Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Planning time to write

I think academics can be woefully bad at estimating writing time (myself included). I ran across a couple of old resources recently, which reminded me of an important message that I don't think we tell our supervisees often enough: we must plan time to write. And I don't mean that we have to simply plan, because that is not the problem. The problem is that we have to block out much, much more time than we think a project will take to write, in order to actually complete a research project.

This is because the research - the doing - is a tiny part of the the job. The writing is a gigantic black hole which eats up time and drives us mental ... largely because we have under-planned the actual time it will take.

Doing ≠ writing

We need to plan to start writing up our project the moment we start scoping the project. And we need to plan in the fact that we will probably still be writing it six months after the research - the doing - is complete.

RMIT lecturer Gavin Moodie (2010) uses some sample PhD project timelines in his workshops, where the thesis writing part of PhD candidate projects were fairly consistently 'planned' as two to four weeks at the end of the three year project. That is between 1.5% and 3% of overall project time. Crikey: now there is a communication failure between supervisors and supervisees!

Instead we need to write as we go. Good advice is to "(a) write early and write often; [and] (b) don’t get it right, get it written" (Moodie, 2010, p. 11, citing Delamont, Atkinson & Parry, 1998, p. 121).  However, that does not say what percentage of time writing should be factored in at. In reviewing John Wolf's excellent PhD writing advice (1996), it too is silent on how long writing will take.

Turning to my own experience, I feel we should allow at least 25% of our total project time for writing if we are a fast writer: up to 40% of our project time if we are slow. Therefore if we are a fast writer, and aiming to complete a PhD in three years, we would probably factor in 20% of our yearly programme for writing in the first two years (around 4 and a half months for planning and doing), with perhaps a half of the final year in writing (five and a half months for writing during the completing stage). That is a much more realistic plan.

25% of total project time for a fast writer;
up to 40% of total time if slow

My guestimated writing ratio is scaleable. For example, if our project is over five months, we simply divide the months into three parts: six weeks each for planning, doing, and completing. Around 20% each for the first two sections gives us a week and a half for writing in each of the earlier stages, with 2.5 weeks of solid writing to end the last six week block.

I hope that helps!


Sam

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