Writing for the long haul (Reem Al-Mahmood)

Photo by James Forbes | unsplash.com
When does the writing phase start for a PhD?

The best piece of advice I was given is that writing starts from day 1 of candidature – not during the last 6 months of candidature!

There is no such thing as the ‘writing up’ stage. There is, however, the intensive ‘writing marathon stage’ to the end. These writing sprints, as I came to call them, require immense mental and physical stamina.

Building up towards PhD completion, requires a daily schedule and working with your rhythm.

Writing takes time, effort, and thinking. For some, it is a 9-to-5 job; for others, it depends on seizing hours here and there, or in inspired writing phases. The realities of sustaining PhD writing across 4 years full-time (or 8 years part-time) are formidable, and can be simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.

What I came to learn is that academic writing requires thinking and conceptualising, along with all the writing.

My mantra during my writing sprints was, "Just write!", but the perfectionist editor in me would say "...but the chapter isn’t shaped fully in my head yet".

So, my mantra changed to: "Just draft!", giving me permission to then write without judgement and see my thoughts dance in words across the screen and take solid form in print.

For myself, and in working with PhD students, there is also the danger of falling in love with the data and not wanting the PhD to end. When this happens, the writing is endlessly postponed, put on hold indefinitely until the analysis is perfected.

I had to remind myself that the thesis will be read by probably five people or so, and it's what comes after the thesis that will be more significant.

So, my advice is to develop your own daily writing rhythm and rituals.

For me, finding the stamina for the writing sprints meant I developed a ritual of thinking through the writing while walking, then sitting down to write. I would do 20-minute walking sprints to think through the writing, interspersed with 1.5 hours of intensive writing.

To write the PhD, you MUST schedule writing as sacrosanct uninterrupted daily writing practice.

The PhD will demand so much of your love and attention. Allow it the writing space and, as another wonderful inspiring lecturer, said: "Let your sentences breathe!".

One of my daily writing inspirations came from Gail Sher’s 2002 book The intuitive writer: Listening to your own voice. Sher writes:
The Tao of language surges forward. Listen. Allow yourself to drift.   
Massage yourself with words. Improvise linguistically on what you hear your being report. Sway with the language that arises, on its own, unexpectedly, whispering (to your inner ear), “Write me. Pick me for your next sentence.”  
(p. 130)
Where are your words? What are your words?

What are you waiting for? Let your words dance across the screen! 'Just write' until you get to the end!

Reem Al-Mahmood is a lecturer in Student Learning, La Trobe Learning and Teaching, at La Trobe University. She completed a PhD in 2012 at the University of Melbourne titled: “e-Learning and e-Teaching in Higher Education: Choreographies of Identity and Spatiality”, and fell in love with the process of PhD writing.