writing

#AcWriMo and #NaNoWriMo: Two differences

After two years of doing Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, I’ve made a change. This year I’m doing National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. There are a lot of similarities between AcWriMo and NaNoWriMo. Both encourage prioritising writing. Both require self-discipline. Both are a really helpful way to develop your voice. But there are differences.

Here are two differences I’ve found so far:

1. Who decides the targets?

With AcWriMo, you can set your own targets. There’s nobody telling you whether what you’ve chosen is “enough”, or checking whether you’ve achieved it. There are places to declare goals and track your progress (such as Studious Jenn’s excellent accountability spreadsheet.

With NaNoWriMo, the goal is 50,000 words. There are other projects during the year with more flexible targets, but for the main event in November, 50,000 is a pretty non-negotiable goal. That works out to just under 1700 words a day, if you write every day. The NaNoWriMo website allows you to “validate” your word count, meaning you paste what you’ve written into a word count tool. The “stats” section of their website is a powerful motivator, showing you how much you’ve done, and how much you have to do to finish on time.

Which is better? Neither. And I feel the main difference is the driving force behind the two. To me, AcWriMo is a time to prioritise whatever it is that needs to be done with my academic work. And because noone knows my academic work better than me, I get to decide what it is that needs to be done. And for me, NaNoWriMo is a time to achieve something that I might never have done otherwise. The externally-created target is there to show that I *could* write 50,000 words of a novel if I really put my mind to it.

2. Dialogue

I did a lot of free writing for my PhD, especially during my first AcWriMo. That has been incredibly useful for NaNoWriMo. My AcWriMo free writing was often a way of voicing an inner monologue. Similarly, my novel is written in the first person and at the moment there’s a lot of inner monologue. What AcWriMo hasn’t prepared me for is dialogue. Multiple people speaking to each other. I have been vividly thrown back to my childhood, to school days of writing early literary gems. To days of trying to find as many ways as possible of saying “said”.

“Where is the rabbit?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know,” Alex replied.

“When did you last see the rabbit?” Sam enquired.

“I don’t know,” Alex responded.

My NaNoWriMo writing is feeling a bit like that at the moment. I’m trying to ignore the part of me that’s screaming “you can’t write like that, it’s far too clumsy!” and to just keep going. I know that I’m developing a voice, and that this part of my writing hasn’t had much of an airing since I left school. But it’s an unexpected challenge.

Do you have any tips for making dialogue sound more natural? Do you prefer setting your own targets or having them set externally? Let me know in the comments…

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Master your tasks for #AcWriMo

Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, is well underway now, so I thought I’d write a post about task management for those who might be struggling. To me, learning how to master your tasks – that is, to set yourself targets and meet them – is a core component of AcWriMo. It is both a key ingredient of success and a delicious and useful output.

It’s all too easy with long academic projects, particularly PhDs, to become overwhelmed with everything you have to do. It can feel like there is an infinite amount of potential work. This can be very destructive to your feelings of productivity – if there is an infinite amount to do, then you will never finish. Nothing you do will ever be enough.

An excellent way to combat this feeling is to keep track of what you plan to do and whether you do it. I’ve written some posts on how to identify, schedule, and review your tasks, but, just to recap…

  • Think about the things you have to do, in the reasonably short term, and break these things down into small, easy-to-manage, chunks. These chunks are your tasks.

Then, each week:

  • Schedule your tasks into your upcoming week, and…
  • Review the previous week’s tasks

To aid this recipe for success, here are some tips with examples:

1. Make your tasks as specific as possible, and include a measure for success

EXAMPLE TASK: “Do some reading”

This task isn’t specific enough. Do you really know where you’re going to start? Probably not. Do you know where you’re going to stop? Definitely not.

EXAMPLE TASK: “Do some reading on <TOPIC>”

This task is better, but there’s still really no way to know when you’ve succeeded. That task could refer to one abstract or thirty full papers – there’s no way to tell how much is enough.

EXAMPLE TASKS: “Do a search on <DATABASE> for <SEARCH TERMS>” (replace these with whatever is relevant to you); “From top ten search results, read the abstracts of those which look relevant, and select which still appear relevant”

With these tasks, it is much easier to know where to start, and when to stop. You will be more likely to know whether you have achieved what you set out to achieve

2. Make your tasks challenging but reasonable

It can be difficult to judge how challenging to make your AcWriMo targets. Arguably, the point of AcWriMo is to do more than you would otherwise. But setting targets that you are unlikely to reach is bad for your self-esteem and could very well result in you achieving even less.

It’s hard to give examples for this, because everyone works in different ways and I don’t want to work with the ideas of “not enough” or “too much”. But what I’ll say is this:

DO set yourself targets that will challenge you, that you will have to work hard to reach.

DO take into consideration the other things that you will have to do in the month.

DON’T set yourself targets that you will be unable to achieve without compromising your health. AcWriMo is a time for prioritising your academic writing, but never above your health.

3. Review your tasks and modify them accordingly

Last year, I saw a lot of tweets written by people lamenting their lack of progress, and their hope that they would catch up. Indeed, part of AcWriMo is setting targets and sticking to them. But if you find that you’re not reaching your targets, don’t feel like you’ve failed. Think about why those targets aren’t working for you.  I’m not saying you should automatically give up on your targets if you haven’t met them for a little while. But I am saying that AcWriMo is a brilliant time to set targets for yourself, try to do your best to keep them, and learn what does and doesn’t work for you. If something doesn’t work for you in AcWriMo, a month you have decided to dedicate to your academic work, it’s worth reviewing and adapting your task management practice.

Are you doing AcWriMo this year? What are your top tips? Let me know in the comments…

#acwri, one step at a time

Have you seen that episode of Friends where Chandler gets cold feet before his wedding? Ross has to come and find him, and Chandler says that it’s all far too scary. And Ross gives the perfect advice for anyone with a big project (like, let’s say, a thesis…). He convinces Chandler to take things one step at a time, distracting him from the larger task at hand. Chandler takes a shower. Chandler gets dressed. Neither of those things are scary, right?

Well, that’s how I’m trying to work on my thesis at the moment. I’m working on my literature review, which has been the part of writing that I’ve been most afraid of. Almost too afraid to look directly at it. When I have considered all the work that needs to be done, it has scared me, and it’s felt like an insurmountable, impossible task. Very scary.

So I’ve been taking it one step at a time. Just like Chandler. Reading a paper – that’s not scary. Writing up notes from that paper – that’s not scary either. Playing around with the structure of a subsection using post-it notes – well, that’s fun!

Any every so often, I take a peek at how I’m feeling about the literature review as a whole. To start, it was scary. Then, I started to get a sneaking suspicion that it might be going [gasp] well. Like I might one day finish it. And then I go back to the tiny steps, terrified that I’ll jinx it, and that I’ll realise that progress is not what I’d thought.

But today, for the first time, I finished a subsection. A small subsection. But that subsection is now ready to be part of my first finished draft. And I thought about how I felt about the literature review as a whole, and realised I felt okay about it.

In the next few months, I’ll get to the part where Ross tells Chandler the final task he has to do – get married (still scary). But in the mean time, I’m piecing together segments of my thesis, focusing on the small tasks, not on the huge one (submit thesis).

For me, it works incredibly well and feels very overpowered (the gaming word for “so effective it feels like cheating”). But that’s no surprise – If you’ve read any of my blog posts or spoken to me on Twitter, you’ll probably know that I’m a big advocate at breaking down goals into tiny, bitesize chunks (or tasks). In fact, earlier in the year, I wrote a series of posts about identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks.

In no way am I suggesting not to keep the big picture in mind – a thesis must be a coherent document, not a collection of disjointed segments. But focusing on the small chunks is definitely making me feel more positive about achievement.

How do you deal with working on big projects, like a thesis? If you have any ideas, tips, or stories, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

A no-failure perspective on #acwrimo

It’s November 1st, a day of many happenings. A day of Apple releasing a new iPad, of Starbucks starting their festive ‘red cup‘ drinks for the year, of shaved faces for Movember, and for Academic (and National Novel) Writing Month.

Twitter is atweeting with the hashtag #acwrimo. At this point, almost 550 academic writers have declared their goals on @mystudiouslife‘s accountability spreadsheet, and tweets are flying thick and fast about goals set and tasks completed.

The tweets are also coming through from people who haven’t achieved the tasks they set, who perceive this as failure.

But is it, really? What is #acwrimo if not a time to figure out what works best for you?

I propose an iterative approach to Academic Writing this November. In a previous series of posts, I talked about setting tasks, scheduling them, and reviewing your progress. In the posts, I suggest doing this weekly, but why not do this daily?

Here’s a quick recap:

1) In your initial task setting, make it very clear what your ‘measure for success’ is.

2) Make a backup, for the ‘least amount of work’ you’d need to get done to feel satisfied.

3) When you’re reviewing your tasks, make a record of what goals you achieved, and which you didn’t. And more importantly, try to think about WHY you achieved/didn’t achieve those goals. Is it because of interruptions? Did you underestimate how long something would take? Were you cold? Hungry?

4) Revise your tasks for the next day (or week, depending on how long a period til your next review) in light of those things.

Try it! And let me know how you get on in the comments section.

If I could give one piece of advice (part 2)

This is the second of two blog posts talking about this question, posed on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

The first post talked about health, wellbeing, and support. If you missed it, you can find it here.

In this post I’ll share the replies that gave writing advice.

Again, thank you to @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses, included either in this post or the previous one.

Writing advice

The three replies that focused on writing posts all had a similar message: Write from the beginning, and don’t expect your writing to be perfect. You are not a wizard. Here are the first two:

“Write from the start, and expect to go through at least three drafts per chapter, sometimes more”

“Just write. You may end up scrapping it but it will focus you and mean you keep moving forward”

Debates exist as to whether it’s sensible to write from the beginning, or to wait until later. The “wait until later” team argues that you don’t really know what you need to say in your thesis until you’ve gathered all of your data. But this assumes that all “writing” is “thesis writing”. For me, designating something as “thesis writing” makes it all too easy to obsess over getting it just right. And this is where the “write from the beginning” team comes in: Learning to write is a big part of a PhD. Do free-writing. Blog. Write summaries of the literature. You’ll find them later, and be very grateful (it happened to me quite recently). And a particularly practical way to write from the beginning was included in the third writing reply:

“Document what you did – you won’t remember 3 years later”

This is really important. We’ve all had those moments when we assume we’ll remember something: A recipe in a cookbook, a reference in an article, or, once, where I’d put a particular stone on a pebble beach (I was 5, and very confident of my own memory skills).

Don’t let that happen to your PhD. I recommend having a Scrivener file full of questions and answers, explaining what decisions you’ve made, and why. I started my Q & A file when I was still awaiting data but couldn’t wait to start writing.

And finally…

Two tweets didn’t fall neatly into either “health, wellbeing, and support” or “writing advice”. Rather than try to make them fit into a place where they didn’t belong, I’ve given them their own mini-section.

The only one-word response:

“don’t”

I’m not here to tell you whether or not to do a PhD. Embarking on a PhD is rarely (never?) the only option, so it’s important to think about if it’s what you really want. And like anything in life, a PhD is made up of good parts and bad parts.

To maximise the good parts:

“Be passionate about exploring what you are researching: its a long road and that will keep you going”

This is important. PhDs are fun, they are difficult, they are exhilarating, they are stressful. Studying something that you find fascinating and important is brilliant. Still difficult at times, but brilliant. If you’re not interested in what you’re researching, you may get all the “difficult” bits without the “brilliant” bits.

That’s all of the replies I received, folks. I hope you find it helpful. People are gifting out beautiful words of advice everyday on Twitter – I particularly recommend keeping an eye on #phdchat. If you have any advice of your own, or any questions or comments about the tweets in this post, please let me know in the comments section.

 

An update…

It appears that the “don’t” tweet was a case of hitting-send-too-soon, and was intended as a much more positive message:

“don’t become your PhD. It can consume your life so take time off to do things you enjoy!”

I’m delighted to hear this, as it means that the tweeter is not deep in the valley of shit (to the best of my knowledge). But for now, I’m going to leave the post as it is. I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay to decide that a PhD isn’t for you.

If I could give one piece of advice (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago (when I started writing this post, it was “last week”…), I posed a question on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

You see, I’d already decided what my advice would be, and I was really interested to hear what other people thought. I had more replies than I expected! Thank you @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses.

Answers fell into two main categories:
1) Health, wellbeing, and support
2) Writing advice

In this post, I’ll share the health, wellbeing, and support replies. Why? If years of watching Neighbours taught me anything, it’s that people love a cliffhanger. No, really it’s just that it’d be far too long a post. I’ll share the writing advice in a later post.

Health, wellbeing, and support

In the competitive world of academia, it often seems like working all hours is a badge of honour. Indeed, of those who do work constantly, it seems a further boast to not be achieving what was hoped for. PhD stress duelling is no joke. As such, I was greatly encouraged to read tweets advising new students to take care of themselves:

“Remember to put yourself first. You can’t finish the PhD if you’re not well – in all realms”

“don’t work weekends. Time off is just as important as time in the office/lab.”

Heed these tweets. You can exist without your PhD, but it cannot exist without you. Be kind to yourself. If you consistently overwork yourself, you will end up having a longer, more difficult recovery than if you treat yourself well throughout the PhD. Yes, this may seem unnatural, in the face of the Great Postgraduate Stress Competition (GPGSC?!), but it is better for you.

Equally pleasing were tweets recommending that students develop a good support network:

“Find someone that you can talk to when you are ‘down’ . If possible someone in the same situation”

“Make & Keep phd & non-phd friends. Make time for them. This will keep you sane(r)”

A PhD can be lonely at times. Those not doing a PhD can sympathise, but may not understand, and it can seem hard to discuss successes and failures with someone in the same position as you.
But try. I’ve been delighted by friends’ and peers’ responses to both.
The final tweet in this section embodies one of my life philosophies:

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help: the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked.”

I have always been THAT PERSON, academically and socially. I really like to understand things, and would much rather ask the question than nod along and be caught out later. I was new to Clinical Psychology when I started my PhD, but this just gave me a reason to voice the questions that everyone else seemed to be wondering. It was easy to be the “stupid” one, because there were lower expectations for me.

Do you have any advice for those who may be starting their PhDs? Let me know in the comments section, or on Twitter (I’m @ellenspaeth). Happy researching and writing!

Wrenching writing and difficult decisions

I had a realisation this morning, when I was sipping on coffee and redrafting the methods section of my paper. It’s something I’ve known for years, but it had never made its way into conscious thought until today.

I realised why I actively enjoy writing first drafts, and like each subsequent phase a little bit less.

It is because writing is essentially a continual process of making decisions.

In your first draft, if you can switch off your inner editor, you don’t need to make many decisions. This must be why I love free writing – it’s a way to get my ideas on the screen without any judgement of what comes out. There are no decisions that need to be made.

Each draft that follows embodies a series of decisions: Should this be included? Is this the most concise way to phrase my idea? Do I need a reference to back this up? Is this structure good? Do I need to explain this word? Am I repeating myself too much?

With the early drafts, you can reassure yourself by saying “oh, I’ll come back to this in my next draft. It doesn’t need to be perfect now.” And while I agree that fixating on one thing to the detriment of the rest of a piece of work is foolish, at some point you are going to have to answer these questions. You are going to have to make some final decisions.

Let’s be clear. I am not the voice of a woman who has everything figured out. I am a woman who finds the redrafting process anxiety-provoking. At the moment, I get through it by working hard, moving forward, and telling myself that I’ll come back and reconsider the decisions I’ve made at a later date. I am fully aware that at some point I am going to have to stop and call it “good enough”.

But our whole academic lives, we’ve been taught how to critically evaluate work by some of the leaders in our field. How can we consider our own work “good enough” by those standards? Perhaps there’s another post in that.

I do think that being aware that I am constantly making decisions is helpful. With parts of my thesis, I am getting to the point where I need to say “I have to make a proper decision on this now”. Or perhaps I should take the other approach: Trick my brain into thinking it’ll have the chance for an infinite number of “final” redrafts, and then, out of the blue, tell it that time is up.

What do you think? Do you have difficulty wrestling with writing decisions? Are you finding it easy to visualise your finished thesis, or do you feel like there are too many decisions to make between this point and submission? How do you know when to make the hard decisions, and call it finished? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.