Write stuff

I recently went to a training session on academic writing. The faculty postgrad trainer is excellent, and I always come away having learnt something. But there’s one thing that bugs me: whatever the course is, she finds a way to slip in the advice that, as PhD students, we should be spending two hours writing every day. And when she says writing, she doesn’t mean editing. Or referencing. Or reading and making notes. She means producing new text.

Every time I hear that, something in me fights against it. Like many people, I’d play the ‘I don’t have time’ card, though in reality if it needs doing it needs doing. I also want to argue that that would generate far too much text for a thesis – but she’s already said that the writing could be thesis, conference abstracts, blogging, public engagement, fellowship applications. Yet internally I’m still fighting against the idea. Because here’s the honest truth: I don’t have enough worthwhile thoughts in my head to translate into two hours a day’s worth of prose.

There. I’ve said it. Maybe that makes me look bad. I’d love to claim that all day long my brain is a-whirr with new ideas and thoughts that drive my progress incrementally towards pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge. But in reality, my typical workday inner monologue is something more like this:

“How do I do this test in Stata? Right, Google. Hmm.. that looks useful, let’s try it. Huh, why won’t it work? Oh, typo. Try again. Huh, why won’t it work? Ohh, the variable should be in parentheses. Try again. Huh, why won’t it work? Ah, need to specify options. Bingo! Oh, so what does that output actually mean? Google. I wonder if so and so’s replied to my data request email. I’ll just check…”

That’s a far truer representation of my experience of ‘doing science’ than any amount of gasping with delight at the chemical composition of make up. The progression of the thought process can be a hybrid of gradualism and punctuated equillibrium. In the latter case, it’s easy to see how to enthusiastically set about writing about a whole new idea or framework, but during the incremental stages it’s harder to know what to put into words.

Even if I were to spend the rest of the working day then reading and absorbing and generating results tables (rather than data cleaning, learning new Stata commands, checking my emails to see if my new data is ready, getting distracted), I still don’t think I could generate enough new material to write about at that length the next day. So I wonder how realistic a ‘two hours a day’ target of writing really is for an PhD researcher. I can easily see how, later on, the task load is increasingly biased towards writing based activities. But at this stage, do I really have that much to say?

I’d like to hear thoughts on this. If you’re a PhD student, does the two hours a day target sound feasible in the earlier stages of your programme? If you’ve done a PhD, what was your writing strategy back then? And how much of your days do you now spend writing?

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6 comments

  1. Personally, it seems a little asinine to myself to even be able to rattle off that much novel (hah!) writing on a daily basis. Coming from a biochemical training, it’s not uncommon to have two or three experiments eat up the whole day, only to find you write up the work for it in 15 minutes or less!

    Fill up all the non-academic writing with blogging? Oh sure. But scholarly publications really emphasize the succinct form of writing. If you’re expecting someone to write a blog post for 90 minutes, expect some embellishment and verbose story-telling.

    Sure, it improves your natural writing skill, but it certainly isn’t improving the style of writing that a researcher ideally wants!

  2. Great post. I think it important to share these kinds of concerns especially as a PhD student. I got my PhD last year and I certainly didn’t/couldn’t dedicate 2 hours a day to writing. Sometimes I wrote all day, sometimes not at all. I had to fit in my writing either when the ideas were flowing or to meet deadlines. Sometimes teaching took over and I didn’t write towards my thesis for a week!

    I think it odd to specify a specific amount of time for writing everyday for every person because every one is different and writes in very different ways. You will quickly learn what works for you as well and what needs to be done for when. To keep writing continuously can be helpful but not always possible given different demands.

    There are some great productivity apps and sites though if you’re struggling which work with this premise. Try http://750words.com/about and http://mytomatoes.com/.

  3. I can easily spend two hours a day writing emails – does that count?

  4. Two hours! Wow, that seems like a lot. I have not heard that advice myself, but I think my reaction would be the same as yours. Some days it is possible to write for much longer, it depends what stage you are at. I have spent days and days (months actually) chasing for participants and not producing a single new piece of written work, and then somehow bashed out 10,000 words in a week.

  5. I can’t imagine writing for 2 hours a day. Ever. Either I am writing for the WHOLE day, (and for writing read editing and rewriting and making figures and googling) because I am waiting for an enzyme or something to arrive and cannot be in the lab, or I am in the lab, with periodic scribbling when the centrifuge is on. (Handily my office and lab back on to one another so I can do this!) What kind of science PhD has two hours in which they can write?!

  6. Well I’m glad it’s not just me! And thanks @dratarrant for the app suggestions. I do think I could do with writing more often to develop discipline, but I just cannot conceive of having enough material to fuel a daily stint of that length.

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