How writing is like cake making. #acwri

this week's home-made asymmetrical Aussie Rule football cake

this week’s home-made Aussie Rules football cake

Why cake ? Because joy and deliciousness are nutrients in their own right. ~ Jude Blereau

I make about two cakes a year, one for each of my children’s birthdays. One year ago, baking and decorating my eldest son’s cake prompted a blog post in which I compared making a novelty birthday cake to doing a PhD. This year, baking his double-layer chocolate cake (decorated as an AFL football field) had me thinking: this cake making business is a lot like writing, particularly academic writing.

My boys are 4 and (just) 6, so on my one-cake-per-child’s-birthday / two-cakes-per-year average, I haven’t baked that many cakes. Yet this week’s cake (pictured above), is the first cake that has felt stress-free to make, and first one for which I haven’t made big mistakes in the making. In the past my cake and icing mixes have split and curdled. I have broken cakes trying to get them out of the pan. There have been times when I decorated cakes the day before serving and the colours from the candy bled into the icing. Once, a heavy cake topper figurine sunk into the cake overnight. Earlier this year, I got a knife caught in the beaters while making icing, which resulted in me icing myself and the whole kitchen, including the ceiling. I didn’t feel quite the Nigella-esque image of domestic goddessery when I couldn’t see through my tears and icing-splattered spectacles.

This week there was none of the cake-anxiety drama. Baking and decorating were calm and enjoyable. Much of this was due to the knowledge and skills I have gained over time, as well as processes I have developed for this task. I knew to leave my ingredients out so that they were room temperature when I used them, preventing mixes from splitting. I knew to alternate mixing in dry and wet ingredients. I knew to take the time to cover the whole inside of the pan with carefully-traced-and-cut-and-placed bake paper so that the cake would slide out easily, with a now-practiced flourish, onto a wire rack. I knew to ice the cake while it was partly frozen to prevent crumbs in the icing, and to leave the extra decorations off until the icing was set so that the colours didn’t bleed. I had a familiar routine set out over a few days which made the process manageable. I also knew my materials better, what they could and couldn’t do. My expectations were managed. The cake was a bit lopsided, the icing a bit uneven, the drawn lines a bit skewwhiff. These imperfections were the marks of me as the maker, and I was ok with those idiosyncrasies. They were the ‘voice’ or the ‘me’ in the cake.

And so, from baking and decorating to writing …

My reflections on my journey as a novice baker and decorator remind me of my arc as an academic writer. The brief for each cake (footy! outer space! race track!), or each paper or chapter (this journal! that book! this field! that theory!), is different, requiring planning and consideration at the outset about how to proceed in order to reach a particular end point. Academic writing requires a nuanced understanding of its ingredients, materials and processes. The writer needs to understand, and be able to expertly manipulate, the language of particular disciplines and the language of particular journals. They build a growing knowledge of theories and literatures.

Like the baker, the writer develops a routine, a flow, an individualised writing process that works for them, including how to time their work, how to structure it, how to build layers of meaning, how to perfect and polish it in the final stages. They acquire tools and strategies for their work, things that make the work smoother and produce a better product. Some knowings and doings become internalized over time, with the writer having to think less about them, able to turn their attentions to refining their craft, developing deeper understandings and pushing the scope of their work beyond the limits of its previous iterations. Writers hone their voice, the ‘me’-ness in their writing, while watching out for their writing tics.

Like a cake made for a particular individual and a specific celebration, a piece of writing is often constructed with a particular audience in mind. Peer review of cake at a child’s birthday party is gentler than that in academia, but the party guest’s purpose is to appreciate and thank the host, while the peer reviewer’s purpose is to critically judge and improve the work. Once writing is published, more feedback comes in the forms of citations, downloads, reviews and social media shares. The audiences are different, but for both baking and writing there are accepted norms of feedback from others. A baker might dread the grimaced smiles of guests pretending to enjoy their cake while they leave slices unfinished, just as a writer might fear Reviewer 3’s scathing critique or the deafening silence of an uncited, un-clicked-upon piece, lying unread in physical and online spaces. Peer review is, after all, often like getting a punch in the face and a high five simultaneously.

While I am a sometimes-baker, I am a regular writer. I’m sure that if I baked with the constancy of my writing, it would improve markedly. I write something almost every day, for different purposes or different audiences. One distinction for me between baking and writing (obviously there are many differences!) is that I find I write my way into understanding, into knowing my own thinking and into interrogating my worlds and the writings of others. Writing is inquiry, identity work, illuminator. It is joy and struggle. And while a cake is devoured until only crumbs remain, writing lives on.

On writing: Is it dense to be complex?

writing is power (my image, of course!)

writing is power (my image, of course!)

Writing can be bold and dangerous and disruptive. It can be quiet and still and sneaky. It can be melodious and rhythmic and beautiful. It can be subversive and challenging and difficult to read. As a reader and a teacher of English and Literature, I am a believer in the power of language, of words, of literature, of story and of writing. To educate and to soothe. To challenge and to change. It’s why writing is so important for everyone. Writing – and being able to enact authorial intent, to release thought and emotion through words on a page or screen or device – is power.

I teach my students of English to write for audience and purpose. For whom are they writing? What is their purpose? To persuade, to shock, to inform, to inspire, to call to action, to explain, to intrigue? As authors, once they have identified for whom and why they are writing, they can make choices of form, structure and language. I teach them the ‘rules’ of various genres and forms so that they know how to use them, and how to deliberately break them. The same goes for any writer: know your game, how to play and conform, and how to challenge or subvert.

I find blogging an interesting form in the sense that the audience is sometimes unclear. In some ways I write it for myself – as a web log of reflections. Yet I write around particular topics, and I know that I have a readership of individuals and groups who are (it seems!) interested in what I have to say. In some ways I write to share my story so that others might glean something from it, in part because I get so much from others blogging their journeys or writing ‘aloud’ their thoughts and theories as they form. I like even more the collaborative nature of blogging; when it opens up conversation, in comments, on social media or in new blog posts. As Pat Thomson writes, writing can be identity work; it can be a way into being and into connection. And as author and self-publisher, a blogger is free to write how and about what they choose. It’s a kind of free writing.

Academic writing is a different beast. Some academic writers work to make their writing accessible to a broader audience than the academe or a narrow field of scholars. Sometimes I use my thesaurus in reverse (‘What’s a simpler way of saying this?’). But often, as Greg Thompson and Linda Graham have suggested recently, academese can be complex, esoteric and hard to decode precisely because of the densities and intricacies of the ideas being tussled with. Readers and writers of academic prose need to work hard, grappling with words and concepts. Sometimes it seems that every third academic writer invents a new word just to sound more obtuse and scholarly than the next. Yet these discourse-specific terms can be the result of the sweat and tears of theorisation; ‘How do I best communicate this theory?’ Like literature, often celebrated for its multi-levelled complexity, academic texts often need to be read and re-read in order to be understood, and on different levels. Academic allegory. A journey into knowing.

One’s own writing, too, can involve struggle. Using big words isn’t necessarily gratuitous chest-beating in order to show off or project cleverness; it can be the result of ideas and words wrestled with, toiled over, written and re-written. Boundaries pushed at persistently. Knowledge formed or reimagined. I am a neophyte in the world of academia, but my PhD has taught me that writing in academia can mean taking one step forward to take ten steps back. Often I write my way into understanding, like Naomi Barnes who sees writing as inquiry and blogging as process.

my crude Venn diagram of the writing-reading process

my crude Venn diagram of the writing-reading process

Meaning is made at the junction between text (as performed by the writer) and reader. The writer brings themselves to the text, with all their own context, authorial processes, beliefs, assumptions, knowledge, gaps in knowledge and writerly decisions. The reader, too brings their self, context, beliefs, values, and skills of interpretation to the written piece. It’s in that zinging middle space – like in the tension between the fingers of Adam and God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – that meaning is made. It’s why no reading of a text is ever the same, and why there can never be a ‘right’ interpretation, only perhaps a dominant one.

In today’s world there are a range of places and forms in which authors can communicate their work, theorise, research, think and write. Writers make decisions based on what they want to communicate and who they are reaching out to (or away from). They can choose big words, small words, combative words, inclusive words. They can simplify or complicate. They might write to situate themselves in a particular discourse, within a particular conversation, or with a particular group.

Readers, too, make choices. To read, engage, re-read, give up, struggle through. Or to respond and engage by writing, writing, writing.

How to make your PhD seem like a holiday

This post is my homework this week from the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC in which we have been asked to illuminate an area of confusion through a ‘how to’ guide. While one of the things I found most difficult in my PhD was the discussion chapter (which I’ve talked about here), I thought I’d take a more light hearted approach to this task. One reason for that is that this week – in two sleeps! – I’ll be printing my thesis to be sent to the examiners. So I’m feeling all out of words and fairly brain fried.

I’ve previously asked the question: Can you love your PhD? Here I look at whether your PhD can seem like a holiday. So here’s my ‘how to’ for enjoying your PhD as though it’s an island getaway (more than a little tongue in cheek, but not entirely!).

*              *              *

a romantic night in with the thesis

a romantic night in with the thesis

Step 1: Make sure you’re over committed. This includes parenting, working, having a partner, caring for pets, dealing with life’s surprises. This way, whenever you steal time away to spend time with your PhD, it’ll feel special. Time, just the two of you, feels wonderful when it’s in the eye of a crazy life storm. Ah, special romantic PhD moments!

my kiddoes

my kiddoes

Step 2: Do your work in lovely places and comfy spaces. While a functional office might be great for productivity, there’s nothing like a gorgeous café for some academic writing or a sunny daybed for some literature reading. Cafés, as well as providing ambience for writing, have the bonus of caffeine and people, making you both energetic in your work and surrounded by fellow humans, a great antidote to feeling as though you’re working alone.

my fave #acwri daybed, with coffee

my fave #acwri daybed, with coffee

Step 3: Take a writing retreat. Take a LOT of writing retreats. While you don’t have to ‘retreat’ far (these can be close to home), they need to be in slightly unfamiliar places, preferably with great scenery and some outdoorsyness to get amongst when you’re taking breaks from the writing or revising.

#acwri in the sun by the beach

#acwri in the sun by the beach

Step 4: Choose to research something you’re passionate about, and stay true to yourself in your method and writing. This way you’re following your own research dream and digging into a part of the knowledge landscape that sustains and inspires you. Take off your shoes and curl your toes in the rich earth!

glittery inspiration & your own special randomness

glittery inspiration & your own special randomness

Et voilà! The PhD seems like a holiday, not a torment. 🙂

 

The neverending story of the PhD

Rhymes that keep their secrets / Will unfold behind the clouds / And there upon the rainbow / Is the answer to a neverending story ~ Lyrics to ‘Neverending Story’ by Limahl. Watch the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vf2sDgeu7k

Bastian atop Falkor; just like PhD-finishing triumph Source: http://thephobia.com/post/58187104333/the-neverending-story

Bastian atop Falkor the luckdragon in the film; just like PhD-finishing triumph
Source: http://thephobia.com/post/58187104333/the-neverending-story

Children of the 80s like myself will remember The Neverending Story, a quest narrative in which the protagonist escapes into a fantastical world through the pages of a magical book. What started as a 1979 German fantasy novel by Michael Ende became a 1984 film directed by Wolfgang Peterson with a deliciously-80s theme song by Limahl. When I’ve been asked what the song of my PhD would be, I often answer ‘The Neverending Story’ as it just goes on and on!

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the seeming neverendingness of the PhD. I’ve had people in life and on Twitter congratulating me on the completion of my PhD … despite the fact I have not submitted! I think it is because I announced with glee that I had finished my full thesis draft in July. People seem to think that I surely MUST be done by now.

But no.

While the first full draft means that all the chapters are written, it does not mean that the document is (anywhere near) finished. There are some great online resources to help doctoral students with long and laborious revision and editing. Pat Thomson talks about the process of revision, as opposed to editing. Rachel Cayley’s great piece outlines the stages and layers of editing. Katherine Firth’s post on editing gives thorough and accessible strategies. And Tara Brabazon penned this Times Higher Education article which includes ten editing cycles, including ‘read every sentence underlined with a ruler’ (I have tried this). A finished first draft is 3-6 months from a finished final draft.

I kicked off my full-draft revision with a writing retreat, in which I spent about two full days and nights on the first 40 pages. This wasn’t editing. It was Frankensteinesque dismemberment and radical textual surgery, as Pat Thomson puts it. After making it through my first lot of revisions, I talked about my willingness to chop chop chop, to improve the text’s argument by streamlining it closer to its essence. I have now managed to cut what was a 110,000 word draft to 95,000 words. And the text is stronger for it, reflecting Katherine Firth’s comments on the pruning required of verbose texts:

Like a haircut when your tresses are damaged, or like a diseased rose bush, cutting a lot of stuff off can give the rest of your work a space to breathe, and promote healthy growth for that last little bit.

But still, I didn’t think that I’d be making such big changes this close to the end of the game. Just when I think I’m an Oxford comma away from being done, a new ‘a-ha’ moment or a feedback curveball comes my way.

Last week I met with my secondary supervisor who posed a question about a ten-page section of my literature review: How did it fit with the threads of argument in my thesis? On reflection, I realised that this ten pages was relevant but not central. It was something I had been strongly driven by at the beginning of my PhD, but which had become a distraction from my main argument. I was so close to the document that I hadn’t been able to question it in this way. I was attached to something that had been in my thesis from the beginning, but which no longer fit. Luckily, I was attached but not precious about this section, so when its inclusion was interrogated, I was able to say, “Ok, maybe this doesn’t fit. I’ll try lifting it out and see how it works.” I’ve cut the offending section and pasted it into another document, with the intention of reworking the material into a paper. A little of the material I’ve added into my rationale and context sections, in very small bits. The literature review now feels stronger, punchier, less bogged down, leaving the main threads of my argument to breathe.

With less than a month to go, on and on I go. Read, revise, edit, proof, receive feedback, add literature (I can’t stop myself from reading!), apply feedback, read again.

Yet despite what can feel like the dizzying highs, terrifying lows, almost-finisheds and never-finisheds of the PhD, the doctoral experience is a great example of what good learning can look like. The candidate gets to work on a project of personal passion and importance. They are invested in the work and own its purpose. They work over a long period of time, getting (hopefully) regular feedback from their Falkor-luckdragonesque supervisors which (hopefully) helps them to develop their research and writing into the best it can be within PhD parameters.

Even at submission my PhD story won’t end. Then it will be waiting for three examiners’ reports, making corrections, resubmitting. It’s a long road to ‘Dr Deb’. It’s “the neverending storrrrr-yyyyyyy! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahhhhhh!” It’s not over yet!

Revising writing: Lessons from the PhD thesis

The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in. ~ Henry Green

Musée d’Orsay clock - the neverending tick tick of the PhD

Musée d’Orsay clock – the neverending tick tick of the PhD

The PhD is a long journey which seemingly goes on infinitely. Just as the doctoral researcher reaches one summit or one horizon, another appears. It’s easy to feel like there is little time to stop at each point, take a breath, enjoy the view, and look at how far we’ve come. Usually the researcher straightens her shoulders beneath her rucksack and begins trudging up the next slope. (Or is it skipping up the slope? Storming the incline? I don’t want my language to be too negative. I love my PhD but its hard work is part of its transformativity.)

This weekend I hit a point in my PhD which I decided warranted celebration. 2 years and 9 months after enrolling, I sent my revised full thesis draft to my principal supervisor.

There are still revisions to go and work to do (of course) but making my way through the full text to the point where I felt it hung together as a whole, felt like a summit worth stopping at. Sitting on a rock, taking a peanut butter sandwich out of my pack and reflecting on the path I’ve traversed so far. (Ok, peanut butter sandwiches are not my culinary celebratory choice; I went out with friends for lychee martinis.)

Gullfoss waterfall ~ take time to pause, reflect & see how far you've come

Gullfoss waterfall after a blizzard ~ take time to pause, reflect & see how far you’ve come

So, how did the revisions go?

To give some context, my qualitative PhD has 10 chapters which roughly cover: 1) Introduction; 2) Literature Review; 3) Research Question; 4) Methodology; 5) Method; 6) Data/Story/Findings #1; 7) Data/Story/Findings #2; 8) Data/Story/Findings #3; 9) Discussion; and 10) Conclusion. The review of literature covers my three studied phenomena, plus a contextual issue. The narrative data chapters are split into three chapters, one story for each group of participants.

When I finished the first full unrevised draft, I sent my supervisors Chapters 9 and 10. After the consequent supervision meeting, I revised these. That way, I had the end in mind when I went back to the Introduction. I could see the beginning and end as matching book ends to be viewed together.

Revision from the start of the text began on my PhD writing (well, revision) retreat, which got me into a revision routine and mindset.

My revision system was: take a hard copy chapter and make annotated revisions -> go back to the Word document and make revisions, highlighting any sections of text that still felt rough, or that I hadn’t yet ‘solved’ -> go to next chapter. I worked through from chapters 1 to 10 like this. Then I revisited my highlighted sections. Then I went over the Introduction again, which needed the most work. I always tell my students that the introduction is your reader’s first impression, and your conclusion is what you leave your reader with. Spend time on them.

Other revision bits and pieces included checking references, checking for APA comma use, and the most desperate of phdcrastination techniques: changing the font! (I chose Garamond for its classic serif 16th century gorgeousness).

I found that the first half of the thesis needed more work than the second half. Luckily, as I got towards the end and felt like I was lumbering through wet cement, the text was better, the meaning was clearer, the writing was more assured.

One thing that helped me at the end of this full draft revision was the support of the Twitter community. Curled up on the couch with my Surface on my lap, I tweeted out an academic SOS and had a number of people reply. Not only that, but they followed up in the next days to see how I was travelling. I was so grateful to these doctoral candidates and scholars who took the time to make me feel as though I wasn’t isolated in my struggle deep in the shadows of the PhD cave. Solidarity. Inspiration. Advice. Thank you #phdchat community and others who responded to my despondence when I was fighting to my deadline!

So, what might be my advice for the full draft revision stage of the PhD?

1. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to revise your text. The first three chapters, about 40 pages, took me my entire writing retreat weekend. There are many layers of revision. Revision for continuity of argument, consistency of language use, for paragraph sequence and structure, for accuracy of language, consistency of referencing and compliance to style. The earlier your writing, the more work it is likely to need.

2. Be open to really changing your text. This revision stage isn’t as much for moving punctuation around as it is for thinking about the essence and elegance of argument. What is necessary? What is superlative? What belongs or doesn’t belong? How is the argument hanging together? Is it consistent from beginning to end? Am I dropping the flags for the reader to follow?

3. Don’t be afraid to chop chop chop. I cut 8000 words from my bloated thesis in this first round of revision. It was great to be at a stage where I didn’t feel sentimentally attached to my words, where I was able to consider their purpose and let them go if they weren’t strengthening the narrative. As the quote at the beginning of this post says, what we leave out serves to highlight what we leave in. I knew my argument would benefit from being strengthened through streamlining (and my readers would rejoice – less words!).

As I edited, I was thinking of this post by Pat Thomson in which she writes “Pat is in the lounge room reading a thesis. She is finding it hard going and wants to go back to bed.” This put me in the frame of mind to think about my reader. I don’t want reading my thesis to be hard going or painful or ‘when will she just get to the point?’ I want the reader to be propelled through the text, with enough detail and a sense of excitement of what is to come.

I’m excited to hear my supervisor’s feedback in a few weeks. My supervisors have seen the chapters bit by bit over time, but not the whole text together. And I’ve left a couple of flourishes as a surprise.

The draft is at a stage that has me feeling pleased and proud that my study has resulted in a thesis document which makes an exciting contribution to my area in a way that is systematic, creative, full of powerful authentic stories, and maybe slightly subversive in the realm of traditional academic writing.

While there is more work to go, it felt right to pause and celebrate a PhD moment.

Easy as pie? How a PhD, & other complex work, is like a cake

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. ~ Orson Scott Card

Number 3 racetrack cake by @debsnet

Number 3 racetrack cake, with handmade bunting & teeny cars

As an English and Literature teacher, I love a metaphor, especially an extended one. I have spoken about one of my PhD metaphors before: thesis as a stone sculpture. Metaphors even bubbled up unexpectedly in my PhD data as participants searched for meaningful language to explore their identities.

In some ways this post is a response to, or extension of, Anitra Nottingham’s Thesis Whisperer post ‘My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon.’ In it, she talks about making novelty birthday cakes for her children. She goes on to use the metaphor of cupcake for her Masters thesis and cake for a PhD thesis.

I was reminded of Anitra’s post over the weekend as I prepared for my eldest child’s 5th birthday. A novelty birthday cake is a lot like a thesis, I thought, as I pierced the galaxy outer-space solar-system cake with the planets I had hand-painted (cake decorating makes for great phdcrastinating).

the weekend's outer space solar system cake

the weekend’s outer space solar system cake; I am a child of the 80s so Pluto, beautiful dwarf planet, is there

I love to make my children’s birthday cakes from scratch, not that I find it easy or that I have an aptitude for it! I rarely bake; it’s not something I’m great at, and often my baking is asymmetrical and (goofily? lovingly?) imperfect. But I feel like a cake is more than the sum of its ingredients. I am convinced that my children and their guests can taste the love and trying-to-make-it-wonderful effort that goes into a homemade birthday cake.

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

A thesis, too, is more than the sum of its parts, more than the words on its pages. As I revise the full draft of my thesis, I am reading with the reader in mind (and trying to avoid boring or annoying them – see Pat Thomson’s post from an examiner perspective). I am hoping that examiners and other readers will ‘taste’ the passion, the challenges overcome, the obsessive dedication, and the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes with taking a PhD project to completion.

Both cake and thesis start with a problem. How am I going to embody the essence of this? Both cake and thesis require a balance of systematisation and creativity, recipe-following and individuality. What tools and ingredients will I need? What methodological processes will I follow to ensure a sturdy finished product which stands up? How might I make this original and my own interpretation?

Like a thesis, sometimes a cake doesn’t work at first and the creator needs to start again, or find creative solutions (usually involving using icing as glue or camouflage).

Octonauts cake

Octonauts cake, complete with sunken figurine (note to self: add heavy bits at the last minute)

It might seem trivial to compare the PhD thesis to making a cake (and of course there are many many differences between a thesis and a cake!), but I find that metaphors, in distilling meaning down to its simplest and yet most poetic form, help me to make sense of complex work. Their simplicity helps to keep me going.

The quote at the beginning of this post resonates: a metaphor can hold the most truth in the least space.

What are your metaphors for your complex work?

Writing retreat: Dedicated time away to write and revise

Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It’s almost a form of meditation. ~ Neil Simon

Where I imagined my retreat would be (photos from previous trips)

Where I imagined my retreat would be (photos from previous trips).

The idea for a PhD writing retreat came to me in a dream. While I live in Australia, I dreamt that I wrote up my PhD thesis in Paris. I imagined myself pensively working at Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Or editing on a soft patch of grass at the foot of a sculpture in the gardens of Musée Rodin (Le Penseur?). Or typing away beneath the huge train station clock at the Musée d’Orsay. I would take breaks to stroll Parisian streets or to savour Ladurée macarons, foie gras from Fauchon, or ice-cream from Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis.

This dream was no doubt influenced by the at-that-time steady stream of tweets coming from the ANU Thesis Boot Camp during which doctoral writers were given celebratory LEGO-style bricks as they hit various word-count milestones. The academic focus and collaboration zoomed through social media to my device. Oooh, I thought, how wonderful it would be to have some dedicated time to work on my thesis. But with work and two children under five, a long luxuriant Parisian getaway wasn’t on my list. And my university doesn’t offer a boot camp.

by @debsnet

Where my writing retreat actually was.

Writing retreats have been called a ‘scholastic nirvana’ away from the walls-closing-in pressures of academia. Dr Helen Kara, blogging about her recent solo writing retreat, talks about the simultaneous self-indulgence and productivity that finding dedicated time and space for writing can bring. In Dr Kylie Budge’s post about her PhD writing retreat to NYC, she cites research which claims that physical and psychological distance from the norm can increase creativity and productivity.

Casey, Barron and Gordon (2013) note that writing retreats provide protected space for the practice of writing, allowing continuity as opposed to fragmentation. They emphasise the importance of carving out time away from normal activity, and finding space separate from usual settings. This certainly resonated with me, as much of my writing happens in fragmented, stolen, in-between moments.

cycles of revision: read, annotate, make changes, repeat

cycles of revision: read, annotate, make changes, repeat

While many boot camps, ‘shut up and write’ sessions and writing retreats are about producing words, this was to be more a revision retreat. Having recently finished the first draft of my conclusion, I had a first full draft of my thesis and wanted to use retreat time to look at my thesis as a whole document. In fact, my thesis is over its word limit, so this retreat was about streamlining and strengthening the content, not producing more. I’d reached a point where I needed to burrow down into my PhD cave’s subterranean depths and sit there for a while. Present. Focused. Submerged.

Like Helen and Kylie, this retreat would be solo: just me and my thesis having some quality time together. Romantic, right? When I floated the idea with my husband, he said, ‘Go for it.’

A bit of an expert at making my PhD feel like a holiday, I often choose writing spaces that feel more like luxe and less like work. So, for my retreat, I considered exotic, non-home places with varying degrees of faraway-ness. I was aware of the aforementioned research about productivity and creativity being heightened by the feeling of being away from home and somewhere new. But I didn’t need exoticism, or a vibrant distracting location. I was going for a weekend, so it needed to be close and affordable, just not home. In the end, I rented a studio apartment via airbnb only a few suburbs from home. I was hoping that being not-home would give me enough separation from my everyday world to provide the laser-like focus and conceptual creativity I was after.

Writing retreat Day 1

Writing retreat Day 1

While not as poetic as retreating to somewhere far from home, there were some great things about doing a retreat this way. In giving myself only two nights away, I had to be productive. I had a short time; I needed to use it. I didn’t waste time travelling to and from the retreat (it was a 20 minute drive); this was an escape in my own city. It turned out to feel just new enough to set my nerve filaments tingling with an awareness of difference of environment.

Going into the writing retreat I planned on using my most productive times of the day for writing, working in 2-3 hour blocks of time followed by breaks (walking, showering, eating, changing location, taking some photos). I wanted to be clear about my intention before I began. My main purpose was revising for coherence and story. Here was time to look at the document as a whole. I kept in mind Pat Thomson’s advice to attend to the underlying argument. I was looking for consistency of language and idea development across the thesis. Having just finished the Conclusion, it was important to go back to the Introduction and make these bookends work together.

Writing retreat Day 2

Writing retreat Day 2

During my retreat the first 30-40 pages took me the longest, because there was so much of what Pat in her post calls ‘where the writing is poor because we are struggling to express an idea, to put into words something that we can barely get our head around.’ The beginning of the document contained my earliest writing and earliest thinking. I needed to delete or rewrite much of it in a way I can only do now that I have reached the end.

What surprised me about the retreat was how challenging it was to maintain a consistent focus on one task. It made me realise how much my usual fragmented way of PhDing works for me, doing a little all the time in prized, highly-focused chunks. Fitting in PhD time in and around other commitments has meant that normally I am itching to get to my PhD work, not having to psych myself into doing it.

Writing retreat Day 3

Writing retreat Day 3

Yet, the time and space to dedicate a couple of days to my thesis, and giving it careful, continuous attention, allowed me to make substantial progress and identify those areas in need of further attention. While in this time I only got through the Introduction and Literature Review, these were the sections in need of the most serious revision (and they will need more). I also managed to cut 3000 words out of those two chapters, which, considering I was also adding words where required, is a good start to streamlining my argument.

The retreat embodied my 3 words for 2015: presence (in the moment), sharing (through writing and now blogging), and strength (of argument and academic voice). It helped to set up my approach to my thesis revision, kickstarting this push-to-the-end-process and propelling me forward into the rest of the document. It felt a bit like kicking off the swimming pool wall, getting some initial speed and feeling the water before settling into the lap ahead.

Local retreats: not so bad.

Local retreats: not so bad!

Tweet, blog or dissertate? On being a writer.

Good evening, ladies and gentleman. My name is Orson Welles. I am an actor. I am a writer. I am a producer. I am a director. I am a magician. I appear onstage and on the radio. Why are there so many of me and so few of you? ~ Orson Welles

book, by @debsnet

Our splintered, kaleidoscopic identities are wonderfully expressed by Orson Welles in the above quotation. Mine include writer, reader, researcher, teacher, leader, learner, mother, partner.

Do you feel like a writer? Does blogging make you a writer? Does micro-blogging? Does being a researcher automatically make you a writer? Professor Pat Thomson has written about ‘being writerly’ and practices which help you to see yourself as a writer. I tried to channel my writerly self in my 2015 – the year of writing dangerously post. I suppose this post is more about Pat’s idea of ‘being writerly‘ rather than ‘being a writer’. If you feel and behave like a writer does that make you one?

From micro to macro, this post focuses on how I use and interact with writing, including writing for purpose and audience. I wonder, are there different keystrokes (or pencil scribblings) that work for different folks? While I’m sure some people prefer tweeting or blogging, or article writing, or putting together a visual or numerical representations of their understanding (interpretative dance, anyone?), I think each platform and tool depends on our purpose for writing and audience to whom and for whom we are writing; each has its usefulness.

Below, I reflect on the platforms and tools I engage with, and what I get out of each.

Tweeting as a writing practice

I find that Tweeting, especially in a Twitter chat, is a kind of speed writing and speed thinking. Graham Wegner recently reflected that a busy Twitter chat can feel like a stampede of groupthinking sheep. Yet it is the torrential speed of Twitter chat tweets that sometimes helps me to clarify my ideas. Being pressured to aphoristically express an idea or viewpoint in a 140-character nutshell often forces me to distil and crystallise my thinking down into its essence, without agonising over it. I have previously called micro-blogging ‘therapy for the verbose’ as it is the antidote to my tendency to say things using too many words. Even my PhD thesis is over its word limit and will need trimming, streamlining and distilling. I have found Tweeting is a writing medium that helps me to most succinctly channel my thinking and keep tangents at bay.

That said, I also like the potentially tangential nature of Twitter chats. Rather than having a fear of missing what’s been said as the tweets roar by, I tend to engage with what I can, and with what peaks my interest. This often means that I spend much of a Twitter chat off to the side in a peripheral discussion, but I tend to prefer this kind of more extended conversation to the one-liner answers to a series of questions. That’s why I like the format of broader chats like #sunchat which work with one question for the hour and allow the conversation to take organic shape depending on the participants. Without the interruptions of regular questions, conversations can be deeper.

Blogging as a writing practice

As I discussed here, blogging has been personally transformative and about global collaboration. I am relatively new to blogging, having started this blog less than a year ago. In that I time I have published 55 posts on my blog, which has been viewed more than 10,000 times in more than 80 countries. Wow! I know that these numbers don’t compare with the superstar bloggers out there, but I am surprised and delighted to have a readership, and more than that, people to whom I’ve connected as a result of my writing, their reading, and our subsequent online, face to face, and voice to voice, conversations.

More than that, blogging has allowed me to take my thinking further than micro-blogging will allow, but more freely and conversationally than academic writing. For instance, I find Twitter a difficult platform to discuss issues of ethics, equity and social justice. Sometimes the subject seems too big for the platform. Some of my blog posts have emerged out of conversations on Twitter in which I have felt too restricted by space to say what I want to say; in these instances a blog can provide the complexity of thought, especially around tricky or contentious issues, which can be lost in the pithy-one-liner nature of tweeting.

PhDing and other academic writing

My PhD is a different writing beast all together, a 300 page monstrosity of a work which I am currently whittling, sculpting and (re)building into a cohesive document. The PhD can feel like a gigantic quilt which threatens to suffocate its maker; it is beautiful, creative, borrowing fabrics and threads from elsewhere while creating something new. The threads of reading and writing overlay and weave together in complex ways which have to come together in a holistic totality, while also working at the level of the small square, each vignette perfectly stitched, formed and embellished.

I recently popped my 110,000 word thesis draft into wordle.net, a website which takes text and distils it down to a visual representation of its most frequently used words. It looked like this:

my thesis wordle

my thesis wordle

I did this to see if my key themes emerged, but was subsequently more interested by words I did not expect to see there: “rather”, “just”, “really” and “something”. This led to an edit of my thesis looking for these words. I discovered that most of them were to be found in my participants’ language, but I did find that many of the “something”s belonged to me, and proceeded to weed them out of the document, replacing them with more precise or concise language. So, even turning words into a visual turned me back into my writing with a new understanding.

Academic writing such as abstracts, journals, conference papers and even the Three Minute Thesis, are others forms again. They require more laser-like focus than the big PhD book, and a clarity of structure and point. While trying to write smaller, more focused texts from the PhD can be a challenge, it is a good exercise in refining and clarifying thinking, while finding different ways to communicate important ideas.

Each of these writing platforms encourages different thinking and writing practices. Writing for different purposes and audiences allows us to layer, appliqué and augment our wordsmithery and our ways of communicating to others and to ourselves.

Every secret to a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works. ~ Virginia Woolf

Writing, by @debsnet

A PhD metaphor: Thesis as sculpture

I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free. ~ Michelangelo

Metaphors are something that I engage with when I am trying to make sense of something, and this has certainly been true as I have worked through the stages of my PhD.

I have previously explored the notion of a thesis as a sculpture, a collision of imagination and hard, systematic work. As I move towards the end of the first full draft of my PhD thesis, I have been reshaping this personal metaphor into a more specific vision inspired by the work and words of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who saw the sculptor as the free-er of sculptures from their stone slumber.

Seeing the Statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence was for me an almost spiritual experience. But perhaps even more magical to see and experience were the ‘Slaves’, unfinished figures twisting and writhing inside giant stone blocks. Lining the wide hall of the Galleria dell’Accademia, leading to David, they seem to be the tangible epitome of Michelangelo’s aim: to free existing figures from stone.

The metaphor of the researcher/Michelangelo and thesis/stone-sculpture works for me for a few reasons.

Firstly, like Anitra Nottingham’s metaphor of thesis-as-baking-a-cupcake, producing a thesis takes knowledge, skill, materials and creativity. The artist or researcher must know their materials and their methods. The researcher-sculptor learns, applies and refines their craft and their art. They must learn the basics, practise repeatedly and make many mistakes before their work begins to resemble the skill and originality to which they aspire.

Secondly, like Victoria Graham and Michelle Redman-MacLaren’s metaphor of research as swimming, it is hard and arduous work, requiring patience, persistence, sweat and a focus on doing your own best. Often working alone in his studio, the sculptor carves away at hard, unforgiving stone, systematically testing his tools and techniques against its surface. Some days his body aches. The mental and physical effort of the work keeps him awake at night. He makes excruciatingly slow progress, but sees his vision slowly come into view. Soon, it is no longer a rough cut slab of shapeless stone. The form starts to be revealed, loose but almost recognisable. And in the final stages, the sculptor uses small tools to polish and finely sculpt the finishing details, working obsessively on the most minute aspects.

Stone carving also reflects for me the process of the thesis. The researcher-sculptor begins with a purpose, a question, a vision, a method; but from those beginnings emerges something else. A figure twisting out from stone as a result of the influence of sculptor’s hand, mind, materials and tools. As the researcher-sculptor chips away, the thesis takes shape, influenced by the researcher-sculptor themselves, the pressure and techniques they apply, and the materials, data and methods with which they work.

Perhaps, also, art imitates artist. Seeing the ‘Awakening Slave’ writhing free from his block of marble seems a little like the PhD candidate emerging, through struggle, as a formed researcher from the PhD stone, or perhaps the PhD chrysalis.

There are differences, of course. Michelangelo became a master of his art, whereas the PhD researcher is an apprentice. And a PhD researcher makes mistakes, back tracks, double pikes, and tries again. It is not as though Michelangelo could gouge out a piece of marble, change his mind, and glue it back on, while retaining the integrity of the artwork. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it allows me to inhabit the internal space of worker, tinkerer and creator, driven by my purpose while sensitive to my materials.

Is your thesis like a sculpture? What is your metaphor for your researcher self?

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it. ~ Michelangelo

A Google search for 'my thesis is' won't give you inspiration.

A Google search for ‘my thesis is’ won’t give you inspiration.

Writing the PhD discussion chapter: from fear to flight

Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly. ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

flight, by @debsnet

Since beginning my PhD two and a half years ago, I have plugged away at my thesis, chipping at it bit by agonisingly small bit, sometimes having to retrace my steps or throw out whole sections of work. But it has progressed through dogged persistence, slow laborious work and a measure of creative problem solving. I have even found it to be wonderful celebrated ‘me time’ as I explained on the PhD Talk blog.

Yet as my big book pushed towards 100,000 drafted words, I arrived at the discussion chapter and … duhm duhm daaahhhhhhm … suddenly I screeched to a stop, paralysed by fear. After fairly consistent, if often brain-bending, progress, I had come to a standstill. Up until this point, my metaphors of PhD candidature had served to propel me forward through even the biggest challenges and hard-to-hear feedback. My PhD had been an elephant I had to eat one deliberate bite at a time, or a sculpture I needed to craft carefully, or a journey in which I put one footstep in front of the other (another nice metaphor is this one of the PhD as swimming). Yet, despite my supervisors’ assurances that the discussion chapter was just one more eatable bite, one more takeable step, I was immobilised.

Matt Might’s illustrated definition of the PhD, which I had initially found grounding, now seemed terrifying. While it demonstrated that a PhD need only push the boundary of knowledge a teeny tiny bit, it also reminded me that a doctorate is all about having an original contribution to the body of knowledge. An. Original. Contribution. Which. Pushes. Bends. And. Remakes. The. Boundary. Of. Knowledge. And the discussion chapter is where I need to – as Inger Mewburn (the Thesis Whisperer) says – not just state my findings but explain what my findings mean.

So after two and a half years of reading (and reading and reading), interviewing, analysing and writing (and writing and writing and writing), I found myself at a point at which I needed to explain what it all means. And to have the (as Inger puts it) scholarly confidence to assert my research as having an original and worthwhile contribution.

In my paralysis of PhDcrastinating I found Emma Burnett’s blog posts which helpfully explained how she planned to approach her discussion chapter and also what she actually did. These kinds of explications by PhD candidates are useful material for others as they approach different stages of thesis wrangling.

Pat Thomson, my go-to blogger on all things academic writing, describes the discussion chapter through the metaphor of taking flight. She explains that the discussion chapter is the place to “be your own expert, to fly where no other researcher has flown before.” No pressure. Her metaphor of discussion-chapter-as-taking-flight reminded me of Richard Bach’s allegorical novella Jonathan Livingstone Seagull in which the non-conformist seagull Jonathan works tirelessly, often on his own and sometimes as an outcast, towards a kind of flight never before achieved by any seagull. His passion-driven, sometimes lonely and relentlessly-perfectionist journey to ultimate flight could certainly be a metaphor for the PhD narrative (although as Pat Thomson reminds us, the PhD is not a lone journey, but collaborative work).

@debsnet & @patter Twitter discussion

In a useful Twitter conversation, Pat explained to me that the discussion chapter is a synthesis and interpretation of findings which takes them to a new theoretical level. Discussion is not a repeat or recap, but a presentation of a new reading of the research which links findings to literatures. As Pat’s blog post explains, this is the place for interpretation and theorisation. Taking it to the next level. As she suggests, it’s the time to earn the ‘Philosophy’ part of the PhD.

*      *      *

Eventually I found a mental space in which I could put some words to the page (just one word in front of the other, I told myself; get it down), and I got started on the … duhm duhm daaahhhhhhm … discussion chapter.

Firstly, I went back to my research questions, which had emerged from the literature review, and used these as a frame for my discussion. Then I went back into my literature chapter and pulled out the threads which related to those research questions, especially those areas in which I had identified gaps or areas for further embellishment or new perspectives. Then I went back to my data (in my case, three chapters of storied interview data from three different groups). While the end of each of my data chapters included some synthesis and interpretation of that data set, the discussion chapter was the time to bring all the threads – all literature and all data – together. My intention was to identify clearly what I had found and how this was related to existing literatures. After writing an initial draft which was more summary than analysis or insight, I left it. It was a start.

Now, after giving myself permission to take a break and finding some mental space and clarity through travel, I have returned to the chapter. As I write I am asking myself: What does my data mean (within the parameters of the research questions)? What established trends are affirmed or challenged by my study? What findings are surprising? What from my research is new in terms of, or absent from, the literatures in my area?

The chapter is still in draft form, but instead of standing still, mute and frozen, I am flapping my wings with a sense of how and where I’m going. Soon enough I’m sure I will take flight.

(For an update on how my approach to the discussion chapter evolved, the follow up is here.)

He was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all. ~ Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

paper planes by @debsnet