Why writing from day one isn’t nuts

Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Locat...

Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Location : seen outside Rewley House of Kellogg College, Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Hayton wrote a guest post at The Thesis Whisper, decrying the (very widespread) theory that to write a good PhD, you need to write as you go, or – as he puts it – write from “day one”.

I can only speak from my experience, as an English DPhil student at the University of Oxford, but I’ve found it essential to write as I go, for the following reasons:

1. Writing is rewriting.

The most valuable part of writing is rewriting. For me, rewriting is not always exciting – much of the material is already familiar to me, and I’m refining/redirecting/clarifying, not charting a course into the (thrilling) unknown. Nevertheless, it’s that critical eye which refines your thesis and makes the messy first draft (second draft, third draft…) better. I dread the thought of returning to my thesis between submission and viva (obviously praying I get that far! And not jinxing it! And knocking on wood and frothing with neurosis!) and realising that – although no thesis is ever perfect – just one more rewrite would have fixed things. If you don’t write from day one, you have much less time left to rewrite. Hayton says that it’s difficult to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago. This is COMPLETELY true because it is BILGE and you’re a MORON and why didn’t your supervisors stifle you at birth. On the other hand, realising something from two years ago looks like relative bilge is testament to your own progress since then; something I’ve found strangely affirming. Moreover, there will probably be something you can salvage. It’s easier to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago than to return to a chapter that doesn’t exist.

2. Writing is revealing.

Writing shows up the flaws in your argument; the paragraph that doesn’t fit; the stylistic tic that you need to spot; and, sometimes, the glorious link that couldn’t be made until ideas were made adjacent on paper. The more writing you’ve done, the more likely you are to see the strengths and weaknesses of your research. Writing from day one isn’t fun - not as much fun as a glorious library wallow without concept of producing results – but it does acquaint you with your research-self.

3. Writers have readers.

It is very, very hard for your supervisor to get a sense of where you’re heading and what your strengths actually are if you’re all talk and no hand-in. As ever, I’m very lucky in my supervisors, but in my 1st year a remark from the then Director of Graduate Studies (made at a general session for new research students) stuck with me: “A great way to get your supervisor’s attention is to hand something in“. If you’re only making notes and plans and following your own discursive research leads, it’s very hard to get the feedback which is so valuable early in your PhD, by averting disasters or pointing out obvious omissions. Sooner than you think, too, you’ll be wanting your fellow research students to look over your work, or you’ll need writing samples to win scholarships or even jobs…

4. Writers don’t just write theses.

Your thesis draft is the source of conference papers, podcasts, job applications; it’s a repository of fascinating miscellanea which frankly bear NO relation to your stated topic but which might turn into fascinating articles at some point. Writers are also teachers, and in a climate which seems to value research-led teaching, a clear research identity (and an idea about what constitutes good writing in your discipline) is much easier to model if you’re settled in your own written work.

And, finally, breaking my nice if semi-hypnotic/creepy structural streak:

5. There is no bloody time.

There isn’t time. There definitely isn’t time. Not in the UK. There’s time for reading and exploring and doing conferences and archive trips and all, I promise, all the attractions of graduate school life but there is not time for all these activities without any suggestion of written results. I teach and research-assist alongside my thesis, currently while applying for jobs and attempting to have a social life and see the people I love. Many doctoral students also have spouses, mortgages, children, and a pressing need to graduate before their funding expires (mine ends in Sept 2013) or before self-funding becomes still more untenable. You can’t be a seminar-going, committee-member, sociable, fulfilled, profile-building graduate student and then write your thesis. You have to do both at the same time, and make the best fist of it you can. There’s no blueprint for writing a thesis, but you’d have to be an extraordinary person (or just extraordinarily hurried) to sit down after thirty months’ research and write 100,000 words in the final six. More power to James Hayton, if he can manage it – but I can’t, and I’d advise any new researcher not to try.

15 responses to “Why writing from day one isn’t nuts

  1. Well said. As I said on the original post, writing isn’t an act, it’s a process. And you’ve described it well.

  2. Excellent post – thanks for being in the debate. I wondered whether or not to publish that post, but have no second thoughts after reading this :-)

    • clamorousvoice

      I am such a fan of TW and it’s influenced my own PhD pursuits – I couldn’t resist joining in with this. I’ve been thinking a lot about the disparities (in the UK and internationally) about how long a PhD should take or last. Your decision to publish that post reeled me in!

  3. There are steps which precede writing. Having some idea of what you’re trying to say, doing some research so you have an informed standpoint… surely you can’t just skip this? I’m not saying leave all writing to the end, but rather that there should be preparatory work before putting people under pressure to type.

    Telling people to write from day one can be damaging, and shouldn’t be thrown around as casual advice when there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that.

    Here’s an example… let’s say you want to write about Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Are you going to write from day one, or are you going to read the text first? Are you going to think of some interesting themes to look at in detail, or just sit and write and see what comes out? If you think of an avenue of research, do you sit and write thousands of words, or do a literature search to find out what has already been written?

    Surely it saves time to do the preparatory work first?

    Let me be clear again that I’m not saying leave all writing to the end. Just that some steps must precede it

    • clamorousvoice

      I don’t think all preparatory research should be omitted; but surely there’s a difference between our methods here. My supervisors, in advising the “write-from-day-one” method didn’t literally advise me to write before reading a word (although, as I think is necessary, appropriate & normal, I had done quite a lot of reading & prep during my Masters and year out). But, as it happened, I did want to write about Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the first thing I ever wrote. They asked me to come back in a month with between 4,000 and 6,000 words on the aspect of Macbeth in question; so I was writing notes from day one, and I was /focused/ on writing from day 1, with the first period of my doctorate a writing period as well as a research period. I think I produced 4-5k in the first five weeks or so of my thesis, and for me that was useful in lots of ways that I think could be applicable to a lot of doctoral students. Pedagogically, it gave me the sensation of “early success”, which is motivating, and it enabled my supervisors and I to have a discussion about the direction of my project which was (even at microcosm level) practical, not theoretical, for example. On a much more personal level, since I’d been out of academia for 15 months, it reassured me that I COULD still write. I think that making the period without academic writing longer would have been harmful for me. It also worries me that, at my institution, much of the 1st year (sometimes all of it) is spent on producing 10,000 words for transfer (the first-year hoop), leaving you 2 years to produce between 70 and 90,000 words.

      Maybe “have a writing task from day one” would be better put; but I do think that most of the successful doctoral students I know were given pieces to write from the word go. Then they went away, researched and wrote them.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my post, by the way!

      • Maybe we can agree then, that if you have a clearly defined task based on a small amount of research, then producing a written piece early makes perfect sense. In the original blog post, I did mention writing interim reports!

        I think the soundbite advice “write from day one” is an over-simplification, which doesn’t take into account the need for preparatory work, which you clearly included as part of the writing process.

        Too many people get into difficulty because they try to write drafts of the thesis too early, and the pressure to write is a distraction from the actual research.

        • clamorousvoice

          The point of my first piece was that it was the first part of a chapter (now my second chapter in the overall thesis, if that makes sense). And “preparatory work” encompassed my BA 3rd year and my Masters, but I also draw on stuff I did as a school student, or read/saw/thought as my parents’ child (my thesis was probably hideously overdetermined); I guess that also helps (but then, to me, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to do a PhD in an entirely new field).

          Maybe it’s to do with a house style, though? My graduate advisor (not my supervisors) used to tell me to “write into the unknown”, and “what’s your first chapter going to be about? Okay, go and write it” is fairly standard first supervision-style stuff in my institution. I don’t know anybody *in my institution* (and obviously that’s a limited field) or friends in other institutions, who feels now that they started writing too early. I had a complete draft by the end of my second year. I suppose I don’t separate the writing from the research, nor do I find it really helpful to do so – because you do keep looking things up as you write, for example.

          Also, I think probably I didn’t understand what you meant by “interim reports” – what do you mean? I’ve never produced anything that wasn’t in chapter style, or obviously intended to be a chapter section, as thesis work to hand in.

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  6. Reblogged this on shakespearescholarinprogress and commented:
    A really useful post that highlights some really key benefits to beginning writing from day one.

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