Thursday, October 08, 2009

Slow and steady... is a difficult pace

I have long known that my writing skills are more hare than tortoise. I seem to work in fairly unpredictable bursts of productivity, or rather, depressingly predictable ones during the last minute before a deadline. Over the years I have oscillated between attempts at reform and embracing this pattern. I have known for some time that I probably wanted to do a PhD and also knew that while last minute sprints could get me through endless essays during my nine undergraduate years, you can't sprint through a PhD.

I have tried writing every day* (and failed). I have tried setting myself shorter term deadlines (and failed). I have tried asking for external deadlines (and failed). I have tried treating my study more like work (and failed). I have tried banning distractions (and failed). I guess I'm looking for new inspiration. How have others wrestled with this issue? What have been your successes and failures?
*Probably the closest was when I was blogging more regularly and would aim to put up at least 5 posts each week. You can see by the numbers on the sidebar which months have been more or less productive.

17 comments:

Sam Norton said...

Ha! You and me both. I don't know is my honest answer.

Dave Taylor said...

haha, well it's 3:45am here and I have just finished an essay that was due 2 days ago. So no, I can offer no suggestions. However, it is encouraging for me to hear this kind of angst coming from an academic heavy-weight such as yourself ;)

Heather said...

I never managed it. I have a suspicion that coming to terms with the idea of a draft (which due to last minute-ness I have never actually tried)and letting go the perfection thing might help, at least for me. I had supervisors assure me that writing anything was better than nothing but I found it hard to believe.

Mark Stevens said...

Byron, for the past two and a half years my better sermons have been finished on Sunday morning! However, it causes me great stress. I, like you and the rest of our generation it seems, struggle to work without deadlines. However, I am convinced that discipline is the only key.

I am trying as hard as I can to finish everything by Friday morning - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I try to work at my best times (between 5am and 7am). But I have a reason now, family. I don't want them to suffer because i can't concentrate or lack discipline.

I hope this doesn't come across as pious, please it is not meant that way but I truly believe discipline is the only key. If you manage it can you let me know what it is like? ;)

Lara said...

I think failure is just part of the process. Keep trying to set deadlines (and asking to have some set for you is a good idea too), keep trying to write every day, and just accept that you won't always get there.

Of course, any of my advice should be taken with a grain of salt - it did take me 5 1/2 years to finish the darn thing.

Does your supervisor help you stick to deadlines? One of my issues was that my supervisor was too nice and too lenient. I'd tell him I'd have a chapter to him by a particular date, then I wouldn't make it, I'd extend the deadline and he wouldn't mind at all. I wish he had minded!

Letting go of perfection, as Heather said, is also vital. Although the more polished a draft it, the better the feedback can be, sometimes you need help before getting to that point. One mistake I made was never learning to ask for help early rather than later.

All that said, I don't think there's anything wrong with slow and steady, as long as you get there in the end. People have different rhythms, and while you can't write an entire PhD at the last minute, you can get cracking on chapters or even chapter sections at the last minute before particular deadlines, as long as you feel those deadlines are enforced in some way.

Anthony Douglas said...

I have a diagnostic question.

I suspect that the reason is because you're more interested in dialogue than monologue. Well, at least, that's how it is for me, and the world revolves around me, so...

Am I right? And hence blogging is an easier write, because it is at least a form of dialogue; conversely, writing a PhD is a dull monologue, not least because you know what you're going to say before you write it?

The only solution I can think of is to turn it into a dialogue. Does Jess love you enough to refuse to talk about thesis stuff except in print?? ;-) Or perhaps you can find a similarly afflicted postgrad there, and come up with a quid pro quo arrangement?

Or you could appeal to the box-ticker in you, who likes to mark completion. Break stuff up into chapters, sections, paragraphs...?

Jason Goroncy said...

Byron, I have no great wisdom here but your post recalled to mind these two pieces:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/oct/16/highereducation.books

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/nov/08/highereducation.books

The whole PhD thing is an emotional roller coaster, some sections of which you just need to hang on tight.

Donna said...

Hi Byron, here are some serious, and some less serious idea, mainly revolving around positive thinking...

- concentrating on how much you love the topic, maybe each morning.

- imagining that a publisher is waiting for the draft and/or very famous persons you admire are waiting to read your next chapter :-)

- picturing the difference that your ideas could make in the world, and looking forward to when they worked out and put on paper.

- praying about it every morning.

What about figuring out what precisely it is about the work which turns you off, and modifying that...

Are you accountable to someone? If you can't keep your own deadlines, can you promise someone else that you will do "x" - will that motivate you more?

Some of those have worked for me..

michael jensen said...

How about this:

bloody well get on with it!

Did that help?

:-)

Mike W said...

I fear writing because I know I rarely am able to fix up what I write, which makes writing agonisingly slow, which means I write at the last minute, which means I don't get to fix the problems, and round and round we go.

So, here's for a crazy solution.
That section of the PhD you are writing? You are a freakin genius, you know your material, just pump it out and go and have a cup of tea. Sure, it won't be everything you had hoped to say, it wont be as polished as you'd like, but neither will the last minute version you do.

Mike W said...

Or, blog it

Doug Forbes said...

I don't know whether an engineering PhD is different to a Theology one (well, apart from the obvious!), but I didn't write any chapters until 30 months in - then took 6 months to write up (well, 6 months and two weeks - missed my three year deadline by those two weeks, but that may just be the engineer in me that gets hung up on that).

One of the biggest challeneges of writing a PhD thesis is pulling it all together so it tells a coherent story. Some really useful advise I was given was not to worry about repeating yourself. Despite how depressing it may sound, hardly anyone will ever read your whole thesis.... what is more likely is that folks will dip into chapters, so effetivly they need to repeat a lot of what has gone before and point forward a whole lot.

I certainly found writing up the hardest bit of the whole thing. Something I had done along the way was produce a couple of conference and a couple of journal papers. That helped as I had the bare bones of some chapters within those papers.

Don't really know if there is any advice there or not. Any what I have said may be relevant for engineering, but not for anything else!

Matheson said...

I'm the blind leading the blind on this one, I'm afraid. But here is my hypothesis (or, rationalization):

Thinking takes time.

Feed it, nurture it, encourage it, prompt it, challenge it, and sometimes even demand something concrete from of it. Use the writing to serve thought - to order it and bring it to decision.

But remember, what you're doing at that moment of writing is forcing thought to stand still and account for itself. What you'll get won't be a finished "product", like something at the end of the production line. It will only ever be a sedimentation, a snap shot, an offering, of something less certain, more fragmented and labyrinthine, of something altogether more interesting than anything you'll ever write on the page: the life of the mind.

byron smith said...

I find it more than a little ironic that a post about the difficulties of writing should have drawn so many of my writing friends out of the woodwork!

Thanks for your thoughts and links and encouragement and even MPJ's exhortation (I think).

Sam - well, if I ever work it out, I'll let you know if you promise to do the same.

Dave - ahaha, that's exactly what you should be doing at 3.45 am after finishing an essay: reading my blog! Go to sleep, you fool. :-)

Heather - yes, I've heard the "anything-is-better-than-nothing" line many times myself and find it hard to believe, but enough smart people keep saying it that perhaps it is something that has to be first taken on trust.

Mark - discipline is indeed very important. How does one go about acquiring/strengthening it do you think?

Lara - my supervisor does set deadlines, but they are more like "feel vaguely unwell lines" than anything remotely linked to mortality. I think he does this deliberately since he believes that learning self-discipline is one of the tasks of the PhD.

Anthony - smaller goals is an important factor that many people have suggested (including both O'Donovan and my wife, repeatedly). As for the dialogue point, I think you are right. And I am certainly not left alone by Jess on this. She has been part of most of my most significant developments. The other point at which I seem to (sometimes) get somewhere is when I am forced to explain myself at a party to someone who (a) doesn't know anything about ethics and (b) has enough perseverence to keep asking "but what do you mean by that?" Conversations are indeed very important. And so yes, that is part of why I am blogging some of my most recent work at the moment (also so that I can point party conversations to the posts if they are really persistent!).

Jason - thanks for those links. I read them yesterday and spent some time discussing them with Jess.

Donna - I take it that your imagination exercise was not entirely imaginary! And you mean a PhD is actually meant to contribute something to the world? Perish the thought.

Mike J - not really, but you could try again and see if it works this time.

Mike W - sounds lovely. Except I don't drink tea. :-(

Doug - the point about repetition is a good one. I generally go out of my way to avoid repeating myself in essays (since I usually feel the word limit pressing on me and restricting what I have room to say), but you're right that in a larger text repetition becomes a little more important to maintain cohesion. I suspect that there are indeed differences between the process of writing a science vs humanities thesis. Not least is the fact that I can't sit around doing fun experiments for the first few years!

Matheson - Writing serves thought. Beautiful and beautifully encouraging. Thanks.

Mark Stevens said...

Byron, your post stayed with me throughout the day. It kind of bugged me because I think it is true for me also.

I wonder, firstly, if it is a matter of vocation. Do we view what we do as part of our vocational integrity? Later in the day I was reading Eugene Peterson's Under the Unpredictable Plant" and I came across this quote by Hauerwas on vocational vision:

"We are as we come to see and as that seeing becomes enduring in our intentionality we do not come to see however, just by looking but by training our vision through metaphors and symbols that constitute our central convictions... "

Peterson goes onto say, "If we want to change our way of life, acquiring the right image is far more important than diligently exercising willpower" (1992, p.6)

I found this to be incredibly helpful and it resonated with the way I am motivated (although I didn't realise it until I read it).

gbroughto said...

A week off from reading blogs has helped me write...
But more importantly I have hit upon a new pattern that is working for the moment:

no more reading after lunch - that is, I am at the stage where I need to articulate my own ideas, and turning to sources is what prevents me form doing this (there is always one more book, article, blog post to read...)

So far it has helped in two ways:
i) there is a little more discipline in the morning, knowing the books are not allowed in the afternoon
ii) it creates more space for the slowness of writing... rather than trying to squeeze some creative ideas out in a small window.

Anyway... its working this week ;)

Mike W said...

Thanks Matheson, that is really helpful