The Dual-Document Writing Process
Here’s a little something I’ve come up with over the past two weeks since really diving into the literature on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations, and the broader Indigenous Sector. I call it the Dual-Document Writing Process. Here I’ll outline how I came to develop this style of writing for my own mental clarity during the end of the first year of the PhD.
Messy, but real. Avoid brainburn.
The problem I was having was that I was finding too much literature/too many ideas on my topic from the outset of research – several fields, schools, and major programs had already approached the topic and undertaken a myriad of different approaches in attempting to explore how the Indigenous Sector exists within an Australian settler colonial framework. It’s hard for your brain to try and process over 100+ documents into a coherent ‘mince-like’ output, all threaded together and seamless.
So I started reading a bunch of it – a lot of it. In-depth reading. Assuming a power-stance position at 2am in your jocks while marvelling at the intricate theoretical positioning implicit within the text-style reading. And I think it’s good to be excited about new ideas and different approaches. However, I couldn’t be this in-depth for every single piece of text written about, or around, my topic – or I would be reading for a few lifetimes, and not outputting enough text (i.e. communicating a culmination of these ideas in my own words to a different audience).
I began to scan the field with a different approach: as a radar looking for as many different pieces of writing on my topic as I could find (at the recommendation of socio-legal studies lecturer Allen George and star player Michael Pusey); while this seemed like the antithesis at first, this allowed me to find the general key players, schools, theoretical understandings, and previous research within the field, as well as some of the initial gaps that had yet to be filled (nothing revelatory, some of it explained by the authors I was reading, who like me, had come up against the limits of time in trying to explain/discuss as much as humanely possible). This is where my serotonin hit usually comes in: after ‘The Hunt’ for literature is done for the day, and you have 30 journal articles and 12 books on your desk. No writing done, but you feel like a champion just for having something tangible in your bag at the end of the day.
But how are we to organise this multitude of ideas? This is where the issue of relevance really kicked in. George recommended using the scale of “not relevant, maybe relevant in this section, and very relevant [even, ‘this is your phd, damn’ relevant if needed].” So I used the star-rating system on Endnote to signify this: 1 star meaning – ‘read it, not relevant at all’; 2 – ‘some stuff on your topic, but not your topic area’; 3 – ‘this is some good stuff, but probably not the best reference’; 4 – ‘great quality, very relevant on topic’; and 5 – ‘this is so close to your PhD topic/essential reading for what you do’.
I then took only the 5 star readings, and then read them in-depth as I had before. It is these readings (the ones that make you walk around the room and excited because your brain is tired but you know something amazing has happened) that you can take key structuring and thematic ideas from and use them in your own work.
There’s a few different styles to reading a document besides the Radar Scan approach (George, Pusey and Page) much of which you can check out elsewhere. Here’s a few I’ve stolen from my main dudes: Mattthew Tul (PhD Sociology, USYD: https://sydney.academia.edu/MathewToll) likes to re-read everything to make sure his brain has fully absorbed all of the information within a document – allows for good recall skills. Fadi Baghdadi (PhD Sociology, USYD: https://sydney.academia.edu/FadiBaghdadi) likes to take his time and get real ‘metaphysical’/spiritual – to try and get into the mindset of the writer and assess the claims that are implicit within the text itself, which may or may not require re-reading. Find a process that allows you to both a) get as much as you need from the text; b) in a timely manner so you minimise getting stalled on one reading for a week like I did/do sometimes.
I now arrive at the dual-document part of the process.
An issue I had writing my methodology chapter – with a brain keen on attempting to process multiple complex ideas at once, usually quite unproductively – was that the document was so full of notes, messy, unclear, and seemingly unconfident from so much reading that I didn’t even want to chip away at it. It had a structure – key headings, subheadings, microheadings within the subheadings, micromicro subheadings – and a whole bunch of paraphrasing and full quotes all mixed it together. I just didn’t even know where I was half the time. It made writing a shitty ordeal, rather than a process of reflection, caffeinating, pacing, and aggressive death metal for hours on end.
So this time, mid-way through this process, I decided to make a new document. This document, my clean ‘working document’ would provide the beautiful blank page I needed to fill up, with none of the clutter. It still had the key structure I had initially chosen to undertake the piece, but none of the myriad details which sends my brain on a tangent for the rest of the day.
The idea is to write to a schedule, whereby you aim for 250 words per day within an allotted amount of time, and chip away at your structure and the questions you want to answer – I started with an hour per day for 250 words and moved it to two hours per day in the morning with a goal of 500 words (see Silvia’s (2010) How to Write a Lot).
You open your outline full of your reading notes, you open your working document, and switch between them as you paraphrase 250/500 words per day, every day. Your working document is clean and ready for printing and reflection at any time, while your outline grows and grows in complexity every time you read something new (something you’re doing everyday throughout the process to chip away at the mass of literature in your new library). You can also keep explicit counts of how much you are writing every session, what time is best for your brain, and how much you write a day on average – you can train your brain to get less tired the more and more you do it.
You can then ‘layer’ or ‘weave’ new ideas, references, and sections within your pre-existing written work; you can also delete things after your ‘writer’s block’. You therefore eliminate the feeling of disorganisation and can chip away at your project every day, while also being able to have breaks knowing that every inch you gain is closer to coming up with something great.
If you ever get stuck writing and you don’t know what comes next, start the process anew (rather than getting megasad and blaming yourself for running short). Go back and check your outline for bits you need to fill with your own writing; check your library for readings on that area; read a bunch more; categorise them within your existing framework; write it up. Even if you delete some or most of it, at least you are engaging with the ideas and developing a regime to communicate them with others – this goes for writing, music, art, whatever.
Hope you can get something from this!
Final Acknowledgement & Referencing: Firstly, I’m probably re-inventing the wheel here in making the writing process explicit (this is for me to follow in times of deep existential crisis and academic brainburn). Someone, somewhere has probably written this process much more clearly and comprehensibly. Secondly, steal this – it’s all yours, hope it helps a bit in the process of making new art.
December 14, 2014