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Writing is hard.

I started my PhD with a fair amount of writing experience under my belt. I’d been blogging (semi-regularly) for about five years, including a stint as a regular opinion writer for an online news site which occasionally involved manufacturing an opinion to hit a deadline. I’d written a couple of book chapters for an activist book. About a decade earlier I had produced some pretty decent academic writing during my MA. I had and still have a fair amount of confidence in my writing, academic and otherwise. Still, doing it professionally is a different ballgame entirely, particularly in academia where writing involves getting across some very complex ideas. So here’s a few things I’ve learned about (academic) writing over the last couple of years.

Writing is hard because writing is thinking. For me, this is a crucial difference between blogging and academic writing. Blogging is thinking too, but my blog doesn’t have a deadline, so ideas can just percolate in my head until they’re ready to come out onto the page in a single sitting. Do not try this with your thesis. For one, a thesis, or even a single chapter of one, is too big to hold in your head. For another, the thinking required for a thesis or a journal paper is on a different level to what you can get away with in a blog. But realising (or admitting) that writing is legitimately hard is actually a great move. It’s the move from “I am terrible at writing and will never amount to anything” to “writing is genuinely difficult, it’s ok to struggle with it, and I’m going to find ways to deal with that”.

There are stages to writing. There’s the “descriptive drivel” stage. There’s the “writing three superfluous introductions which you will later cut” stage. There’s the “spending half a day looking up a throwaway reference which you will then cut from the first paragraph” stage. There’s the “spending an afternoon staring at two over-edited paragraphs” stage. There’s even the “I appear to be writing a blog post about writing” stage. Now, you may not experience all of those in your process, or you may find your process involves some different stages. These things vary from person to person but they are basically ways of coping with the fact that writing is hard. Some of these coping mechanisms are more constructive than others. Some are constructive some of the time and really not the rest. Some, you can short-circuit, and some you can actively leverage to help you get through and get better. And again, which ones work for you may be different to those that work for me. I have learned to embrace the “descriptive drivel” stage because it gives me something I build on later. I have also learned to sometimes start with the second sentence or paragraph to avoid the “three superfluous introductions” stage. Working these things out involves a fair amount of reflection and self-awareness, as well as listening to feedback.

What you wrote and what you think you wrote are often not the same thing. One of the most useful pieces of feedback someone can give you on your writing is to play back to you what they understood from it. The thing is, when we try to express complex ideas in our writing, sometimes we make leaps or assumptions that our readers – not resident in our heads as they are – find difficult to follow. So when a supervisor or other friendly reader says something like “I don’t see how X follows from Y here”, or “oh yeah, you mean A” when actually you meant B, that can really help you pinpoint the parts of your writing that need strengthening. The problem is not that the reader isn’t getting it, the problem is that you haven’t explained it well enough.

Structure sometimes helps. And sometimes doesn’t. This is another one of those “suck it an see what works for you in a given moment” things. When I find myself staring at a blank Google doc for too long one of the things that really helps is putting down a structure. Key bullet points of what I’m trying to say often help. On one occasion I switched to a spreadsheet which gave me a structure I could easily fill in. For some reason putting in a few descriptive words in a spreadsheet cell is a lot less intimidating than putting them in that text document. You then take them out of the spreadsheet, put them in the text document and use them as a skeleton to build around. There are other times, though, when structure really doesn’t help because there is no structure yet. You simply don’t know what you’re actually trying to say, and you won’t know until you’ve written it down. I think one of the most helpful things I’ve learned to do in those situations is write from the middle outwards: start with a description of what the data says, then build analysis, theory, introduction and conclusion around that. I’m literally writing my entire thesis this way. I wrote the three data chapters first, and I’m now working on my literature review and discussion chapter side by side, building them around the data. On that note,

Data analysis and writing are (often) not separate tasks. I have a feeling this applies to more fields and methods than you’d think, but I’ll certainly vouch for it in pretty much any kind of qualitative research. There’s a temptation to think of writing and analysis as separate, to draw a line between the end of coding and the start of writing and to tell yourself (very sternly) that the analysis is done, you’re just writing it up, this should be easy. The analysis is not done until it’s down on the page and someone else has confirmed to you that what they read was what you meant to write. (Which is why writing is thinking, which is why it’s hard.) Writing little summaries of your data as you go can both be a really helpful step in analysing it and make you feel like you’ve actually written something. Same goes for writing reflective pieces on your research process and progress, or any practice you’re producing as part of your research.

Every bit of writing has a function. I talk about “descriptive drivel” a lot, but actually description has a function in your writing: to follow your analysis of your data, your reader first has to have an understanding of what it is you’re analysing. One of the things I struggled with for a while was separating my description from my analysis and signposting what I was doing at any given point. So the same paragraph would describe and attempt to analyse the data while also taking for granted a bunch of assumptions, with the result that the reader couldn’t even tell there was an argument there, let alone follow it. By far the most useful technique I’ve found for dealing with this is deconstructing my writing. This works best when you already have a piece of writing and you’re trying to make it hang together and really get across your argument. Take that piece of writing, and for each paragraph write a one-line description of what it’s doing. Is it describing something? Analysing something? Making a key theoretical point towards your argument? Once you’ve done this for every paragraph, you have a neat little summary of your piece. Read that summary. Is the argument you’re trying to make evident from it? If not, what’s missing? Is there stuff that doesn’t need to be there? Are there paragraphs that are not easily summarised in one line? Those might need breaking up. So for each line, make a note of what you need to do to the corresponding paragraph to make it better. Then go and do the thing.

Feedback can be hard to take. You know that email from your supervisor, with the attachment that’s got your lovely piece of writing, except it’s covered in comments and strikethroughs? Or the equivalent piece of paper covered in red ink? Or the conversation? You know the one. Those are hard. They’re hard because writing is thinking, and therefore writing is personal, and therefore writing makes us vulnerable. Those are my thoughts and ideas on that piece of paper. How dare you take them apart like that! Those are personal reflections and struggles. That’s the bit where I was really brave and tried something I hadn’t done before. That’s the bit I thought was my original contribution! What have you done to it! Feedback can be hard to take, but there are a few tricks to make it easier and make sure you get the most out of it. If it’s a face to face conversation, take notes, ask questions, make sure you understand what your supervisor is saying. You don’t have to agree with it, but make sure you understand it. Regardless of format, thank them for their time and their thoughts, even if all you do is fire off a one-line email. Then put it down. Put it away. Leave it be. If you need to, go find a sympathetic friend to rant to. Explain to them in great detail and at great length how your supervisor doesn’t appreciate your genius. Go do something else for a bit – work on another chunk of your thesis, collect or analyse some data. Wait until thinking about that bit of feedback no longer makes you incandescent with rage or weak with anxiety. Then maybe wait a little while longer. This is the time when things will start percolating. You’ll have learned new things from working on other bits in the meantime. You’ll have gained some distance and perspective. You may still find you disagree with some of the feedback. But chances are a lot of it will be useful. So now you can do back to it, and work on the things you agree with, and justify the things you disagree with. It takes time, and it’s hard. But here’s the thing. That feedback is not aimed at you as a person, at that risk you took, that vulnerability you showed when you wrote. That feedback is there to make your writing better. It’s there to help you figure out what works and what doesn’t; to help you get those personal, clever, original ideas of yours across to your reader in the clearest, most convincing way possible. And it will. And you will.

“You will have days when your entire output is a single paragraph summarising a month of research.” Thus spake one of my supervisors back in my first year. “Never!” I cried. I hate it when they’re right. The trick is to accept that. Research and writing don’t obey the laws of project management. Progress is not linear, it’s difficult to plan, and a lot of the time it may feel like you’re behind. Sometimes you’ll catch up. Sometimes you’ll just find that you need to re-adjust the plan, or throw something half-baked at your supervisor rather than the piece of perfectly polished prose you’d been hoping for. (Throwing half-baked things at supervisors can be really useful actually, as long as they understand that that’s what you’re doing and are ok with it.) For the record, my entire tangible thesis-related output for today was splitting a document into three and making some notes on each section about additional work it needed. I am actually really happy with this output. One of those notes is in all-caps and red because it’s an insight about an incredibly valuable thing that’s a major chunk of my argument. That’s the result of a lot of thinking – and the writing will happen. The flip side of this is…

You can write something every day. I took part in a writing challenge a few months ago, where every work day you had to write something. It didn’t really matter what or how much, you had to write some new words. Most of the days I produced significant new chunks of thesis. Some of the days I wrote a couple of hundred words of “string and glue” – those little paragraphs that link one part of your writing to another and make your entire argument hang together. On a couple of occasions I wrote fanfiction or poems. I learned a few things from that challenge. You don’t need an entire clear day to write something. A string-and-glue paragraph can be pulled together in twenty minutes between meetings. Planning ahead really helped. Sometimes I knew I had a clear day ahead of me and could get lots of writing done. Other times I knew I was travelling, had meetings, needed to take the cat to the vet, so my writing time would be limited. At the end of each day, I’d take a look at my schedule for the next day and set achievable goals and make sure I had the right resources to hit those goals (often just a highlighted paragraph in my working document with a note saying “PUT STRING AND GLUE HERE” – makes a difference). I did find that the external accountability of the challenge (we were doing it in a group of four) helped me focus and do those little things that enabled me to write. I’m looking for ways to implement that kind of accountability to myself through my bullet journal. Even if whatever I produce on a given day isn’t thesis-related, it keeps me in the habit of writing. And even if it’s just one single paragraph summarising a month’s worth research, one paragraph is greater than zero paragraphs. Two hundred words is greater than zero words.

Look behind the scenes of other people’s writing. I mean this in two ways. Firstly, reading pieces like this and some of the resources below can be helpful, even if all it does is reassure you that it’s not you being bad at writing, writing is legitimately hard. We often compare our own behind-the-scenes footage with other people’s highlight reels, and that can make us feel terribly inadequate. Knowing that behind the scenes others struggle too – because it is genuinely, legitimately a difficult thing to do – can be a great source of comfort. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, read the kind of writing that you aspire to produce and try to work out how it does what it does. How is this person structuring their argument? What are they doing to guide and signpost the reader through it? How are they separating their description from their analysis (or are they perhaps integrating them in interesting ways instead!)? How are they reconciling their personal subjectivity with scholarly detachment? What do you admire about their writing? What do you think they could do better? Now go and try doing those things yourself.

Do. The damn. Writing. Ultimately, the only way to get the writing done and to get better at it is to practise. One paragraph is greater than zero paragraphs. Two hundred words is greater than zero words. It adds up. If all else fails, shut up and write!

If you want some further pointers, here’s a handy list of resources on academic and thesis writing pulled together by Paul Spencer at the UWE Graduate School.

Cancelled – Sex & Sexualities in Popular Culture: Feminist Perspectives 2016

We regret to announce that we will be cancelling Sex & Sexualities in Popular Culture: Feminist Perspectives 2016 (#popsex16). Due to unforeseeable circumstances, a number of presenters had to pull out at short notice, and while we did everything we could to offer alternative arrangements and/or find replacements, we feel that at this point we do not have a viable programme. We’re deeply disappointed, especially given the varied and interesting submissions we had, but we know some things can’t be helped and wanted to cancel the event now to avoid as much inconvenience as possible. We will be offering full refunds to all registered participants.

[Elsewhere] things to do during your #phd – sit on a university committee

Now for something completely different. My friend Jackie and I have been sitting on various university committees over the last 18 months so we decided to write a guest post about it for patter.

Imaginary interviewer: Why did you become a rep?

Milena: I returned to academia after a ten-year career in the private sector and in activism, so I’m one of those people who will exhaust all avenues before they give up on something.

Jackie: I thought I’d do something to be a good university citizen. During a welcome meeting, the chair of one of my faculty committees asked for a volunteer. And I thought, why not?


Read more at patter.

[Elsewhere] 5 Things I Took Away from #PopSex15

DCRC’s conference on Sex and Sexualities in Popular Culture nearly broke Twitter last weekend. Ok, not quite, but for a small postgraduate conference we certainly punched above our weight, with 1.7 million impressions, and being among the Top 10 trends in Bristol throughout the day. (That the hashtag was #PopSex15 may have helped.) Here are five things I took away from the day.

Read more on the DCRC blog.

I accidentally a PhD – one year in

So one of the stories I tell about how I ended up quitting a corporate job to go research porn is that it happened by accident. It’s the truth, though not necessarily the whole truth. I went from “Yeah, I kinda still wanna do this, when I retire” to “Fuck this, I’m doing it right now, I’m applying for funding and finding myself a supervisor” in the space of two months. And seeing as I got asked a couple of weeks ago to tell our new PhD students what I’d learned about the process over the last year, I thought it might be a good time to look back on that year in this blog too.

Self-Inflicted Problems

The good news is, I still don’t regret leaving my old job. There are some small things I miss – being on conference calls with people from literally around the world, the business class travel was nice, and I do have to live on less money now. But overall it was the right decision. I think one of the biggest changes has been moving from a job where the majority of problems were externally created (systems, organisational cultures, budgetary restrictions) to doing a project that is entirely mine and all the problems are completely self-inflicted. My data isn’t behaving? Well, it was my choice to look at this data set to start with, so it’s not the data’s fault. It’s very difficult to rant about something when it’s completely self-inflicted. The good news is that my data started behaving again this morning. Or rather, that I took enough of a step back to stop looking for something and start looking at what was there and how to make sense of it. The other good news is that if most of your problems are of your own making, they’re also broadly speaking within your control to fix.

Wrangling Supervisors

I spoke to a lot of people who’d finished their PhDs, and I’d seen at least some of the gory details of two people very close to me going through the process, before I embarked on this journey. And one of the common themes was the importance of the supervisor. So loud and clear was this message that I basically went and interviewed a bunch of potential supervisors before I applied for funding – much to their startlement. In the end, the funding materialised at an institution where I’d barely spoken with anyone, I was assigned a supervisor I’d never met or heard of… and promptly misplaced him on the first day of my PhD as he left for a job at another university. These things happen, and I’m lucky it happened on Day 1 rather than two years in. I’m also lucky – and very happy – with my current supervision team, even though I’m pretty sure I give all of them headaches at times.

So yes, the PhD student-supervisor relationship is a unique one: they’re not your boss, and they’re not your peer, and they’re not your mentor. They’re a bit of all of the above and none at the same time. Learning to manage your supervisor(s) early on in the process is key. Have a conversation about how they see their role and yours – and how you see it. Work out their strengths and their failure modes – leverage the strengths, learn to work around the failure modes.

I have three supervisors, which has upsides and downsides. On the plus side, there’s always someone there. Even if two of them have disappeared off to conferences, there’s always someone I can get hold of if I need something urgent. On the minus side, getting all three of them in the same room has proved impossible. Which is actually ok. I learned early on not to wait for everyone to be available and to meet with people as and when I could or needed to. The other big lesson has been not to go for more than four weeks without speaking to at least one supervisor. I tend to go into phases of thinking I don’t need to speak to anyone and I’m doing ok, and that’s generally a sign that I’m stuck with something, or not making as much progress as I’d like to, or haven’t done something I said I’d do. Having that looming supervisor meeting in the diary is a good motivator to go get things done – or ‘fess up and ask for help.

The other thing about having three supervisors is that I get a lot of very different input and insights that I might otherwise not have access to. The downside is that occasionally they end up all pulling in three different directions. That’s where the bit about your supervisor not being your boss comes in. It’s my research, and I get to decide what input to take on board and how. Occasionally I just have to decide that that thing my supervisor’s really excited about is a squirrel and let it go. It is tempting sometimes to only take on board the good feedback, the praise, the comments I agree with, and ignore the rest. That’s a bad idea. A habit I have got into for anything that my supervisors say that I wildly disagree with is to at the very least work out why I wildly disagree with it. That way, when my external examiner in my final viva inevitably asks why I didn’t do Thing X that Supervisor Y told me to do two years ago, I’ll have a (hopefully) good answer.

The Deep Hole of Knowledge

A big challenge for most PhD researchers is isolation. Regardless of whether – like me – you’re working by yourself on a project you designed from start to finish or you’re part of a team in a lab, that tiny little piece of new knowledge you’re creating is unique. No one else is doing anything quite like it. You are – to borrow a phrase from my supervisor – digging yourself into a deep hole of knowledge.

The trouble with digging yourself into a deep hole of knowledge is that the deeper you go, the easier it is to forget how to talk to people – both about your research, but also about things like what you want for dinner and who’s supposed to clean the cat litter. This is a bad thing. You may be a misanthrope like me and be fine with the latter, but the former is vital to your PhD. See, what they don’t tell you in the doctoral descriptors is that producing that shiny bit of new knowledge isn’t quite enough: you have to convince your examiners that it is indeed shiny and new. Which you need to do by… talking about research. So in order to not forget how to do that while digging ourselves into that hole, community is hugely important, and I would argue community comes in at least two flavours. (There are actually more but this post is already huge.)

Meeting people who are broadly going (or have gone) through the same experience as you – regardless of whether they’re in engineering, linguistics or practice-based performance art – can help with a lot of things. They’re the people you can go to and say things like “My supervisor’s doing my head in.” They’re the people who can provide comfort and understanding when your data’s not behaving, when you hit second-year slump, or when the output of an entire day’s worth of work is a single paragraph which is somehow supposed to encompass a month of research. Postgraduate societies, training sessions, and departmental events (with free lunch!) is where to find these people. Once you’ve found them, don’t let them go! Exchange email addresses. Meet up for coffee. Join a faculty PhD student meet-up. If there isn’t one, start one – that’s what I did.

The second flavour of community are your peers in your specific field. They’re the people in the deep hole of knowledge next to yours. They’re the people you can take your misbehaving data to and go “WTactualF?” and they might be able to help you make sense of it; or throw some useful reading at you; or ask you that one question that somehow you hadn’t considered. They’re the people who will end up on the Acknowledgements page of your thesis followed by words like “fruitful discussions”, “useful comments”, “invaluable insight”.

Where, then, does one find one’s peers (except masquerading as Reviewer 2 once you start submitting papers to journals)? A few of them might be in your department; most will not. So you may have to venture out. Go to conferences. Join mailing lists. Check out academic networks and associations in your field. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, you can even lure your peers to you. I’m currently organising a conference pretty much with the sole purpose of meeting other postgraduate researchers in my field and seeing what they’re working on.

And Next?

Some people start a PhD with a very clear goal in mind for what they want to do afterwards. (I want to stay in academia.) Others are just glad that they’ve got money and something to keep them busy and out of trouble for another three years. Regardless of which group you’re in, I’d say it makes sense to at least think about your options fairly early on. That way, you can make sure that as you go through your PhD you acquire the skills and experience you’ll need for the next stage.

Now here’s a neat trick for those who do want to stay in academia. You will hear things like “publish or perish” quite a lot. And frankly, they’re true. If you’re in the UK, having four published papers when you start knocking on doors and asking for a postdoc place will make it a lot easier for institutions to employ you because of the Dark Art that is the REF. (If you don’t know how the REF works, find out. It’s a system you can game to an extent, and it’s well worth learning how to do that.)

So how do you produce a thesis and four papers and go to conferences and do outreach and and and? From personal experience, here’s a thing not to do: spam five conferences with abstracts in your second month, in the hope that one of them will say yes. The reason not to do it? All five of them will say yes, and you will be very busy and (depending on your institution’s budget) very broke for a few months. Also, you might give your supervisor a headache. (I thoroughly enjoyed all five of those conferences though.)

What I have found really helpful is to use conferences and journal publications as a way of breaking down the massive amorphous thing that is a PhD into smaller manageable chunks with clear scope and deadlines. This means only doing papers that will somehow contribute to your thesis. They may not end up being chapters (and depending on your university regs, you might not be allowed to straight up use your publications in your thesis anyway), but they might help you get your head around a particular chunk of your data, a particular methodology, or some especially tricky part of the theory in your field. One of the papers I’m currently writing will actually end up as a significant chunk of a thesis chapter further down the line. Another will give me the chance to practise auto-ethnography (of which I’m terrified), plus it’s a paper obviously missing in its field and I happen to be in a position to write it.

So this is all of my “end of Year 1” wisdom. Here’s to Second-Year Slump, Reviewer 2, misbehaving data, and the Deep Hole of Knowledge. May we emerge from it blinking victoriously into the sunlight.