Writing about writing

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I have been thinking about writing a lot recently.  It’s partly because I have been reading a fab book by Rowena Murray on ‘How to write a Thesis’.

The last time I wrote about writing, was in the TU811 student forum for the recent presentation.  Rather ironically it was written on 29 April 2017 – exactly 6 months ago.  I have copied it below (with minor changes)

What do I/have I used a journal for?

The more I think about it, the more I realise writing whilst studying and researching achieves a number of different purposes and at times I focus more on one than another.  The ‘types’ of things I write could be…

for sensemaking/learning to say things in my own words – writing things help me practice expressing complex ideas in my own words.  Sometimes (like now) I write to make sense of a stream of thoughts to see if some structure comes out of them as I iterate.  I did this a lot as I studied TU812, including but not only on a public blog.  During TU811 my sensemaking wasn’t just in words and paragraphs it was in diagrams so I tended to use an un-lined notebook or even sometimes a flipchart.  If I want to subsequently keep these electronically I simply take a photo with my mobile.

for reflection – this is when I start more with an experience that I want to make sense of (rather than a concept or idea as above).  There are ideas and templates for structuring reflective writing.  I found a couple here https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/32460915/reflective-diary-or-journal-template-businessballs but mostly I don’t use a template.  I write a story of something that happened some thing that bothered me, it may simply be a throwaway comment someone made.  Then as I re-read that story I start exploring it.  Why did it bother me?  What other emotional response did I have? Why?  How can I understand it differently if I think of it as if it is [some sort of concept or idea]?  Here I think it is important to use a technology where I can ‘gush’, record a stream of thoughts, I really don’t want to be bothered by formatting or layout.  Depending on how personal/potentially controversial that story is I may do it on my blog – tidying it up after I have written it.  I also use software called Scrivener because that is what I am using for my PhD thesis ‘construction’.

for ‘fieldnotes’ – this is partly reflection but now I am researcher I do need to record what happened during events so I have that ‘data’ to go back to.  This may need to be quite detailed.  I try to do it when I am out in the ‘field’ (during researching) but I am so busy observing, listening and participating my notes aren’t good.  I write as soon as possible afterwards and/or use the dictaphone app on my phone.

for summarising the development of my understanding/learning – writing so that I look back and understand the history of how my understanding about something has changed/developed over time.

Looking at the list above, the thing I wish I did more of is ‘critical’ writing.  Not just explaining ideas and my thoughts but proactively thinking how others would argue against those ideas and how I would defend them.  That’s particularly important in PhD research as you are always asked to ‘justify’ why you have taken the route you have and therefore why you haven’t taken other routes.  But critique and justification are things I first started developing during MSc.

I think over time I have learned that the ‘technology’ – notepad, word, blog, scrivener – will vary.  I use what feels right in the moment.  This has changed over time.  Some things are ordered because I know I revisit them, some things remain really unstructured and I never look at them again.

So thank you for this discussion thread.  It’s prompted me to write this and understand more about what I do and why I do it!  I think a journal is just about writing, otherwise you only do it for TMAs, EMA or in my case my Thesis.  And like any practice, writing needs to be practised.

It’s interesting re-reading this contribution in the light of my ‘new’ knowledge of Rowena Murray’s book.  This book has some really good ideas for overcoming the ‘block’ of writing.

For me there are a couple of key principles that have become my mantras.  Firstly, never compare your first output to something that is published.  Published material has gone through edit after edit and had the input of reviewers and editing processes not just the author’s input.  Published material never starts out as a polished product, it is likely to start out as something similiar to my first output.  My first output isn’t even something I’d call my first draft and that’s an okay thing.  Secondly, and it feels odd to say I hadn’t realised this before – note-taking, writing and editing are separate activities.  They are different modes of doing.  I have fallen into the trap before of going to and from my source material, making some notes from them, writing two sentences and then editing ad infinitum.  Then I get down because a whole afternoon may have gone by and I have only produced 50 words.  Making a distinction between these three practices and knowing that I am doing one but not the others has proven quite liberating.

Murray’s book gives a variety of exercises or ways of getting writing done.  You do have to set out to write in full sentences and paragraphs, not jot notes or bullet points.  And she suggests you set yourself a time period to write.  This could be as little as 5 minutes (referred to as snack writing if I remember properly (I am writing this without notes and without the book to hand on purpose!)).

There are different forms of writing – such as freewriting and generative writing – but what I like most (so far) is the idea of writing to prompts.  This could be a question (What are my takeaways so far from reading Murray’s book?) or an unfinished statement (So far Murray’s book has given me insight into…).  You can use this in freewriting and generative writing or even in a ‘proper’ bit of writing for an assignment or thesis.  It helps break it down and focus your mind.  If I think back to my OU studies in some ways the activities in the study guides were prompts but I didn’t always use them that way at the time – prompts to jot a few notes maybe but not really as prompts to write.

So referring back to the forum contribution I made above.  There I was talking about why I write (the purpose) and the technologies (software etc) I use.  Murray’s book gives a different perspective – how to get going with your writing and how to focus – especially when I don’t think I am in the mood or I am struggling to feel productive.



Murray, R. (2017), How to write a Thesis, 4th Edition, The Open University Press.

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