Writing Up and Down

I was about to tear into Hugh Kearns over a tweet of his, but then did what you should always do before engaging, and clicked through to the post at the LSE Impact Blog he had summarized. It turns out that his advice is entirely sensible. There’s a small point I’d like to take issue with, but I’ll leave that to the end.

“The write-up period is a delusion,” write Kearns and Gardiner (and tweeted Hugh), “People say ‘I’ve done all the other bits, I just have to write it up.’ Just have to write it up! Like it was just a minor task. Writing is probably the most intellectually challenging part of the process.” The point is that you should be writing from the beginning — there is no “write-up period” after the “research period”. Not having completed any part of your research process is no reason not to be writing. There is always something you can be writing. And it’s certainly not a matter of “just” writing, as though it’s an insignificant part of the process of getting a PhD. “It’s hard work so you need to start writing as early as possible. Write as you go. Start writing now.”

The important thing here is to see writing as a part of your life, your day-to-day. It should be one of the many things you “show up for” on a regular basis. We don’t put off teaching until we know everything about a subject. And we don’t stay away from seminars just because we haven’t read the paper(s) being discussed as closely as we would have liked. We contribute continuously to the variety of functions that being an academic implicates us in. We do the best we can with the class on the day it is scheduled; we contribute to the seminar as best we can, or at least get as much out of it as we are able. And, anyway, our research, our learning process, is never really finished (as Kearns and Gardiner also point out), so if we’re waiting for a distinct “write-up period,” we could in principle be waiting forever.

How to decide what to write will depend a little on the sort of research you’re doing. On the classic approach, you’ll be developing your methods and procedures within the framework of a reigning theory. If that’s how you do things, you should be able to write much of your theory chapter while you’re collecting your data. After all, you couldn’t have worked out your method without knowing a great deal about the theories you’ll use to analyze the data after you have it. You should also be in a good position to write major portions of your background chapter. By a similar token, by the time you’re analyzing your data you should be able to write clearly and honestly about how you collected it, i.e., your methods chapter. The general point is that you’re not conducting your research in a vacuum of total ignorance that you at some point fill with air. In order to get into the doctoral program you had to demonstrate that you’re a knowledgeable person. You’ve got a lot of things on your mind already. You’re doing what you’re doing, seeing what you’re seeing, learning what you’re learning, on the basis of a vast amount of knowledge that you’ve already acquired.

My advice is to remind yourself that, however much you still have to learn, there are many things you already know. In fact, much of what you will know by the time you submit your thesis, you already knew last week. So just pick something you knew last week to write about tomorrow. Write at least one thing you know (and at most six) every day, five days a week, four times a year, eight weeks in a row. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing the rest of the day — reviewing the literature, collecting data, analyzing it, or thinking through its implications — or teaching a class or contributing to a research proposal or even planning your wedding. We’re just talking about a half hour of writing about something you know. Get it done. Get on with your day.

Don’t wait for “the writing-up period”. Don’t delude yourself into thinking it’ll all come together at the end. And don’t imagine you can’t concentrate on a single thing you know “with all this other stuff going on”. Pick one thing this evening. Write about it tomorrow. You’ll be surprised. What ultimately “comes together” is the three or four hundred paragraphs you managed to write while you were doing all those other things.

So far, I think Hugh, Maria and I agree. But there’s one thing in their post that doesn’t sit well with me. “Writing is probably the most intellectually challenging part of the whole process,” they say. “Writing is where you do the deep thinking; making sense of all the reading you’ve done; interpreting the data you’ve collected; and trying to communicate what it all means.” This is of course true for many researchers and especially those that leave the writing to the end. These are people who spend far too long not writing and hope to accomplish far too much in far too little time. (At the extreme, they’re waiting for a “secret miracle”.) Also, they believe Hugh and Maria (and many, many others before them) when they say that writing involves “deep thinking”, “making sense” and “communicating meaning”. So by the time they get to the writing they’re out of shape and way too demanding (of themselves). They want their writing to do the heavy lifting that should already be long behind them.

If you think about it, it can’t be right that writing is the “most intellectually challenging” aspect of research. Maybe a novelist can make this claim, but surely the hard part of research is actually making discoveries — reading difficult texts, collecting representative data, and carrying out complex analyses. Not to put to fine a point on it, but if you think writing is the “hard part” maybe you’re not working hard enough at your research. (I’m sure Hugh and Maria don’t think their research is “easy” and, I suspect they meant it as hyperbole, so I hope neither they nor you take offense at this way of reminding you of the real difficulty.) There’s a difference between not putting your writing off until after your research is done and conflating your writing process with your research process.

The “write-up period” may well be a delusion, but there’s very definitely such a thing as “writing down” what you know. If you know what you’re talking about, and you’ve trained yourself, day by day, to write down things you know for the purpose of discussing them with other knowledge people, writing isn’t the hard part. It’s still hard, but it’s not bulk of the challenge. I think that’s important to keep in mind.

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