If archaeologists dug up my PhD experience and interpreted the residual layers of rock and artefacts to figure out how the process evolved over time, the phase I’m currently living through would be known as ‘The Writing Age’.
Right around the time I published this post about burning out, something clicked in my brain. I could see the end of my PhD far more clearly than I had before. I knew what I needed to do to get it finished; I was ready to write.
The first two years of my PhD had felt like a relatively slow burn in terms of writing progress. I wrote bits and bobs during my first year – short pieces that helped me think through ideas that were important to my project, but that wouldn’t actually feature in my thesis. I also developed an early version of my introduction to help me (and my supervisors) see how I expected my research to shape up. The stakes felt fairly low for these writing tasks. I knew my ideas would evolve, and that I’d probably want to rewrite most of my early work further down the line. I saved the words I wrote in a safe place but didn’t expect to see many of them in my final PhD document.
I spent most of my second year working on one thesis chapter (along with a zillion other things that were unrelated to my PhD research – oops). I researched the ‘original practices’ approach to costume design developed at Shakespeare’s Globe and built up an almost-full chapter draft (10,000 words) over several months.
It was when I started trying to write my second thesis chapter that I hit a wall. I just couldn’t seem to get into the right headspace for a whole new chapter. I was halfway through my PhD and I’d only written one of my five thesis chapters. The stakes were getting high, writing wasn’t fun, and reaching the end of the project felt like an impossible task.
Since September, I’ve managed to write a full draft of my second thesis chapter (15,000 words) and a full draft of an article for a side project (5,000 words). Actual real words. That will probably mostly feature in my final thesis/side-project article. YAAAAAS.
So, what changed?
First, I’ve had some great experiences recently that’ve really affected how I think about writing. I was lucky earlier this year to get to attend a set of writing workshops run by Fellows of the wonderful Royal Literary Fund. The workshops involved working through writing exercises I hadn’t come across before (free-writing, planning structure with post-its, combining multiple genre styles, developing an attention-grabbing ‘walk-in’/introductory paragraph) and learning to write in a way that combines academic rigour with creative vigour. The thing that struck me most during these workshops was being treated as a writer. A real writer. I’d never thought of myself in that way before. Rather than seeing my PhD writing as a chore, I started thinking about the whole thesis process as a really exciting opportunity to hone my craft and express myself. That feeling hasn’t gone away – I still get warm fuzzies every time I remind myself that I’m a proper writer writing a book and that that’s really cool.
This new drive to achieve my writerly potential made me want to find more opportunities to be among writerly people and to generally expand my writerly horizons. I came across Writers’ HQ on Twitter and decided to have a go at their free ’14 Days to a Solid Writing Habit’ online course. It was great – I loved having an email in my inbox each morning that made me think about a particular area/obstacle of the writing process. I booked a spot on my local monthly WHQ writing retreat and had a wonderful day drinking endless cups of coffee, eating too many slices of cake, and smashing my writing target alongside other Birmingham-based writers of fiction and non-fiction. I’ll definitely be making these writing retreats a monthly event from now on, as well as the regular Shut Up & Work sessions held at my university.
Second, I’ve fixed myself a new writing routine that’s still going strong three months on. I’m finding that I write best first thing in the morning, and that I’m happier getting up and going to bed early to make the most of my day. I make myself a coffee at around 7am and settle down at my fairy-lit desk for anywhere between one and four hours each weekday morning (depending on how quickly I reach my word count target and what else I have to do that day). I’m getting much better at prioritising my writing time and saying no to the sorts of things that used to take me away from my desk, and I’ve come to have a lot of love for the cosy workspace I set up for myself. I like to go out for a countryside walk in the afternoon if I can – it really helps me to think through what I’m writing about before I get back to working on it the next morning.
I’m not sure yet what’s going to sit on top of ‘The Writing Age’ layer in my conceptual PhD stratigraphy. Hopefully it’ll be a long and fruitful period without too many signs of fire/flooding/asteroid strikes/other natural disasters. Either way, I feel like I’ve got a much better handle on my thesis now. And nobody can take all those chapter words away from me.*
*Ella quickly checks to make sure she definitely backed up her work. She did. All good.