I recently submitted my PhD investigating pharmaceuticals as potential environmental contaminants in otters. As a mature student with caring responsibilities, the writing up process was particularly challenging, so I thought I would share my experiences and a few tips here in case there are other students in a similar situation that might benefit from these.
I am a mother of three young children, so there is never a dull (or quiet) moment in our house. Before having children I had always written essays, dissertations, etc. during a sustained period over a couple of days or so. I didn’t really do ‘drafts’ and certainly didn’t ask others to read what I’d written before handing in my work. However, with the demands on my time and attention that children bring, I quickly realised that this strategy was definitely not going to work when writing my PhD thesis and I needed to find a new strategy that would work for me and my family.
I decided to participate in a writing course run by Manchester Met. During the course I learned various techniques for improving my writing. I also gained five invaluable pieces of advice from the course, which I’ve listed below.
1. Use every opportunity to write. This meant writing every single time I was able to, even if I didn’t really feel like it, or I only had half an hour to spare before collecting the kids from school. As this was not my usual pattern of writing I found it difficult initially, but after a while it became the norm, probably as I knew I had no other choice. It also helped me to stop procrastinating. I learned to ignore the laundry, dirty dishes, Whatsapp messages, etc. and force myself to write when previously I’d have convinced myself there’s no point writing for just half an hour.
2. Always leave a note for myself explaining what I had just been writing and what I was about to write next. This may not seem like a big deal, but for me the reality is that I can be deep in thought about an important ecological issue one moment and educating a child about why hitting their sibling is unacceptable the next! Both tasks require my full attention and it can be very difficult to pick up where I left off when I next get a chance to return to my writing. Those notes proved invaluable for me.
3. Just get the main point down first before trying to polish the text. As a writer whose first draft is usually the final draft, I have always tried to perfect my paragraphs as I go along. I now try to get my main points down before I lose track of my thoughts, ensure that I know what I want to say, then return to it later to improve the readability.
4. Regularly send drafts of my work to my supervisors for review. I found this extremely difficult at first as I tend to feel embarrassed about showing an incomplete piece of work to anyone. However, I have been blessed with incredibly kind and supportive supervisors, who actively encouraged me to send them early drafts so that we could work on them together to improve them before I had spent too much time on them.
5. Cram until 5am in the morning for the last few weeks prior to submission. Okay, that wasn’t one of the tips from the course. But it was necessary in my case as I wanted to submit my thesis before my children broke up for the summer holidays, and despite writing at every opportunity I had quite a lot to finish. Working during the night meant the house was quiet and there were no interruptions, so I could think straight for prolonged periods. The downside was that 2-3 hours sleep a night was totally unsustainable, and by the final day I was thoroughly exhausted. It was completely worth it when I submitted the thesis though and could enjoy the summer with my family.
I would highly recommend that anyone entering into the writing up phase of their PhD considers trying these tips (minus the last one). I would particularly encourage students that are juggling their research with other commitments to give them a go. It is possible to adapt to new ways of writing and if you feel like you need further advice and tips, I would recommend the Manchester Met writing course. It was called Writing productively: snacking, bingeing and marathon writing with Professor Julia Rouse.
Emmelianna received funding through the Manchester Metropolitan Graduate School’s Research Support Award to support her writing up period. You can find out more about the award and upcoming deadlines by visiting the PGR Development Moodle area.