Shut Up and Write – a promising start


A few weeks ago, PhD in AVT and I decided to set up a writing group in our school, and ever since then, we have been working relentlessly to procrastinate from our pressing Annual Review presentations to put together the School of Modern Languages and Cultures’ first ever Shut Up and Write session. I thought I would take the time now and write a little bit about the experience, hoping to inspire a few others to set up their own writing groups elsewhere.

I think PhD in AVT and I were expecting to attend a session by ourselves. The prospect of having more people in the room, engaged in the writing activity, was an exciting one, but I reckon we were both feeling realistic about everybody else’s commitments. We scheduled this SUAW first session strategically after everybody’s Annual Review – we thought that, since APRs are full of writing promises, this was a good palce for everyone to start. In the end, however, I think we both knew that we wanted to do a SUAW session (I myself feel that I particularly need these to get things going), and that if other people would want to tag along and try it out for themselves, we were happy to organise it.

We booked a rather large room, and had it set up around one large table made up of smaller tables. In a way, we would not be able to see what everybody else was doing, but we knew what we were all there for. In total, it was five of us, which I think it is a massive success, considering our expectations.

We wrote for one hour in two pomodoro chunks. I had my doubts about how it would work to get everyone to simply “shut up, and write”. But everyone did shut up and write/read/think. I had brought with myself a notebook as I was concerned that my netbook might be too slow for writing and set up, and also because I wasn’t sure I wanted to type up everything. I needed the session to be about getting words and thoughts out, but I was not sure I wanted to have them set in stone – in a notebook, there is more room for strike-through, mistakes, abbreviations, etc. and it feels less formal.

And it worked great for me – got two paragraphs drafted, a section thought through, and lots of notes and arrows pointing at the right areas. I reckon everybody else went well as well – PhD in AVT said she had written 1,000 words once she typed everything up. Others completed their aims too – a presentation, a chapter read, smiles all around!

The great point as well was that we all broke the writing for five minutes, and then were able to get back to it straight away. When the hour was done, everyone felt that this was the right amount of time – not too long, not too short, demanding but within certain limits. At the end of the session, third years seemed keen to have this as a regular, weekly spot – something to look forward to during the week, knowing that it will be there, available for everyone. The agreement was to try to keep it going weekly on Wednesdays for just the one hour, and invite more people to try it.

As a co-organiser, I feel good that our idea managed to come to life, and I am hoping people will continue to engage, come to the sessions, shut up, and write. Many more words need to be written and I am sure everyone can use the space! Come on, give it a try!


A literature review now? At this stage?

Next week is my Annual Progress Review. I feel pretty confident despite the fact that, at first sight, it looks like I have taken a step backwards in my research. I suppose that is okay, and it happens to everybody. I am preparing a presentation for it, and I expect the panel to come up with the million dollar question: “What are you working on right now?”. And the honest answer to that is “I am rewriting a complete chapter that will NOT make it into the final thesis, and a literature review”.

A literature review, you say? But are you not in second-to-third year?

It is odd, isn’t it? The common perception is that a Literature Review gets ‘done’ and written at the very beginning. In my College, it is one of the requirements for passing your first year annual review. So it’s okay to wonder if telling the panel that I am writing a literature review at the moment will make them go “hummm, really?” and raise questions about my research. I am ready.

There are several ways to see it, I believe. Writing a literature review is never easy, and since it is meant to help you ‘locate’ yourself within the research, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will ‘find’ yourself whilst doing it. It is particularly daunting at the very beginning, because the amount of sources to deal with and the absolute zero knowledge on how to go about it are an additional burden in my opinion. That doesn’t mean I am finding the task less of a burden now, but I reckon I have a slight sense of perspective of how things work in my field to have a hint of confidence that the lit review is going to work out for me.

Because of the rationale behind doing this review, doing a lit review half way through your PhD might appear like a step backwards. In a sense, this is true. Having to locate yourself within the research in order to do more research is going backwards. However, it is not going backwards for the sake of it; it’s one or two steps back in order to take a few further steps forward. I have changed the focus of my PhD. It’s the same sort of topic, and the same sort of area, but there are many blank spaces to fill that I could only possibly address by going back to a lit review. So whilst it is happening at an odd time, it is the right time from a general perspective.

Whilst writing this review, I have found that some things are made easier by the fact that I am doing this so late into my PhD. First of all, I have previous experience of doing one. It was not a very good one, but it was still a lit review, so I have the knowledge of how it feels to ‘locate’ yourself within the field. I also know how not to do it, since my first attempt was only mildly successful, and I have read a lot about how to improve this. The best point though is the ease to find yourself compared to doing a lit review at the very beginning. I know how the field roughly looks like – all I need to do is fill in the blank spaces. I can tell by the quick review of an article whether it is relevant and its degree of relevance towards my research. And I can understand where other scholars are coming from when establishing their knowledge of the field. I can see how every source is set around my contribution, and how my contribution fits within the wider framework. And that is a feeling that you don’t get at the beginning.

Speaking to my supervisor about this, she argued that lit reviewing is something that needs to occur throughout the research, one way or another, to keep up with the development of the field over the four years of research. It is a very valid point. She also agrees that the process of establishing my voice within the field at this point in time is better than never really finding your niche. This is all great news – at the end of the day, if your supervisors have your back, you’re good to go.

So whilst it may still be hard to argue to the Annual Progress Review panel why doing a new lit review is important, the sense of clarity I have at the moment is something I would not change for, say having a few obscure chapters written. Changing the focus of my research meant stepping away from not knowing where I was going (whilst having written over 40k words) to knowing exactly how I want every piece of my thesis to work, albeit with only about 5,000 words in the bank. It is a risk I am glad I took. And I am confident the panel will see it that way too.