We have a saying here in the office that behind every great work of genius is a lot of home help. Sadly we don’t all have assistants to take care of the daily chores. If we are to get stuff done and stay functioning as human beings, we need to be more rigorous with our time.

Counter-intuitively one of the worst drains on our time is allowing writing to take over. Whether we seek perfection, lack in confidence or are trying to make up for interruptions, the lure of doing “just one more” tweak or re-write is compelling. Ultimately this path never yields the results hoped for and we have wasted our time.

The trick is to know when and how to finish each day so that we are in good shape to tackle the next. Writing is intensive. It can’t be done effectively for hours straight. Pacing is all. Here are five tips (gained from bitter experience…)
  1. Set yourself a realistic time to finish each day. Stick to it come what may (even if you feel you haven’t been that productive). It’s a marathon not a sprint. Don’t let yourself get depleted.
  2. Avoid off-script tweaks at the end of the day when you are tired. They may seem like a good idea but, like a battle-weary soldier, you will be making poor decisions and going round in circles. Wait until tomorrow. Gaining distance on your writing will sharpen your judgment.
  3. Ideally finish when you have a clear idea for your next paragraph/section or even in mid sentence. This will enable you to pick up quickly from where you left off avoiding writers block.
  4. Clear your desk. Sticking to a schedule means you no longer have to hastily up and leave at the end of the day. Take a few moments to organise your space. Bin those coffee cups and crisp packets (yes we are guilty too…) Jot down a brief list of points you want to cover next rather than have them lurking in your psyche. Save your work and allow your computer to power down in its own sweet time so that your files aren’t damaged. It does make a difference.
  5. Refresh yourself too! It’s crazy how the writing process can make you look and feel like a saggy bloodhound. Splash some water on your face, blink, scrunch up your face a few times to get the circulation moving.

Composed and without suffering any drop in output, you now have time to
catch your train, buy your mum a birthday card, see your friends, plan dinner, have a life!
You will also be better set to take on the next day.

Image: copyright Randall Munroe, http://xkcd.com/1739/

I've done a lot of reviewing lately of various kinds of research manuscript and I've cast my eye on a lot of manuscripts brought to my workshops by PhD students and new researchers. One of the things I see a lot of puzzles me; the writing of methods and theories using capitals:

"We used Structural Equation Modelling to...."
"I adopted an Ethnographic approach..."
"Through the lens of Critical Theory..."

You get the general idea. Yet research methods and analytic theories are not proper nouns and should no more be capitalised than any other nouns. Imagine writing 'We used Shopping to acquire our groceries', or, 'I wore Clothes to avoid embarasment in public'. Silly, yes? So as a rule don't capitalise your methods and your theories, unless of course they come at the start of the sentence.

The one exception to all this puzzles me. From what I can see, most books tend to present Grounded Theory in capitals. I've no idea why this is, and why it's correct to write 'We used Grounded Theory' and not correct to say 'We used Conversation Analysis'. If anyone knows why Grounded Theory (note the caps) is the exception that proves the rule do let me know.
Patrick Brindle

How often can authors identify by name the vast majority of their readership? A disastrously unsuccessful novelist might guess that their grand total of two copies sold were bought by their parents and spouse perhaps? But no author sets out to write for such a tiny audience. Many academic authors of research papers may also have a pretty good idea of who amongst a small group of fellow specialists will read their latest article. But even then there is some room for uncertainty. Did Professor Bigname really read it?

Ph.D students, however, will normally learn the names of their examiners shortly before they submit the final version of their thesis for examination. This creates a unique and final opportunity to gear some aspects of your thesis to a tiny readership group that you can identify by name.

Even if time is short, this is your chance to revisit and revise the entire manuscript with the likes and dislikes of two or three named individuals front of mind. So profile them. Go online, check out their webpages, and read their publications. Ask around: What are they like? Work out there they stand methodologically, epistemologically, and philosophically, and work out how you'll present your own standpoint and your own research in relation to theirs.

Also look out for how your examiners write. Profile them as stylists as well as methodologists and scholars. Don't just look at who they quote, but also at how they quote; how they write and compose their theories and arguments and how they reference. Such writerly clues can be just as useful as any academic profiling in maximising your chances of success with your thesis.

Your Ph.D readers are your examiners - your gatekeepers - and your final thesis draft revision needs to be carried out with them front of mind. So print off pictures and profiles of your examiners, pin them to your wall or computer screen, and look each of them in the eye before you start to write and rewrite those final final drafts of your thesis.

Patrick Brindle

The first goal for any writer - whether they are writing for academic publication, writing fiction or journalism - is to hook in the reader and make them want to keep reading. To do this you need to make a good first impression.

Beginnings have always been important to all forms of writing. Good writers understand that making a big impact with a punchy first line is an effective way to entice the reader to read on. In novels, often the only quote we can remember is the opening line. It follows therefore that we should aim to deliver our best writing for openings. In academic writing this also includes the opening of the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion. We would even suggest that the opening line of each paragraph should demand special attention.

Opening lines can be really hard to write. How many first lines of fiction can you think of? What makes them compelling? What devices do they employ?

Tweet us your thoughts @IntoContent and we will share some of these.


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