This is a very personal post because it is linked to my own writing. I am currently working on my PhD thesis (hereafter ‘the Thesis’) and this issue of writing for myself and writing for others, like my supervisor and examiners, is very much a current affair. Lately I have been quite focused on the former kind of writing: writing for myself, and the value of this kind of writing as a way of thinking through often complex ideas and concepts.
My supervisor has long been telling me that it is really important to find time to write just for myself every day. But I am a part-time student and am working and parenting full-time, so writing just for myself often seems overly indulgent. When I can make time to write I need to Produce Writing that can be Read and Commented On and go into the Thesis. I can’t just scribble. That’s a waste of precious writing time, right? Actually, wrong, as I only very recently worked out for myself.
I found my way to a website called 750words.com, and signed up after being given the link by a colleague. It looked like a fun way to get a bit of writing done, and was similar in intent to the research journal I have been keeping sporadically. So I gave it a try. I wanted to write every day for as many days as I could, and also had the added bonus of being rewarded with point and badges on the site – just for writing! Initially it was a chore. I had to write ‘Do your Words’ on my ‘to-do list every day for a week to remind myself, and everyday for a week I sat down and started with ‘I’m not sure I even have anything to write about today but…’. But, I would start with something I had been thinking about and before I knew it half an hour and 800 words had flown by. And I was not just writing, I was thinking quite productively, making connections between the first little idea and all the other ideas that connected to it and flowed through me and onto these pages. And every day I did it it got easier. I have not kept up with the website, but I have gone back to my pen-and-paper research journal and have started scribbling and drawing in there more frequently. And it does actually feel like I am moving forwards, even if what I am writing about is not all going into the Thesis. I am moving forwards – and the writing is the thinking and this is useful work, and not at all a waste of my precious PhD time.
I think it would be valuable to encourage all students to find time to write just for themselves about things they are reading, a problem they encountered in a lecture, something that is puzzling them, a new concept or idea that has got them excited… there is so much that they can be encouraged to write about. And they can write about all of this in any language they choose to and in any form – with words or picture or both. Too often writing in academia is made to seem separate from all of the other academic activities that are part of it, like reading, speaking and thinking. We don’t only think before we write; we think while we write and after we write, and we need to try to open students’ eyes to the process that is writing, and help them see beyond just the ‘product’ that they are writing. If we only focus on the destination we miss so much of the richness in the journey. Well, that has been my learning, and I am going to be spending far more time with my scribbles, as well as my formal chapters in progress, because the latter won’t be quite as good without the former.