Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Writing - the final frontier....

The last 12 months or so of the Cwm project have been almost entirely focused on writing - the dreaded end stage of any major project, the point where you have to present your evidence to the wider world, and prove that you have spent the last three years in a worthy endeavour that is going to change their lives/ideas/minds for ever. 

And so it is with the Cwm project. As a funded research project with the aim of revealing the hidden history and importance of the Welsh Jesuit district, the College of St Francis Xavier, the expected outcome is a scholarly thesis, describing the research undertaken and the results in some detail (100,000 words). Other forms of engaging the wider world with my research are also likely, such as journal articles and this blog. 

That is a lot of writing, and for me personally, it has been writing that comes with a particular pressure. Before I began the project in October 2011, it had been several years since I had undertaken any major  writing of any kind, and so part of the process was about learning the technique of successful writing, as much as the writing itself. I have had to learn what kind of writer I am, what techniques and tools work best with my style of writing, when I write best, how to increase my writing productivity, how to manage drafts and turn them into a half decent chapter and so on. I would like to share with you some hints and tips I picked up along the way, and how they work for me:

1. Read about writing
I cannot recommend this highly enough. Sometimes doing a PhD, or other similarly large projects, can be a lonely and isolating process, particularly if you are not based near your university, or if your project is collaborative and involves moving about between several bases. The feeling of isolation particularly manifested itself when I came to writing - sat at my desk, with nothing but a blank word document and a flashing cursor to judge me, panic and writers block soon set in. There are some truly fantastic blogs out there which can help to counteract this feeling, and provide inspiration for writing techniques, make you feel you are not alone and sometimes just give you a kick to get the creative juices flowing. 

Top of my list is the wonderful Thesis Whisperer blog ( The blog covers pretty much anything and everything to do with academic research of all kinds, as well as the writing and 'public outreach' elements like writing and presenting. Thanks to this blog, I have discovered that I am a 'get it on paper and tidy it up later' sort of writer and found ways of using this to my advantage, such as having multiple drafts of different chapters on the go, not worrying about the final appearance of a sentence until the end and just getting words on paper. Another great blog is 100 days to the doctorate ( which has a similar function, and covers the entire range of academic experience. 

Both blogs are on Twitter, another great way to stay in touch with the wider academic community. @PhDForum and #phdchat are a good place to start as both are followed by thousands of academics around the world at various stages of their career and working in a range of disciplines - a vast body of knowledge and experience just waiting to be explored! Twitter and the #twitterstorian handle have been hugely influential in shaping my research and connecting me with an enormous community of academics, researchers and writers - so much so, that when asked by a masters student what my top piece of advice was for doing a phd, my reply was get yourself on Twitter. 

2. Organise your stuff 
This seems like a really obvious thing to say, but it is something I have only really started to appreciate since the main writing phase of my work has begun. Understanding the way you work, and organising your research and notes around that, is absolutely vital, and will hopefully mean that by the time you come to the writing bits, you can easily find all the relevant research on each topic, and how this relates to other bits of a similar topic, and so on. I am still learning the best way to do this, but two huge discoveries for me in the last 18 months have been Evernote and Dropbox. Before I started the Cwm project, I was very much a paper and pen kinda gal, and was forever scribbling bits of notes, or things to follow up on, interesting points etc in notebooks, on the back of articles I had printed out (or the nearest envelope!) This is all well and good, but when it came to writing, the best I could manage was a vague 'I'm sure I read something about this at some point...', usually followed by scrambling through piles of paper and notes.... 

Evernote is the best solution to this problem for me - you can have a huge number of notebooks (which function like folders on a computer) and then notes within each notebook. My main writing tools are my ancient net book, which rarely leaves my desk; my iPad, which goes everywhere with me and occasionally my phone. Evernote synchs across all devices, so if I only have my phone with me, I can scribble a note in Evernote, and it will appear on my iPad and my net book when I next open them. Notes can also be tagged with key terms, so for example, if I am writing about the Somerset family, I can search 'Somerset' in Evernote, and it brings up all entries in tags, main note content and inside any PDFs I have saved. I also use Evernote to manage my bibliography - I have a bibliography notebook, and a note for each 'theme' of my phd with a list of books, articles, websites and things that relate to it - so the search will also bring up items in my bibliography. You can link notes to each other, so if I take notes on an article or chapter I am reading, I can tag it with key terms and also link it to the entry for the book or article in my bibliography - no more searching for bits of paper everywhere! 

Dropbox is similar in that it synchs across all devices, and also works on my net book, iPad and phone. This is particularly useful for working on chapter drafts, which I do either in Word or Pages. I create, edit and save the document in Dropbox, and can open it easily on either my net book (Word) or iPad (Pages). I took the scary step of moving all my desktop folders into Dropbox and deleting them off my desktop, so any new folders, documents, photographs or downloads all go straight into Dropbox now - it means my entire desktop is portable and easily accessible, even from my phone. It is also super useful for conferences - you can save agendas, maps and contact details in Dropbox and any notes from the conference in Evernote, and they can form a vital part of remembering current thoughts and research in your field. 

Even with new tools, finding the best way to adapt them and use them to work for you is a big learning curve - for example, getting into the habit of resisting the urge to scribble a note on a post-it, rather than in Evernote - I still have to spend a few minutes copying the odd bundle of notes into Evernote every now and again! The most important thing is finding your own methods and ways of working - setting up a document for each chapter in Dropbox means I have been able to write on whichever theme I was focusing on, or jump in and out of different chapter drafts depending on what I have been reading, and search for extra material I might have read on an archive trip a few months previously, or a snippet from an article I read last week. So far it seems to be working - all eight chapters of my thesis have been drafted, and the introduction and conclusion is nearly ready - just the final push to the finish line to go! 

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