Heard again. Twice today. (And it was the second or third time from one student!) J I’m sympathetic and I recall my own assignments and dissertations years ago. (Is there anything worse than staring at a blank screen and thinking to yourself “100,000 odd more words to go – time to start the PhD dissertation”???)
A few thousand words in an assignment can seem like quite a bit. A small dissertation or research project (equivalent in workload to one to four classes) can seem like a daunting task as you start. However, with a good structure and an effective plan, you soon find yourself wondering where you can cut things back or eliminate material.
Introducing structure and making things clear and easy for the reader often introduces significant ‘volume’ that is not anticipated. By the time you have dispensed with the niceties of academic writing it sometimes seems that there’s little space left for what you actually want to say. Thus, while it may seem like ‘a lot of work’ to put together a short conference paper, when you inspect a template, plan what you want to say and the order to say it in, filling in the blanks and coming up with a complete conference paper is quite easily accomplished. On a much larger scale, the same principles hold true for a dissertation, where there is even more ‘academic filler’ that helps the reader and conforms to the established orthodoxy of how the dissertation should be structured and written.
Writing a little bit each day also breaks a mammoth task into something quite achievable. Knocking out 500 words a day for 20 days gives you 10,000 words of content – quite a bit towards the completion of short dissertation. If you have a relatively detailed structure you can even fill in one of these segments each day with 500 words, and you’ll have a complete dissertation before you know it, assembled with a little writing each day.
A blanket and really rather broad question – just what we are used to dealing with at university! Usually, I am asked in about weeks 2-5 as students struggle and grapple with their assignment topics. For some, this is the first semester at university after working for many years; the shock of being in the classroom alone may be overwhelming, let alone the additional skills they now need to master!
Sure, most students have a reasonable grasp of creating an outline. How many create an outline? Far too few, I’d wager. Some have the impression we can simply create an outline, fill it in, and this first draft is ‘done’. Huh. I try to dispel this myth by showing several manuscripts I’m currently working on, explaining how I’ve re-organised some of the work, often reversing the introduction of a series of concepts, then re-writing material that ‘links’ these ideas together so that it reads effectively.
Revelation: A first draft is woefully inadequate for most of us.
Revelation: Yes – even WE academics re-write the heck out of most of our work. If we do it to get a good result, don’t you think that as a student you’d also be doing a little bit of re-work?
Right, they say, then HOW do we do the specific re-writing? This question stumps me a little bit each time it’s asked. There are a range of approaches you can use to manage a paragraph (SEX: statement/sentence, explanation, example), yet no-one seems to ever ‘teach’ how to do this effectively.
Naturally, I’m interested in productivity in general and personal productivity in particular, leading me to digest a range of books. In one of these I found some useful advice, replete with examples, on how to mechanically tackle the content of paragraphs. Throw in a mix of references and ideas and then re-work these into something quite readable, informative, and concise. Give this book a try: From Research to Manuscript: A Guide to Scientific Writing (Michael J. Katz).
Do I use this exact approach consistently? No. Like much of what I learn, this is a tool in my writing-tool-belt, whipped out and used judiciously when required. But it can give readers insight into the difficulties of writing as well as an approach to making a ‘jumble’ of ideas actually work as an integrated and readable whole.