Andrew Moretta, Postdoctoral Fellow, Socio-Legal Studies, University of Liverpool, 2020 Cohort
I am not an expert on writing or on research techniques. However, the lessons learned during the very intensive work I undertook during the past decade and my experiences of collaborating with bona fide experts has left me with some firm opinions on what is best practice. Having been asked to contribute to the NWSSDTP newsletter I thought that these opinions may be of value to students or to anyone else engaged in writing a substantial piece of work to a deadline.
Written plans of the overarching project and of the research task or chapter at hand are extremely important. While some may think that a statement of the obvious, I confess that I have often started writing and even finished important projects without ever drawing up a plan. It can certainly be done. However, distractions abound and without one you will find yourself following your nose into interesting matters which may not be relevant to the task at hand. Such peripheral work can almost always be used elsewhere and may even provide the basis of a future book or article. Unfortunately, that is scant comfort when you are working to a deadline and realise that you have spent days or weeks working on something which will not be of immediate use.
That said, ‘mission drift’ can on occasions prove fortuitous and will sometimes change the direction of the project for the better. Certainly, when engaging in archival research I have found that the most exciting discoveries tend to be made when looking at material only seemingly very loosely related to the project which has been examined out of curiosity. Files are often mis-described by archivists and as a result are effectively hidden from more focused researchers. Efficiency is not all is it cracked up to be.
However, to get back to well organised working practices:
When obliged to alter a plan, keep a record of the previous version. Date it. Keep ‘hard copies’ of your old plans in a ring binder on your desk rather than digitally. Have a flick through it every week or so.
Make special efforts to estimate accurately how long a task will take. I habitually forget how slowly I work and how quickly a day or a week or even a month will pass.
Don’t be in a hurry to start writing. Comforting as it may be to have thousands of words ‘in the bag’ early on that comfort will ultimately prove to have been illusory. It is far easier to start with a clean sheet of paper after weeks of thought and planning than it is to edit tens of thousands of words, much of which should not have been written in the first place.
Try to stick to set hours of work. Writing for more than about six solid hours in a day can be counter productive. You can extend that productive period by turning to another project or to a different element of the job at hand but not by much. I found eight hours of productive writing to be the maximum, although that has seldom stopped me from working very long days.
Finish for the day at a point where you will be able to start writing immediately when you are next back at your desk. Work at the time when your mind is sharpest – early morning is often best. Getting up very early in the morning will often mean that by mid-day you have done a satisfactory amount of writing and can spend the afternoon getting on with some serious reading.
Keep a specially designated notebook in your pocket or bag and make a note of ideas as they occur to you. Force yourself to write clearly. If, like me, you tend write rapidly and illegibly a fountain pen will slow you down and improve clarity.
When you store files, articles, cases, statistical tables and the like make sure that you know where you can find them. Write up a crude index to help guide you back to them.
Memory sticks with labels taped on them are useful for storage of non-confidential material. Don’t put a lot of material on one stick. If you have a lot of material use a lot of sticks. There is an element of risk in that sticks may sometimes become inexplicably corrupted making it difficult or impossible to access the files. They are also easily lost. Nevertheless, I like them. Old fashioned ring binders are good too. However, if you store much material as ‘hard copy’ you tend to spend too much money printing and too much time punching holes in bits of paper.
A specially designated superannuated but functioning lap top or PC can be useful for storage. The ideal would perhaps be a computer allocated to the task at hand, so that you have a ‘dissertation computer’ or a ‘book computer.’
When you come across items in the literature or in the archives that you wish to refer to write the full citation out. When sat writing at the computer do the same on every occasion – save ibid and op cit for the final draft. I have spent many wasted days looking for ‘lost’ sources, having either previously convinced myself that I will never forget where a particular item came from or removed the citation through careless editing of the main text. At the end of each day save and date the chapter or piece of writing so that you have a trail of evolving texts – enormously helpful if you do accidently dispense with a citation, as well as for finding material you have edited out but wish to restore.
Citations aside, write your footnotes up as you go. Don’t think that you will be able to go back to it – do it now. Weeks or months on you will find that neglecting those footnotes for the sake of saving a few minutes was a mistake.
Set out a schedule for the last month of your project. Finish your work, set it aside then review and amend typos and errors of style and grammar.
I have found that an ostensibly completed piece of work should be set aside for a few days – preferably for two weeks, although that is seldom possible. Only then should it be reviewed. When you read it typos and poorly constructed sentences and paragraphs will seem to leap out of the page at you.
Do not be tempted to engage in pointless rewrites. Force yourself to finish. Leave the substance alone unless you seriously believe that it requires revising. You could spend years continually amending one piece of work and end up with something inferior to one of the earliest drafts.
However, unless circumstances make an early submission unavoidable or advisable, don’t hand your work in before the due date. You may genuinely find you need to make last minute changes to what you had previously considered to be a completed piece of work. I once travelled across London on foot and by tube to submit a dissertation about 10 minutes before the deadline. The administrative staff were understandably surprised that I’d been daft enough to leave it so late, but before I headed off to the pub they told me that during the previous fortnight they had turned away several distraught students begging for their dissertations back so that they could rectify mistakes.
Finally, a few words about what is usually loosely referred to as ‘stress’: Relatively inconsequential matters will almost inevitably weigh disproportionately heavily on the mind of one who is sat in front of a computer seven days a week, particularly when working from home. Getting out into the open air can help put things back into perspective. Taking exercise outdoors has an even more beneficial effect.
Difficult as it may be in the current crisis, try not to become isolated. If things appear to be going wrong seek advice from your friends and colleagues at the university. If circumstances permit, talk to people face to face. Zoom, Skype and the like are reasonable substitutes for real meetings and – for some – so is the telephone. Emails and text messaging are of course extremely useful, but misunderstandings can easily arise when these means are used to convey more than documents or bare facts, not least because not all e mails or texts are read by – or even reach – the intended recipient.
Things can become particularly difficult when you are tackling more than one project and you have family responsibilities. The workload may be such that you feel you cannot possibly hope to meet any of the deadlines. In such circumstances my advice would be to speak to your supervisor (if you have one) and to whoever else is anticipating receiving your completed work. Negotiate realistic deadlines, ‘prioritise’ accordingly and get on with doing a manageable amount of work every day. You will get there in the end. Bear in mind that in a year’s time no one will remember or be interested in the fact that you were overburdened with work. However, work which you submitted before it was ready will be there for perpetuity serving to remind you of the importance of finishing a piece of writing in your own time.
Above all, don’t take things too seriously. Ten years ago a friend of mine had his computer blow up. He told me he heard it explode while he was making a cup of tea. None of his work was ‘backed up’ and he lost everything. But he got over it and ultimately took the view that his work had been improved because he had been obliged to undertake a series of re-writes. Follow his example. Don’t make yourself unhappy or ill. You are not driving a bus or performing surgery and no one is going to get hurt if something goes wrong. Given time any problems relating to research and writing can be solved.