Finding a stride: mile 20 of the PhD writing marathon

by Anna Blanch on April 26, 2012

The plan for this week was to hit 65 000 words. This marks just over 80% of a word count set by the university. It is a word count where I know words will still need to be added; where my footnotes will get included and where I have a conclusion that is yet to be written and chapters 3, 4 and 5 that need some serious body work.

As much as I try, I’ve come to realise that I will never have the perfect circumstances for writing this PhD. Whether it has been libraries with disappointing holdings, the random illnesses which plagued most of the 2nd and 3rd year of my PhD, or essentially being a nomadic scholar with very few of my books with me, there is much about this experience that has been less than perfect. Whatever my idea of what is perfect in these circumstances.

And for someone who likes attention to detail and seeks to be organised to a fault, not perfect is difficult to deal with. But something Hannah More – the subject of my Master’s thesis – once said gives me pause:

Each act is rightliest done, when it must, NOT when it may be BEST!

This is a truth that still grates even though I know she was right.

So, I’ve slowly begun to embrace the imperfection; and let go of the bitter feelings that I would have liked certain aspects of this experience to have been different. I’ve learnt that there is always something you could be working on no matter where you are – airport, borrowed desk, library you’ve never been to before, ill or well. What matters is that I get this done in a timely manner, to a standard that *I* am proud of.

I have been finding that declaring my writing goals for the day/week and making sure that I have someone to be accountable too makes a big difference too. for me, it helps if those that I declare my goals to will celebrate with me, in even the smallest ways when I achieve those goals. I have people to give me high fives when I reach my targets and help me not take myself and this too seriously. I have someone who sends me snippets of their life which make me smile and give me perspective. I have people cheering with virtual pom-poms on my good days, and virtual G&T’s and encouragement on the days where I struggle.

This is where the rubber hits the road, people.

I’ve been thinking about writing and how it tires me out. I’ve been reflecting on the joy I feel when I know I’ve nailed a passage just the way I wanted it to be, the way I imagined it. I’ve been considering the frustration and disappointment I feel when I go back to something I’ve written in the past and it simply isn’t good enough. When sentence fragments are no longer pithy or breathless, but have descended into a weird morass of stream of consciousness barely intelligble even to me and I wrote them.

There were some miles there (in the UK) where I thought my body was going to betray me entirely. But the sun has really helped with that!

Yet, I think I’m at mile 20 of the marathon.

See that little green bar to the right of the screen?

That’s where I’ve been tracking my word count. Word count isn’t the only (nor always the most helpful) metric by which to measure progress. But it has helped me with motivation. It has also helped me with accountability. And possibly, most important of late, it has also helped me with giving myself permission to rest.

Some days the word count barely moves. Hang it, some weeks the word count has barely shifted. But with every sentence, even if I will rewrite it – and let’s face it I probably will rewrite it – I am one word closer.

Are you slow and steady writer? sprint and collapse and sprint again writer? or an interval training kind of writer?

Just like with every mile, every quarter mile counts. I’ve been reflecting on the way I ran the hill2harbour 10k and what it might have taught me. Perhaps strangely, I think it taught me that sometimes It is prudent for me to run within myself rather than flat out. If I can finish my thesis on time — my version of on-time — within myself then it will have been a great success. I have a tendency to go flat out, not binge so much as put inordinate pressure on myself for those sprints and than collapse in a heap. Such has been my life, especially during graduate school. But that hasn’t made me easy to live with for those close to me!

A marathon has a finish line. So does this PhD program.

And like a marathon, where the last 6.2 miles are rough; so too, as I find my stride for the last stages of the pre-submission process I have to expect that the focus and discipline required will be tough. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to some anxiety about the process and my ability to produce writing I can be proud of, but my determination to get this done remains and so does my smile.

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  • Stuart Hepburn

    I reckon I’m on Mile 8 and I’ve just realised that I set off too quickly. Go go go ! 

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