Post-#AcWriMo

Did everyone survive #AcWriMo? Did everyone know that they were inadvertently doing #AcWriMo and then someone mentioned it in their staff common room and they nodded along and said “oh yes, I am totally doing #AcWriMo” and then rushed to check what #AcWriMo was and signed up convinced that “this time, I am going to make it”?

I signed up for #AcWriMo only three days after it had started, so I have to say, I was not told by a colleague about it and then lied about doing it as the intro paragraph suggests. I did do it until the end – but I have to confess I have not gone back to the original website to introduce my results and kiss my biceps in the process for having achieved my objectives. I could have, but I was too lazy to do so. I went back to the list I had prepared in my notebook on the same day I signed up for it, saw that I achieved my minimum requirements, and then forgot about it. The job is done, so to speak, so why bother procrastinating over stats.

It was a good month for academic writing from a personal perspective, as the second day of December I submitted a substantial piece of the chapter I am writing. Supervisors were happy with it, and as usual, okay’d me to go ahead and just keep writing. I was also involved in two presentations, which I had to prepare specifically. Whilst the chapter is roughly about 8,000 words at the moment (with bibliography and all the footnotes, which means the actual text is probably no more than 6,000), the two presentations piled up to a total of 5,000 words. The total for November, then, is around 13k. I am happy with that. That was the whole point of #AcWriMo in essence: to write like there was no December.

The problem is, there IS a December. And just because you have writing your body weight in words for an entire month, that doesn’t grant you permission to stop writing on the first of December until the next marathon begins. I mean, you can. But it sort of defeats the purpose of it, much like losing to the bottom teams of a league due to lack of effort defeats the purpose of beating the top teams in epic battles.

I find it hard, however, to motivate myself to write after a big write-a-thon. With all the effort that surviving November took, and the good feedback that my supervisors have given me about my work, my body’s natural reaction is to bask on the smugness of success, and find good reasons not to do any work. “Oh, but I wrote 8,000 words in November, leave me alone”, my brain cries. “Even if I don’t write a single word for the next three weeks, I will still have an average of 4,000 words in a month”, well yes, brain, but this is not how it works. This only leads to guilt trips, brain, and you know this.

So two days ago, after having taken many, many days off, I decided to break the vicious circle of smugness, and started writing again. I am not sure I am succeeding at not “basking too much” on my smugness, but at least opening the document for a couple of hours, forcing myself to look at it and get the ideas flowing, I am doing better than not looking at it at all. Between the post-#AcWriMo deflation and the Christmas lull, I have made it into a really lazy December, so baby steps to correct that attitude is the best I can do right now. So that #AcWriMo actually serves a purpose and I don’t lose any points/words against bottom placed teams/non-Twitter frenzied academic writing branded months.

So that’s the plan for now!

Ode to the little things

I have been really busy in the last two weeks. I was in charge of organising the Careers Week at my school, which was a very rewarding experience, but also a very tiresome one. In the past two weeks, an event that occurs every year has also taken place, and as every other person living in Glasgow, I am still trying to adapt: no, it’s not frozen over yet, but British Summer Time is a goner. It would be fair to say that it was barely every here (summer, uncapitalised, that is), but long evenings and early mornings are better than nighttime at 4pm and darkness into mid-morning. Going back to GMT, the timings against AEDT, which is the ‘Summer Time’ equivalent in New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, meant that I was doomed to miss the How to Survive your PhD MOOC as it starts just as I am walking to work. Having so much to do meant that I also missed the main topic of discussion this week, which was love.

The Thesis Whisperer asked to show some love to an inanimate object that is really helping with your PhD. I find it hard to nominate just one. But I have a ‘band’ of helpers that are totally pulling me through some difficult moments, and I thought they deserved some recognition. So, in the same way as a lead singer would ‘sing’ praise for his/her band, there are some unusual suspects that need to be told ‘good job and thanks for sticking by’. In a non-patronising way, of course, something more poetic than “well, you cost a fortune”, “I own you”, or “thanks for not getting lost”.

The old farts

The notebook – or the concept of a ‘lab book’. I do not work in a lab, but at the very beginning of my PhD I heard the line “keep a lab book, and at some point in your res
earch, the lab book will keep you”. I completely understand that statement. From my very first year’s Pukka pad, to the recycled A4 jottas I kept returning to, to the nowadays more portable and ‘greener’ Leuchtturm 1917, which make me feel slightly more mature at times (must be the size and the type of notebook), all lab books have “kept me”. In all of them, I have not only written ideas that I had, plans, structures, and drawings of some sort, but I have also spoken to my former and future research self, in things as random yet as useful as my mood when coming up with these ideas. I feel there is a correlation between my mood (or the weather) and how productive I can be, and when trying to figure out where I am in my PhD, the notebooks have always saved the day.

notebook

The netbook. An old fella at the age of four (which seems ridiculously old for a piece of technological equipment), I purchased my netbook as I was writing my masters dissertation and my laptop had started failing. It was always a slow mover, and it still is, even though in recent times, I have given it Windows 10 and it seems to be going slightly faster. These days, I use my netbook for Shut Up and Write; it is easy enough to carry and to set up. I even use it around the house, when I can’t be bothered turning on the big computer. I also use it in the library, which is also a recent discovery. It has Scrivener and EndNote installed on it, and I am a proud owner. Many chapter chunks have been written thanks to its continued service.

netbook

Tablet and keyboard. It alternates with the netbook when I need to take long trips. It is great for note taking and thought generation. It is also great for watching stuff in bed, of course. It has every app and programme under the sun that I could need to sit down and write a little bit. Some great ideas have been generated through it.

tablet

Evernote. My literature review wouldn’t be written without it. Take a massive bow.

The new kids on the block

Write-o-meter. I love it, I freaking love it. And I have only been using it for less than a month. It is like it was made for me – daily word count and timer (pomodoro-style) included, plus you can keep track of your rewards. Every day I get to the office and I get a reminder that I need to write some words. And when I wake up in the morning and my brain is ready to rumble, it also helps me get going. Keeps me accountable without having to think too much. Love it, thanks.

writeometer1 writeometer2

The library. I have always been a library lover, but since I gave up my office space due to lack of use, level 5 (the postgrad level) in the library is my new hub. All it has really is wide desks, and power points, and as a person who goes there to write, that is really all you need. Whilst it is inconvenient because you can’t really check many books (logistics are complex), it is a great place to write. It is better than my work office, and it is nicer than most levels in the library. A recent finding, I hope it carries me home through the next few months.

postgrad study

And that is my band. My PhD wouldn’t be where it is today without my inanimate friends.

So, thank you!

Useful procrastination(?)

I jotted down some thoughts about what I wanted to do today this morning.

procras1

I felt good with myself because it included two things I desperately need to do: read and write. Reading I have been very good at lately. I have never really been. But in the last two weeks I have been awesome. I have started to feel I am reading so much and so well just so I don’t have to go into point two of that mini to-do list: writing. I need to write – but everything, right now, seems more appealing. I am, however, not the first person to be in this particular mind loop, judging by the stuff on Shit Academics Say.

shitacademicssay1

It’s Thursday, and the weather outside, by Glasgow standards, is pretty nice – 13 degrees and clear, sunny skies. I went for lunch and had a long, productive conversation with PhD in AVT, who had just been at a workshop this morning.

Now being at a workshop is dangerous – awesome but unproductive ideas can come to you at any time after you leave the classroom. We discussed a few topics all related to research – mainly related to writing (or to not writing). We have fiddled about with the idea of setting up our own Shut up and write group, but we seem to be still quite immobile as a group – ideas are good, action on them is slow.

The idea that came up from our conversation was to set up a Peer Feedback Group, as a counterpoint to the SU&W idea. We went through all the specific points, and even discussed smaller details when one of our colleagues pointed at particular pitfalls in our plan. So it’s fair to say that what was set up for an afternoon of potential writing (mind you, perhaps one sentence or two), it has now cascaded into putting together a proposal for both our colleagues and the school about our writing group ideas.

This is fantastic, of course. But how much of a distraction is it? Are we awesome at organising communal things or we are just very good at procrastinating?

I am a self-confessed PhD/research-blog-reader. I love reading about research, as opposed to doing any. I love books about reading, and #phdchat and #acwri discussions. Again, as opposed to writing any sort of research. I feel this might be a bit odd (like loving books on literary criticism but not reading any actual literature), but I suppose that if I want to make a career out of this, it’s good to be informed. I am also a keen early adopter of new techniques. If anyone tells me to try something different with my research, I will – even if that implies taking an entire afternoon changing references from one bibliographic system into another. In some ways doing something new, in a different way, is like having a new toy, only in an academic-y, boring environment.

This obsession for new articles to read and new things to try is, in a way, a massive procrastinating factor of mine. I know this. I have assumed the fact that, some times, I just need to read another post about writing or note taking so that I can try it again and see if it works this time. I enjoy this form of procrastination more than dwelling on Facebook or watching videos of cats. It’s terrible. Yet I cannot avoid it.

Does knowing more about the perks of doing research help me do any good research at all? Well, this is a bit of a difficult point to argue. It’s like the old adage of if you can’t do it, teach it. Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t. In certain days, it can definitely get in the way. I try my best to focus on the actual research but there are days that only cats on the internet will occupy my brain span. It’s just the way it is. There’s no point in fighting it at times. What I know, though, is that at least I have a wider knowledge of what is expected of me, and what is involved in conducting research, and hence all the acquired knowledge has guided me towards getting certain things done correctly over the past two and a half years. Or else I have spent some really entertained afternoons pretending I am doing actual research, which is also cool.

I don’t know if our ideas for a Shut up and write and Peer feedback group will work out the way we want to, but certainly they are good initiatives to tackle a problem that me and PhD in AVT seem to have. Which is summarized so well again by Shit Academics Say.

shitacademicssay2

#alwaysamongrel

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.