Planning and writing a thesis with a table of contents

This is the time of year when our Masters students are starting to think about how they’re going to write their theses. It can be a daunting concept! Having essentially learnt what ‘not to do’ when writing my own MA thesis, I decided early on in my PhD to write and actively work with a table of contents. The idea for this came from several excellent books I read on writing, including Harry Wolcott’s Writing Up Qualitative Research, Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, and Laurel Richardon’s Writing: A Method of Inquiry.

To begin with, I spent one pomodoro (a 25-minute dedicated writing block) working on my table of contents every month. I would send it to my supervisors as a way for them to see how my work was progressing. Doing a table of contents helped me keep the big picture in mind and be a more productive, focused writer.

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Write when the baby sleeps

I’ve just started a year-long professional development course for early career researchers* which has given me an opportunity to think about how my writing style has changed since I was working on my PhD. When I was writing my dissertation I had a fantastic writing habit and, inspired by Inger Mewburn’s tips on How to write 1000 words a day without going bat-shit crazy, was producing anywhere between 1000-2000 ‘keeper’ words (that would go directly into the thesis with minimal revision) every day. Things have changed a lot since then: I now have a wonderful, bright, inquisitive, 2-year-old and a job I love. Long gone are the days where I could dedicate all my waking hours to thesis-writing!

The biggest change for me is being a parent. In particular, being the parent of a child who doesn’t like to sleep unless it’s on or next to me. Like Ava Neyer, I read all the baby sleep books in first few months after she was born to try to figure out how to help her sleep. Nothing worked. Eventually we found our own rhythm: I wrote (or read) when the baby slept. Most days I had at least one 25-minute block (or one Pomodoro) where I couldn’t do anything except sit or lie next to my daughter while she slept, so I used this time to write, read, or plan out what I was going to work on next.

She’s getting the hang of sleeping now (we use the Wait It Out method, which works for all of us) but I still use the time just after she’s nodded off to read or think. One of my goals this year is to cultivate a daily writing habit so I can get back into the writing groove I had going as a PhD candidate. To do this, I re-read Charlotte Frost’s top 10 tips for forming good writing habits and joined the Savage Minds Writing Group for anthropologists, which has some fantastic¬† posts on ethnographic writing. The course I’m on will also help, as will Shut Up and Write sessions (in real life and on #shutupandwrite Tuesdays on Twitter).

I’m keen to hear how other early career academics make space for their writing. Who else does #shutupandwrite Tuesdays on Twitter? How do you juggle parenting with life as an academic?

* Dr Kathryn Sutherland studies the experiences of early career researchers and has recently published her findings: ‘Success in Academia? The experiences of early career academics in New Zealand’

How I’m participating in Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo)

Academic Writing Month 2013 starts today and I’m participating this year for the first time. For some reason it passed me by last year, but for the past week my Twitter feed has been filled with people declaring their writing goals and encouraging one another as they gear up for the month-long writing marathon that is #AcWriMo.

The purpose of #AcWriMo is for academics to prioritise writing for the month. One of the things I like about being an academic is that I get (paid) to write a lot. I don’t like the pressure put on academics to publish – what Thesis Whisperer Inger Mewburn calls the academic performance culture – but I love writing and the writing process, so I’m keen to share experiences with others for the month.

#AcWriMo participants are supposed to set and declare goals for the month, make weekly reports (I’ll use Twitter) and declare their results at the end of November. I have 6 goals:

  1. Write and present a paper at the 2013 AAA Meeting in Chicago
  2. Write a review of the film Mr. Pip for Asia Pacific Viewpoint
  3. Attend at least one of the Shut Up and Write sessions organised by my colleagues at Victoria University (#VUWacwri)
  4. Spend two Pomodoros a day, 5 days a week, writing material for publication (I’m part-time at work and have a very active and inquisitive toddler at home so this will be a test for my time management skills!)
  5. Develop the AAA paper into a complete journal article
  6. Start planning the editorial I need to write for a Special Issue of SITES entitled ‘Anthropology and Imagination’

The first two goals will be completed in the next couple of weeks and I will use goals 3 and 4 to help me achieve them. I might not achieve the rest of the goals as I’ll also be marking Honors theses before heading to Chicago then taking 2 weeks’ annual leave after the AAA meeting. I will probably start on goal 5 while I’m on annual leave, as like Anne Galloway I’m keen to try out Inger Mewburn’s strategy for Writing a Journal Article in 7 days. Also, I can never really ‘switch off’ so I’m sure I will achieve a lot of thinking about goal 6 even if I don’t write those thoughts down.

For me participating in #AcWriMo is more about joining an online discussion of academic writing and the writing process than meeting specific goals. I didn’t achieve any of my goals today, for example, but I did spend one Pomodoro doing research for my AAA paper and gave a very short presentation at a seminar on using social media in the classroom at Victoria University (look up #VUWteach on Twitter for live-tweets from the seminar), so I feel like that’s good enough. I will achieve some of my goals and make progress on others and look forward to chatting with others about their progress on Twitter.