Academic Writing Pitfalls

pen and quillThis past week was reading week for my university.  Now, as I only teach one day a week that didn’t necessarily mean a whole lot, other than not having to catch a train and have a horrendously long Friday like normal.  I suppose it also meant I didn’t have a lot of reading and prep to do for class, so there’s that.  What I did instead was set a writing goal for myself.  I’m happy to say I managed to write the amount of words I had set for myself at the beginning of the week, but it certainly wasn’t easy.

In my first year as a PhD student, someone once said that if you write 87 words a day during your tenure, you can definitely finish in three years.  Breaking down the 80,000-word thesis into manageable 87-word chunks sounds like a good idea, in theory.  Writing a mere 87 words every day should take, at MOST, 30 minutes, and that’s if you’re carefully chosing and possibly editing as you write.  So, 30 minutes a day writing, 8 hours doing other things.  In practice, writing everyday becomes much harder, obviously.  It’s hard to write on a topic before conducting the research.  Even if you spent a week researching then wrote the 600-or-so words in one session that leads to research problems.  As in, you haven’t done enough of it to warrant writing 600-odd words.  So you really need to spend a month or two researching all areas to have a solid enough foundation to write.  Of course, there’s ALWAYS more left to research, so knowing when to stop is a key component when it comes to the writing.  Since you’ve now spent two months researching, though, you’re obviously behind on that ’87-words a day’ plan.  That’s fine, as two months worth of writing is only about 5000 words.  Still pretty manageable if spread over a week or two.

That was my plan this week — 4000 words from Monday to Friday, and ideally another 2000 before next Wednesday, for 6000 in a week and a half.  That’s really only about 800 words a day, so perfectly doable.  My problem this week was twofold.  First, I spent quite a bit of Monday and Tuesday being sick, so didn’t get a lot of writing done.  I crammed in a few hundred words Monday, but spent Tuesday recovering.  Already I was behind.  The second problem became writing what I shall term ‘crap’.  Once I was feeling better on Wednesday and Thursday I managed to get quite a bit written; and some of it even decent.  Friday came, though, and I was not feeling it.  At all.  I could not motivate myself for anything.  If there was an opportunity to goof off or do something that wasn’t writing, I was taking it.  ‘Oh, it’s been five minutes since I checked email, let’s see what’s new! I haven’t been on Facebook for a few minutes, what have my friends been up to? New music to listen to, let’s find the lyrics!’  You name it, I would do it instead of writing.  Then when I did write, it wasn’t very good.  Friday I felt like I was writing in circles.  The argument I constructed on Wednesday and Thursday I deconstructed and wrote around on Friday.  I backtracked and reworded things that didn’t need to be rehashed.  It was, in a word, ‘crap’.  Sure, it was words on the page, and that was my goal, but at what point does that no longer count?  With editing I’m sure I can make everything fit and sound better.  I’m not looking forward to that day, honestly, but that’s for the future.

I keep coming back to this idea of manageable chunks, though.  On good days I can reel off 1500 words in a few hours; most of them well thought-out, well written and well researched.  Days like Friday, though, I struggled for 7 hours to do anything, then produced a bunch of crap in a short time.  I’m glad I managed to get something down, because at least the ideas are on the page.  And I’m glad I met my self-imposed goal, that’s actually quite liberating.  But I do wonder if it was actually worth it, or should I have spent the day doing something worthwhile (like a little research) and attempted the writing when I was in a better mind frame.  Anyone have thoughts on the subject?  I want to write more before I have more essays to mark and comment upon, not to mention classes to teach.  But I don’t want to spend more days writing ‘crap’ only to trash it all later; I would probably be better served doing something else worthwhile, like researching, or looking for grants to apply for or almost anything else.  So it goes in the life of a PhD student, though; so it goes.

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One Response to Academic Writing Pitfalls

  1. Pingback: Best of Both Worlds: The Work-Life Balance | Collin Lieberg

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