Writing habits #phdchat

I’ve just been reading some other PhD blogs, and thinking about writing habits. This is partly a reflection of thinking about when I can/cannot write, what tasks I can do where, etc.  I’m doing a lot more cut n paste writing at the moment because I’m reshaping arguments (e.g. for new papers, for revising lit review, to slot in new papers) rather than creating new ones from scratch, with all the lit review that entails. While in some ways that’s easier, there are a lot of small changes, with some bigger bits of theory needing to be slotted in (if you imagine pushing a honeycomb into thick viscous honey…), so it’s a bit challenging. I’ve also blogged less recently, so I have fewer posts I can ‘work up’ from sketch to actual argument. But anyway, I definitely have some general practices for writing flow, places I can work for particular things, and other thoughts….

Writing flow

  1. When I started the PhD I did a lot of lit review work – I enjoy the info seeking aspect, opening up lots of keyterms, saving the articles for proper reading later. Generally I did that by opening a new tab for each paper (AWFUL idea) – I’ve since moved to bookmarking these instead.
  2. From that big effort, I’ve now setup google scholar alerts – if you publish in my areas of interest there are some papers you will need to cite. I track citations on those (as well as my own papers!) so I have a pretty good idea of what’s coming out new.
  3. As they come in, I scan the citations on the alerts email, and often can just delete them because the new papers aren’t relevant.
  4. Otherwise, I’ll open them up and usually bookmark the papers into a folder system for various interests.
  5. Then when I have time (and I ought to commit to doing one a day or something) I’ll go through and make notes on them, storing them in Zotero if they’re relevant. The notes are stored alongside the files in Zotero.
  6. Then if they’re relevant for the PhD thesis I copy those notes, with the citation at the bottom into a word document where I’m compiling notes. The beauty of Zotero is it works as a citation management in my documents, so now I can just cut and paste those notes into a paper if I want and I’ll have the start of an automated bibliography.
  7. These compiled Word docs of notes get printed, and if a docs been printed I’ll start a new one (so I don’t get confused about what’s updated).
  8. The printed versions then get cut up so I can create piles of papers, under headings; I can shuffle these sliced up notes to create an argument structure.
  9. Then when I’m writing, I’ll either cut n paste the whole lot into a structure, or (more likely) write text in Word using the ordered piles to guide the synthesis, and reinserting citations using Zotero as I go.

THERE MUST BE A BETTER WAY OF DOING THIS. I’d love to try and use Zotero better, or scrivner, or evernote, and docear looked especially promising. But at the moment, this works for me, and I don’t have time or inclination to change it. At least the notes are all stored so I can go back to them. But…I don’t really do the paperless office which is sometimes a little problematic. I did just buy some of this whiteboard stuff (right)…to discourage me from this (left), so that may change some bits of practice.


whiteboard sheets

Magic Whiteboard sheet to discourage me from this

The myth of the paperless office?

The myth of the paperless office?

Where I can/cannot write

paper on floor

The myth of the paperless office

Of course, a big problem with not doing paperless is it rather restricts where you can write. While at the reading stage, you can carry bits of paper with you, once you’re trying to compile all the notes, or get the overview of a paper to slice up things become a bit more challenging! The fact I also like to dual screen for some things (lots of the same things I print for – editing papers down, getting overview, transferring notes from one document into another, etc. + things like data analysis) also complicates things.

For those bits, working at home is the obvious choice. For literature review, general note taking, and a lot of writing tasks I find working in the library best.

For things like editing (and often peer reviewing) I find working in ambient noise – a cafe, the IoE reception area, etc. – is pretty decent.

For hardcore reading (rather than the softcore skimming) I find a mixture of library (sometimes too silent) and cafes works best. I find books especially hard to read with the computer (and internet) easily available, parks and cafes FTW (perhaps one reason I’m more likely to read books in summer).

Writing as a displacement activity…for writing

Of course, the astute reader, looking at me saying “ARGH WRITING” will be saying “but Simon, you ARE writing” which raises another thing I’ve been thinking about!

One of the things people need to make decisions on is prioritisation and:

  1. The extent to which to force whatever task they’re struggling with
  2. Just working on anything they can write – it’s better to keep the writing practices up, even if it’s not on the work that needs doing
  3. Taking a break and doing anything else v. taking productive breaks (either work wise, socially, exercise – whatever), etc. I think there’s probably no definitive right answer here (although watching reruns of how I met your mother is probably a definitively wrong answer [what was the question again?]).

Getting writing on something, and getting notes out of the way (I have dozens of draft blogs) is quite a useful way to get thoughts off the mind, and get the ball rolling on something other than sitting with an “argghh how do I start?!” sentiment. It’s easy for these decisions to spill into other parts of life, so it’s fine to keep writing on anything (2), but if that means you’re motivated to do (1) when you should be doing holiday/leisure/social things (3) then that’s probably an issue – it might be better to skip (2) and either just take the leisure things then (but then, you need to have people and funsies available) or to try and power through with the work (1). Again, I’m not sure what the best strategy is here (some discipline in all aspects of life probably!) but obviously getting things done while avoiding work eating into leisure time is important. (As an aside, I said to a few people last year that I’d realised “work life balance” meant work permeating all aspects of life equally).

Be interested in how other people think about these 3 things, and what strategies people use, etc.!

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Carter Rees says:

    Hi Simon,

    Came across your post today and thought I would share. Please keep in mind that I am a Mac user.

    Keeping track of notes and snippets of info from individual articles can be an arduous task. I have found that a combination of Skim .pdf editor and Scapple by Literature and Latte is powerful and paperless. Skim has this great feature which allows you to export all of your annotations (highlights, typed notes) as a text file or a proprietary .skim file and does so automatically when set in the preferences. This allows me to keep a copy of just the annotations in a text file in the same folder as the original .pdf. Scapple is a great tool for the messy business of beginning to compile notes. Many articles will present redundant information which can be compiled under a topic in Scapple. Gives you a feel for how different authors have paraphrased the same or similar information. You can then start to insert your own ideas into the Scapple map that starts to take shape. Think of Scapple as a mindmap but with much more non-linear flexibility.

    I use these both and have finally gotten away from the stack of papers without compromising my painstakingly noted .pdfs. A simple Google search will introduce you to the pleasures of Skim and Scapple in a much more eloquent way than I have done here.

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