The trick to writing

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” ~ Red Smith

Writing

Joost Swarte

Today, I discovered the trick to writing. It’s plain and simple. So plain and simple, in fact, it’ll sound downright ridiculous. But here it goes:

The trick to writing is to write.

Doesn’t that sound absurd? Let me (slightly) clarify.

The trick to writing is to write as if you have no other choice.

This epiphany came from first-hand experience today, as I finally admitted to myself that this is the beginning of the end of my PhD journey. My general introduction was written in the winter (by me, don’t worry) and now I am beginning to produce as many journal-style papers as I can until I’ve conveyed everything worth conveying to the scientific community (I’ve collected a lot of data, it’ll be a while!). Today, I started to write my real papers.

Of course, by “started to write” I mean the process of actually typing strings of sentences onto a page. The “other” equally important process of writing (i.e., reading, annotating, outlining, bulleting, writing half-sentences that I reassured myself weren’t final because they did not contain THE perfect choice of words) had begun a while ago. And between that wonderfully productive time and today, something weird happened – I froze. Something about beginning the actual process of writing is inanely “freak-out-and-denial-worthy”, once you’ve grasped the reality that THIS tangible beginning of a collection of words, graphs and figures is going to be your Dissertation (capital “D” also spells “daunting”) and that you’d better be good at this because this is the beginning of your long career (hopefully) of pushing to publish papers upon papers (hopefully)…There’s an invisible line between the time when you’re ahead of the game and writing is easy because it’s early in the process, and when suddenly your task becomes to write and produce and submit and defend and graduate. Gasp. I recently crossed the invisible line and suddenly writing became less easy.

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What type of procrastinator are you?

I have written about procrastination here before, but it is such a natural part of our lives, I figured it could use a little extra attention.

Now, before you get all defensive, shrug your shoulders and say to yourself, “I’m not a procrastinator!” while dragging your mouse to the X on the top-right of this page, take a quick look at the amusing post below, and see if you could see yourself in any of the vignettes. I saw this on Facebook this morning (not that I was procrastinating or anything), recognized myself in one or two or three vignettes, and could not help but smile.

 

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‘Tis the season to procrastinate

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

Well, I suppose that title would have more effect had it been posted during the past two weeks. But if I finally wrote my second blog post when I PLANNED to write my second blog post, then it wouldn’t be procrastinating.

I’ve certainly had ideas for blog posts, but for some reason the longer I went without writing something, the harder it was to write it. Initially, this caused a lot of anxiety and each day my “To Do List” had “Finish blog post” written in big, frantic, highlighted letters on it (see ‘Exhibit A’). But then, I became immune to my incessant self-nagging (see ‘Exhibit B’). So this post is dedicated to why and how I procrastinate.

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Tomorrow is NOT another day: Tips to overcome procrastination


After the holidays – those crazy, lazy, sugar-hazy vacation days that we will all miss terribly – it could be hard to get back into the swing of things. Getting up with an alarm, for one, could be the day’s first and greatest challenge. It might be tempting, now more than ever, to hit snooze, to be slow and sluggish, to want to eat and nap at random points during the day, and to procrastinate.

Procrastination is a word I actually became familiar with during my grad studies. It seemed to be a common problem for many, and that is why the term made it to my ears so frequently. But it’s not only an issue that a certain unlucky few are faced with, nor is it just a problem reserved just for grad students; we all do it, at least to some extent, even if we don’t all admit to it!

When you think about it, it’s completely natural for us clever human beings to try to avoid what causes us stress, what puts us in a state of disequilibrium or anxiety, or what feels mentally difficult for us.

Putting things off to another day is not always a bad thing, if you think about it in terms of prioritizing or being realistic about what you can accomplish in one day, or even in terms of needing to call it a day and just relax. But it is when we start putting off things which are in fact a priority and when we start wasting time with things that are absolutely not urgent that procrastination officially becomes a nasty habit that we must try to chase away. ASAP.

After reading fellow blogger Valerie’s recent post about procrastination (or much needed relaxation?!) during the holiday season, I tried to think of some personal tips that have worked for me or for colleagues and friends to help overcome those strong urges of putting things off. Please feel free to share your own advice and strategies, as sharing this kind of information always helps others more than you might think!

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The thief of time

    My favorite time of the year, the holidays, have come to a close. The holiday period for me symbolizes spending time with family and friends, cooking and eating together, laughing and creating memories. It is a time that I cherish and look forward to. Just prior to the holiday break, however, I realized that to this list of fun activities I had no choice but to add work-related tasks such as reading articles, continue the writing of a manuscript, design experiments, analyze data, further establish the specifics of my research project(s) and keep up with my writing for this blog. I thus left the lab the last day with a sentiment of happiness in view of the upcoming holiday “break”, but it was slightly encumbered by the long list of tasks I armed myself with. As any grad student most likely did at one point or another, I came to ask myself whether the holiday break represents a break from work, or a break from the lab to do more work (e.g. reviewing the literature).  (more…)

10 ways to enhance your productivity

Is your thesis deadline fast approaching? Do you have tons of work to do, yet you can’t seem to get enough done in one day? Do you find it difficult to motivate yourself during these springy-summery days, when classes are out, departments are quieter, and your bike and the neighborhood park are calling your name louder than your research project is? If you have answered YES to at least one of these questions, then read on!

The best part about Graduate Studies – but also the most challenging aspect of it – is that, most of the time, you set the goals, the tasks and the pace for your work. How much you tackle in one day is largely up to you. Deciding how you structure your time to meet your objectives and deadlines is what makes you work independently – a skill that is highly valued by supervisors and funding committees, and one that will be crucial when conducting research beyond graduate school. There is a great deal of flexibility in being a PhD student, but the challenge remains that we have to learn how to motivate ourselves, fight procrastination and stay PRODUCTIVE!

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Signal to Noise ratio

Four months ago, I was offered the opportunity to become a grad life blogger at McGill University.
First week. I was ecstatic. I was telling everyone I knew, “I am a blogger now”. Turns out I actually have to post something before I can claim that title.
Second week. I complained that everything I wanted to write about – the beautiful fall weather, great things to do in Montreal, etc – had already been covered by the awesome crew at grad life blog.
Third week. I wrote, erased, re-wrote, wrote some more, deleted, claimed I had writer’s block and basically got nowhere. I guess it’s practice for my thesis writing.
End of the month, and what do I have in front of me? I finally decided on a great title for my post – signal to noise ratio. Now what?

There you have it – procrastination.
The act of putting things off for so long, you have no other choice than to blog about it. In all honesty, I have beenv busy. Some new developments in my research project have moved it to the fast lane and I’ve been spending lots of late nights in the lab, but one post could easily have been done. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve also been going through some sort of a PhD existential crisis, if you will.

I had been thinking about what to write for my first blog post for quite some time, and then, it came to me. Unless you have been living under a rock or writing your thesis, you are aware Steve Jobs passed away recently. My supervisor threw this quote up on the fridge in his honour. And right then, everything that had been brewing became quite clear.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Now, I am not an Apple fanboy, but I thought the quote was very eloquent. It reminded me of a concept known as signal to noise ratio. It is an engineering/science term that applies to how much of what you observe is noise (background) and how much is what you’re actually interested in observing (signal). I feel it’s a concept that applies to anything in life, but, as I roll into my sixth year of a PhD, it could not be truer. The end is near, and yet not here.

I am a dreamer. I always have been and always will be. Every day I have a new idea, a new travel plan, a new revelation. I tried to remember the reasons why I decided to start grad school, and I think one of them is that research lets you dream up new possibilities all the time. Research in general is a foray into the unknown. When you take on a research project, you have no idea where it is headed and this allows you to dream up innumerable
possibilities. That, of course, is the easy part. The other, more frustrating part is slowly dissecting away your theories until you find the right one.

No matter what you’re doing in life, particularly things requiring a significant time commitment, you will always have to deal with negativity within yourself and around you. So in this case, signal would be focusing on wrapping up this PhD, but there is so much noise around that it’s easy to get distracted. Noise is that nagging question of what’s
next. Noise is: why is it taking me so long to graduate. Noise is: did I pick the right project. Noise is: getting easily annoyed when someone asks why you aren’t done yet. So much noise.

I realize that, more than anyone else, the pressure comes from within. I have a good project, although it has been very challenging. I work in a great environment, surrounded by supportive people, and have an understanding supervisor. So why all this noise? Sometimes I wonder. When I started my PhD, I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I had tried my hand at research while I was in school and loved it. So I said to myself, why not give it a shot. At the beginning of grad school, my project looked promising and I had all these indications that I was at least decent at it. Awards, scholarships, positive comments at committee meeting. But after a while, all that dies down and what remains is your publishing record, which is meant to speak for itself. And I haven’t published yet. I am close, yet not there.

Since I started drafting this post, months ago, I realized the worst thing I can do is over-think it. As a friend pointed out, a PhD is a process. Everyone who does it understands that you’re not working towards milestone or a big payout. You have to think of it in terms of a process, not as a means to an end. A PhD does not have a defined set of rules like school does, and the process is unique to every individual. You can’t compare yourself to others.

How am I going to tackle this problem? I’m going to do what I learned from my father. Put my head down, my blinders on, and keep on trucking. Soon enough, hopefully, I’ll have arrived to my destination.

Why Do I Write This Blog?

Why would you voluntarily commit to a project in which you have to make yourself sit with the computer for longer than you anyway do? Why would you write for the blog, as if you don’t do enough writing while trying to churn out a doctoral dissertation. And you don’t even get paid (when did graduate students ever stop complaining about that!).

What is in it for me?

Simplistically: nothing.

But really, my sanity!

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10 Things to do instead of writing your thesis proposal

1. Calculate your student loan payments. Think about emigrating. Feel suddenly ill.

2. Google diseases that match your symptoms.

3. Stumble upon an article on Graduate School Neuroses at The Chronicle of Higher Learning. Realize that hypochondria is rather prevalent among people like you. Feel less special.

4. Go to the movies before noon. The AMC Forum 22 offers $6 showings before noon on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. (It only counts as official procrastination if you go on Friday). Since popcorn and candy in the morning are unhealthy, grab baked goods and a latte at the pâtisserie beside the theatre. While you debate whether to buy the $2 coffee or $5 latte, remind yourself that you don’t smoke anymore, except when you’re stressed, bored or drinking.

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Now and later

My friends often make fun of me because of how obsessed I appear to be with schedules.  And, yes, I will play on this by pretending to be some sort of crazy OCD, superbly self-disciplined machine who sticks to his schedule AT ALL COSTS.  But, the harsh reality is that I’m not at all this obsessive overstructured freak that I proudly claim to be.

I’m a procrastinator.  In fact, I have been one for 24 years.  And, I say “24″ years (i.e. my entire life), because I apparently wouldn’t even come out when I was being born – hence, making me a C-section baby.  So, I have a pretty well-established habit of putting off until later what should be done now. (more…)

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