Things my PhD taught me about how I write best

It’s interesting that we’re never really taught to write. We even consider our PhDs (the biggest bit of writing that many of us ever actually do) about the topic we study, and not about writing itself.

So, here are some things that my PhD taught me about how I write best.

I write best, slowly, trusting a small daily target to add up over time.  

I don’t write quickly. I need to get things right – or as right as I can – before I’m happy with them. If I write too much, and go too ‘sh*tty first drafts‘ then I take so long to do anything with that material that I might as well start again. Planning writing, free writing and ‘thinking writing’ is a separate activity for me than ‘writing writing’ (if that makes sense). In my PhD, when I’d got everything ready, structured and I actually got down to writing writing, I could reliably produce about 500 words of almost-finished material a day. Occasionally I did less (but almost never, and then I forgave myself and just aimed at 500 the next day). I almost never did more. Doing more raised the spectre of ‘what could I achieve’ which I found gave me escalating performance anxiety!

I only have so many hours of quality writing in me in any given day. 

I can write for about 4 hours. No more in a day. My brain carries the tiredness over and I write less well the next day.

I can, though, do other things – like collect sources ready for the next day, draw out the argument on paper, check bibliographies, do expenses, write emails, book travel, etc.  All the things that get the next day’s writing ready, and protect the time I need to write more.

So, I used to write from 9-11, take a short break. Then write from 11.15 to about 12.30, then stop for lunch. Then, if I still needed words, I’d see whether I could write for another hour after lunch. But if I was done writing, I’d stop and do something else. There wasn’t any point continuing – I did try lots of times, and I just paid the price somewhere. In the end, I actually enjoyed knowing that I was actually being as productive as I seemed wired to be.

Re-writing is my brain telling me to stop!  

One of the things I do if an idea is not clear to me, is to get stuck and write and rewrite the sentence again and again. I think what I’m doing is attempting to understand it as I write, but it ends up in me rewriting whole chunks of a paragraph, and it’s destructive. It’s better for me to stop, move away from the text, get the idea clear, and then come back and write it.

Another thing I do, when I start to get tired, is to read back over what I’ve written to help me hold the argument in my head. Almost inevitably, though, I start to correct it… and correct, and correct. That’s my brain telling me to take a quick ‘put the kettle on’ break, take 5 mins (a walk to the kettle will buy me that much more focus – temporarily) to finish off the bit that I’ve got to, and then have a bigger break.

You won’t believe how quickly those sentences, ideas, and paragraphs wrote themselves when my brain was fresh. You also won’t believe how long it took me to recognise those ‘write and rewrite’ patterns, and to learn that it was counter-productive to try and push through.

Reread yesterday’s work. But only when you’ve finished today’s.

Re-reading is a terrible trap for me. I edit, almost certainly. And I get lost in it.

At least I do, if I’m re-reading the last thing I wrote.

If it’s not the last thing though – like, if it’s yesterday’s words, and I’ve added another 500 since, I’m much more forgiving. Perhaps it’s seeing it in the context of the text as a whole.

So I used to ban myself from proofing that day’s work – only allowing myself to re-read work from previous days, and only if I had already written more.

That meant that I had to develop all kinds of techniques to start myself off each day – in fact, lots of my afternoons were spent working out what the next day’s writing would be and then drawing pictures of what came next, leaving handwritten notes, half-finishing provocative sentences (with a solution to hand that just needed typing in), making lists of quotes to ‘stitch together’ with text, etc. Anything but re-read.

So, those are some of the things I learned about myself.

Do you have any to share?