Staying Organized = Success

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Right off the bat, I want to dispel a common myth going around. This is the myth that your messiness and disorganization is a sign of higher intelligence and/or creativity. Now it’s true that some research has shown that messy and untidy individuals typically have a higher IQ and are more creative (though I’m not sure how one rates creativity). Unsurprisingly, this idea has floated all across social media as a justification for being messy. Without a doubt this new idea brought great joy to the droves of disorganized folks across social media. Science has seemingly proved that smart people are untidy! After years of shame, there’s finally scientific evidence to justify one’s messiness! In fact, I wouldn’t put it past some folks to intentionally be more messy and disorganized just to prove they’re smart! After all it’s all a sign of higher intelligence, right? So let’s leave a few more papers around in hopes that it’ll spur our imaginations! Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not how creativity works. Your messy and disorganized desk, work area, and/or computer doesn’t make you a genius. It might only be a sign that you need to straighten up a bit.

Many people find justification for being messy using Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” This sure sounds great, but let’s face it. None of us are Einstein (no matter how messy our desk is). Einstein would’ve been Einstein with or without a messy desk. Moreover, it’s your writing and research habits that you need to worry about. Einstein isn’t going to be writing your dissertation, you are! And just because messiness worked for Einstein doesn’t mean it will work for you. Now it may be true that messiness might be a sign of intelligence and high creativity. However, this doesn’t give you a license to be untidy or to excuse messiness. Moreover, certain types of writing don’t work well in a messy environment. Messiness may not matter so much when writing a novel, but it will definitely hinder progress with a dissertation or thesis. Academic writing (especially when it’s for a professor or committee) often requires more organization than others. Part of this is due to the requirements you’ll need to adhere to for your committee, professor, school, etc. Furthermore, academic writing typically involves strict deadlines. You’ll want to stay on schedule when writing a dissertation (especially if you need to graduate at a certain time). Consequently, disorganization isn’t going to work in your favor. 

Messiness isn’t a virtue, and it definitely won’t help you finish your dissertation. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that your own messiness is somehow special (it’s not). Writing a dissertation necessitates careful organization and planning. It requires the ability to find information and research quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, it requires long-term planning over the course of months and years. You may believe that your organizational “system” of paper stacks, USB drives, and books strewn across the floor is working, but it won’t a year from now. A dissertation requires the use and citing of dozens of articles and books. Depending on your field, you may also have mounds of qualitative and/or quantitative data to sort. As such, it’s imperative that this information remain organized and accessible. Nothing will set you back further than missing qualitative/quantitative data.

None of this means that your desk, writing area, or computer must be spick and span. We all have our own own quirks and methods when it comes to organization. That being said, any organizational system must actually be a coherent and logical system. Therefore, don’t think about it in terms of only remembering where things are. Remembering where you put and/or saved an article isn’t a system. You should instead know where an article, book, or file is because it has a designated space (either physically or virtually). Simply put, you don’t need to waste time remembering where something is. Ultimately your memory will fail you. Rummaging through papers, flipping through books, and checking USB drives for missing information wastes time and is mentally exhausting. Trust me, you’re not going to want to search for that missing article you found a year ago when you’re near the end. You’ll need all that mental and physical energy just to finish (especially when working against the clock—i.e., graduation deadline).

It was always a struggle to keep things organized. But it’s well worth it. Over the next two posts I’ll give you some tips for remaining organized. Today it’s important to remain both digitally and physically organized. Organization is more than just papers and books. It involves a concerted effort to keep your digital files easily accessible and safe. The first post will be on digital organization where I’ll share some tips on how cloud storage and desktop management can help keep you on track. This will be followed by how to keep your old-school papers, articles, and books organized. So stay tuned for more soon! 

 

 

 

 

Working With Your Committee

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Dissertation and thesis writers, have you talked to your committee lately? When was the last time you met with your committee chair (either in-person or online)? Do you receive good feedback and support from both your chair and committee members?

Probably one of the most underestimated factors in writing a dissertation or thesis is your committee. They’re often the X-factor. A good committee will be the motivating force that will encourage and support you. An inattentive committee will provide little to no feedback or support, thus leaving you completely on your own. A bad committee will slow you down, sabotage your confidence, and increase the likelihood that you’ll never finish.

The possibility of working with a bad committee is scary. There’s not a lot you can do about a bad committee. The best strategy is to choose your chair carefully and remain fully involved in the building your committee from the get-go. There are certainly ways to improve a toxic relationship with your committee, but the goal is to never get to that point.

Despite the danger posed by a bad committee, I believe the most dangerous situation is an inattentive or “busy” committee. Why is it so dangerous? It’s dangerous because it’s prevalent and common for dissertation and thesis writers across disciplines. It’s also incredibly easy for a good committee to become an inattentive one. Committee relationships require complex cooperation between you, your chair, and your other readers. Thus, it’s easy to allow time and circumstance to impede those relationships. An inattentive committee is costly. A lack of feedback, relationship, and conversation can lead to isolation, apathy, and a lack of progress.

Over the years, I’ve had both professional and personal conversations with Ph.D. and Ed.D. candidates who complain about their lack of progress. Inevitably I’ll ask about what kind of feedback they’ve received from their chair or committee. In reply, it’s not unusual to hear, “I haven’t talked to my chair and/or committee lately.”

Contrary to belief, a dissertation or thesis is not a solitary affair. In fact, isolation is disastrous to your progress. The benefit of a committee (at least in theory) is having a built in community of your soon-to-be peers. It’s your committee’s job to support, offer critique, and review your work. Writing a dissertation is an enormous undertaking. Thus, the purpose of the committee is to evaluate, judge, and support you during this crucial time of your life. No one is completely prepared to write a 100-250 page (or more!) document on his or her own. Therefore, the committee is designed to help you step-by-step and chapter-by-chapter until you’re done.

This is why I’m usually shocked to hear when a doctoral candidate hasn’t spoken to or heard from their committee chair and/or committee members. Going it alone is a recipe for disaster. Without a committee’s confirmation, there will remain a lingering doubt as to whether you’re on the right track, making enough progress, or completing everything correctly. And slowly but surely, infrequent communication and feedback will create a situation where writing either slows or completely stops.

Having an inattentive committee is neither the doctoral candidate’s or the committee’s fault. It’s often the result of a break down in consistent communication between the candidate and the committee. As a result, candidates don’t realize they’re in such a situation before it’s too late. Sadly, many candidates even expect their committee to not be involved. I’ve heard of a number of candidates who believe that it’s typical to not have regular contact with the committee chair and/or committee members. Sometimes these relationships require a little more work on effort on part of either the student or faculty, but it’s not normal to go it alone!

So, what can you do about an inattentive committee? Fortunately, there are a lot of easy things that you can do to get back on track (or stay on track) with your committee. None of these things are particularly hard. However, lapse in any of these and you’re likely to find yourself going alone. Remember, isolation is not your friend!

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A meeting with your committee doesn’t have to be boring! Invite them for coffee or even lunch. Campus coffee shops are great places to meet. 

Communication. I can’t stress this enough. Stay in constant contact with your committee! Especially your committee chair. Keep them apprised of your progress or struggles. Never, ever, let more than a semester go by without either checking in or meeting with either your chair or a committee member. If you’re struggling, say so! Many candidates tend to withdraw or even avoid their committee when things are not going well. You don’t have to feel guilty about a lack of progress! Your committee isn’t there to shame you or make you feel bad about not completing a chapter or section by a certain deadline. Share with them (again, especially your chair) if you’re struggling with the agreed upon goals for your work. Most importantly, don’t wait to communicate until you’ve made definable progress. Regular updates, meetings, and emails will let them know that you’re serious about finishing (even when progress is slow). Committees are more willing to work with students who act seriously about finishing. Take the initiative!

Flexibility. Faculty are busy folk. They’re usually balancing a full teaching load, meetings, research, and other dissertation candidates. Remember, your chair is probably chairing a number of other doctoral candidates. The same for your committee members or readers. It’s likely they’re involved with a handful of other candidates. This means that you must be willing to adapt and meet in their schedule. You must be willing to meet on days that might be inconvenient for you. Typically, an accommodating chair or committee member will make time for you. He or she will work with you to find a time when it’s convenient for both of you. However, always be willing to bend your schedule! Present yourself as adaptable and sensitive to your chair or committee member’s needs. And always express gratitude to him or her at every meeting!

Your chair is the key. I can’t stress how important your chair is to your success. A good relationship with your chair makes all the difference in staying focused and making progress. Your chair is your advocate, defender, and chief motivator. His or her role is to speak on your behalf, defend you during meetings with your committee, and offer plenty of support. Thus, it’s essential that you keep in close contact with your chair! Frankly he or she should know your work better than anyone else. Therefore, your chair should be the first person you seek whenever you’re struggling with ideas, research, and writing. Of course, relationships with the rest of your committee are important. However, those relationships are contingent upon the kind of relationship you have with your chair. You should never go more than a few weeks without checking in with you chair. You’ll need someone who knows your work well. Think of your chair as your anchor. It’s the chair’s job to keep you grounded and focused on the task when you start to drift away. Consequently, your chair can help if you’re getting off track, losing focus, or unsure about what to do next. Furthermore, your chair’s knowledge of your work will be valuable on your defense day! It’s always nice to have someone in the room who knows your work as well as you do!

Ideally, your chair is already someone you know very well. In many programs you will choose the person who you feel best knows you and your work. Furthermore, he or she is also a person that you’ll get along with easily. However, some programs assign you to a chair. In such situations it’s advisable that you build a relationship with that individual. Schedule a face-to-face meeting, ask to have coffee together, or take a walk with him or her across campus. Make your chair your new best friend!

Issues to consider for distance students. More and more students are completing their doctoral degrees off-campus. Consequently, many students don’t have the luxury of dropping by to see their chair or committee member in-person. Thankfully, technology is making distance less of a barrier for maintaining a relationship with your committee. Obviously, you’ll need to email them often. In fact, you’ll need to work harder to stay connected in order to build and maintain a relationship with your committee (a face-to-face meeting is worth 10 emails in my opinion). However, frequent updates via email are helpful, and you’ll want to email often.

In addition, learn how to use Zoom, Gotomeeting, or Skype. If possible, schedule monthly or bi-monthly video chats with your committee. Video conference really helps to reduce the feeling of distance and disconnection. Most faculty are now comfortable using these tools for both meetings and classes. And don’t forget, there’s always the old-fashioned telephone! Above all, stay connected!

You want to succeed right? And you want to finish on time? Of course you do! You owe it to yourself to have good working relationships with your committee. Use them to your advantage. So what are you waiting for?

 

Photos by LinkedIn Sales Navigator and rawpixel.com on Unsplash

 

Do You Love Your Dissertation?

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I know this sounds crazy, but do you love your dissertation? You probably have plenty of reasons to hate it. In fact, hating a dissertation sounds more reasonable than loving it. Let’s try a little thought experiment. Name five reasons why you hate your dissertation. Think about it and write those reasons down. Did you have trouble coming up with your five? I’m willing to bet that you probably didn’t. I imagine that you likely came up with reasons similar to the following: 1) I have writer’s block, 2) It’s keeping me from graduating and moving forward in life, 3) I don’t like my topic, 4) I spend all of my time on it, and 5) I can’t find sources or my research isn’t working.

How does your list compare? You probably had a few items similar to mine. Furthermore, each of us have personal reasons as to why we hate our dissertation. Looking back over my experience, I didn’t need to spend much time on my list. In about 30 seconds, I had my five reasons. I only had to think back on the frustration my dissertation provoked before a flood of anxiety inducing feelings came back to me.

Now think of five reasons why you love your dissertation. Were you able to come up with five? It’s a little harder right? It takes a little longer to find reasons to love your dissertation (assuming that you found any at all).

It’s easy to think of the things that you hate about your dissertation. Given enough time, those negative things can easily form the narrative that you tell about yourself. Thus, the dissertation becomes a barrier to your own happiness. Consequently, your narrative becomes one of anxiety and guilt. The dissertation acts as the focal point of all of your ills and misfortunes. For example, there’s the constant nagging guilt of knowing that you should be writing (most poignant when you’re having fun). Then there’s the dread of the work you still have left to do (edits and re-writes, research, and forthcoming chapters). Finally (not really, but you get the point), a hatred of the barrier your dissertation represents. Literally, it’s the only thing between you and graduation. It’s easy for that barrier to become a sharp divide between depression and happiness.

It deeply worries me that it’s so easy to redirect those negative feelings about your dissertation to yourself. Dread, anxiety, guilt, and even anger have powerful implications for our overall health. No one can adequately handle writing two or more years on something that provokes such negative feelings. Those feelings are inevitable going to come back to you!

It’s natural for those feelings to affect you. Your dissertation is an extension of yourself. It represents your work and knowledge as a scholar. This work is a key capstone of your academic career. As a result, negative feelings toward something so deeply personal will undoubtedly influence the narrative you tell yourself. I can vividly remember the things I used to tell myself when my writing was slow or non-existent. Thoughts such as: “You’re not good enough” and “You’re not smart enough” regularly worked their way into my brain. Unsurprisingly, it became a self-fulling prophecy. I told myself I wasn’t good enough and (surprise!) my writing slowed or stopped altogether.

We’re generally expected to hate our dissertation, but hardly ever are we expected to love it. And it’s that expectation, that narrative, which becomes so detrimental to our own progress. How can you finish something that you hate? I don’t know about you, but I usually avoid things that I dislike or hate. It’s crazy to expect yourself to complete something that brings you anxiety, stress, and even depression. I believe it’s time to change the narrative! It’s time to change your narrative about your dissertation and (by extension) yourself.

It’s crazy to hate your dissertation. Consequently, it makes far more sense to love it. A change in attitude can make a remarkable difference in your own personal and scholarly outlook. This means that you need to tell yourself: “I love my dissertation.” Not “like” or “it’s okay.” No, say it to yourself, “I love my dissertation.” Say it out loud. Really, I mean it. Give it a try. Now, say it louder.

Did anyone look at you funny? I promise it’s okay. There’s no need to be embarrassed.

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Shout it: “I love my dissertation!” You can jump up and down too.

Seriously, love your ideas and your work. Believe in the work that you’re doing. Embrace your thoughts and theories. Every dissertation is unique and special. It represents years of hard work, dedication, and a creative scholarly spirit. Remember that only you could do the work that you’re doing now. Your dissertation is important (you must always believe this).

Before you write, tell yourself that, “I love my dissertation.” Make this a daily part of your writing ritual. Remind yourself that it’s important to have a positive outlook about your dissertation. Negative feelings and attitudes will come (it’s impossible to block them). However, you can choose your response to them. Counter those feelings instead of accepting them. We are the stories that we tell. Therefore, change your narrative, choose to love your work, and start to enjoy writing!

Loving your work is the key to finishing!

Photos by Michael Fenton and Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Finding Your (Middle) Motivation

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At a certain stage, writing can feel like a slough. The slow and steady pace you’ve established begins to affect you. It’s easy to let the day in, day out grind of writing wear down your motivation. If you’re writing well, you’ve probably established a daily ritual and pattern to keep making steady progress. However, it’s hard to keep that motivation going as you begin to reach the middle stages of your writing project. I believe this is especially true for dissertation and thesis writing. There comes a point where it really starts to dawn on you how long it’s going to take to finish. For better or worse, you’ve settled in for the long haul.

Middles are often depressing. After several months (maybe a year) of writing, you realize how much is left to do. You might realize that a significant amount of work needs to be done. The psychological effect of what’s left to do can easily erode your motivation. It’s around the midpoint that our self-doubt begins to awaken. You start doubting your progress, work, and ability to finish. Furthermore, you begin to feel that you don’t have enough left in the tank to finish. This is especially true if your first few chapters were challenging or slow. It’s easy to let those earlier challenges cloud your judgement about the rest of the work. As such, you’re left asking if you have anything left to give. How do you face the remaining months (or year) of writing?

The middle of a dissertation or thesis is a crucial time. It requires you to find a way to refuel and recommit yourself to the project. Moreover, that re-commitment is important, even if things are going well. Meaning that it’s important that you continue building on that current success. Doing so also requires preparing yourself for those confidence and motivational issues that will likely arise. Otherwise, you might slip (back) into some negative habits. For example, it’s at the middle that you might start to feel the pressure build.  You might start to notice those deadlines around the midway point. Six months ago, you weren’t worried about those deadlines. Suddenly, you are more aware of those looming committee and graduation deadlines. At such a point it’s not unusual to feel a little anxiety. Committee members are asking for chapters, and decisions need to be made about graduation. Will you meet the graduation deadline? Therefore, it’s perfectly natural to feel anxiety about those second-half deadlines. It’s imperative that you remain motivated!

How do you stay motivated in the middle? That motivation is going to be different for each person. Each one of you will have personal struggles, challenges, and life issues that you’ll need to work through. There’s no way to predict what challenges await you as write. However, here are a few practices that can keep you motivated in the middle.

Re-evaluate your strategy. Ask yourself how you are doing. Are you missing your deadlines? Has your writing been excruciating or painful? Do you feel exhausted from the last several chapters? It’s time to change your approach if you answered yes to any of those questions. Just because you’ve made progress doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. The midway point is a time to critically evaluate your progress so far. Don’t be afraid to judge your current writing practices and routines. Now is the time to start planning for the remainder of the journey. Therefore, you’ll need to determine if you have enough left in the tank to cross the finish line. If you feel drained, lethargic, and/or depressed, then you need to refuel! Remember, a dissertation or thesis is all or nothing. A half-completed dissertation won’t get you to graduation!

Re-commit. Evaluate yourself. Are you still excited about your work? Do you enjoy your topic? Do you enjoy writing? If you answered no then it’s time to re-commit to yourself and your work. Explore the reasons why you picked this topic and re-examine your goals. What did you set to accomplish or discover? Have you lost sight of your focus or purpose? Obviously, your main goal is to graduate. However, that alone isn’t going to be enough get your through those last chapters. There’s no such thing as powering through a dissertation. Finishing requires re-committing to those research goals you set for yourself. Use those goals as a reminder of the importance of your work. Remind yourself that your work has value and is necessary. No one else is going to finish or complete what you’ve started!

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Re-discover your passion!

Re-discover your motivation. If you’re having trouble with re-committing, then it might be time rediscover your motivation. This might require a return to the research. Return to the books and journals and look for areas to explore. Perhaps there is new research available that might help get your over that writer’s hump. Moreover, research has a way of igniting your mind. It’s possible that you’ve starved your mind during the writing process. Your lack of motivation might be a symptom of a starved mind. Feed your mind!

Re-visit your deadlines. Did you set realistic deadlines for yourself? If you’re feeling pressured or stressed then it’s time to ask if your deadlines are feasible. It’s not unusual to overestimate your progress, especially early on. You want your deadlines to be realistic, otherwise those deadlines can become a catalyst for failure. Pay special attention to the deadlines you’ve negotiated with your committee. Don’t be afraid to ask for extensions to those deadlines. It may become necessary to give yourself more breathing room. Yes, you want to finish dissertation and graduate. However, a breakneck pace is only going to disappoint yourself or lead to burnout.

Re-evaluate, re-commit, re-discover, re-visit, and celebrate your progress! Be optimistic because you’re half-way done!

 

Photos by Warren Wong and Ian Schneider on Unsplash

 

 

Writing Without Distractions

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You’ve settled in to type. Committed and ready to work, you have each item ready: the coffee is hot, the books are open, and the computer waits for your brilliant words. Placing your hands on the keyboard, everything seems perfect and ready for you. As you start writing, your phone vibrates with a Facebook notification. Suddenly you find yourself scrolling your feed, browsing Instagram, and checking your email.

After 15 minutes of social media browsing, you attempt to force yourself back to writing. Ready again, your phone buzzes. This time it’s a message from your best friend asking if you want to go out tonight. After sorting out your plans, you try once again to get back to writing.  But despite your effort, you discover that the words refuse to flow. Wringing your hands, you stare at the screen in disbelief as the blinking cursor appears to taunt you. You had lofty goals, but now all of your time has evaporated. You’re now distracted and disinterested in writing.  Frustrated, you decide to close the books and return to Facebook.

This is a common occurrence for writers. Despite our best efforts, the outside world calls us away from completing our papers. We’re all susceptible to being distracted. Distractions come in many forms. One of the most common distractions is social media, which is especially challenging for high school and college students. However, we’re all at risk to the dangers of distraction. We continually overestimate our own abilities to juggle between writing, social media, texting, and our own responsibilities. Furthermore, continued distractions and multitasking might actually be rewiring our brains.

Distractions add up. More distractions mean less writing, and less writing adds more pressure to meet deadlines. Distractions are especially costly in academic writing. It can have disastrous consequences on our grades and degree progress. Short term projects (term and research papers) are particularly high pressured. Distractions can lead to a failure to turn in work on time and/or poor quality writing.  Long term projects (dissertations and theses) create cumulative pressures. Constant distractions and subsequent lack of progress can lead to self-doubt, frustration, and shame.

We have a hard to remaining focused when doing something we don’t like. I’ve never encountered anyone who actually enjoyed writing a paper, dissertation, or thesis. This doesn’t mean that this kind of writing can’t be enjoyable, however completion of this type of writing requires that we work a little harder to remain focused and motivated.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming distractions. But there are things you can do that will give you the best chance to avoid them.

Create a routine. Writing is very much a mental discipline. The mental preparation to write is as important as actually writing. Preparation requires training our minds to enter into an almost meditative state. Get your mind into writing mode! Very few of us can write on a whim. Instead, we usually need to gently ease into the writing state. Develop a routine that prepares and relaxes your mind for writing. Start your routine at least 15 minutes before it’s time to write. This might involve enjoying a cup of coffee, reading for pleasure, or even meditation. Avoid anything that makes you upset, worried, or anxious. Also try to keep away from things you enjoy too much. Don’t start a Netflix binge (e.g. Stranger Things) right before it’s time to write!

anthony-tran-378336Create a relaxing routine before writing

Follow a writing schedule. If possible, try to write at the same time each day. Creating a consistent writing schedule will help to train your brain that it’s time to write. An inconsistent writing schedule makes it harder to create a routine, thus making it harder to avoid distractions. A fixed schedule also gives you a tangible goal. The knowledge that you always write one hour in the morning or afternoon encourages you to use that time wisely. It’s your writing time, therefore any messages, texts, or phone calls can wait until your time is done. If necessary, share your writing schedule with your family and friends. This way they’ll know you’re unavailable during your scheduled time. After a few days of this, you’ll require less mental preparation to write. A consistent schedule helps to rewire your brain to write, making writing less exhausting. Your brain will be ready to write when it’s time to write.

Smaller blocks of time are best. The longer we sit, the more prone we are to distraction. Moreover, it’s also bad for our health (poor health is also distracting). It’s a fantasy to believe that you can write for 8-10 hours straight. More likely, you’re only going to be truly productive for maybe half of that time. It’s harder to sit in one area for several hours. After a few hours you’ll be looking for anything to relieve you from the task at hand. And those distractions add up, making it harder to recover from each distraction.  It’s nearly impossible to avoid distractions after an hour at the computer. But it’s easier to keep motivated with smaller blocks of time. Think about it. Can you really sit in one location for more than a couple of hours?

Find a good writing environment. Writing requires a comfortable place where you can remain focused. Some people write best in the home. Others enjoy the presence of others (e.g. the library or Starbucks). Make sure that your environment is free from anxiety or stress. Don’t write in places that are loud or near people that distract you. Avoid writing in areas that remind you of household chores. Find a consistent zone that’s dedicated to the purpose of writing. This means avoid writing in areas that you usually watch TV, play video games, or do work. Claim your space!

freestocks-org-175144Find a comfortable and relaxing space for writing

Move the smartphone. Even the presence of a smartphone can be distracting. Move the phone out of your sight. A phone, even on silent, is a reminder of the world of distractions. A supposedly harmless look at Twitter or Instagram can eat up precious time for writing. Make it hard to get your phone. At the very least, move your phone into another room or turn it off. Indulge yourself with social media after your writing time, but not during it.

Turn off the internet. This is the nuclear option. You probably won’t want to do this if you need the internet to do research as you write. But if you absolutely can’t focus, then turn it all off (except the computer of course). Unplug the Ethernet cable, turn off the modem, or hide away the wireless router. Make it difficult to turn it back on. Do whatever it takes to keep you from distractions. Turning on the phone is easy, and this fools us into believing that a short look at Facebook won’t take up much time. Disconnecting entirely helps you to think twice about browsing.

Photos by Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres, Anthony Tran, and freestocks.org, on Unsplash

 

Reading to Write

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 If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that – Stephen King, On Writing

A recent article from the New York Times describes Americans as poor readers. We’re notoriously bad at reading comprehension. Consequently, we’re not reading enough to fully comprehend complex books and articles. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve known for years that Americans simply aren’t reading enough. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, there is an overall downward trend in reading among American adults. Frighteningly, this same study shows that over a quarter (26%) of American adults haven’t read a book in a year. Though two years have passed, I’m willing to bet that this trend hasn’t improved. In fact, it’s probably worse.

Now we’re certainly reading. Everyday we’re bombarded with the electronic word through social media. And while we tend to focus on the ‘media’ part of social media, we’re actually reading a lot of content across posts, tweets, and forums. Personally speaking, I’m constantly bouncing back and forth across posts and article links from morning till night. Unfortunately, the time we spend on social media isn’t creating better readers. As a matter of fact, it’s making us worse. Social media and the internet has led to an array of bad reading habits.

I don’t want to disparage against social media. I still think that it has the potential to create well-informed students. However, we’re going to need to adjust our social media habits if we want to become better readers and students. Furthermore, I believe that better reading habits, including more quality reading, will improve our writing skills.

In the past, I’ve had a number of students ask: “how can I learn to write better?” My response is usually: “read more.” There’s no secret magic formula to writing well. It’s not a mysterious skill that only a few possess. I believe that every single person has the potential to become a good writer. Does this mean that we all have the potential to be the next Shakespeare? Probably not, but there is absolutely nothing stopping you from becoming an effective and skilled writer. Writing is a skill, and you must immerse yourself in it to develop that skill.

Nothing will turn you into a good writer overnight. Much like learning a new language, writing skills take practice and patience. Yet, there are things you can do to speed up that process. Practice makes perfect of course, and learning to write requires doing more of it. However, that is only half of it. One of the best (and easiest) things you can do is read more!

Academically speaking, you’ll want to read more in the field you’re currently studying. Reading Harry Potter probably won’t help you write a research paper (you should still read Harry Potter). This means that you’ll need to tailor your academic reading to the top books and articles in your field. We learn by imitating and emulating the writing styles of others. The pressure to read is enhanced for academic writing. No one is born, even naturally gifted writers, with the ability to write great academic papers, theses, or dissertations. Yet, we expect ourselves to write these papers without reading and drawing upon prior examples. More often than not, we wait to read these things until it’s time to write the paper, thesis, or dissertation. Thus, we’ve added the extra strain of learning how to write as we’re writing. An almost impossible task!

Do you want to become a better academic writer? Do you want to remove the fear and anxiety you feel when faced with writing a final paper? If the answer is ‘yes’ then start reading!

Tips for reading to write:

Start by setting aside 30 minutes a day to read an academic book or journal article. I know that reading a book or article doesn’t rank very high on your to-do list. God knows that there are some days that I don’t feel like reading a theology or philosophy text. Nevertheless, you need to develop your academic skills and keep them sharp. Begin with a minimum of 30 minutes. As you continue, you’ll probably want to increase that to 45 minutes or an hour. The most important thing is to not rush it. You won’t become a better writer (and scholar) by cramming information. Writing is a lifelong process. It won’t take long to get better at it, but you’ll always have more to learn.

When reading, focus on unfamiliar vocabulary and academic words. Write down any words you don’t know or understand. Search for those words using Google. You’ll want to develop and fine-tune those comprehension skills. If you don’t understand a word or phrase, then look it up. A better understanding of your field or topic will equip you for communicating and explaining it to others.

Read a wide variety of quality sources. Try to mix it up and read a large sample of what your academic field offers. Strive to read both books and articles. Draw from a diverse range of authors. In addition, find a balance between past and contemporary sources. Some fields (particularly STEM) draw heavily from contemporary research. Others (such as the humanities) incorporate classic texts from different eras. Knowing the major works, figures, and researchers in your field will help develop your reading list.

Be critical. Not everything you read will be a good example of academic writing. This is where the value of variety pays off. Reading more will enable you to find the common issues and problems that plague even the most gifted intellectuals. As you read, you’ll become better at distinguishing good writing from bad. Compare the writing styles of different authors. Pay particular attention to those authors who write with clarity and conciseness. The overall trend in academics is direct language and active voice.

Don’t be afraid to read outside your field. Whenever possible, expand your horizon to related fields and topics. Compare your field’s style with others. Learn how to incorporate the best of others into yourself. Consequently, more knowledge will prove to be an asset later on.

You have to invest time to become a better academic writer. It’s easy to be absorbed by whatever is happening on Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter. Just remember, the time you spend on social media is time you could spend reading. Skillful writing begins with making time for reading.

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When Do I Cite?

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“When do I cite?”

Students ask me this question all the time. It’s such an innocuous question that, until recently, I never gave it much thought. When asked, I usually responded as any good librarian or teacher might by saying, “Cite whenever you quote or paraphrase someone else’s work.” Now at the time, this seemed clear and obvious to me. However, after getting the same question semester after semester, I started to ask myself exactly how clear and useful my response was. Moreover, I never considered how stressful citing sources can be for a student. Because in addition to citing correctly, a student needs to know where and when to cite their sources! This undoubtedly adds extra pressure to the student as he or she is writing a paper. Furthermore, it isn’t only an undergraduate problem. I’ve seen the same anxiety and problems occur at both the masters and doctoral levels. In fact, I’d even argue that the stress is worse at those levels. The stakes are higher and there’s more information to cite. Furthermore, the fear of citing (and doing it correctly) can destroy our confidence with second-guessing and frustration. This is detrimental for dissertation and theses writers!

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the American Psychological Association (APA) both provide tips for citing.

CMOS 16th edition recommends:

Whether quoting, paraphrasing, or using others’ ideas to advance their own arguments, authors should give explicit credit to the source of those words or ideas. – pg. 621.

APA 6th Edition is equally vague:

Cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work. They may provide key background information, support or dispute your thesis, or offer critical definitions and data. – pg. 169

Not particularly helpful, is it? Neither tells me how much or how little I should cite. Now I’m being a bit facetious here; both CMOS and APA have incredibly useful information for academic writing. However, there is only so much these guides can tell you. After all, no manual knows you and your research exactly.

Writing papers, especially dissertations and theses, involves a great deal of hard work. Think of all the hours you’ve put into your research. The research process can be both rewarding and grueling. It provides us with immense joy when we learn and make connections. Research can enlighten us with new ideas and topics. But let’s be honest, research takes time and attention. Any paper, from a 10-page research paper to the 200-page dissertation, often requires a proportional amount of research time equal to (and often more than) the time it takes to write. Consequently, after all this work, you should want to show it off!

Let’s put aside the question of citing the work of someone else by changing our focus. Consider the problem from your perspective. Think of citing as showing your research work. For example, remember every math class you’ve ever taken. It was never enough to show that you had the answer. With every math problem it’s required to show your work. Your teacher or professor wants to know how you reached the answer. The answer doesn’t make sense without the steps and equations that lead to it.

Citing your sources is much the same way. At certain places in your paper you’ll want to show how you arrived at such an idea, question, or conclusion. Think of citing as showing your work. Citing is more than an exercise we go through to avoid plagiarism. Consider it the manner in which you can show off all the hard effort you’ve done during the research process.

I’m a big fan of using footnotes (I live and breathe the Chicago style). When I write, I often think of my footnotes as my mathematical equations. It’s my way of showing how I worked through the problem. With each footnote I come closer to showing the reader how and why I made my conclusions. Citing shouldn’t be a tedious chore, rather it should be one of the more enjoyable parts of academic writing. It adds a little extra validation to the time and effort we put into the research process.

This is why the research process is so important. When writing, you should know your sources inside and out. Ideally you’ve set aside plenty of time to explore and think about your sources. Problems with citing (especially when to cite) often arise because we haven’t given enough time to research. Without adequate preparation time, our sources appear to us as a jumbled mess. Messy research typically translates into a messy paper. We don’t know how to use our sources. Consequently, we don’t know how to properly cite them. I’ve seen this phenomenon manifest into two common types of papers: excessive and absent.

An excessive paper overuses the sources. The paper reads like a mismatched book report. It’s a Frankenstein paper. Bits and pieces are hobbled together, creating something that’s often horrific. As such, the citations are confused and sporadic. Usually this translates into some things being cited while others are ignored. Or, and this is very unfortunate, excessive papers become plagiarized papers. Haste and unfamiliarity can lead to nasty habits like lazy paraphrasing, copy and pasting, and huge block quotes. And herein lies the problem: you don’t know what to cite because it’s all someone else’s work! Thus, it feels like you should cite every single sentence!

In the second type of paper, absent, there is little to no citing. You’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with your sources. Thus, in this scenario, you don’t use them enough (if at all). Now much of this might be due to a lack of resources. If you don’t have anything to cite, then naturally the sources are absent. However, I don’t think this is always the case. I’ve read plenty of papers with a decent reference list. The student just didn’t know how to use them in the paper. It’s hard to show others your work when you haven’t taken the time to work it out yourself.

But with both errors I notice the same thing: sporadic and inconsistent citing. Thus, it’s completely understandable that this translates into a paper that never quite shows the research as intended. Again, think about math class. It’s impossible to answer the question if you don’t understand the background work behind it (addition/subtraction, multiplication, division, algebraic formula, and so on). Showing your work requires knowing the work. And when you know the work, you know how to show it properly.

Citing and research are intimately connected. Answering the question, “When do I cite?” begins with the research process. Knowing your sources is the first step toward a well-cited paper!

Look for more on citing in later posts! I’ll write more about the nuts and bolts on citing. Stay tuned!

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