Monday, 22 February 2016

#14daypaper Part 1. Planning

Welcome! This is the first in a series where I try to write a paper in a fortnight, and document it. If you're wondering, 'why on earth would anyone do this?' check out part one here.

I started by focusing on two things. Firstly, getting my main points clear. Secondly, by identifying gaps in my knowledge so I don't spent far too long on tangential research.

Which begs the question(s): how do you start writing a paper? Do you take it from something you're working on? How do you condense your ideas? Do felt tips help anyone else? 

Day 1
I'm developing this paper from a piece I wrote six months ago, so I start by re-reading the original piece. It's about 4000 words, so I need to cut it down by about half. I use an orange pen to cross out what I don't need and highlight areas I want to keep.

Next, I need to plan the structure of my paper, so I get out my coloured pens and go to work. This is what you can see above. I test out an approach I learned at a recent training session.  Usually, I would write out a long list of things the audience need to know. Instead I map out my key points, and how they relate to each other. I have three main points I'm taking the audience through - they're outlined in orange. Red indicates detail.

This is the basic outline of my paper. Now I need to focus on supporting information or quotes which I already have. These are in lavender.  This leaves the gaps in knowledge I need to fill in to support my arguments. These are in brown.

I'll admit, I feel silly playing with felt tips. However, this approach means that my paper already has a structure. And I know exactly where I need to focus my research.
I finish by re-reading my two primary texts, and review my notes on them.

Day 2
Today I have 5 hours of meetings other projects. By the time I sit down to start work at 3pm, my mind is already occupied. I have a late lunch and write a to-do list for all my other tasks.

Back to the paper. Since lunch hasn't revived me, I decide to review the criticism I read for my original piece. I still have some of the articles I used, so I skim read them. I order additional books from the library. Where I find a useful quote/paragraph, I write it down in full.

Day 3
I arrive at the office for an early start, and the books I ordered yesterday arrive at the library. I carry on taking notes. Even though I read these books 6 months ago, I'm surprised by how much I missed the first time round. (Is this a sign of intellectual progress? Or sloppiness?)

I park that thought, and focus on taking useful notes. I usually scrawl notes, then have to come back to them when I write my first draft. Then, I flail around for the right way to contextualise the quote or the paraphrase. This tends to slow down my writing process.

To try and avoid that, I'm not scrawling notes. I'm taking down quotes in full and phrasing them the way I want to use them in my paper. This is only possible because my felt pen map has made it clear where I need more evidence.

Before I can feel too smug about this, I start feeling a migraine coming on. I go home.

Day 4 (Half Day)
I come to the office straight from work. Since I've been up since 6am, I find my half day is useful for smaller admin tasks. This means I spend most of my day working on other projects.

I plan my reading for tomorrow so I'm ready to get ready.


Using the map has made the first stages of writing the paper much easier than usual. However, I know that I struggle not to go off into research tangents. That'll be the next challenge. 

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

#14daypaper How to Write a Conference Paper in a Fortnight

One of the many new and scary things at PhD level is writing a conference paper. It's new because it's the first time you're asked to condense your research into 20 minutes for an audience of non-specialists. It can be scary because there is  no guide on how to write a conference paper. People work differently, think differently and write differently. This means that most guidance is quite general.

General guidance can be useful, but I don't want to be general. I want to be specific. So, I'm starting a new series. Starting from the 22nd February, I'm going to share exactly how I go about writing a paper in 14 days.

A disclaimer: I am not an expert. This is only the third conference paper I've ever written. So this series is an example, not a comprehensive guide. You might find my way of doing things is perfect for you. You might think this is most absurd approach possible. You might think both. Both is good because what I'd like to do with this series is spark discussion about how different people approach this challenge.

Before I start, I should a few more disclaimers, for context:
1) I am a part-time student. So the 14 days I'm counting are PhD work days, not calendar days.
2) This paper is for a graduate-level, non-specialist conference, so the tone and content are specific to that context.
3) I'm developing my paper from a piece I wrote 6 months ago, so I already have something to start on.  

To help foster conversation, I'll be tweeting the process at #14daypaper. Please join in. I'll storify the tweets once the project is over. If you want to write along with me, please do! Let me know how you get on.

Ready? Let's do this.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The PhD: Year One

This February (today, in fact!) marks a year since I started my thesis. This is both a scary and wonderful thing. On the one hand, this means I'm going to have my first thesis advisory panel soon. On the other hand, I'm now far enough into research that everything isn't new and scary.

Perhaps in a year or two, I'll be able to put these last 12 months into a grander narrative that I can describe more eloquently. For now, all I have is scattered reflections.


What is surprising is how many opportunities there are, and how socially-acceptable it is to take advantage of them. For some reason - don't ask me why - I had this idea that your first year should be spent toiling in obscurity. After that, your supervisor might suggest giving a paper at a conference, or maybe some teaching. But the reality is different, and I've been lucky enough to get involved in all sorts of things: tutoring, conferences, outreach projects, internships. These things aren't directly related to my research, but they're as much a part of this experience as my writing.

Impostor syndrome (much like the real troubles in your life) is something that blindsides you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday. That is to say that - for me - it isn't constant. Usually, I manage to be quite pragmatic. But then suddenly it hits me like the mental equivalent of being smacked in the side of the head. I'm thrown off balance by the insidious, insistent little voice that says what the hell do you think you're doing? The first time this happened, I thought my confidence must just have been bravado, that it was gone for good. But even though I know these moments don't last it doesn't make it less scary.

Finally, I've remembered that feeling stupid is a good thing. The last year has very much been one of building up a baseline of knowledge and getting a general view of the area around my manuscript. Now that I'm moving beyond that, I feel much more intimidated. I've been reading about microeconomics recently. Maths and sciences never made intuitive sense the way textual study does to me, and so I've spent most of January feeling wretched. Until I realised: this is how I felt for most of my undergraduate degree. That is to say, this is how I felt during the most educational, informative, outlook-altering three years of my life. I still have no idea if January will end up being a wasted month of research. But even if it does, it will have had its own value.

One year down; 5 to go.