Sunday, 8 December 2013

Facing writing challenges (without being a drama queen)

Sometimes we don't get to choose the ideal conditions in which to write. It's great to have longer stretches of time, and an environment in which we can think things through. Sometimes, we have to work with stolen bits of time, and to stop and start writing around other responsibilities. This works well for editing (most of the time) but less well for substantial writing tasks. On those occasions, cue the dramatic music.

A silent scream (thanks to 'The Actor')
Firstly, I've been working on some suggestions for editing a couple of chapters from one of my supervisors. I've got lots of respect for this person, as they write, and edit, lots. They write wonderfully well.  Of course, getting a draft chapter back with lots of suggestions was quite challenging, and I had quite an emotional reaction. As I've worked through the suggestions, I've seen how my writing is now much clearer. I can see that hardly any of the content has needed to change, but the technical aspects of writing itself has benefited from some work. On receiving these suggestions, my first thought was 'Oh: I haven't learn't anything about writing'. It's been good to realise that people who write well are those who remain committed to improving their writing. When I despaired at those suggestions for editing those chapters, one of the professors in my Faculty casually said to me "I get that from her too", and reminded me that we can all benefit from thinking about our writing. Whilst some of the suggestions reflected this persons' stylistic preferences, 95% of them helped me to focus on what I meant to communicate, and was mainly about 'streamlining' my text by stripping out unnecessary words and bringing some consistency to how I was using simple things like in-text citations. Writing longer pieces of work, and living with bigger projects like a PhD thesis, can make us blind to what we are actually writing. I've thought lots recently about how important it is to actually communicate what readers' need to know. Living with ideas for an extended period of time don't make them automatically understandable to others!

'The Notebook'
So, that was the easy bit.

In my last despairing blog post I was dangling over the edge of a chapter, my fingers barely gripping onto the last shreds of enthusiasm and self belief. Ok, a closer description of this particular dilemma is that I didn't quite know how to approach that difficult re-working of my findings and discussion chapter. Not quite the same, but you get the idea. Like all of these jobs that lurk in the back of your mind 24/7, there are practical and psychological ones. The psychological challenge of returning to a complex and mashed up chapter was, for me, the fear of unpicking the metaphorical knitting. I knew I needed to focus, clarify and structure, so that key findings and insights were front and centre. I was quite petulant, you see, because I felt that I'd already put in hard work on this chapter in getting the raw materials down. I'd been through a hefty interpretive process and the pulpy mess that was my findings and discussion chapter was high quality pulpy mess; an organic, wholesome one, even. So, returning to the chapter was like being sent to my room, even if I had sent myself there.

I'm not Picasso, and it's not a masterpiece.
Out came the trusty notebook; and not even the Evernote electronic one. In desperate times, the paper one was required. I needed to produce solutions that I could carry round with me and leave open. I began the fightback with a conversation with my friendly second supervisor, who helped me get a good feel for what I needed to do here, which didn't involve a total re-write. Having done that, I added a fuller summary of the biography and narrative themes for my participants. That helped, as it re-focused me. After that, I tackled the horrific issue of the extent to which I would separate the findings and discussion. You may well have strong views about what should be done in situations like this. In my case, I knew I wanted to pull them apart a little, but had listened to too many people who all appointed themselves as experts on my thesis. My own compromise, which I have yet to work, was to introduce each section with examples of how each participant did that 'thing' (the chapter is presented along the lines of six themes for presenting what was findings and discussion) then to move into a discussion. Because the study was hermeneutic and involved collaborative sense-making work with participants, the 'findings' were also discussion. The discussion started in the first session, so to speak. Anyway, I thought (think) that I had avoided a complete separation of findings and discussion (which I didn't want) and also a complete mash-up where I pulped findings and discussion together in a way which was just as unhelpful. If only I approached it like I used to draw and paint, where I valued the process of re-working an image.

Perhaps I am being dramatic because my life has not had much space for this sort of writing work, or because it feels 'high stakes' ('surely this is where my genius must sparkle' sort of thing). Either way, I have begun the fightback.