Tuesday, 29 March 2016

#14daypaper Part 5: Lessons Learned

Welcome back to  #14daypaper - the short series in which I try to write a conference paper in a fortnight. As always, this is not the definitive way to write a conference paper. It's just the way that I'm going about writing this particular conference paper.

Introduction: How to Write a Paper in a Fortnight
Part 1. Planning
Part 2. Research
Part 3. Write, Write Again  
Part 4. Fine Tuning

1) Everyone writes to their own schedule.
When I've spoken with people about this project, reactions have varied. Some people think 14 days isn't long enough. Others have wondered why on earth it would take so long to write roughly 2,500 words. In short, I've realised I work quite slowly. It's likely that practice will enable me to work more quickly. But I doubt I'll ever be cavalier enough to write a paper on the way to a conference, or while I'm there. 

2) It helps to walk your audience through your ideas.
This (along with 4.) is the most important technique in this whole process. By framing my paper around what the audience knew, I could easily identify where to offer more detail. Focusing on the audience also made it easier to identify where my argument needed to be stronger This meant that when I sat down to research my paper, I had a list of things I needed to know. This is useful if - like me - you have a tendency to fall into research rabbit holes.

You don't need to do this with coloured pens or pencils. You could do it in blue biro on a piece of lined A4. But whatever method you choose, focusing on the audience will change the way you write.

3) Taking 'quick notes' can be a false economy.
Like the use of coloured pens, this might be something that only applies to me. I've spent most of my academic life loathing the process of writing. I've always found it to be long-winded, stuttering and dull. This is because my plans always contain either a) a scribbled half-quotation that I can't quite read or b) a note like 'see J.Blogs page 50.' This means pulling out my original notes and rifling through them. Or worse, going through the book or article, and trying to reconstruct which bit of page 50 was relevant.

Writing down quotations in full meant that when I sat down to write, it was surprisingly easy. I didn't use all the quotations I wrote down. In most cases, I re-drafted the contextual sentences I copied down. So, some of the time copying down notes didn't produce results. However - for me - it was worth the extra time because it made writing less painful.

4) First, record yourself. Then, re-draft.
This. I know I've already been harping on about this on twitter. But, really. I found that recording myself reading my paper has improved it for the better.

Firstly, recording myself meant that I could identify which sentences or phrases are jarring when you try and listen to them. This makes sense: papers are heard by our audience, but we write them as though our audience is readers. When I listened back to the recording, some sentences that sound fluent and clever on paper just sounded convoluted. 

Secondly, recording myself - and listening back to the recording - meant that I could identify where my argument got a bit fuzzy, or a bit lost. This has enabled me to go back and tighten up those sections, and make my argument clear. 

Is it a slightly painful process? Yes. Is it awkward? Absolutely. But recording yourself has benefits in a way that practicing in front of someone doesn't.  But I believe it will make it easier for people to engage with the final paper. And, ultimately, the means the paper will do exactly what it's supposed to do: share new research with a broader audience.

And with that, it's done. I have a paper which is almost ready to present. You (hopefully) have come away with something that might help you write your next paper.

I've really enjoyed having a chance to reflect on writing. It can be a fraught process, especially at the start of a PhD. If you've read along with the whole series so far: thank you.

And happy conferencing!

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