There’s been silence from me since November. What has happened in the meantime? Somehow time has been disappearing ever since the academic year started in September, because I started teaching. Not only did I start teaching for the first time, it is also a subject outside my area of expertise. As a result I have been on a steep learning curve both in terms of pedagogy and the subject matter.
Now of course I’m also supposed to be doing my PhD at the same time. I have finished the data collection for my corpus in October. My supervisor has been very keen for me to start writing the actual chapter about the analysis of this corpus. At times I have felt a bit under pressure because I’m afraid that if I’m doing this too quickly I will make mistakes. And I have experienced several times that with corpus linguistics it is very easy to make such ‘mistakes’: not necessarily in terms of really doing something outright wrong but simply ticking (or forgetting to tick) a certain setting option that then makes the results either somewhat wrong, illogical, or at least not ideal. The problem is that often the initial list output from a corpus tool is followed by a considerable amount of manual work (categorisation, interpretation) so that it’s really rather disheartening when you have to redo the list and all subsequent steps.
Apart from all the technical considerations, one of the scariest issues has been this thought: “I have no idea how to write a chapter”. I started my PhD right after the MA, which I had done right after my BA. So I have the experience of 4 years of intense term paper writing. Yet, term papers seem so different. I loved them, actually. Yes, when I had 4 MA term paper deadlines on the same day, the psychological pressure was simply awful (and it happened to me twice – once in each semester). Yet, this shortage of time and the lecturers’ advice to “keep it manageable” was enough to help me refine my thoughts, my structure, my bullet points for each section and the term papers somehow wrote themselves. The PhD is so different. Obviously I wrote a proposal before I even started it (i.e. during the MA!) and I basically spent the first year reading and drafting a tentative literature review and methodology. Now that I am 1.5 years in it seems like I can toss much of that right into the bin… why is that?? But yes of course everyone tells you that. The whole project will shape itself as you proceed and your thoughts will get refined and all that.
Writing BA and MA term papers seems to have been a straightforward process. Either there was a set task and I knew what to do/ look for and therefore what literature to review (at least the literature mentioned in class plus 5-10 articles related to the topic found on Google Scholar or in the library catalogue; often there wasn’t space for a literature review of more than a page anyway). Of course there were moments of desperation. Being somewhat of a perfectionist I did many overnight term paper writing or proofreading sessions, often in the company of classmates in a departmental computer room or a 24-hr library section with lots of chocolate and soft drinks. Nevertheless, there was always this wonderful idea of further examination being “beyond the scope of this paper”. And this scope had been neatly defined in discussion with my lecturer.
For the PhD, then… I am often confused about the scope. Everything shifts and floats and new ideas come up or get rejected. The thought of “writing up” makes me feel really dizzy. Of course I have the lit review and methodology drafts from year one and lots of drafts of what I have been doing in year 2, but I know very well that EVERYTHING WILL HAVE TO BE REWRITTEN. OMG OMG OMG!
Phew… I tried overcoming the little panic attacks that I had when thinking of the transition of term paper to PhD chapter by asking my supervisor very practical questions along the following lines:
- Do I need to put lit review bits into the chapter as I’m drafting it now? How do I know which bits need to be moved to the ‘lit review chapter’ (which will have another name) and which stay in the chapter?
- [Same for the methodology]: Do I add methodological details into the chapter?
I’m also struggling with the structure of the actual results etc… but anyway, regarding the literature and methodology bits, she basically told me to add the critical bits to the chapter for now and once I rewrite or put together the whole thesis I will find the balance. She actually suggested that it would be neat to have one general methodology chapter that is followed up by a more detailed short methodology section in each analysis chapter relevant to the local discussion there.
I have been writing so many drafts of my current analysis… they all seem to end up like a report rather then a chapter. So she told me to stop trying to find out other things or change the method again but rather add some interpretation and theoretical implications in relation to my research field. This is what I have to do now.
In the meantime I have also referred to one of my favourite procrastination strategies: reading about writing. I have come across two great books for that recently (which you may know already), Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (Joan Bolker) and On Writing (Stephen King). The first one has a title that first sounds a bit ‘cheap’ but I was really positively surprised by the book and it’s so far my favourite PhD guide. In fact, I finished it in four nights. King’s book is of course pitched at writers of fiction. (This was also interesting as I’m involved in teaching a stylistics module). Both books are very easy to read and suggest many interesting writing strategies.
Do you know of any other good books? And what are your strategies for writing a chapter? Sorry for writing such a long post – I needed to let these words out.