Snack writing

I thought I would use the next twenty minutes of the day productively and perhaps attempt to produce a blog post on snack writing by snack writing it. I suppose it would make no sense for me to sit down for hours at an end thinking about what to write on snack writing whilst being hypocritical about the inception of the post. So I have decided to go full pelt and go with the flow.

I thought about writing on snack writing again after that rather productive #acwri Twitter conversation. There is plenty of advice out there about writing, and given what it was said on that Twitter conversation, there is no such a thing as bad advice – only advice that does not really work for you and attempts to be prescriptive, rather than helpful. Let me explain myself. The other day I went to a Time Management workshop, and a colleague of mine said he felt terrible with his schedule. He wakes up late and does some work, and then most of his productivity happens from 10pm until 3am. He thinks this is not “normal” and wants to change it, “so as to feel like a normal PhD”, but he does not know how. The issue I can see here is that there is not such a thing as “normal”. If working like that works for him (productively and all), then so be it, do it that way. There is no shame on that because I myself only get to work productively from 7 until 9 (with breakfast with my wife and walk to work included in that period). The rest of the day is a waste for productivity, so provided you know when you work best and then go ahead with it, no one can really judge you.

It’s the same about writing. I wish I had time to sit down on my chair and mull over slow cooked sentences for hours. But that has never been the case. Even when I was a full time student I worked semi-full time hours – there is just no way I could do any extended writing. Now, as a part time, snack writing is the only choice I have. I am not sad about this, I am very relieved – because it works, for me at least. I normally have about 45 minutes in the morning before breakfast. I can write fast, but I also use this time to think. Almost slowly. I make sure that I know exactly what I want to get done through the day.

Some days are excellent – yesterday, for example. I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the night before, so I woke up and straight away I was plugged in. I typed 250 words in 45 minutes, which is not a lot, but it was sufficient for what I was doing – it was even connected with the previous content of the chapter, so there will be minimal editing to do there. I was pretty pleased with myself and I thought that another 250 words would make me happy – if I was properly plugged in later in the day. At 815 I leave the house and make it to my office space between 830-845 (depending on how late I left the house in the first place). Yesterday, I got to my office space at 835. I thought “awesome, I have 25 minutes!” (Which translates into “Yay! One full pomodoro!”). I opened my notebook and kept writing following the same bit I was writing about before breakfast. I pulled two pages, which felt really good. When I got to work, I typed everything up whilst sorting out my emails. Turns out I wrote 497 words (with a few editions) in that 25 minute bit! For a total of almost 750 words! At 930 yesterday, I could already bask on the glory of having over-achieved what I set myself to do. Boom.

This is not always like this, and on days like, for example, today, I have to remind myself that productivity in one snack bite does not necessarily mean productivity in all of them. Today I hand wrote a page – so that will be between 200 and 300 words. It’s not bad but of course I want more. However, this is true of every sort of writing – even if you are writing for 8 hours straight, some days you will be more or less productive, or it will be more or less difficult to get going. That is just the nature of writing. I don’t think it changes with snack writing or long-period-on-the-chair writing.

I have always had a distracted nature, even when I could afford 8 hours of continuous writing, so I think that embracing the concept of writing in short bursts was an easy step for me. I understand, however, that is not for everybody. As I said before, writing advice can only be useful if it’s advice and not prescription. I cannot focus for too long on the same task without looking for an interruption, but I am sure other people have stronger natures and can stay at it for longer – or maybe not.

I think snack writing is something that everyone should try every once in a while, because it definitely puts you in a limited pressure situation, and blocks out every other priority or distraction. At times we are thinking too much about other things associated to research (I need to write that paper, I need to read that article, how am I going to do that presentation?, I don’t know anything about X topic and I probably should), so a short burst of writing acts like that headpiece they put on horses so that they can only look ahead: it gives you tunnel vision for a short period of time, and then it’s only you, your laptop, your writing and your target. There is nothing else other than that. And once it’s over you can zoom out and understand where that piece of massive writing you just did fits within your main work. And then feel awesome, not because you have written a lot, but because you have written!

The recipe is to do this every day at least once for a long period of time – snack writing is not binge writing, so beware! Self-complacency is the worst that can happen after a really productive session of snack or freewriting… Shake it off, shake it off now! Remember that the word count resets every day and set yourself a target to aim at, even if you’re not going to use all the words at the end.

And to end this, some math:

How many words do you think you can write in 15 minutes? And in 30 minutes?

Can you write 50 words in 15 minutes? Surely you can write up to 300 in 15 minutes, but let’s keep it realistic. Let’s go for 50. If you write 50 words a day (excluding weekends), you’ll get 13,000 a year. Enough for a chapter? Or an article?

Writing 100 will get you 26,000. And 200 a day will smash your numbers to 52,000 a year. That is if you only fit one snack writing session a day. Imagine the word count if you had two or three…

I think I will go back to my previous statement of the only bad advice on writing is not writing at all. After that, try every and see how it works. And as part of the experiment, writing this post took two snacking bits, that amounted to about 40 minutes. Worth a try, huh?

Handwriting

I have been to a few rather useful workshops in the last couple of weeks about time management, organisational skills, and writing in general. Last night there was also a rather enlightening conversation on #acwri about the worst advice you can be given in regards to writing. So this morning I though it would be useful to reflect upon something I have been doing lately in regards to my academic writing that has helped me (so far, fingers crossed) in keeping “the ball rolling”.

A few weeks ago, I had a small writing crisis. In hindsight, it was probably a bit of a hissy fit for being unable to write when I had set time to do so. Monday evenings I have a “long” block of time (from about 5 until 8) to do research as my wife is on an evening course. In those three hours, I have time to think and write, as painfully slowly as I want to. However, on that particular occasion, I was really stuck. I wrote about 10 words in 3 hours. I kept staring at the screen as if my mind was going to write the words for me. I gave up and went home and cried inconsolably to my wife with this whole “Oh I am such a failure!” nonsensical reasoning.

Her help made me get a grip of myself and move on. It was great to feel so terrible then, because in the last few weeks my writing has improved and considerably sped up. And it’s because I have been using handwriting. The same way that some people are scared of staring at a blank Word doc, my problem was (or is) that I already have a certain amount of words written on the document. I needed to pick up a place to start writing, and forget about everything else. But I could not find that particular place to start whilst staring at the screen.

Instead, I decided to print off a few pages of my chapter, and read through it superficially. I soon found something I did not like and wanted to change. I switched off the computer, looked at the printed doc, opened my notebook and just started scribbling down some notes. Those notes turned into fully formed sentences. Then they were paragraphs. Without noticing, in about 10 minutes I had sort of handwritten about a notebook page worth of content.

I did this consistently for a few days (or snack writing bits, really, but that is a post for another time). I have very limited time as a Mongrel, so I would just open my notebook, see where I had left off, and continue writing. I didn’t need much time, or much inspiration: just jotted down whatever I felt I needed to say in the next little bit of my chapter. One of the down sides of this is that then you need to type up a lot. It incorporates an additional level of useless work you could have avoided by free writing directly on a document, and it really chomps away time. The good thing is that it allows for another layer of editing before the words hit the document. So I ensure that I have looked at those words at least twice before putting them on a page. They have gone through the quality control process. And to be honest, whenever I find it really hard to write, all I need to do is start typing a particular bit… all of a sudden ideas mushroom pretty quickly, and I can go back to productive writing (at times on a Word doc, other times on paper).

The other great thing I found out about handwriting is that it helps me think at my own pace. The idea you can read over and over again is that writing helps your thinking, and indeed it is your thinking, just put into paper. Writing channels out the ideas and helps you modify them accordingly. Now, I can type fairly fast. I suppose I could say I can think really fast as well, although that is not always the case. The point is that, sometimes, I need a half a second more to make sure I know what I want to say. Typing is not very forgiving in this sense – because you can tell exactly how slowly you are typing from your normal typing speed. I have figured out that, when generating ideas in academic writing, my brain works at the same speed as the hand writes. And that is fantastic because at times I struggle to see the end of the sentence. I can also see the full sentence as it is being written and I can tell if I am subordinating too much, or going a bit ‘Spanish’ about paragraphs. Things that, you could argue, you could also do in Word. I can still visualize paragraph structure a bit better when I can scribble over things I don’t like and things that are good. It has given me a new dimension to #acwri.

This new writing situation has caused havoc in my notepad, and I have gone from using about 50 pages in four or five months to 50 pages in about four weeks. The notepad has become so confusing I have now had to devise some colour coding (green for notes to self, blue for notes from a book or quotes, black for my chapter writing) in order to make sense out of it. But on the flip side, it has become a highly successful method, and I have now surpassed the 12,000 word mark (this morning) with around 4,000 of those words coming from thoughts originally jotted down on my notepad. As much as 4,000 words in 4 weeks does not seem like a great amount, it is better than the daunting feeling of not really knowing where I am going or worst still, not writing anything.

I suppose when I was reading about bad writing advice on #acwri, the worst advice I could think of, in the end, was not writing at all. There is no worse place to be than when the ball gets stuck. Handwriting allows me to keep it rolling and physically see my progress (which at times is complex when you are putting words onto a Word doc).

This is my new secret weapon, and I won’t hesitate to use it.

#BeResilient

jjiijfeeling stuck and procrastinating about it.

How to build resilience, Mongrel-style

I often include the hashtag #beresilient in a hell of a lot of posts. Out of context, this can just sound like empty words, or yet another useless hashtag in the world of overhastagging (if you don’t know what this is, then you don’t have an Instagram account and a few stupid friends – congratulations, you are not missing out on anything). However, I feel very strongly about resilience, and I think it is *THE* top quality that one earns whilst doing a PhD, and certainly the one I am proudest of. The other day I was in a Planning your Career workshop, and I think I made my point about it – resilience is what lets you actually finish your PhD.

But resilience is not something that comes along and naturally occurs. It’s got to be built slowly. Not only that: everyone will react differently to the challenges that a PhD poses, so whilst some people might learn a lot from the difficulties and build a wall of resilience, others will either ignore the learning opportunities, or, if push comes to shove, they might even quit their PhD. I have found plenty of challenges along the way – being self funded from the very beginning, having to go part time, working zero hours and job instability, working full time and having no time for anything, anxiety issues, stomach ulcers, journal publication rejection, countless funding rejections,… to name the most important! This does not mean that I consider myself an expert in resilience or that the following list will be useful for everyone. I feel I know what I am talking about a little bit, and some people might find it helpful. As I always say, I think full timers particularly can learn a lot from Mongrels, so here is my contribution.

These are put together in no particular order:

1. Have a can-do attitude. Try everything.

At that Planning Your Career workshop, the presenter made a really good point that a lot of vacancies in the current job market are filled not by those more prepared, but by those who work the hardest. Putting that into context, if you think that you don’t have the right person specs to, in this case, apply for a job (when you probably do, being a PhD candidate) then somebody else down the chain might give it a shot and get it. Just try everything. If you have an interest in it, and might help your research, then apply for it – whether it’s a grant, a research trip, a conference, or a Tesco Clubcard. The fear or procrastination loop that the whole “oh, I’m never gonna get it” starts is the most toxic element of the dark side of the PhD. Get out of it and fast!

2. Fail miserably at something after trying really hard – and bounce back from it.

Perhaps not immediately, but you need to put these failures behind you and let them be your springboard into better things. As one of my supervisors told me once after my first article was rejected for publication, “the first pancake always has lumps in it”. Most times even the second or third pancake has lumps in it, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it another shot and have a great pancake in the end, right? There’s a lot of motivational posters out there about how success in life is not measured by how little times you fall, but how many times you stand back up after falling. Or what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and other cheesy songs.

The thing is, all those cheesy posters and songs are right on the money. If one failure leads to giving up, then that attempt will go in vain – you will not learn anything, you will not improve the quality of your work, you will not give yourself a chance to learn from it. It also means that, the second time you fall (because you will), you will know how to take it – with a pinch of salt, and then keep going. Which leads me into point 3

3. Go back to your mistakes, analyse them, reflect on your practice, take away what is important, learn from them, and then DISCARD them.

This is a process I follow from my refereeing ‘career’. I totally hate watching myself referee on video (because you can’t change what you have done), but it is a great way of correcting mistakes and discussing with your peers. Mistakes happen in basketball all the time, whether you try your best to avoid them or not. You can minimize their presence or their impact upon your overall performance, but you cannot get rid of them – so embrace them as they come.

It is very easy, particularly in refereeing, to get stuck in a mental loop following a mistake. That is why sport psychologists earn a good living! You know how much this affects the game and you know you could have done much better. You think about ways you should have acted around it, and reenact it in your head a million times. The thing is, this spiral will only make you miss the next calls, creating an even worse scenario of nor just one bad call, but three or four in a row. It’s really important at that point to pick yourself up no matter what, and concentrate on what comes next – the next call is your most important. I think there is a lesson there than can be transferred to PhDing – if you made a mistake or failed at something, learn how to do it better (reflect on how you could improve), and then discard the situation.

4. Rejection is part of life. Don’t take it personal.

I can definitely speak for this one. That article I was speaking about before is perhaps one of my biggest failures. The editor of the journal knows me (I met her in a conference and she really liked both my presentation style and my topic), and to a point wanted me to learn as much from this rejection as possible. She said they normally don’t send the specific comments when they reject articles (maybe they don’t reject that many), but that these will be useful for me to improve the text. Well, the comments were harsh. They ripped through my text and my researcher persona like a school of killer whales. They thing is, I sort of agree with what they were saying – but they had no tact whatsoever, perhaps not expecting me to ever read it.

It was hard to not cry my eyes out and keep my head held high. And it was very difficult not to take the comments personally. The thing is, someone had reviewed my article, and thought I was inaccurate about things I said, which is fair enough. As much as what I write is part of who I am and undoubtedly integral to my research, those words were not said to attack me at a personal level. There’s nothing wrong with me per se, it’s just the assertions I was claiming to be factual were perhaps too risky. And it took a bloody long time to get that paper written in the first place, and then rewritten to a standard that my supervisors felt it was adequate. So being torn apart by an external reviewer hurt a lot. But it was nothing personal. The moment you understand that it’s not really an attack on your research, but ultimately a way to make it better, you will be able to move on having gained resilience in the process.

5. Stick to your priorities and your plans – but be ready to embrace change at a really short notice!

I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted my PhD to go before I even started it, and of course that went out the window when I didn’t get any funding. Then I have made up probably a million plans – writing plans, research plans, idea plans and thesis plans… They have all changed several times, and adaptability has been the key. Reducing full time hours to part time hours and readjusting to having more (outside) responsibilities was also an important step.

The key learning here is that plans are there to help you get towards your goals, but they are not rigid structures: planning is essential but plans are useless, according to the Vitae website. This is good advice. You need both overall vision and minute planning, but as research (and other life events) goes along, you have to be ready to change all your plans at very short notice. In recent times, I am trying to follow an idea that I had after chatting to one of my supervisors. I have already spoken to other two people and tried my new proposed structure and change my conception of the original idea several times. This might change the entire focus of the thesis. And I am zero worried about that.

6. And finally, keep the ball rolling, no matter what.

There is nothing in life (and in PhDing) you can’t put behind you and learn from in a positive manner. Life won’t stop because your proposal was rejected. Reinvent yourself and move on – give it another try, why not. Just keep the ball rolling. And above all, be resilient.

I have an idea – oh crap!

It might seem counterproductive, but I had an amazing idea yesterday and I am regretting it today. Very badly as well. Let me contextualise a bit.

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I am currently trying to write Chapter 3 of a five chapter thesis. That seems about right so far. I have done about eight months’ work of research on this chapter, and I have it written in my head. I am not trying to avoid the work, I am just trying to make sure I have all the necessary readings done before I start writing it down “properly”. I have already submitted the first part of the chapter for my supervisors to review and they liked it, and gave me feedback on how to improve it. So I am working with that. Keeping the rough part of that first part, chopping off and rewriting certain bits and then keep writing the second part. That’s fine.

Whilst reading, however, I have been having some trouble understanding the theory of intertextuality. Well, not so much understanding, but also quoting and citing. Who said what? Whose theories are people in that field working with these days? We have forty years worth of research after Julia Kristeva coined the word in 1967. So where is the field going and who should I be reading to 1) understand and 2) quote in my Literature Review of the chapter?

Since this was a major difficulty, I decided to start writing about what I know and the polish it up at a later date. Whilst I was doing this, I realised that I could use the polysystem hypothesis, which I have used in previous chapters, to be the theoretical framework behind my work. Why not? I feel very confident about that and I know how to quote it. So I started writing and it made more sense and when I told one of my supervisors she agreed that the changes I was proposing were good and made sense in the bigger picture, plus they give continuity to what I had said in Chapters 1 and 2. Good then.

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Current plan, looking okay

But then I went to meet my other supervisor. We have an odd power relationship between us, and, since she is an older academic, I feel like every time I have an idea or I want to do something, I need to make sure I think it through and explain it very well, almost inside out, for her to understand and approve of. I feel like I do when I am talking to my mom and trying to explain a major life decision: I need to let her know that this is not rushed, that I have put a lot of thought and research on it, and I understand the consequences. Which in a PhD scenario is really good, because I discard half baked ideas and we end up discussing things that really matter and on which I have a founded opinion. It also pushes me to find that state: to work hard and explain my research in different words.

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New plan, looking far more enticing

The problem is that yesterday, whilst I was in the meeting with her, all sorts of ideas came up. Some half baked, some slightly more thought through. As I was sitting there, she was asking me questions that really put me in a position to advance in my thesis writing. I had to explain how I want Chapter 5 to look like, but I had to admit that I don’t know what I want to do for Chapter 4 and that is putting a lot of pressure on me. I mean, what if I don’t find anything to write about anyway? Whilst I was there, I also suggested something else that could be in Chapter 5. And then it stroke me.

AN IDEA. A THESIS-FOCUS-CHANGING IDEA.

What if I bin the main writer and pick the main translator? The thesis will have a unity, Chapter 3 will become Chapter 4 as I will need to split Chapter 2 in half and expand it. My other supervisor had told me not to worry because if I could not find something for Chapter 4, I could just reorganise the structure of the thesis. But this imply a major change – thesis title change, research question change, and all, although I will be able to use a great amount of what I have already written. In any case, I will need to rewrite Chapters 1 and 2 at a later stage and improve them considerably. So why not improve them with this new focus?

Today of course I can’t think of anything else. I have promised them a sample of my writing in two weeks and a first draft in four… I have calculated the differences between the chapter I think I want to write, and a chapter that would fit into this new model. And I find the new chapter easier to work through, but I can’t just go “actually, look what I did” and send it to them without having consulted them. I am getting really carried away with this idea and it’s somewhat scary.

I think I will try to relax (I seem to go through ridiculous bipolar spikes with this research) and work through what my original idea was and then give the new one a shot. Stay tuned to find out how this goes. I might end up regretting having an idea.

Time management from Mongrels: Smash it!

When do you PhD?

Someone asked me that the other day. Seems like a very reasonable question, given I try to tell people that I don’t do my PhD full time but have a full time job instead. When you add to the equation that I play and referee basketball, which takes up the best of two nights a week and a full day during the weekend, things get difficult to understand.

Do you have a life?

I have not been asked that one, but it is read all over the face of people who wonder when do I actually get to do some PhDing. I have been told by many people before that they have “no time”. There are many self-help books out there negating that in principle. I would say I have very restricted time, and because of that, I have become very protective of the very necessary minutes here and there that make up my PhD.

I don’t do crazy wake up times. In winter, I struggle to get out of bed before 745. I am lucky (to a point), because Glasgow is a lovely place over the summer – the sun never goes down, being so far up north. So when it’s bright outside, I find it difficult to sleep – all I want to do is be all outdoorsy (maybe not at minus three degrees like today, but you get the picture). So in the summer I do get an extra thirty to forty-five minute block of activity before the wife is even up. It is normally reduced to about 20 minutes of actual productivity – by the time I have a coffee in my hands and the computer is on, is almost 720.

In this first block, I work by instinct. Did I leave something urgent to write or think about the day before? Had I scheduled myself to write a certain amount of words? Do I need to read something? At that time of the day I work in oximorons: I am still half asleep and some of my ideas feel half baked at times, but I have uninterrupted concentration on the task, so at least I *have* ideas. Later in the day I reassess whether that idea was okay or if it needs more work or just to be binned and started over again.

I don’t allow myself many distractions, but I know how dangerous they are. For weeks at a time I used to make myself wake up at 7 against my body’s will and ended up checking Facebook or the news. I reconsidered my time wastage against my body’s needs and decided that I would assess my readiness to work from my bed: Am I going to get up and waste my sleeping time? Don’t get up then. Sleep for another 45 minutes. Your body will thank you. I now set a quiet alarm (my watch has one, and it’s so nice and soft and marvelous!). I am normally not fast asleep by then. Today, for example, I did set the alarm, but I was too tired to get out of bed, so turned around and slept for another 40 minutes. And right now I feel refreshed.

Another thing I have changed since working in an office environment is the time I leave the house. I now try to leave at the same time as my wife, even though it takes me twice as much to get ready. This is not due to vanity, it’s because putting on cold clothes and preparing my lunch are activities I dread and I delay them as much as possible. She gets on with them and is ready to go by 815. I enjoy having my coffee and a blank stare for ten minutes whilst my mind wonders, so I am always late.

Leaving at the same time as her (or at least trying) allows me to get to work half an hour before I am meant to start. My office space, the one I have for PhD things, is just around the corner from my work office. In there, I enjoy a good 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted activity again. I have noticed that working there is actually more beneficial than I initially thought. I used to go to the office for two hours before work when I worked in hospitality (9-11), and I always managed to do lots of writing and reading there, but having reduced the time I can spend in that office space has pushed my productivity-per-minute. I sit down, open my notebook and put my thoughts on the pad. I have to do it that way because in that small window and having a computer from the 80s in that office, it is really not worth it trying to open a word document. But normally I have been working on something just before at home, and I somewhat remember what I wrote before.

I am preparing a presentation for one of my supervisor’s modules, and I was asked to put together some thoughts about this translator. I wrote 1,000 words about it yesterday. Today I just opened the pad as I got in – I was late, and only had 15 minutes. In 15 minutes I managed to write a full page (roughly 200 words?) and lay out some points to continue later on. This is still quite surprising to me when I think about it, but it must have something to do with the comfortability that that space provides me with, and the good “me time” with my pad when I have one sole focus. Of course I wish I could stay there for a longer window, maybe an hour or two, but I will take what I can and run with it.

Once I am at the office, PhDing is left at the margins of tasks. There are a lot of every day things that your degree needs that are solely admin. And I work in admin. It is easy to write up some minutes to a meeting, prepare an agenda, schedule when to write, schedule the week workload, write up scholarship applications and other boring tasks when pretty much that is part of your daily job. So I try to get those done among the other admin tasks. I find it easier and quicker to do that as part of the daily routine as my mind is already thinking in admin terms. Believe me, it is easy to write in “minutes to a meeting” language once you have done three in a row…

After work, I am now trialing having another block of writing. I still haven’t figured out how it’s going to work as I can’t establish a pattern. Sometimes I go to my office space, sometimes I go home, lay on the couch and read. I normally have until 6ish, but then again it is hard to do any work after 5 o’clock. I normally just read. It is something that one cannot help but doing when PhDing.

pollard

Finally, the controversial point: I don’t work on weekend. I physically can’t. I need one full day of rest doing absolutely nothing to enjoy with the family, which is normally Sunday. Saturday, I combine resting with refereeing here and there and everywhere. And yes, on occasion I take a book with me – since I don’t drive, they make excellent company on the train. But I normally get very little done, no matter how hard I try. And I have stopped trying hard.

I do get in the end about 10 hours of work a week, if I am lucky. It is not a lot, but it’s a good as part-timing goes. I think that, considering the time I actually spend working on my PhD, I get quite a good productivity-per-minute ratio. Of course this cannot be recreated in longer time periods: the more you work, the least you will get done in percentage. It’s like Test cricket v Twenty20. I think the Twenty20 analogy is very useful for me: you have very few overs, so smash the ball to the boundary as much as you can and get all the runs you can.

I will soon be also trialing having a day off from work per month to full immerse myself in writing activities. I have not yet thought through how that would work out, but I will give it some thought, do it, and then write about it. I am thinking of modelling it in a “thesis boot camp” style, so it needs a fair bit of planning (just to make sure I have food at the ready at all times and a stress-free environment). We’ll see how that goes.

Ps. I only got into cricket over the Christmas period. Look at me talking like I know shit.