Well, last Friday marked a milestone in this PhD, I submitted the first proper draft chapter, weighing in at a touch under 10,000 words. The chapter was about the idea of ‘embedding’ policy, but I’m not reflecting on that in this post, rather the fairly painful writing process that got me there.
1. Getting started.
It’s unsurprising that, even after dividing it up into ‘bitesize’ chunks, the point at which you’re beginning writing up feels like the foothills of Everest. I’d read plenty of advice about how to get started on writing. The reality turned out to be rather like one of those marathon runners who starts so far back that it takes them an hour just to cross the start line.
‘Free writing’ of the type proposed by 750 Words and others has helped me in the past. But under significant time pressure the ‘just write anything and sort it out later’ advice didn’t really work for me this time. Instead, on one occasion I found myself recreating the experience of watching Dr. Who 30 years ago, peering through my fingers at the screen hoping it would all go away.
2. Out of practice.
Perhaps the problem is that the 750 Words approach isn’t a ‘break glass in emergency’ option. You need to put the hard yards in by getting in the daily writing habit. That way, you’ve already won half the battle. I had deluded myself that I’d be doing a lot of writing in my second year, but I really hadn’t. I wrote a ~2000w Project Memo for my monthly supervision meetings, which mostly contained some vignettes from my fieldwork with the odd update on policy developments. While these were important to reflect on fieldwork, and were supported by my supervisors, they were in no way the same kind of writing that I did in my first year, when I wrote two literature reviews and a research methods paper. Of course, it’s difficult to fit in bigger pieces of writing in between the knowns and unknowns of organising and carrying out fieldwork. However, I’m not sure it’s the length of the writing that was the problem. What was missing was…
3. Making an argument.
Structuring the arc of an argument, bringing in relevant fieldwork and relating it to theory is not an easy business, and paralysed me at the start. In particular, I was unsure whether I had done sufficient data analysis to get going. I had to take a practical decision on that one, and commit to continuing the analysis as I continue over the next few months. I certainly knew enough to write the kernel of the first chapter and work outwards. But even this, which had been rattling round my brain for a few months proved remarkably difficult to get down on paper in even a structure, let alone a fully fledged piece.
STUNNING PIECES OF ADVICE
…are in short supply here. But here’s a couple of tips you might want to consider when getting going on analysis:
Get in the writing habit EARLY.
Umpteen bloggers would have said this before me, but it bears repeating. If you can do a 750 Words every day, you’re giving yourself some rather sturdier crampons when it comes to climbing Everest than writing a couple of thousand every month as I did.
Start with the data.
For qualitative research, this is kind of like free writing but for analysis. Don’t be afraid to put in chunks of quotes from interviews etc in the body of your text. You’ll probably find yourself with a ‘brick wall’ piece of writing in the early stages, where large bricks of quotes are separated by thin strips of analysis and linking text. As you review, you’ll find yourself being able to put more of the quotes into your own words, and expand on the analysis as you make the links with the theory. But starting with the data – that’s what your chapter is about after all – is a good way to jump start your writing, as well as the not inconsiderable benefit of shifting that pesky word count of zero.
750 Words http://750words.com/
(picture comes from stats on one day’s “free writing”)