesses – the blurred line between the owner/manager and their business. I want to explore the ways in which business owners present themself and their business online, and the techniques they use to construct those identities. There’s some interesting stuff on audiences (imagined or otherwise) as well.
Trust, reputation and social capital. Building on the paper that Barbara and I will be presenting at ICWSM. This is an area with a lot written about it already, and I want to dig into the literature to a much greater extent than I have so far. I’m also fascinated by the intended and accidental things that people do to affect their business’ reputation online.
Learning curves: technology adoption, adaptation and diffusion. The original focus of my project, following on from a rich tradition of adoption studies that have looked at IT use in business. Social media adoption is a little more tricky to define, as there’s no hard line between a “social” website and its alternative (anti-social sites?)… many sites are beginning to incorporate social elements, from bookmarking/recommendation/’like’ buttons, to user-led discussions and feedback. Instead, I want to see how each business owner has incorporated social media into their online presence: what they use, how they learned to use it, and what their information network looks like.
Over the next few months, I’ll be taking some tips from these two posts and sitting down to rough out the basic structure for these chapters. It won’t be pretty, and there will be a lot of gaps in there – social capital theory in particular is something that I’ve been skirting around so far, because I wanted to wait until I had a decent amount of time to read through the literature. However, unless I get some kind of structure in place the chapters may never get started, let alone finished…
It takes a lot of work to cut an 8-page conference paper down into 4 pages, but we finally managed it. I used my extra hour on Sunday morning (courtesy of the 3am end of daylight savings time) to finish rewriting the longer version of our Trust & Reputation paper, cutting it down for the 4-page poster papers format, and received publishing approval from the CRC this afternoon.
So, Trust, Reputation and the Small Firm: Building Online Brand Reputation for SMEs has now been submitted to ICWSM. It covers four of the small business case studies from my project, exploring how the businesses are using social media tools to build trust and reputation among online communities. Now, I need to get back to working on my thesis… and figuring out how many hoops I need to jump through in order to get an international trip approved by the university. In July, Barbara and I should be presenting our paper in Barcelona 🙂
I’ve been running digital errands today, chasing up all the odds and ends that were put aside in the rush to finish writing a conference paper. People love to joke about procrastination and thesis writing (“my house has never been so clean since I started my PhD“) but I find the opposite during deadline season. When I really, really need to finish something, everything else (sleep, food, cleaning up the piles of mess on my desk) becomes a secondary concern. Now the deadline has passed, it’s time to spend a day putting my life back in order.
Today I’ve tidied up my Twitter lists a bit, as the torrent of new posts was becoming unmanageable. I tried using Lists to manage things, but the primary group still needs to be something that I can keep on top of… I don’t really want to scroll past 1200 items that have been posted overnight. I’ve dropped a few of the more prolific posters from the list, focussing on the people who add more value. That’s left me with a nice group of people from the #socialmelb community, some socialmedia/entrepreneurship folks, some qualitative research folks, and assorted other friends.
I also cleaned up Google Reader, putting the research blogs firmly at the top of the list. I’ve been a bit slack about reading these regularly, and have no excuses any more… long tram rides give me plenty of time to stay up to date on the iPad, and I can easily find all the things I want to read.
As you can probably see if you read this via WordPress, I’m much more active on Twitter than on this blog. I’d like to change that a bit this year – while Twitter is great for posting spur-of-the-moment thoughts and crowdsourcing ideas, it’s never going to be a medium that encourages reflective writing. With just under a year to go on my PhD, I need to get back into the habit of writing frequently. I’m far more comfortable as an unwriter and editor… Ideally, I’d like to start my thesis with too much content and pare it back from there.
So: Yvonne, consider the blogging challenge accepted 🙂 And modified a bit – I’m working fewer, longer days on my PhD at the moment, but I’ll still aim for three posts a week.
I’ve been working on a paper for the Internation Conference on Weblogs and Social Media over the past fortnight. The research component is mine; the context and literature is written by a friend in QUT who suggested that we collaborate on a paper. We have some overlapping research interests, and can keep in touch via Skype. Easy, right?
Of course, nothing works quite that smoothly in practice. Brisbane got flooded. QUT lost their internet connection – no details given, but I like to think that their server room was temporarily full of bull sharks. Then, before she could send me her half of the paper, my co-author was whisked off to Fiji on a surprise birthday present from her husband… possibly one of the nicest way of being disconnected from the internet that I can think of 🙂
Deadline Day became a mad rush, more so than usual because I needed to head up to Sydney for our CRC’s third year review: a day of interviews and presentations to a review panel, assessing how the research centre has been performing. My contribution was extremely short, but I still lost most of the day to transit delays at the two ariports. I typed my last few corrections straight into the layout template and sent it off from the Melbourne Airport arrivals lounge. I really hope that the completed paper makes sense to people who aren’t stressed and sleep deprived – when read in the light of day. I haven’t been able to make myself re-read it yet. That’s a job for next week, or possibly the week after that.
Since starting to move some content across from my older PhD blog, I’ve been thinking about just what I’m trying to achieve here. Randomly ranting at the internet isn’t all that productive, unless it serves some other purpose. Unlike the personal blog I’ve been writing in since 2003, this one has a bit more direction to it – less about keeping in touch with friends, and more about reflecting on the research project that occupies most of my waking moments these days…
I’d like to become a little more fluent at taking my thoughts about research, and presenting them in a form other people might understand. I’d like to keep track of all the twists and turns that I’ve taken along the way. I’d also like to use this blog to expose unfinished thoughts to other opinions and comments, in order to see things in a different light, and to help me develop more robust arguments. Finally, I’d like to show people some of the things I’m discovering in my research.
So, some things I’ll aim to do:
- Blog early. While the exact time of day doesn’t really affect how much I’ll get out of writing, it does affect how likely it is to be seen by anyone else. I’m hoping to bounce some ideas off other people, and so it makes sense to put those ideas out when other people might see them. When I’m (inevitably) writing late in the day, I’ll put those drafts aside and post them the following morning.
- Blog often. This is a writing thing. I’m not currently in the habit of writing about my research – though I spend vast amounts of time communicating in a written form online. Posting regular thoughts in here will help me to develop thoughts and ideas, instead of holding off until things are “finished” – because let’s face it, no ideas are ever really finished.
- Make time to write. Less of a writing issue, and more of a time management one. If I can put aside the last 15min of each day for writing here, I’ll be doing it after spending a day of doing things. Preserving those thoughts is more useful to me than capturing my start-of-day hopes, as those often don’t match up to what really ends up happening…