The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How I Write

After reading this blog post you will not be the first person to call me crazy, I assure you, so go ahead and think it all you’d like.

Everyone has their own writing style, whether you are a novelist, an academic, a children’s book writer, a journalist, etc. We are all unique and we all write in unique ways. But when you do a PhD, writing becomes a rather massive focus of your life. People talk about it constantly. Despite attempts otherwise, you compare your writing to other people's (style, syntax, word count). People will ask you about how you write/how much you write/when you write. You will get bored of talking about writing your thesis before you ever sit down to – actually – write it.

I am in third year. This means that I am in my writing year (though not, strangely my ‘writing-up year’). I have three chapters of my thesis drafted so far. That’s about 25,000 words. In my first year here I wrote 35,000 words, most of which I later scraped. I know several people who wrote only 10,000 words. I know a couple who wrote more than I did. I know many of my fellow third years who have not written three chapters of their theses yet.

It’s okay. Really. Any PhD student reading this should know that that’s okay. We all have different writing styles and methods, and that means how and when we write is different. Some people will write their entire thesis in the last six months of their PhD. Some people will do it over two years. I have 12 months to write and edit, so that’s rather dictating things for me. I means that I have to plan carefully what I am going to write and when. I don’t have a lot of time to get sidetracked or get bored.

However, I have a pretty unique writing style, even by most people’s standards. I developed it in my undergrad (a while ago, let’s say). I know one or two other people who have a similar way of writing, but none of them are in my department (or doing PhDs - in fact, they're published authors now).

When I write something academic, be it an article, an essay, a dissertation or a thesis, I also write fictionally at the same time. That means that often for every academic word I write (be it 1000, 5000, 50,000) I write a word of a fictional story (study, novel, blog, etc.). I told you it was crazy. Because it means I am doubling my word count. That may not seem like much for a 4000 word paper, but when you are talking a 80,000 word thesis, it’s madness. But it works for me.

I write better academically when I am also writing fictionally. I also write more. I am more dedicated and more focused and I honestly enjoy the academic writing more when I know I can spend part of my day writing a fictional piece that I love. Sometimes, one of these will inspire me to work on the other, and it can go either way. When I am really having a tough time writing an academic piece, I usually start a story to see if that will spark my creative juices. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes when I have writer’s block it’s both academically and fictionally and I can’t write for days or weeks (or, one year, for three months).

But sooner or later one writing form sparks another and I’m back into it.

This means that, since October last year, I have written three chapters of my thesis. That’s 25,000 words, as I said. In the same time period I have written 25,000 (okay 26,000) words of short stories, longer stories and one story that is quickly turning itself into a novel. I have also written the last 25,000 words of an actual book, but let’s not talk about that one shall we? I didn’t mean to do it before 2015.

This is my writing style. This is what gets me writing and my juices flowing. It got me through five years of undergrad essays, two dissertations (in fact, it nearly destroyed one of those dissertations, but let’s not talk about that one either) and it’s gotten me a third of the way through my thesis so far. I imagine it will get me through at least the next chapter, at which time I will have reached the fun part of the thesis (reporting on my actual work!) so I think writing academically will become more enjoyable then.

When I started my PhD, my supervisor gave me a ‘talk’ on thesis writing. Not to worry me, but to remind me that I was indeed here to write a thesis and that that thesis was 80,000 words long. I politely told him that the writing part wouldn’t be my problem. 80,000 words was nothing in a year. I’ve written 73,000 words in six weeks (an actual novel). I’ve written 53,000 words in four weeks (another novel). A thesis will be no problem, I told him.

And it won’t be, because it’s not. And that’s how I write.

By the time I finish this thesis I will have written about 121,000 words for it (including first year papers and discarded chapters). I will have, in the same time period (since October 2011) have written over 170,000 words of non-academic work. And in three years, two months and ten days, nearly 300,000 words in all is pretty good.

The Lord of the Rings is 481,000 and took Tolkien 12 years.

I remind myself of this every day. Because there are days I wake up and this is hard. Despite what I know. Despite the fact I know that writing is not hard. There are still days that it really is.

So when people ask me how I write, I tell them. When they complain about how much I write and how they wish it was easy for them, I remind them that it is still hard. In the grand scheme of things, a PhD is not easy for anyone (except perhaps Sheldon Cooper), even if the writing is for some of us. We all have our individual writing styles and at the end of the day, you will finish your thesis (everyone in our department does remember!). It doesn’t really matter if you wrote it in six months or in two years. What matters is that you did it. You wrote a thesis. You will be a Doctor.

And maybe, one day, when you have recovered from that experience, you’ll write a few thousand fictional words yourself. Or that 80,000 word novel you’ve been thinking about. And maybe you won’t. But remember this, once you’ve written an 80,000 word doctoral thesis, you can do anything.       

Do you have a strange writing style or process? What gets you inspired when you have writer’s block? Share in the comments; let’s get a discussion going!


Anyone want to take a crack at calculating how many words they’ve written academically since they started university? Go on, you may surprise yourself. All those essays can add up. It might make you feel better about writing-up!

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