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The progress perception-gap

I just had this experience myself again. I was finishing an article, and it reminded me that this feeling is a part of the academic writing process that is a real challenge for new writers… as well as for us old hands!

Way back in 2013, I wrote about The different stages of the writing process where I said:

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.

The different stages of the writing process

I even drew a picture to explain what I meant:

Going up the mountain is slow, coming down is fast
The First Full Draft Summit by Katherine Firth

From the outside, and judging by chronological time, I would say this perception still holds true. It generally takes 2.5+ years (FTE) to get to a full first draft, and then 2-6+ months to get it polished and ready to submit—that’s for people I would categorise as fast, but the proportions can be scaled to fit your project. The last few months do not in a way take as long as the first few years! But it can feel like it does!

Subjectively, the final stages of a writing project often feel the most ‘stuck’, boring and slow. Why is that?

First of all, brains love novelty and find new stuff fun. While you are writing a draft for the first time, it’s all new to you and your brain. When you are revising the full draft, you end up going over and over and over the same words and material, so your brain is likely to get bored.

By the time you feel your thesis is ‘done’, you are really ready for the next exciting adventure. But you will have had to delay the fun for weeks and months. That time drags like the days before Christmas did back when you were a kid.

At the same time, it’s likely you’re feeling a bit nervous about what will happen after you submit your work. Maybe the examiners won’t like it, maybe they won’t understand it, maybe they will think it’s not good enough. These are reasonable fears, and recognising them will help you improve your work to reduce the chances of it happening. But it still might happen, and dreading something also makes it feel like time has slowed down.

Both the excitement and the dread lead you to be in a heightened state (we might even call it stress) where you are poised to react and save the day. Finishing a thesis is high stakes, so being a bit stressed is natural and even helpful. So also try to take some moments for recovery and refuelling your sleep and social energy buckets

At the same time, edits require careful, word by word, plodding exact focus. When you are grappling with ideas, slapping down a shitty first draft, or pouring out a section in a state of flow, it feels fast and… well… flowing. But copy editing and formatting tasks are often slow and boring.

But if you look back over the project, you’ll see that the end is fast approaching.

I just completed a fully read-through looking for repeated words. We’ve been thinking about this topic for a good decade and a half, decided it was out of scope for a book we published 7 years ago, started working towards it about 5 years ago, my co-author had written about 2/3 of it in 2018-19, I started writing my parts in January 2021. And yes the final stage has felt slow and painstaking, but it actually has only been about 2 or 3 weeks. That’s a blink of an eye compared to the enormous mountain we climbed to get here.

This is an extreme example, which is partly why it was so obvious that there was a gap between my perceptions and my reality. The irony of feeling that the article would never get finished, while actually being just a few days from submission, was just too acute.

There were lots of times I maybe should have had that feeling in the last 7+ years–if only writing emotions matched our external progress markers! It’s okay to feel your weird writing emotions. But do also take a moment to step back sometimes and see how you are actually progressing. If the two don’t match, that can be a relief, or a chance to adjust.

Whatever you feel, keep plodding one foot in front of the other or whizzing down the mountain towards your writing goals. I know you can do it, even if your journey is as long and tangled as it was for my article.

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Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.

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