In January, I attended Dr Peta Freestone‘s Thesis Boot Camp (TBC) at the University of St Andrews. It took place over a weekend (Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and finishing on Sunday evening) and aimed to help some 30 doctoral students in their third or fourth years write 20,000 words of first draft quality thesis material.
Peta was a terrific motivational leader who was deeply encouraging, humorous and injected just enough friendly competition into the event. I had expected to write one , perhaps one and a half, chapters of my thesis over the weekend but was concerned about the maximum of three books allowed. In the end, I wrote two and a half chapters and didn’t look at any of the three books I’d brought with me. As well as having made that much progress on my thesis, TBC gave me increased confidence in my writing, and in being able to make significant progress quickly. It also renewed my enthusiasm for my thesis.
TBC is an intense experience, particularly for someone who lives away from her institution and so rarely writes in company. The change from my solitary desk at home to working in a room with a large number of other students from different university departments was a jolt, but not a bad one. Everyone has their own writing practices and rituals, but moving away from your usual writing environment (even if you’re used to writing in company, you’re probably not used to writing in a hall with students you don’t know and without all of the books and materials you tend to rely upon) invites you to consider the practices which help you write and those which have become habits without significant benefit. For me (as I mentioned in a previous post), the preference for putting full footnotes in as I write is actually fairly time-consuming. At TBC, I opted to put the bare bones of the source in brackets to complete later in order to maintain my writing speed. It’s something I’m trying to keep doing at home.
TBCs are happening at various universities across the UK this year (and no doubt further afield- it was pioneered in Melbourne and is applicable to numerous types of PhD program, as long as writing a thesis of some length is required), so I thought I’d share my tips.
The aim of TBC is to write as much as possible (with 20,000 words as a target). In order to do that, you need to know, broadly speaking, what you’re going to write about. I had plans for the chapters I was going to tackle already completed and I spent some time in the run up to the event looking over these and matching up my source material to the chapter sections I’d be using it in. This was incredibly useful, but in retrospect I could have done much more preparatory work. By late Sunday afternoon, I was running out of steam because I had written everything I had prepared, and more, and struggled to go on.
I cannot stress enough how important your preparation is. I recommend preparing way more material than you think it’s humanly possible to use in a weekend (the worst case scenario is that you use that material in the days after TBC, so it won’t be wasted effort). How ever much you think you can write, on your best days, with no distractions, prepare more than that. A lot more.
There is a system underpinning Thesis Boot Camp. It’s not wildly prescriptive; it’s flexible, and no one’s going to check on if and how you’re working when you’re there. However, there were some strongly encouraged practices to help participants get the most out of the weekend. A key idea was to write, and not to edit. This sounds simple but the temptation to edit and correct is ever-present, especially when how doctoral students write is (almost?) as important as what we write. Going back to correct and edit, even to sort out typos, slows you down and breaks your train of thought. Resist. It took a fair bit of effort for me initially to not go and sort out those wavy red lines, but learning to quieten the inner critic with a firm “I’ll sort that later,” was useful.
Another recommendation of TBC is to use the Pomodoro Technique to focus and to make sure that you take some regular, short breaks. The basic principle is that you work for 25 minutes and then have a 5 minute break (constituting 1 “pomodoro”). You then chain these, with longer breaks after 3 or 4 pomodoros. I’ve had mixed success with this in the past but gave it another go at TBC, and I’m glad I did. I can’t say that my pomodoro-ing at home as always been so rigorous since, but it’s proven to be useful nonetheless. There’s also something entertaining about seeing a room full of people silently tapping at their keyboards get up virtually in unison and head towards the coffee room every 25 minutes with no obvious external stimulus to move.
In short, embrace the process and you’ll get the most out of it. I know some people were editing as they went, or were aiming for something of higher quality than first draft. I have no doubt that they ended up with some useful work done over the weekend, but for my money, go for broke and write as much as you can of shitty first draft that you can bash into shape later.
It’s a tiring process, physically as well as mentally. I scheduled the Monday afterwards as a day off, and kept it. There’s a temptation to keep up the momentum and write frantically in the subsequent days, but you need a break. Peta recommends (and I agree) that you leave your TBC drafts for at least a week, preferably longer, before starting to edit them. This may not be possible, but leaving them for a time will help you to come back to them with fresh eyes. I’ve found it very difficult to edit my work without a sufficient break between writing and re-writing, so I’ve left my TBC drafts for as long as possible. I know that they’re not good writing, but I’m confident that they can be re-written into something useful. They key thing was to get my ideas down and to see what needs more work, what does work, and what I need to re-think altogether.
Over the Thesis Boot Camp weekend, I wrote 17,606 words (and made that up to the target 20,000 a few days later). The St Andrews cohort had reached a cumulative 250,000 words by the end of Saturday. Sadly, we didn’t have a total for the end of Sunday, but I think 400,000 words is not an outlandish estimate. That’s the equivalent of 5 theses.