Planning. Paragraphs. Post-it notes: A Dyslexic, part-time PhD student shares his writing tips and tricks

“I go through spells where I don’t do anything. I just sort of have lunch—all day.”

Writing is not my natural forte, I like the Nora Ephron quote above about her writing process, so similar to mine. I go through long dry spells where my motivation is on the floor, my focus too caught elsewhere, and I’m not entirely sure I’ll get a PhD at all – the guilt creeping in for every day off, or trip out for coffee. Secretly I feel abit like a dilatant, who if they can look and sound the part someone will eventually give them a PhD. Like Annika’s earlier blogpost, I have the “swishy wool coat and smart leather bag that makes me appear intelligent”.

The truth is I probably work far too much, and am anything but a dilatant. I am a part-time PhD student, with a full time job, who would eat, sleep, and breath my discipline if I could. This shouldn’t be confused with a recommendation that a PhD student eat, sleep and breath what they do. However, I honestly don’t know how I would be able to write, and maintain my energy, without this passion for what I do.

The barriers I have to writing are multiple; I work full-time, in a job that I love but no one day is the same; I take on voluntary roles; I try to maintain an active conference presence, trying to do all the extra things a good PhD student is suggested they should. With work and study I traveled between December, and April nearly 6,000 miles alone. Across April I spent nearly every Friday half way across the country, delivering presentations which consumed my attention the weeks before.  Add to this the perils of trying to have a personal life, and sleep, and good grief – I need a dry martini and lie down, which neither aid not abet the writing of 90,000 words.

But also I am Dyslexic, a fact which more often that not I have hidden by omission. When I write everything takes longer. It is also heartbreaking sometimes to be able talk with such confidence, and articulation, but then sit down to compose a paper, or write a chapter and feel my mouth crammed with cotton wool, that spills out on the page when I try to speak. If I could give a purely voce viva PhD I would.

How I’ve written…

I have tried many approaches before the one which has lead me to be invited to this blog. I wrote my Masters by Research like you would build an ice sculpture – I poured my thoughts into chapters far too big, and chiseled away at the big blocks of ice they created to craft the message. On starting to write my PhD I tried very much to do the same, to little success, it was part of the process, and helped shape my thinking, and gobbets of this drafting do appear occasionally in my current work, but in very small amounts.

Thus I feel I should give you a word of caution, my method of writing is yet to have been proven effective. I don’t have my PhD firstly, I wish I could tell you that I am now 50% through to the finished piece as a result of this plan, but I’m not. However I am more confident that it will come with time. But my approach to writing has been organic and grown unique to myself, and my life style, and I’d encourage you most of all to develop an approach in a similar way, which works for you, and responds to your needs, and helps you get the job done.

How I write now…

So how do I write now? I have spent months and months refining my arguments and thinking through a written thesis plan with my supervisors, during a period of no chapter based writing at all. This was a hard, and not over yet, but this was important as it weeded out a number of areas that made the thesis too broad, and unfocused, and have been put to one side, or recycled, as presentations or alternative projects and papers in the future.

My latest approach has been far slower, and is focused on writing very deliberately, purposefully. My supervisors regularly suggesting a good rule of thumb being that a tight argument should be traceable, in broad terms, from the first line of each paragraph. Each paragraph moving the argument forward one step at a time.

At one point, and very unlike me, I did the math and established that the average 10,000 word chapter is composed of about 34 paragraphs between 300-350 words. I don’t believe my final chapters should or will follow these rules religiously but suddenly if a chapter becomes 34 first lines, rather than 10,000 words, it is far less intimidating.

 

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34 first lines: argument plan

So I mapped the argument each chapter should try to make on one page of A3, and used this to then slowly and deliberately write the first line of each paragraph. This didn’t work at first, when I went back to my supervisors each line was at first too broad. One line alone could be 10 first lines. So cue my current position where I am going through the second round of first lines, distilling the essence of the points I want to make.

It becomes like planning each paragraph as though they were individual PowerPoint slides; as though my thesis was actually a presentation, playing to my strengths. This is where the storyboarding approach comes in, during the week which is when I’m at my busiest, and exhausted after a long day at work, I can plan each paragraph of a chapter using post it notes. Mapping out the first lines and points I want to make as I go along. Reordering and reworking them as I go.  My wall starts to look like a murder investigation, pinning evidence and possibilities across the wall trying to work out how things fit together.

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Planning the chapter as if it were a PowerPoint presentation

As I progess it becomes more and more apparent when a first line is not actually strong enough to from a paragraph of its own, but a line within a stronger paragraph, or when it should be removed altogether, because it just doesn’t fit when you line the post-its up. No matter how often I re-order and move them, it becomes clearer what moves the argument forward, and what doesn’t.

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Re-ordering the paragraphs

Then comes the weekends, and bank holidays. These are the times when I can sit down and spend a solid, extended period of time writing. But the work during the week, with post its make it easier, the process of writing becomes more a painting by numbers exercise, and at first is focused on taking the first lines from my post-it wall, and pouring them into into a table.

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Tabulating the paragraphs (with a side of macarons)

Yes, I write my chapters into a table. I number each row, both with its paragraph number in the chapter as a whole, and the paragraph number in the subsection of the chapter I’m writing. There isn’t a rule about this, but if these numbers get too high am I still being focused?

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numbering the paragraphs

If as I complete the paragraph the row of the table is suddenly spanning 3 pages, is this chapter trying to do too much or being too long? This process doesn’t provide answers to these questions; some paragraphs will be longer than others, as will some chapters. But the process keeps this in my mind, and reminds me to keep these things in check. My dyslexia means I really could write a 90,000 word sentence if I was want to do so, and sometimes even when I don’t want to. My longest sentence to date was one and half pages with nothing but oxford commas.

Cue the return to the wall, every time I reach a natural break, the end of the weekend, or the end of a particular writing focused day, I print the table, and pin it up on the wall. Taking the original post-it notes, I re-trace the argument I’m trying to make. Reading back the points I wanted to make, and seeing if the paragraphs do this. Again it is not a problem if they don’t – there might be a very good reason for this – but increasingly they do, and my hope is that this lends to the tightening of my argument across my thesis. I don’t know if this argument is right yet, but going to see my supervisors for my next meeting I think I have a clearer grasp on what I want to say.

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Rechecking the ‘evidence’: see how the orange post-its have moved!

So what?

A question from Pat Thomson, whose books I’ve also found incredibly useful when writing. But in relation to this approach the answer is I don’t know! – Maybe I’ll be Dr Dent in the next year as a result of this approach. That’s the dream. But this way seems to be helping for now at least.

My other tips are superficial, but they are vital to my process of working, and shouldn’t be under estimated. Every chapter has a sound track – One song or group of songs played on repeat. Chapter one is being brought to you by Hamilton;

 

Don’t ask me why this is important but, sitting at my desk, listening to the same music, focuses my mind – I know I’m writing chapter one when I listen to this. Things seem to come back to me far quicker as a result. If I try and write somewhere that’s not my desk, in cafes, restaurants, libraries, hotel rooms, and trains, listening to the same music wherever re-focuses my mind.

Finally, while I don’t have the time to, I always try to read something non-academic as I write; increasingly this has been things by other writers. Returning to Nora Ephron, my current choice of non-academic reading, taking an hour out, every couple of days or so, to read something that isn’t academic seems to help. Academia is not the only forum where people write, edit, and compose, I don’t think we shouldn’t underestimate the value their experiences can bring. Ultimately I think I have to get to a place where I walk into my viva I feel like the editor-in-chief of my thesis, confident to defend my argument and the choices I’ve made. Anything that can inspire me to do this is to be welcomed with open arms. And hey, some days its ok to just have lunch all day – you deserve it.

Find out more about Samuel Dent via https://samueldent.wordpress.com/

Follow him on Twitter where you can see more photographs of his post-it-note technique  @SRDent89

 

 

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8 comments
  1. Reblogged this on Daily Life of a PhD and commented:
    I’m beginning to seriously think about what approach I’ll take to writing my thesis – here’s one option from Sam Dent a part-time PhD student and one very organised man!

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  2. wow that’s some superb organization! this will help a great deal but also keep in mind that your supervisor(s) has/have a great impact on the speed of your writing or better put, on the date you print your thesis off. as soon as you finish a part, send it to be proofread (not for grammar but for the format, style) and bug her/him/them to read it..i can share my personal experience in more detail if you wish 🙂

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  3. Thanks for sharing this post. I can see so many similarities between our feelings of writing. You will get there with the PhD!

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