When is it right to write?


When is it right to write?

This is a common source of anxiety amongst PhD researchers, not helped by the competitive nature of many writing challenges set on twitter. Whilst they can help some, they cause angst to many others. So should you write from the start of a PhD?

I am now 8 months in… and feel in a good place where I have found my feet. If you haven’t yet come across the excellent blog by Professor Pat Thompson, then Writing From Day One is Risky is recommended. The blog Three Month Thesis Why Writing From Day One is Nuts also caused me great relief.

The authors aren’t saying don’t write anything, they are saying don’t expect to write your thesis from day one. How could you? I am always shocked when people claim to have written 30,000 words in a week or have written 3 chapters in the first few months. I don’t expect much of what I am writing at the moment will make the final cut, I hope my ideas and writing have progressed wildly over the 3 years (bit disappointing if not). I was told by a colleague and experienced PhD supervisor to use the first 6 months to engross yourself in the literature because you never get that precious time back. I think that was sensible advice.

8 months in, I have recently handed in the first messy draft of my methods chapter and received constructive feedback from my supervisors. I have delivered numerous conference papers, helped to organise a symposium, helped to organise two sessions at the RGS, and am in the process of guest-editing a postgraduate journal. I am also working on two journal articles. I have got lecturing experience under my belt, my Confirmation of Registration down, my university ethics and my prison ethics passed, and also working on my upgrade form as we speak. Just waiting to actually start my fieldwork…

This isn’t to boast, it’s to show we all work in different ways. I have been lucky enough to get lots of pastoral advice from various people who told me do these things in the first year. I am lucky enough to have a studentship at Leeds Met which has allowed me to concentrate on my PhD as my full time job.

All these above things have helped my thinking and writing and will in some way have informed my final thesis. I have piles of notebooks, box files of annotated journals, conference papers and power points. I will return to all of these, they document my thought processes. Teaching is a great way of ensuring you understand your area, of formulating arguments and ideas. Teaching is also a great way for ensuring you see yourself as a colleague and ensuring you mix with other academics of all ages. I actually like networking and mixing, as the strangest sociable introvert you will ever meet. Clicking with someone in your subject area is uplifting and those informal networks will help you through the process.

Perhaps you have been teaching full time and not had time for your PhD, but over the summer you can catch up. Perhaps you have been caring for a relative or children or balancing a ‘regular’ full time job with a PhD. We all do research in different ways. Some disciplines demand you write from the start, some people simply want to. It’s about finding what works for you and is productive.

I am also a massive advocate of work/life balance. My personal life is very important. I love my PhD, but I am trying to treat it like a job so that I balance my time and stay healthly. This is hard when you have M.E or anxiety or any health condition because you want to strike while the iron’s hot, but I have been inspired Happy PhD, and vow to work smarter not harder.

An interesting twitter debate broke out recently about working hours. I choose academia because I love what I am doing but also due to the flexibility of working hours. Not everyone is able to work 9-5. Not everyone should. For me to stay physically and mentally healthy I need at least 2 days off per week, but I put in my full week at sporadic hours when I have energy. The work gets done just often at peculiar hours. I am also an advocate of home working or library working where possible, as this is where I am productive. I have a very inspiring work space at home on my bright yellow IKEA desk with all my books. But I am extremely self motivated. Others need to go into the office or they will slack off. It is easy to become a workaholic in academia but I avoid those kinds of circles.

But I digress… you have your work space, your allocated work time, how do you start to write?

At our PORESO Symposium we had a keynote by the amazing and inspiring Professor Karl Spracklen. With over 108 quality publications Karl knows what he is talking about. His address had all the PhD community talking about it for days. It was down-to-earth, direct, easy to understand and yet it clearly works. How to be a confident writer was Karl’s presentation, I scribbled reams of notes and will share some of it here.

Read a poem everyday.

Yes, a poem! I try to do this already but will be making more of an effort. Poetry is language use at its finest. It shows us how to make sense, how to make word choices, about the structure of language. It inspires. Karl says poetry makes you think about why particular words are used, why people write the way they do, and helps us to examine the structure of sentences. One of Karl’s favourite poems is The Waste Land- T. S. Eliot. Karl argues that reading fiction and poetry helps us to understand how words work.

An example Karl gave was to finish the sentence ‘It was a dark stormy night…’. How does one sentence lead to another? Where am I trying to go? Can my audience follow? When is a methaphor ok, when must I be simple?

Write as often as you can.

Everyday. Make time. 1 hour every day is better than getting to the end of a week and you have done nothing. 3 hours solid a day, imagine what you will achieve. Karl recommends 2000 words a day over the summer and 500 words a day otherwise. I wrote my first chapter draft by sticking to the 2000 rule for a week then editing it the next. It was very tiring, but well worth it.
But Karl also makes the point that you have to read in order to write. So immerse yourself in the books, get your notes then write.

Professor Spracklen says use the first hour to plan what you are going to write and to think about it, then get on with it. He advices never finishing your last sentence/point; always leave a hook to come back to. Karl also says don’t put too many quotes in a 1st draft, just get your ideas/main points down, then fill in with refs and any quotes.

Find your time to write.

Early in the morning? 9-12? Night time? Switch your phone off, your internet off, lock yourself away and do it.
With my M.E my brain is sometimes wide awake at 5am, or sometimes 10pm. But when I get those moments, I use them and write uninterrupted. I have a pile of notebooks that I carry round and use everyday. You never know when something will spark an idea.

Keep your writing clear.

As it says on the tin. Don’t try to be like a dead French philosopher. Just make your points clearly. Write as yourself, and keep your writing fit for purpose. Don’t imitate anyone else, think of your audience. I want my writing to be accessible and engaging. I don’t want it to exclude people.


Another recommendation was to get a list of journals that you should be reading every issue of. This is something I have definitely taken on board! My reading can be very messy and disorganised, this will help me keep in touch with the latest developments in my field.

What academics do you like reading? How do they write? Writing is a skill you must develop the craft.

Karl makes the brilliant point that you must read enough, but you can’t read everything. It is very easy to want to read everything and become overwhelmed. There is a lifetime of work ahead of us, the PhD is a tiny portion of that work.

I was once told by Dr David Tyrer that doing a PhD is like trying to drink a swimming pool of water that keeps being filled up as you’re drinking. There is always something else to read, to think about, to learn, to critique. That’s the joy of it. You never reach the end.

For me, the main thing is keeping my enthusiasm. 8 months in, and I still love my PhD. Ask me during fieldwork, or transcribing, or a data analysis, or writing up, and I might feel differently, but there is so much I want to do, and I feel alive with it. This is the best job I have had in my life, I am so privileged to be researching this area.

It will be interesting to hear what experiences others have with regards to ‘when is it right to write?’.

Twitter and blogs are not add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion that underpins it

Patter= blog of Professor Pat Thomson

How to improve your academic writing

Why Do Academics Blog?