While PhD writing is typically thought of as an individual endeavour, writing alone does not mean it has to be lonely. In this week’s PhD Life post, Aya Nassar discusses how she makes writing alone work for her…
In my previous post, I wrote about how approaching writing as a collective practice might help bridge the emotional distance we sometimes put between us and our writing. Committing to writing with, or to, other people, has been helping me block time dedicated specifically to writing, and it has also helped me make sure that I get into it whether I feel like it or not. Nevertheless, the reality of most PhD writing happens to be that it is usually done individually!
My experience with research before starting my Phd was a very lonely one, since my master’s program wasn’t structured in the same way as it is in UK academia. This meant that I had long stretches of time to write my dissertation alone, that my deadlines were my own, and that besides having friends who knew I was supposed to be writing, I didn’t have company in the same stage I was in. I cannot say that this was a positive experience. I think having too much free time for my own thinking and writing process turned out to be counterproductive, as the cycles of procrastinating by reading, self-doubt, and boredom started to dominate the more idyllic imagination of a solitary, inspired and uninterrupted productivity.
For my PhD I tried, as much as I can, to not replicate this experience. Personally, I alternate between writing sessions or retreats, and then long stretches of writing alone. Writing alone, however, does not have to necessarily be ‘lonely’. If I am not relying on other people to add in structure to my writing, I turn to rely on different spaces of writing.
Some of us have offices, others are committed to the library. Personally, I have loved the fact that me being a PhD student can get to me enter and use as many libraries as I want in the UK, and at least two or three where I did my fieldwork. This sometimes is as exciting as academic tourism, and I have come to remember, fondly, some of my drafts with where they were written.
Some would swear by the necessity of separating PhD time from home time, however I find occasional home writing to be very therapeutic. Depending on whether you are a morning person or a night owl, smuggling in an hour or two of writing in your peak time pays off with focus, and sense of achievement, or even an indulgent loss in a train of thought. I just made sure that these stretches didn’t last for whole consecutive days.
Otherwise, I would use the library, or go out and write in a café. These have worked differently for me. I found working in a café more joyful when I have a small and specific task to work on, and that could be done within the limited time I was sitting there. Being with other people helped keep my attention and mind from wandering into procrastination mode that would hit me if I am alone at home, or in the library.
Overall, I have come to appreciate the different spaces in which writing occurs. A lot of research in cultural and human geography pays attention to ‘atmospheres’ of space, and I think different spaces, with their light, sound, rhythms, scents and presence of different people can challenge the monotonous rhythm of writing alone, as productive, tedious, steady and simply work that has to be done.
Do you have a favourite writing spot? Do you find writing alone to be an asset or hindrance to your progress? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), Warwick University. Her research looks into cities, space, and the politics of the Middle East. She tweets at @A_M_Nassar