Today, I’d like to think about the Writing Cycle in relation to the process of completing a project, the writing up of a PhD Thesis.
Kerryann Rockquemore (one of the rockstars of the effective academic writing blogosphere) says this:
Just imagine what would happen if you reliably identify a manuscript as being in one of four stages of completion: 1) 0-25 percent, 2) 25-50 percent, 3) 50 – 75 percent, or 4) 75-100 percent. And what if you could draw upon a group of readers at each stage of that manuscript’s development so that you’re regularly getting feedback.
This is pretty helpful, because one of the great difficulties I faced when doing my PhD was that it wasn’t finished, and then it still wasn’t finished.
I like to get stuff done. I like to succeed. I really like it when I hand in an assignment and then I get a good grade for it. I really miss that about undergraduate and master’s study. When you’re writing a thesis, you go through the Valley of Shit, where you feel all your writing is shit, and you aren’t getting any cleverer (actually, you don’t get any cleverer doing a PhD, you just show you have stamina, skills and an understanding of the field sufficient for you to stop being a student and become a peer of the experts).
But what if ‘I have a shit scrappy pile of bits that gestures towards being a chapter’ was an actual stage? A stage you could achieve. A useful place to get feedback on structure and content? Where you could ask, ‘Does my idea make sense?’ and ‘Have I done enough reading?’ That would be good.
And what if, ‘I have a shitty first draft, but it is actually a full draft’ was an actual stage. A stage that was worth opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate? A useful place to get feedback on coverage and organization? Where you could ask, ‘Does this adequately cover the field?’ and ‘Can I cut those irrelevant findings in chapter 2 out yet?’ That would be fantastic.
And what if, ‘I have an unpolished draft, but it’s pretty much there’ was an actual stage? A stage that was worth taking a month off to reward yourself for? A useful place to ask ‘How does APA use colons’, ‘have I misspelled ‘collateral’?’ and ‘should I put this comma here?’ Whoa. Cool.
Of course, anyone who has looked at the progress hurdles for PhDs, or indeed ever done any academic work ever, knows… these stages are not created equal. It will take you years to do your research (with undergraduate work, my masters, and individual reading, by the time I handed in a Lit Review, I had already done about 8 years work in the field). Getting together a full first draft rarely happens before the 3 year review. And then lots of people get from first full draft to submission in about three months. Also, note that the university doesn’t think all the stages are equal—many even allow you to outsource the final section to a professional editor.
I know, these stages are often all happening in overlapping circles. Your Lit Review might be in the polish stage, when your Discussion chapter is only a few bullet points on a post-it note. That conference paper you are giving tomorrow is finished, and most of your Results chapter is in shitty scraps.
This is cool—you guys are smart, and dealing with complex interactions all the time. Make a chart (like my friend @PetaF, the goddess of the gantt chart). Draw a new diagram. Find a metaphor–mine was that doing a PhD was like climbing a really high mountain. And the final editing and proofing stages were like descending the mountain while wearing rollerskates.
So, remember that a shitty first draft is a good draft, and that everything after your first full draft is so much easier. Promise.