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Managing the writing process

When I was a Writing Fellow at the University of Bath, sometimes a doctoral student would arrive for their 50-minute one-to-one session with a glum expression on their face. They’d say something like, ‘I’m writing up my thesis and each day seems the same. I’m spending the whole day writing and it’s getting me down. Can you help?’ My response, after reassuring them that everything was OK, was to find out what exactly they did in their working day.

I’m aware that most academics and professional writers don’t sit down and write all day. Writing is an intensive and challenging activity. Most professional writers write for a few hours in the morning or evening and do other writing-related activities at other times — finding sources, reading, planning, and checking their writing. And thinking.

In my book about successful academic writing, I summarise the writing process like this:

The arrows show that writing does not flow smoothly forward. It is typical, particularly in academic writing, to backtrack and do further reading and research based on what you discover when you start writing.

The activities that make up the overall writing process can all be managed. When you’re writing your thesis, the working day can be split among different activities. I suggest you don’t do any of them for more than half of the day. Mix and match them according to your preferences.

Nowadays, I run thesis-writing workshops at several universities. When I unravel what a doctoral student does, I often find that they’re not very aware of their writing process. They don’t manage it well, wasting time with distractions and interruptions. I discover they have preferences about when to compose. Most prefer to compose in the morning or evening.

My advice? Find out what your preferences are, and work to them. Find a good place to compose. Set yourself targets, write in bite-sized chunks of an hour or so, and deal with emails and texts during breaks. Don’t waste time on distractions and interruptions. If you stay focused you can achieve a lot in three or four hours of writing a day. Then you can spend the rest of the time on other activities.

Writing a thesis is a marvellous opportunity, not only to improve the quality of your writing but also the way you manage your writing. These are skills that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.

23 October 2017

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