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In May I wrote a blog post called “We all need a little bit of discipline (and punish) now and again” which was about the one day writing retreat I attended ran by Rowena Murray organised by the SRHE. In that post you can see how the ran according to Murray’s schedule.

I decided about a month ago, that I needed to run something like this myself on a more regular basis as I felt that working alone at home all day was making me feel a bit lonely and my productivity was sipping a bit with days and days going by and only scrappy bits of work being done. So I contacted a couple of former colleagues from the University of Bedfordshire who are on Twitter and I know are doing part-time PhDs and tend to work weekends on it.

So on Saturday, on the Bedford campus, we ran our first one day writing retreat.

A couple of participants surprised me by saying that their friends and colleagues were not keen to come because they were worried about the idea of working with others as they assumed there would be interruptions, or that the idea was for group feedback and group discussions which perhaps people sometimes do not want or want to avoid!

I found this strange as I deliberately called the writing group a ‘Shut up and write!’ but perhaps my ‘advert’ was not so clear and came across as too friendly but speaking to each other during writing time is strictly forbidden!  I wonder if this dread of working in groups comes from people’s experiences of working in open plan offices where the idea is that you are supposed to collaborate and share ideas whereas in reality open plan offices can often be the noisiest and least productive places to work.

However, by the end of the day, they were converted.

Feedback from participants fitted the feedback from every other writing group like this which were:

  • Realising how much you can get done
    Realising the importance of breaks
    The benefit of working in a different environment
    Benefit of avoiding social media/internet
    Benefit of working with others present to help motivate you to continue and avoid temptation.
After Shut up and Write! you will have avoided temptation and will feel virtuous. Photo from Patricksmercy on Flickr

After Shut up and Write! you will have avoided temptation and will feel virtuous. Photo from Patricksmercy on Flickr

Although we are not allowed to speak to each other during writing time, you can during breaks and I thought this was useful as I learnt about Jon Rainford’s work and realised we were reading some of the same books etc. So if you have similar subject and topic ideas, this chatting is good! However, you should not feel that you have to talk during breaks. I would hope that if people did not want to talk because they are in a thinking zone, then that is perfectly permissible.

So we are going to run a group once a month on a Saturday. The good thing about doing it on the Bedford campus with participants who are staff is that we have access to room booking as well as the staff kitchen and fridge.

If you want to run one, feel free to use this schedule as a template or refer to the original Rowena Murray schedule which involves a longer day than ours:

Five minute writing task:
Write down your short, medium and long term goals in full sentences for 5 minutes.
Short term means by the first break.
Medium term is by Lunch.
Long term is by the end of the day.

Share these goals with a person in the room (or whole room if group is very small).

Role of facilitator – to keep time and announce when it is five minutes before the end of each session. They also tell the group that in this five minutes everyone needs to write a sentence to themselves about what they are going to do after the break.

10am to 10:15 welcome and goal setting. Make cup of tea

10:15- 11:30 am Session 1 (1 ¼ hours)

11:30 – 11:45 Break [step away from the computer and stretch]

11:45 – 12:45: Session 2 (1 hour)

12:45-1:30 Lunch [go for a brisk walk after eating]

1:30-2:45 Session 3 (1 ¼ hours)

2:45-3:00 break [step away from the computer and stretch]

3:00 – 4:00 Session 4 (1 hour)

4:00 Did you meet your goal? Quick chat and feedback.

I also join in the Bi-monthly  Shut Up and Write group on Twitter and like that too. You can join on Twitter (see @SUWTUK for the UK group #SUWTUK , @SUWTues for the Australian one which I cannot work out the time zone difference, but I think it is something like 1am UK time, and finally there is the North American group @SUWTNA which is on at around 4pm UK time).

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Each time I have done a degree, MA, report for small research project for work etc, I’ve never really known how to do a literature review. I mean I know not to do the shopping list type and do it by themes, I know how to search the literature, I know how to manage and store references, but for some reason I never felt like I have ever actually properly done one.

Then when you do a PhD, the literature review is no longer say a tiny 4000 words of a 10,000 project. More likely it is multiple chapters and a billion words (well that’s what it feels like) and you feel like you have to do something properly because you don’t want to be caught out doing it wrong. You’re supposed to be the expert who has read all the relevant stuff and thought about it all deeply. This has caused me to become paralysed with fear!

I’ve been scared about not sounding clever enough. I’ve been also trying to produce something that you write in your final year, not the first year. I think this is because people tell you to look at other theses to see what one looks like. Well, that had an opposite effect on me because that is one they wrote in their final year. The first year literature review is never going to look as amazing and deep and intelligent as the final year one and there is no point trying to make it so, like I’ve been doing.

Another thing is that the research questions are supposed to emerge from gaps in the literature, so therefore you kind of think that you have to get through a lot of literature to know what the gaps are. And it is hard. How am I supposed to know because someone else might have done it but I just havent found it yet.

But one of the biggest things I did not realise was that theoretical stuff is ‘the literature’. I thought it was just empirical studies. So when my supervisors told me this, I felt relieved as I thought that I had not started my literature review, when in fact I had. You can also have a methodological review too. I’m going to have a smaller ‘methodology literature review’. Here I will put information about how other researchers researched the topic like I might say “so and so did this using 24 interviews blah blah whereas I think that this is a weakness which I will address by using a diff method blah blah”.

The biggest thing that made me no longer fearful of the review is that I no longer refer to it as ‘the literature review’. I’m not reviewing literature. I am reading, writing and thinking critically about it. I’m writing multiple little essays which have a common theme to create my story. That’s what I’m doing. In my final year, I will write it up and connect things more explicitly. But for now, little bits that connect – but perhaps not so clearly are fine!

In order to write these little manageable sections of the literature review, I use  Rowena Murray’s outlining technique. She refers to it but only quite briefly in the How to do a Thesis book (I’ve only got an old edition, so newer ones may be different). But in her book ‘Writing for Academic Journals’ she goes into more depth.

Outlining is where you create a very detailed outline of what you are going to write. So you break each topic and section down, and down and down again. Three levels of breakdown. Then you end up with nice little chunks. So now, I know that I need to write 100 words on a particular thing and it seems like an easier task. 100 words! That’s nothing!

 

photo

Murray (2005) Writing for Academic Journals

My supervisor recommended that I keep track of all my sections in a spreadsheet and colour code. Tick things off and feel a sense of progress.

So in summary – scrap the words ‘literature review’ – that’s a big monster heading that causes anxiety attacks! Secondly create level three outlines. How can writing 100 words be scary?

Hope this helps any readers who may also have a literature review phobia.

I have been reading a bit of Foucault today, so discipline is on my mind. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a one day writing retreat led by Rowena Murray and held at the Society for Research into Higher Education offices. I was just reading this interesting blog post by Claire Aitchison called: ‘Sit down and do your work!’ Disciplining the writer about the benefits of structured writing retreats and thought I would share my writing retreat experiences too.

The one day structured retreat as designed by Murray goes like this:

  1. Arrive 9am
  2. Set short, mid and long term goals (short term – by first break, mid-term – by lunch and long term – by the end of the day). You write these goals down in full sentences as a warm up activity.
  3. One and a half hours writing (in silence in a room with others – like a typing pool)
  4. Write a couple of sentences what your next steps are after the break so you do not lose your flow
  5. Break (half an hour – move away from the computer and walk around, have a drink etc)
  6. One hour writing
  7. Then write in a couple of sentences what your next steps are after lunch so you do not lose your flow
  8. Lunch (one hour – go for a swift walk for 20 mins and then eat for the rest)
  9. One and a half hours writing
  10. Write a couple of sentences what your next steps are after the break so you do not lose your flow
  11. Break (half an hour)
  12. One hour writing
  13. End (write next steps for next writing session so you do not forget where you left off)
  14. Go home and have fun! Your working day is done.

The blog post by Claire Aitchison mentions how this is sort of like school – exam conditions. And she is right. Like an exam, you do have to have done all your preparation before hand, you have to have all your notes completed and so forth. You should not really go on the internet or talk to the person next to you. You are allowed to go to the toilet without putting your hand up though. However, it is not at all scary or hgh pressured like an exam. Murray has a lovely soft Scottish accent and you come away feeling very happy because you have achieved something with your day, she is also there to talk to you if you need help.

Another thought I had about the retreat which reminds me not of school but of working in retail. I think was the fact that tea and lunch breaks were sacred – It reminds me of when I worked in a department store, if you missed some of your tea break because you were helping a customer locate the right size of underpants or trying to figure out where the other shoe has gone (where do they go?), or crying because again someone has defecated in the changing rooms,  your supervisor lets you have either extra time at lunch, or perhaps even go home a bit earlier. Breaks are sacred. You do not miss them, but if you do, you get them back.

I think students and academics do not treat breaks as sacred, but we must all fight against ‘the not having a lunch break’ culture.

So as as her blog post title says ‘Sit down and do your work’, I’d like to add too ‘stop working and have a break’. Or ‘stop watching telly and go to bed’. Sometimes, we all just need a good telling off.

Mary whipping the boy Jesus for being bad

Jesus, stop messing around and get to bed!

In a previous post I said I would ask my supervisors the question: “What is the best and most useful way to show you what I have learned and read and have been thinking to move the project forward?”

We decided that I need to show them something in writing, so not just scrappy notes. One said that it is best to start writing from the beginning of the doctorate. But this always makes me think write what? I know nuffink so can’t write nuffink! But after a bit of a discussion I think I have finally got it. There are things I can write about. The ethics of the research, the dataset I am using, the ‘factual’ stuff about the historical context, the methodology.

We have decided that I will produce something every month for my supervisors to read. That way they can look at the content but also how I write to help me become an academic writer. Both my supervisors have a lovely clear writing style, so I am confident that we are all on the same wavelength about what we think a good academic writing style looks like which I think is important.

The book by Rowena Murray ‘Writing for Journal Articles’ (see her top 10 tips from the book on The Guardian website) was recommended to me by my supervisor. Although there are some useful things in there, the problem with some of the writing books I have been reading is that they are geared toward people who are knowledgeable on their subject and are perhaps writing about something that they have been researching for many years – they actually have something to write about and tend to focus on tackling the issue of finding time and space to write. But for a full-time student, this isn’t really an issue.

So instead I think I will buy Rowena Murray’s book ‘How to write a thesis’.

So I am feeling optimistic and excited about writing – learning by writing I should say – as at last Murray’s book about writing a thesis addresses the whole idea of what to write even if you don’t yet know what you are writing about. Yay!

© Annika Coughlin 2014

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