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December 11, 2012

'Tis the season to be excessive

My mother sent me an advent calendar last week. She does this every year, without fail. No matter that I am old enough to enter places which sell advent calendars on my own, or that thanks to the generous funding of the Economic and Social Research Council, I can just about scrape together the cash to purchase my own collections of novelty chocolate: she has done it every year since I arrived at university. I ain’t complaining.

This year the advent calendar has a Power Rangers theme. I’m not too sure how many people remember the Power Rangers, but when I was younger I was obsessed, with a capital U for unhealthy. When green/white ranger Tommy arrived on the scene, I was so smitten that I decided that, like him, I had to have a ponytail. However, my hair was nowhere near long enough (it tends to grow out rather than down), so I was forced to settle for what the hair-dresser affectionately referred to as ‘a rat’s tail’ (I can vouch from experience that the chat-up line, “Y’know, I used to have a rat’s tail because of the Power Rangers” does not go down well, especially in conservative market towns). Anyway, my mother sent me a Power Rangers advent calendar, although not, I should stress, the old skool version, but rather the new and slightly crass samurai version. I was not happy.

As a sign of passive resistance, I decided to leave the calendar untouched through the early days of December. Through marking, secondary reading and late-night sessions on the Playstation, the calendar sat on a shelf, glaring at me, daring me to peel away the first few doors. But I remained steadfast…until last night. In what can only be described as a Dionysian orgy, I scoffed without remorse the first few chocolates (by which I mean the first ten [by which I mean the first twenty-four]). Ten days into December, and I had seen off a month’s worth of fun in about twelve minutes.

Coincidentally, I am just priming myself to write a very difficult chapter. I have done the research, made the notes; in short, I have gone out and bought the advent calendar. But for a few weeks now, through marking, secondary reading, and late-night sessions on the Playstation, the chapter itself has been metaphorically staring at me, teasing and taunting me. I know what I must do. I must begin, I must dare myself to open the first door, see if I like what’s behind it. I suspect that once I start, I will not be able to stop. It won’t be easy, I know, but if I can eat one chocolate of slightly suspect quality every thirty seconds for twelve minutes (don’t let anyone tell you that Arts students are innumerate!), then I can find the wherewithal, the energy, the sheer nerve, to bash out a draft over the holidays. It may be more Apollonian than Dionysian (hello all you classicists!), but it will be, in its own strange way, fun.

However, if the advent calendar experience is anything to go by, I will feel slightly nauseous afterwards. Is it possible to overdose on writing? Come the New Year, I shall be sated, my body wreaked by PhD abuse. The sofa shall creak under the weight of my frame, and I shall fall asleep in front of re-runs of lacklustre holiday television. But in my hand, or, more accurately, on my laptop, will be the spoils of a holiday spent gorging myself on interpretations baked with analysis, feasting on assertions smothered in references.

And then, at the end, lying under the academic Christmas tree, will be a chapter. And I will give it to my supervisor, and he will stroke his beard and rub his belly (neither of which he actually has), and chuckle, ‘Have you been a good student this year?’ ‘Cause on the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a chapter in a PhD.


July 09, 2012

Print the Document! – by Anna

Well folks, after 6 weeks sitting at home obsessing over it, I can now finally announce that the Document Formerly Known as My Thesis (I've started hating this word so much that it's been banished from my household) is now a complete document. It's not submitted-submitted yet, but I did have to print up a complete copy on Wednesday to give to my supervisor for final feedback.

Folks have been congratulating me on this but to be honest the accomplishment of it hasn't really sunk in. It doesn't feel like an accomplishment because all I can think about is everything that's still wrong with it and that I still need to try and fix.

Or in some cases, not bother to fix, because frankly the Document can't be everything to all people. All it can do is make a clear and cogent argument. Or so I keep telling myself.

Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to share what I've learned in the past few weeks about how one's Document should look, how to print it etc., so that's what this post is actually about!

First of all, here is an easy-to-read description of what your Document should include and how it should look, according to our good friends at the Graduate School (who, by the way, are the Deciders of Such Things). They also describe it in more detail on a PDF, which you can view here (worth looking at, too, if you are wondering about the process of choosing examiners, having a viva etc.)

Both of these can tell you about all the things that need to go at the front (title page, abstract, word count, etc....), how wide the margins should be, required length, etc etc. After I had gotten fed up with writing each day during my self-imposed exile, I would work on all these formatting issues. This turned out to be fairly time-consuming but it was also nice to have a break from writing while still feeling productive.

Finally it came time to print. I had been working 14-hour days for the week or so before the deadline (my supervisor's, not the university's) and was even still finishing my conclusion the night before. Whew.

Here's what I've learned about printing big documents, specifically about the cheapest and easiest options. Bear in mind that I haven't had to deal with bindings yet at this stage, so that might be a completely different ballgame (which I may well write about when I come to it).

Anyway, so far as I figure it there are 3 options for Warwick postgrads (assuming you don't own a printer, although even if you do, it's probably easier to get such a big document done elsewhere).

(1) Print it 'manually' using printer credits and a Library printer

(2) Use Warwick Print (the university's print shop, located in Westwood campus)

(3) Use an independent company

My Document as it stands is 233 pages (which is shorter than it will be once I adjust the margins for a final draft; I was just trying to save some paper/money), so that's how I'll calculate it here.

When I did the math, Option 1 (using a Library printer) came to £13.98 (at £.06 per page). That didn't seem too bad but I was a little worried about the printer running out of paper or ink in the middle of the job and then it being a huge hassle (and possibly costing more money). Also I was feeling so exhausted and fed up that the idea of having to deal with this kind of problem made me want to cry.

Option 2 (using Warwick Print) was £23, which seemed pretty steep. Plus it would take them up to 4 hours (or overnight if you send it to them late in the day).

As to Option 3, I called up my local Mail Boxes Etc. in Leamington Spa to inquire. They said they could do it immediately - as soon as I emailed them the file - and that it would cost £.10 per double-sided page (again, I was trying to save some paper/money; you have to print single-sided for the final draft). So this came out to £11.65. Obviously I was sold. They were fantastic and I would totally recommend them if you live in Leam (website here), or another independent print shop if you're somewhere else.

Does anyone else have any experiences to share about this?


June 26, 2012

Check–in and a useful website – by Anna

Writing about web page http://www.kevinmorrell.org.uk/PhDTips.htm

Hi y'all,

I haven't written in AGES because I'm taking 6 weeks completely away from work and life to finish writing my thesis(!). It's going pretty well - it's almost finished now and I'm sending it all in to my supervisor next week. Then will hopefully submit around 1 August. Eep!

Anyway I wanted to recommend this list of tips for doing a PhD, sent to me after I met the author, Dr. Kevin Morrell, at a symposium last week. He's a lecturer at the Business School and was a really nice guy.

http://www.kevinmorrell.org.uk/PhDTips.htm

It looks like a really useful list of tips, so have a look if you're feeling a bit lost! :) It says it's for the Social Sciences specifically, but actually I think there's quite a lot in there that would be helpful for any discipline.

xx

Anna


February 03, 2012

Fear of writing, fear of finishing? – by Sarahjane

As odd as this may sound, I think I fear finishing my PhD. I often hear of the troubles students have in writing up their research, which I have not been immune to but I wonder if my difficulties actually lie with being afraid of writing or afraid of finishing. For finishing the doctorate would signal the beginning of the end of what has been a very traumatic process yet an extremely surreal and strangely enjoyable 3 years.

What does finishing the thesis offer? Sure, a new start, a new title and new opportunities, but exactly what? Right now, I don’t know and that it scary. With no job to speak of, no industrial experience and a turbulent economic environment in to which I am to dive, I can begin to understand the reason for my fear. Prospect don’t look bright.

In less than 8 months I am to submit my thesis and enter the world of work. Something I must do desperately in order to make my mortgage repayments yet I look forward and see darkness. No certainty, no career no financial stability. Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish to live the PhD life forever, but there is something comforting about our sheltered existence; accountable only to ourselves, sheltered from the cold winds of employment.

Doing a PhD is often described as an isolating experience. Whilst comfortable in the knowledge, that for a little while at least, I am probably the most knowledge individual about my chosen research topic, this position can be quite lonely. Combined with being in an empty office, travelling supervisors and friends in less academic disciplines, I question who I can turn to in such uncertain times. Particularly when I don’t know if anyone else has experienced something similar. Do you?


January 30, 2012

Which window should I throw you from? – by Anna

My supervisor and I are having a, erm, disagreement about the formality of the language in my thesis. She seems to think it has to be extremely formal at all times, even to the point where she strikes through phrases like 'cutting down the task at hand' or 'straining at the seams' as too colloquial.

A particular bugbear of hers is when I end a sentence with a preposition. I'm perfectly aware that there is supposedly a grammatical rule against this! I disagree with it because I think the acrobatics a writer has to go through to avoid it are totally pointless and don't achieve anything other than pleasing some grammar freaks somewhere. Yet every time I get a chapter back from her, she painstakingly takes me through every one of my grammatical 'errors'. Better use of time, please?!

This is really starting to get on my nerves. One problem is that I don't write (or think) formally. I struggle enough with just getting the words on the page in the first place, without having this additional devil on my shoulder about whether it's formal enough to satisfy some arbitrary rules!

And for another thing, I'm really unclear on what purpose such formality would serve. Replacing an expression everyone knows with some longer words that mean basically the same thing doesn't create more clarity; if anything the opposite is true.

The supervisor seems to see it as a basic requirement of writing a thesis, like having footnotes or a bibliography, but I really don't see it that way and it feels like this is just an unexamined assumption on her part.

Besides which, it doesn't seem like this is universal belief even within academia. Many of the most famous academics are often the least formal in their language. I think using slightly less formal turns-of-phrase makes you sound as though you've mastered the material.

Maybe y'all can help me out on this one though? Is this a problem anyone else has encountered?

By the way, my favourite ever response to correcting a grammatical mistake is in With Honors, this cheesy film from the early 1990s starring Brendan Fraser as a Harvard student and Joe Pesci as a homeless guy, who strike up an unlikely friendship. Fraser takes Pesci to one of his lectures, where he starts an argument with a snooty professor. Finally, fed up, Pesci says:

Pesci: 'Which door do I leave from?'

Professor: 'At Harvard, we don't end our sentences with a preposition.'

Pesci: 'Fine. Which door do I leave from, asshole?'

(Immortal movie moment, in my opinion.)


January 28, 2012

The countdown begins – by Elle

It feels strange to be starting this blog so late into my PhD, but perhaps it will be a good outlet for me over the next few months. I'm going to start with something that's been playing on my mind a lot now we're in 2012 - my submission year!

I have 9 months of funding left, or I did until January flew past. Now it's 8. I have a vague idea of what I need to do research-wise to have enough for my thesis and a vague plan of timings of how to get there. Despite having this fairly sorted in my head, I am still completely freaked out when someone asks me "How is the PhD going?", "what are you going to do afterwards?", "when do you finish?" or worst of all "have you started writing yet?" I clam up and tell them how much funding I have left, alongside other non-committal answers that don't really answer anything but get me out of a sticky situation.

time

Why are these questions so scary? Maybe it's the expectation that after nearly 7 years of University education I should have a clear idea of what I want to do afterwards, or maybe it's the reliance on other people I still have at this point that is worrying me.

It's all very well planning to be finished in the lab by the end of June to give me 3 months of funded writing up, but when you have to share instrument time with other people (and mass specs break all the time) things don't always go to plan. Combine that with waiting to receive samples from an industrial sponsor and a June finish is looking unlikely!

I've always been fairly organised and like to know that if I have a deadline, I'll have finished in time. I think that's what annoys me about needing to rely on other people, especially when one of the major people (my supervisor) is a very last minute person.

I am actually looking forward to pulling everything together and writing up. I just want to know when I'm going to get there...

Does anyone else panic about this sort of thing, or it is just me?!


December 05, 2011

Complete draft! Ha! – by Anna

So, I recently finished a complete draft of my thesis! I had been working for months on a draft of the last chapter, and finally finished it, so I guess that means I don't have to produce any more new material...

I've been telling people this, mainly, in an effort to convince myself that it's a big deal. Because it doesn't feel like one. It feels like an extremely minor point, really, since I've still got to do major revisions of two chapters - like completely rewriting them from scratch, practically - plus smaller revisions of all the other chapters, plus writing an intro and conclusion.

And yet - I could now print out a copy of my thesis and it would be like 300 pages. I haven't actually done this; that would be a waste of paper, silly! However, I HAVE moved the drafts of each chapter into a BRAND NEW FOLDER on my computer. The 'complete thesis draft' folder. It's making me kind of happy just to look at the contents of that folder.

It's been a loooooong march to get here....the earliest draft of a chapter that I'm actually using now was done in the second half of my first year, and I haven't looked at it since then. (In December of my first year I wrote my first chapter draft, but that one has since been dropped.) I'm now a fourth year, so...

Speaking of which, I've dropped A LOT of chapters along the way. Most of which I hadn't actually written yet, thank goodness. I was even originally gonna write one more chapter after the one I just finished, only I realised that many of the issues that would've gone in the next one were already covered elsewhere; that it wouldn't have extended my methodology in any way, only applied it to another example; and that it would've meant months more work - plus I've already got enough words overall, so it seemed pointless.

Anyway, there's still loads to do and I won't be done till, like, May at the earliest. But it's still a major milestone. This week I've been trying to relax, mostly unsuccessfully...*stress*

In conclusion, it's not quite this thick:

pile of paper


November 04, 2011

AcBoWriMo! – by Anna

So, you've all heard of NaNoWriMo, yes? In case you haven't: this stands for National Novel Writing Month. It's a programme that happens every November, where you're supposed to write a 50,000 word novel (or at least a rough draft) in the course of 1 month. Loads of people seem to love this; some do it quite seriously and others, erm, less seriously. But everyone seems to agree that it's a great motivational tool for nascient writers.

(I've never personally tried it; I've always kinda been too intimidated by the idea. But anyway.)

So: as of this year, there is now an official AcBoWriMo! That's right, Academic Book Writing Month. This has been spearheaded by the PhD2Published blog (which is, by the way, a great blog), who wrote a lovely post to introduce the idea. It's spread like wildfire via Twitter (hashtag: #AcBoWriMo), including to our sister blog, Researcher to Researcher (the equivalent to the PhD Life blog, but for early career researchers instead of current PhD students) who have already written about it.

So what do y'all think? Are you up for this?

It's more flexible than NaNoWriMo, which is good because who on earth could write 50,000 academic words in a month and have them not be completely crap? Not me. I've decided to aim for 1000 words per day x 4 days per week. Although as of today am already behind this goal. Argh.

This may well end up being yet another thing I use with which to beat myself up. But hopefully not, hopefully it will be all supermotivational and I'll morph into a completely different person and start writing quickly! (Ha.)

In conclusion, I feel like we need another kitten today.

kitten


July 28, 2011

Dear Aunt Rex: I'm stuck with my writing…

Dear Aunt Rex,

I feel like I'm not getting anywhere with my thesis at the moment. I put in long hours for 6 or 7 days a week, but still everyone seems to be finishing faster than me. I sit down to write and don't get anywhere. My current deadline passed 3 weeks ago, and I'm still not finished with this chapter!

This is starting to really sap my motivation. I'm in my third year and it's looking like it's going to take me the whole of the extra year to finish. I'm so fed up, Aunt Rex.

- Can't finish

Dear Can't,

You are playing what I like to call 'the masochism game'. Many PhD students play it with themselves at some point. This game consists of one or more of the following:

  • Working nonstop for hours and hours every day
  • Never allowing yourself to take a break
  • Feeling like you're falling further and further behind
  • Feeling like you can never do enough to make your thesis as good as you want it to be
  • Wanting to get it all done as soon as possible, but feeling like the end only gets further and further away
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of self-loathing related to academic work
  • Physical problems or pain related to sitting/typing/looking at a computer screen too much

Think of the masochism game as a spider web of negative self-talk: it catches you once, but the more you struggle against it the more caught you get in its vicious trap of pain and misery. You can't win this game. Trust Aunt Rex; she has tried.

self flagellation

But you CAN stop playing. A fire with no fuel will eventually die; stop allowing your behaviour to be ruled by these negative thoughts and feelings. Disengage from the fight and re-think your strategy.

The first thing you need to do is to take a few days off. Do whatever you need to do to feel like you're completely away from your thesis. Get out of town. Breathe some fresh air. Hang out with friends who won't talk about work.

When you get back, don't sit down and start working on your thesis immediately. Instead, have a 'strategy meeting' with yourself. Think about the following questions:

What time of day do I work best? Then plan your work days so that you are focused on work, without distractions like Facebook, for a good two hours per day at those times. Treat these times as important: they are your best chance to achieve something that day.

Outside of your 'best time', you can work on less intensive tasks like editing, and you should be sure to take a few hours per day off completely to deal with other aspects of life like grocery shopping and exercise. Being away from your desk for rest is just as important as being there to work.

What are the most important issues my thesis (or chapter) should be focusing on? There will always be more sources, themes and avenues that you 'should' research if you had infinite time. But you don't: you have a year. So prioritise and get down to the meat of the argument, and don't waste your energy worrying about what you could do 'if only'.

How will I reward myself when I complete a major goal, such as a chapter draft? If you don't allow yourself to enjoy an achievement, it's all too easy to turn an achievement into a failure: you only pay attention to how late/imperfect/whatever it was, and then even finishing it only makes you beat yourself up more for all the things you couldn't accomplish. Give yourself a concrete reward for any goal achieved and allow yourself to enjoy it, no matter how imperfect it was.

What is a realistic completion schedule for my current task? Say you were to set a task for a small child: reaching the cookie jar on the counter, for example. Don't give her any tools, such as a footstool; just insist that she be able to reach it. You would be setting her up for failure, along with crying, tantrums, and years of therapy once she hits adulthood. In time she will grow and be able to reach the cookie jar easily; but for now it is beyond her ability and failing to respect her current limits will only lead to a sense of failure and inadequacy.

If you always or frequently miss the deadlines you set for yourself (or with your supervisor), then you are doing the same thing! Instead, think of being able to work quickly as a longer-term goal; if you give yourself time and work on acquiring the appropriate tools, you will slowly grow until you are finally able to write a chapter in a month (or whatever). Give yourself some breathing space to learn how to do this.

The emotional energy you spend on beating yourself up is often considerable; it's energy that you need for other things (like doing the darn work!). If you try, you will slowly find ways to cut back on the browbeating and direct this energy elsewhere.

-Aunt Rex

You can ask Aunt Rex a question here.


July 01, 2011

How much is too much? Knowing when to stop researching and just write the damn thing – by Greg

I'm sure this is a feeling all PhD students have had at some point or another - the sense that you have no idea what you're talking about and your ignorance is going to be discovered at any minute. One way I have sought to avoid this particular charge is a fool-hardy attempt to know everything about everything. Given that I am a man of 26 with some semblance of a social life, and the fact that we have a finite period of time to formulate, research and write our theses, this ambition is an absolute nonsense. One cannot possibly know everything about everything, because not only would the pursuit of this goal render you a dribbling, probably insane wreck, it would also negate the point of academia - the grand debate. But still, I'll give it a damn good go.

Take my current work for example - I am researching African American stardom in Hollywood cinema, with particular focus on those accomplished thesps Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover. Now there are countless (literally) books on the subject of race and film, and if one stacked DVD copies of the films both men have featured in, it would dwarf you, and make you appear physically small, rather than the simply metaphorical feeling of inferiority you have been cultivating diligently. Despite ploughing through endless books, and watching countless films, I still have the depressing feeling that I have barely scratched the surface. I am drowning in books, articles, DVDs and videos (remember them?), and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, because the tunnel is blocked by copies of Lethal Weapon 2 and Driving Miss Daisy. I feel confident I could write something interesting and new, but I still can't help feeling that anything I produce will be somehow incomplete. Perhaps it is time to put my supplementary work aside for the sake of my mental health, return to my primary texts, conduct my analysis, and just write the damn thing. Sounds sensible right?

However, there would still be the overwhelming feeling that I have missed something. Perhaps there is a book, in some long-forgotten archive gathering dust, just waiting for me to open it, and deliver a profound new realisation to the world. Or maybe there is a movie, featuring a performance so astoundingly relevant to my argument that it will prove to be the "eureka" moment I so desperately crave. I lie awake at night with bibliographies and filmographies etched into my retinas, imagining tricsky questions from esteemed intellectuals tinged with a tone of utter disbelief that I haven't come across a particular obvious notion, and my months of hard work will be shot down in flames. While many of you are no doubt wrestling with questions perhaps not quite as apparently trivial as the merits of Glover's performance in Predator 2, does this seem like a feeling everyone can relate to? The feeling you know nothing can be debilitating.

I must try to accept the fact that I am a human being. The pursuit of total knowledge is something to aspire to, but also something one must accept will never happen. There are only 24 hours in every day, and I spend at least 7 of these sleeping, and I strive to eat 3 square meals a day. Given there was a period in my life in which I did neither of these things particularly well, I feel they are important for my physical and mental well-being. I will not bow to the contemporary thirst to "cut" everything to the bone, for I feel this will prove detrimental - I need my sleep and I need my food, and leaving these things out will only hinder my research, not help it. I can only hope that, should my relative ignorance become apparent, academia will put its collective arm around my shoulder, hand me a bibliography of further titles I might explore, and whisper in my ear that it's OK, I don't need to know everything.

Perhaps this blog post will help me exorcise my demons, accept the fact that I will never know all there is to know about Mr Freeman and Mr Glover, and whatever my thesis ends up looking like, I will do them and my overall subject justice. Here's hoping.

I hope this is something everyone can relate to. It will make me feel less crazy! Now to return to that obscure mid-80s Morgan Freeman film just one more time...

books.jpg


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