Writing in company, with discipline (2)

This post, as the heading suggests, is the second part of a series and it picks up some of the more technical aspects of  Shut Up and Write (SU&W), as well as things we’ve learned along the way.

In part 1, I said that research writing is not the same as creative writing. In fact, Shut Up and Write  is something of a misnomer, because it implies that that’s all that can be done at a SU&W meeting, but Shut Up and Do Anything You Need to Do to Further Your Research is a real mouthful and SU&DAYNDFYR just doesn’t work as an acronym. 🙂 As well as actually writing content for a thesis/dissertation, journal article or book (chapter), tasks that lend themselves to the SU&W format include:

  • reading and making notes
  • entering research data into a database
  • coding research data for analysis
  • finding references
  • editing your writing
  • tidying your office so you can locate a missing article or book (this only works for on-line meetings, of course)

All of these are tasks that for one reason or another people find difficult to settle down to do, and doing them with people who will hold you accountable and provide you with company and light relief every 25 minutes can make them more bearable for a longer period of time. SU&Wers have also found that participating even once a week helps to motivate them to ‘write’ every day.

As far as the more technical/mechanical aspects of hosting are concerned, we have found that:

  • On-line SU&W works best if there are 3-5 people involved, although I do it with just two of us as well. If there are more than 5 people in an Adobe Connect room the breaks take too long or some people don’t get to speak, whereas if you have a larger group face to face, you can break into smaller groups.
  • Adobe Connect is great because you can both see and hear other participants, which makes people who are geographically isolated feel more connected, but real-time video hogs bandwidth and I regularly do groups where we pause videos or individual participants pause video from their end because they have slow connections, and where some people participate by typing because they don’t have a microphone or are in a place where talking doesn’t work for them (eg a shared office). I once facilitated a group from a computer that didn’t have a microphone (or camera) and I would not willingly repeat the experience. Skype audio conferences would also work, as would Skype video, of course, but that costs money for groups.
  • It is good to get up and move around during the breaks. Walking on the spot in front of the computer is fine. One of the participants in a research writing boot camp introduced us to using hand weights and exercise balls as a way of adding variety, while andisal says:
  • If you plan to work for more than three ‘pomodoros’, you need a longer break at some stage. If I am doing a set of four, I tend to put a 10 minute break in after the second. During the CSU Research Writing Bootcamps run by Cassily Charles and Lisa McLean, we discovered that for a whole afternoon or whole day of writing, especially in summer, a 15 minute break every third pomodoro helped refresh people and enabled them to keep doing useful work longer.
  • Regular SU&Wers develop a sense of camaraderie, even though they haven’t met face to face – it was wonderful to meet people IRL at CSU DocFest who had previously only been faces on a screen and voices through speakers. Everyone was really excited about this.
  • It doesn’t matter that people in the group are working in entirely different fields. You can still get benefit from the support of others, and also learn from each other. The Tuesday night group has someone researching teaching children to swim, someone looking at an information technology project and someone researching a television producer, as well as me, working on the Gospel of Thomas. It’s fun learning a bit about different things and we still know things about the general research enterprise which apply across all fields. On Friday afternoon and Saturday evening, a Doctor of Business Administration student joins us from Switzerland and the other day he was able to reassure me that I was reading the right nuance from some German articles that I had been reading.
  • Face to face SU&W can work for research writing. There is a very active group on the Wagga campus every Friday and Inger Mewburn also uses face to face SU&W. It just didn’t work well for our Albury cohort.
  • You can do “mixed mode” SU&W – some people together in the one place and others attending via internet. If you have more than one or two on-liners, though, it is important to have an on-line host as well as a host in the room or the on-liners tend to get missed out. It is very difficult to keep track of both the computer screen and conversation in the room around you.

Shut Up & Write doesn’t work for everyone, and doesn’t work for every stage of research writing, but it’s certainly worth giving it a go!!

The material in this post and the previous one are based on an invited presentation that I did at CSU’s inaugural DocFest held at Wagga Campus of CSU 23-25 June 2014. It was conceptualised and organised by Cassily Charles, the Academic Writing Coordinator, HDR students and Lisa McLean, Research and Graduate Studies Officer, School of Education. People were able to participate either at Wagga campus, or on line through Adobe Connect and to hear from a wide range of people about a wide range of issues related to research writing and the enterprise of being a Higher Degree Research student. It was a fantastic experience.



Writing in company, with discipline

This post is a departure from my usual material, but still comes under the broad title of ‘musings on my PhD’, because it’s about one (or two, actually) of the ways that I manage to work full time and still keep up the writing momentum for my dissertation/thesis as a part time student studying at a distance.

The two techniques are Shut Up and Write, and the Pomodoro technique.

Shut Up and Write originated with a group of people in San Francisco who meet in a coffee shop and write creatively, but which I met through Inger Mewburn’s Thesis Whisperer post when it had already begun to be adapted for use in academia. Cassily Charles, the Academic Writing Coordinator for HDR students at Charles Sturt University (CSU), where I spend half my time, advertised some sessions at Wagga campus and invited people to join by email. I asked if she had thought about running them on other campuses and she replied that she’d love to help me set one up at Albury, so I roped in another person who roped in another person and we advertised an event in the library, with coffee and nibbles.

Although we had a few people interested initially, it didn’t work very well in face-to-face mode, even though I provided nice biscuits and plunger coffee and good quality tea bags for free. A number of students said they’d prefer to work in their own offices where they had all their books and access to two screens – because academic writing is different to creative writing. At about that time, however, CSU started using Adobe Connect, which enables groups to meet virtually using sound, video, shared screens and a range of other nifty things which are of less use in Shut Up and Write than they are in other activities for students working at a distance from each other. Cassily started using it and I did the training on the software and also started hosting on-line sessions. I now host three sessions a week which I find hugely useful in making sure that I keep periods of the week free from other activities to work on my thesis/dissertation. An added bonus is that part of my job description says that I provide hospitality to the university community, so hosting sessions is also part of my chaplaincy work – a win-win. 🙂

We get together at a set time each week, chat for 15 minutes, write up our goals for the session, then set a timer and work for 25 minutes, have a 5 minute break in which we share progress and sometimes useful tips, then repeat twice or three times more, depending on the energy of the group. This timing comes from the Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo as a means of managing time, using a timer to break work into manageable segments. Cirillo is Italian and the timer he used to develop the technique was a tomato-shaped kitchen timer – hence the name: pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato.

The full Pomodoro technique is quite complex, but for our purposes, the 25 minutes work followed by 5 minutes break is all we need. People who have real difficulty settling down to work are amazed by how well knowing that in 25 minutes you are going to have to report back focusses your mind. They (we) also find that the timing thing works when we are working by ourselves. You can use a mechanical kitchen timer, a timer on your phone or some kind of app. We tend to use the one at http://tomato-timer.com/.

Tomorrow, I plan to write another post that talks more about the technical aspects of doing Shut Up and Write on line, as well as the things that we’ve learned over the last 18 months or so, but for tonight, I think this is enough.