The Writing Process
The writing process for working on a PhD Thesis is pretty frustrating. I have spent the greater part of my first year here in Aberdeen just trying to nail down a system that works for me. I thought I would share this insane/frustrating/possibly helpful system in my blog this week. I originally wrote this post after my first meeting with my supervisor.
I am pretty horrible with details. So much of the thesis writing process is about formatting and my supervisor likes to get that all right before looking at content. This is a pretty drastic paradigm shift for my writing process. Formatting is really the last thing I think about when I sit down to write. A lot of people actually leave formatting things like paragraphs and footnotes to the end of their project. My supervisor made a great point explaining to me that if we get the formatting stuff out of the way at the beginning it can later become an afterthought and finishing process won’t be as painful. I agree, or at least want to:)
I think it is very important to be honest with your supervisor in the areas you are weak in (ie. formatting for me). I told my supervisor, after we had talked about the different ways that I had mutilated the formatting on my submission, that it was obviously not my strength but I was more than willing to work on it and learn. He was very reassuring, saying that he recognized different people had different strengths and that he was willing to work with me. There was really no point on posturing or making lame excuses, I am pretty sure he would have seen right through any of that sort of thing.
It is also important to figure out a writing process. Currently I am struggling through this and I think I have developed a something close to a process. What does it look like you ask?
1. Gather all of the information I possible can about the subject -University Library, e-library, PDFs, etc.
2. Read and highlight
3a. Gather representative quotes that I will use in my paper into Scrivener (a note software that is great for organizing research and other thoughts).
3b. I also started using a paper notebook and, when the inspiration hits, I write with a automatic pencil in my notebook. For some reason when I try to do this while typing I usually run into a wall. I like to make outlines of subject (ie. the historical timeline of a period I am reading through) and scribble notes, draw lines, etc all over the paper. This is how my brain works and I think word processing software itself really limits me. At first I tried to be more professional in my approach thinking “I am a PhD candidate now, I need to be more organized and professional.” But, while it is true I need to be more organized, I have to use what works for me. Paper seems to free my mind to work how it does best. Dr. John Coe’s notes were really inspirational in this matter, nobody can read them but him. 🙂 The trick here is to stay organized and only take notes in certain places. Later, when you are wondering where that note went, you only have a few places to look. My iPad is extremely helpful since I use it to read all of my PDFs of articles (and some books). The app Goodreader is about the best you can get for this kind of work.
4. I then start to write in Scrivener and develop a somewhat rough outline with the quotes I copy and paste from the PDFs or type.
5. After I develop the outline, I open the previously formatted Word doc in which I have developed a style sheet in order streamline the process. This was the first thing my supervisor suggested I do and is still a work in process. The nice thing about developing a style sheet is you can usually change the formatting of a certain thing, lets say a block quote, with a few clicks. Making one change to a set style (ie. a heading) progress unilateral changes throughout the entire document. Thus eliminating the need to go back through and modify everything individually. I’ll use this Word doc to write and then switch back and forth between my paper notebook when I get stuck. Since I work a lot with ancient texts I usually read the section I am writing about in the original Greek, make notes and brain storm in my paper notebook, then type something intelligible from the gobbly gook in my paper notebook into Word.
6. After this I read my typed work on the computer screen, looking for continuity and errors.
7. I then print out the written work and do some serious editing. For some reason I can’t do this on the computer. I repeat this process until I am happy with the result. I’ll use the margins and underline, crossout, write more, etc. Every time I enter the changes from my printed out work I make a note on the front page and file it away. I also save my Word doc, naming it after the date I worked on it. My friend Mike Laffin (a PhD candidate in Theological Ethics and former Talbot buddy) suggested this and it has been a great idea. You end up with a lot of documents but they really don’t take up much space.
8. I then send my finalized work to my supervisor and realize, through his critical but very helpful comments, that I have no idea what I am doing. But that is the nature of a PhD thesis! It pushes me to think things through in a deeper way and strive for some sort of coherence and flow of thought throughout my work. Bottom line, it is very helpful!
Well there it is, in somewhat rambling form: My writing process. Questions regarding the PhD process? Leave a comment here and I’ll do the best to answer it!