ACWriMo: Enjoying Writing as a PGR or ECR

Thinking about the big picture

When I began my PhD, I, like many PGRs in my faculty and others, had the same query: why is our three-year PhD thesis supposed to be 80,000 words long? Why not 75,000? Or 90,000? Or 100,000? I haven’t seen a definitive explanation as to why 80,000 words came to be the standard for long-form writing based theses (as opposed to mathematics-based studies which are much shorter in length). I came across one theory, however, that really helped me in growing less anxious about the writing process, especially for the thesis.

The theory is based on the following maths query: If you write only 100 words per day of your thesis, only on weekdays, how many words would you have written in three years? The answer is 78,000 words. (100 x 5 days = 500 / 500 x 52 weeks = 26000 / 26000 x 3 years = 78,000). The theory is that a standard doctoral thesis is 80,000 words because it uses these calculations and rounds up to the nearest ten thousand. Whether this is the correct theory is debatable, but it does help to think about the big picture of academic or creative writing. Writing 80,000 words in three years seems, to many, a large task. But, writing 100 words per weekday as a PGR seems, to most, like a very manageable task. These are, of course, exactly the same task.

I’ve learned, throughout my time in academia, that if you see the big picture, and break it down into small, manageable units, it significantly reduces the anxiety that many PGRs and ECRs feel when writing.

The importance of fresh air

Considering the less than amazing climate in England for most of the year, it is understandable that very few people choose to write outdoors in a park or even on the beach. Whether it’s the wind blowing your papers around, or the cold temperatures freezing your fingers as you try to type, most of us choose the warmth and comfort of a building to do our writing. We are, however, missing out on one crucial aid to our writing practice for most of our working days: that burst of fresh air to clear our heads.

As part of my working day, particularly when I’m doing some academic writing, I take a long stroll in Guildford, South London or wherever I happen to be at the time. During my PhD, I took a week writing retreat to my favourite city Aix-en-Provence in southern France. My favourite place to ramble was the Cours Mirabeau, and there is no better place to do some open-air writing than at Le Deux Garcons (closed since 2019 after a fire) which is famous for being a favourite hang-out of childhood friends Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola.

The experience of sharing work

There can be a temptation to hide away your academic or creative work until you feel it is as good as it could be. This is a perfectly understandable tendency, as criticism of work can often be a demotivator even for experienced writers. However, taking the scary step of sharing a work in progress can have several benefits that both save time and improve the final product.

One thing I discovered, during my PhD, was the benefit of sharing work with other PGRs from different academic backgrounds and disciplines. While sharing work with those within your faculty will give you some subject-specific feedback, those with no knowledge of the work you’re doing are likely to give you a different set of notes, comments, and queries, that are informed by very different academic histories. This helps to make all disciplines much more interdisciplinary. Even taking your work to people with no connection to academia can help you to gauge new perspectives and divergent ways of thinking.

Creative arts to compliment academic writing

Creative writing is not limited to PGRs and ECRs within that particular discipline. Literary history is filled with people who were working academics at the time when they wrote their most famous works. JRR Tolkien (philology), CS Lewis (medieval literature) and Lewis Carroll (mathematics) used their expertise in their subjects to create some of the most famous works of literature in world history. The creative arts more generally are filled with those who have also excelled in inventing, engineering, and the natural and social sciences such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Beatrix Potter, Samuel Morse and Alexander Borodin.

Creating art has many benefits for PGRs and ECRs including reducing stress, building social connections through a reduction in social isolation and can hone and improve our communication skills. These are all crucial benefits for every person working or studying in a university setting, and these skills and experiences can be carried throughout our lives. Creative writing, fine art, music and performing art combine the deep focus and concentration of academic writing with an often-instantaneous emotional reward that is very rare in the academic world. And, who knows, you might create the next Mona Lisa, Lord of the Rings or Prince Igor.

Dr Jay Rowe, Research Fellow / Research Project Manager for ‘SURREY BLACK SCHOLARS: To Become Visible’ Programme, Doctoral College