Planning and structure

What is involved in planning?

“Planning involves several different dimensions. You have to find the time to write, and develop the writing habit. And you have think about planning backwards from the deadline date. If that date is too far away, or the overall task is too daunting, you need intermediary deadline dates. Plan to your deadlines and monitor your progress. Many writers keep charts of ‘words written each day’, and they monitor their short-term and long-term progress.”

“I’m a very keen checker of word length. If I’m spending a concentrative period of time writing something, I will check how many words I’ve written, anything up to twelve times an hour, and sometimes more often when I’m a bit bored. It surprises me sometimes how quickly they increase, and again I’ve got tricks for making them increase quite quickly just to make myself feel better. If I have a whole day then I will tend to have some sort of target for words, and it will be thousands rather than hundreds. The upper limit in a day would be about five thousand words, and if I wrote less than a thousand in a full day I would be very unhappy. And occasionally I might make myself write three or four hundred words of not very good text just to get it over the thousand, but at least I’ve done it.”

“I developed a way of setting myself targets to achieve. However I often didn’t achieve them and that itself is a learning curve. But then you’re doing this research for the first time, and so you’re discovering how long something takes. For example, I now know that I need a minimum of two months for questionnaire analysis. Plus, you need to take some time out.”

“If Anthony Trollope could do it before he went to work, then I should be able to do it in a whole day. I’ll have some sort of daily target, maybe not an explicit aim but I know when I’m disappointed. Then I’ll have longer-term goals, like the chapter has to be finished next week or the book needs to be finished next March and therefore it’s a chapter every three weeks or a draft every two. Or something of that order. And those are flexible targets. I don’t stick to them but I know they’re there. And I build in some sort of slippage. But the fact that they’re there makes me do more than I would do if they weren’t there, which is the psychological trick. What I say to students is, ‘Make the timetable, don’t worry if you break it, at least you’re got one and having got halfway towards it is better than not getting started.’”

“I had a Word document with a table in it and down the left hand side it had Monday to Sunday and then along the top was about four weeks of the month, so I had an overall perspective on four weeks at a time. At the beginning of every week I had a box for ‘my objectives for the week’. That would include taking a block of time out. I had an overall picture of where I was, where I was going and where I’d come from. That was very useful – to able to look back and say, ‘Look, I’ve achieved these objectives that I set myself last week,’ or ‘I’ve got closer to achieving them.’”

“I’ve got a list here of things you need to consider when planning your thesis. I always start from the ultimate deadline and working backwards. Here we go: corrections; oral defence; delivery of thesis; binding; printing or photocopying; proofreading; typing; minor revisions; checking references; compiling a bibliography; completing preliminary pages (contents page, acknowledgements, abstract, etc); editing; more feedback; rewriting; author’s reading time; others’ reading time; dead time (when nothing is happening); illness; holidays; other commitments; time rethinking structure; feedback; tables and appendices; generating text for early drafts; research and writing; synopses and structure; research proposal; early discussions; reading and writing around topic; rough idea of thesis topic; finding a supervisor; time spent planning …”

“Most people’s approach is that the PhD is a life’s work – putting in everything you’ve ever thought about and worked on. There is so much emotional commitment. I ended up writing to a deadline – to get finished in order to get further funding.”

“I think the problem with a large project is knowing where to stop. Writers should have a good idea of what they want to do. If you don’t stick to your original plan and instead pull out another 20 or 40 research papers, then you must recognise that it might take you a lot longer than you prepared for. I think maybe many people are overambitious. They try to cram in all they know. The thesis isn’t a work of art, it’s merely a thesis. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to state a case.”

“I remember reading an obituary of Peter Wason, the psychologist, who had done some research on writing methods. In the obituary it said that Wason felt that people who planned their writing meticulously in advance were less likely to enjoy the writing process. I thought that was interesting.”

“When I was first a student, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got this great area of enquiry into which I’m supposed to make an original contribution’ – a most unreasonable phrase, designed to put any student off – ‘and there are people around who’ve read all this material already, who know far more, how am I going to do it?’ It was easy to think, ‘Well, if I really work hard in the library and study for six or eight weeks, I could probably read quite a bit of this stuff, and if I took three months I could make notes as well and synthesise some important things.’ And, hey presto, the first quarter or half of the first year has gone, you’ve made no progress, written nothing and you’re depressed, partly by the amount of material and partly by how badly written some of it is. And there’s nothing like getting started. I now feel, having done it so often, much more confident to ignore the literature at first, or just take two or three bits and write something around those two or three bits (especially if I have good reason to think they are seminal or important or crucial to what I’m writing), and then build in the other bits later. There must be an architectural metaphor here somewhere. You can do bits of writing, little bits of reading, and create a very nice drawing, a very nice image of what there is.”

“I’ve been told that I’m a quick-win person and I like to see the impact of something. Perhaps that’s not a problem for everybody but for me I needed to see something complete. On a Friday I like to finish my week feeling I’ve achieved something. And throughout your PhD it’s two steps forward and one step back. It is getting used to being philosophical and pragmatic about it and thinking, ‘Well, this is the way it works. There is an overall learning curve going on here. You don’t necessarily see it week to week. You don’t necessarily get these quick wins.’”