I have recently been working through a book with some PhD students in my department. The book is Alison B Miller’s Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All! How to overcome psychological barriers, get results, and move on with your life., which I cannot recommend highly enough. One of the chapters in this book is on strategies for writing and revising. The key element of Miller’s strategy is to give up on perfectionism. As writers, whether academic or other kinds of writers, we enjoy reading smooth well-written prose and we aim to emulate that. As new writers, we may not be aware that writing is a process that includes significant amounts of editing. So Miller, and many other PhD coaches, recommend developing writing as a practice, whereby you commit to regular bouts of writing just to keep getting things down and keeping the thoughts going. One book has the attractive title Writing your PhD in Fifteen Minutes a Day and advocates keeping a journal to just keep writing going, for at least 15 minutes per day. As you begin writing in a no-pressure burst of only 15 minutes about anything, you can gradually swing your journal subject around to your PhD — what you plan to write that day, problems you are having, reflections on your reading. The point is to let go of high stress, perfectionist writing bouts that have the potential to freeze you in panic, and replace these with low stress, random writing bouts that promote creativity and get you moving.
This is all well and good, and I fully support these strategies. But as a supervisor, I know that nobody else wants to read that. As Miller says, ‘write the first draft with the door closed’, that is, no ghostly supervisors or others hovering over your shoulder. Write it for you alone. The next step is to take that ramble and start thinking about how to ‘crack the door open’ a bit — that is, start preparing it for viewing by others.
In my process of getting writing ‘out the door’, I have found Inger Mewburn’s prezi ‘Write that journal article in 7 days’ extremely helpful. Her writing process is supportive of low-pressure writing spurts, what she calls in full Aussie style “Spew Drafts”. But these are not just hanging there on their own, they are incorporated into a structured method. I outline her method below, with the caveat that her days are a bit like the 7 days of creation: some people claim them as actual days, and others as more like unspecific time periods or stages that may encompass millions of years.
Day 0: Data collection
Day 1: Commit to the project (check publisher’s guidelines, pick a journal, decide on the type of paper, speak to co-authors)
Day 2: Write a tiny text. Like an abstract, this guides the point of your paper and inserts it in debates etc. I like to use Joseph William’s cookie cutter approach here, with a shared context, problem to be adressed, so what? why is it important, and solution this piece will offer.
Day 3: Do a spew draft. Mewburn recommends getting all the little bits of text you have, such as those journal snippets, and chuck them all together in a file (or better yet, a Scrivener project). Then just blurt out what you are trying to do in whatever form it comes to you. When you can’t think of the right word, just stick in any word that will do. If you need a reference, insert [refs needed here!] and keep moving. Keep moving until you have nothing left to write about this piece, until it reaches some kind of natural conclusion. Or you realise you need more data or reading or something.
Day 4: Do a scratch outline. Here, I print out the spew draft and the tiny text, and try to massage some sort of logical structure for my argument out of these. I do this by hand, so I am not tempted to cut and paste. This is often where I meet with co-authors too.
Day 5: Start cleaning the mess. For me, this means rewriting from beginning to end. As in RE-TYPING, using the printouts and handwritten structure as a guide. Inserting references and so on. This is a rather longer ‘day’ in the cycle.
Day 6: Murder your darlings. Or edit. Stephen King calls editing ‘murdering your darlings’ and this is where Mewburn gets it from. This means cutting out all those little side notes and interesting facts and references to show you are smart and ANYTHING THAT IS NOT PART OF THE STORY/ARGUMENT YOU ARE TRYING TO TELL. Murder them, even when it breaks your little heart.
Day 7: Let it rest. Like the Old Testament, our 7 days ends with a day of rest. Rest that article and come back to it refreshed. Or pass it to a colleague to read. Do not submit without letting it rest! What made sense on Day 6 will no longer make sense in the light of Day 7.
If you are using this method to write thesis chapters, at what point should this go to your supervisor? I think it depends on the supervisor. I tended to submit mine at the end of Day 5. So significant editing still required, but it is still legible, has references, proper English and so on. In general I would say do NOT submit your spew draft to your supervisor, you will totally freak them out. The exception to this is if you have not submitted anything for a really long time and your supervisor wants to see some evidence that you are writing. In that case, print it all out in double spaced 12 pt font and let them hold the comforting stack of pages between their hot and sticky hands but don’t let them take it. Talk through your ideas and see if they can help you with the scratch outline. A better scenario would be for you to give the scratch outline a go, and start plugging material in to that outline, even if it is bullet points. Then you can show them the spew draft AND the outline, so they know you are not a crazy person who cannot write, but are simply working through a creative process.
Some supervisors have the 30/90 rule. That is, they want to see things when they are in the 30% done stage and the 90% done stage. The benefit of giving supervisors something in the the 30% stage is that they can advise on direction before you have gone too far. For me this would mean giving them the tiny text and/or the scratch outline.
I hope I haven’t scared you too much by insisting you do not give them your spew draft. Some supervisors complain that their students will not show them anything, because they are so perfectionist they want their supervisor to wait until it is totally done. I don’t advocate that kind of perfectionism. What I am trying to advocate is that if you give yourself time to be messy and creative, you can get more down on paper and then you have something to work with. Certainly involve your supervisor in a bit of the creative mess, as I said, the end of Day 5 can be a good time for them to step in and let you know which darlings have to go.
Finally, I am reminded of a helpful way of thinking about this process my good friend Ann Hill first introduced to me. Apparently I have remembered it wrong, as in this post another writer calls it something different. But for what its worth, this is how I remember it. There are four jobs in creative work like writing, and this is what they are (according to me, how I remember Ann telling it):
You let the Madwoman out, who dreams big and crazy and she is the one writing the ‘spew draft’. Kick her out of the space, and invite the Architect in to help with scratch outline. She takes the crazy ideas and puts them into some kind of beautiful structure. Show out the Architect and invite in the Engineer. She takes the Architect’s plans and tries to build the structure, paragraph by paragraph, so that it holds up the design. Finally, when the Engineer is all done (AND NOT BEFORE), let the cleaner in. She goes through and dots the i’s and crosses the t’s and checks your references, changes your grammar, decides on what needs to be capitalised, applies the journal/thesis format style and so on.
Successful writers, apparently, control which person is ‘in the building’ at any one time. It would not be a good strategy to let the madwoman in at the end to wreck everything and reimagine it all in to a new piece ( I know people who sabotage their work in this way). It would not be a good strategy to get stuck with the Architect endlessly designing and redesigning the structure (I have met a student who did this). We can’t have the Engineer running the project from the beginning, without some kind of overall dream and structure with which to work. And, we cannot have the cleaner coming in at any other stage, getting in the way sweeping up sawdust while there is still work to be done.
So – the lesson is to embrace your crazy imperfect writing, and to use it in a well-structured process that gets publications or thesis chapters ‘out the door’!