Writing practice

This blog began as a way to chart my progress through a PhD in geography here in NUI Maynooth. I registered in January 2010 although I read extensively before that. I thought at the time that no one had been doing this but it turns out that many blogs are written on the back of the writing that is done in the subject and the social sciences more generally. After completing the GY802 course last year it was evident that writing for the PhD itself, rather than writing blog posts about the PhD and a PhD, seemed more important. The style of writing that I employed during that course was tight and concise where I knew I had about 1,000 words to express ideas read during the course and provide a critique. As it happens I was also being assessed as I wrote. Since that time, my writing style has changed, and not always for the better.

I took two weeks leave from my research job in the Bishops’ Conference in August and committed to completing one chapter on Marian statues and starting (and finishing) another on pilgrimage practice. The purpose of this time was to lay out the empirical work that I had been working on for almost two years and create a kind of backbone to the thesis, away from abstract ideas presented in the literature review and the boring epistemological challenges presented in the methods chapter. And so my chapter structure now reads like

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature review
  3. Methods used
  4. Marian statues of Dublin
  5. Pilgrimage practice in Ireland and Spain
  6. Primary schools and education policy
  7. Syncretic analysis
  8. Conclusions

I have four of these chapters effectively written although there are is a considerable amount of rewriting to be done. The fortnight’s leave was about threading the stories I had written about pilgrimage and statues through the literature on these topics and tying them into the principal argument: that what constitutes public religion in Ireland is more complex than saying that religion is in decline. It was a demanding fortnight of writing and hiding myself away in Wexford trying to punch out 5,000 words a day. The discipline of rising, eating and writing came easily enough to me when I considered how my paying job takes up intellectual as well as temporal space. I have not returned to this writing since and perhaps that’s ok.

Reading again those earlier posts from GY802, the writing is much better than the writing I have completed for these chapters. The compilation of a thesis chapter is formal and subject to the regulations of an academic form which insists that only text matters. I have expressed elsewhere how frustrating MS Word documents are when I have sound and picture files and snatches of imagery to convey the complexity of religious practice in Ireland. I am not sure why 80-100,000 words is considered a PhD when I think I could argue my main points in about half of that. It is not that I am displeased with the writing I have done but it seems so stilted: this happened, then I saw that and that reminds me of Notable Person (2009) etc. And yes, I am a better writer than I was in 2010 but unless I am going to put that to use consistently from 2014 on, why not just keep doing doctoral degrees?

I am delighted to get these two chapters off my back and can happily put statues and pilgrimage out of my mind for now because that’s not really what my thesis is about. I am now planning the final empirical chapter on state education policy and the place of religion in primary schools. At this stage, it is about how to do a thesis as quickly and as efficiently as possible and move on to the next set of ideas: geopolitics and religion, inscriptions of belief on bodies, small spaces of devotion, geographies of human rights discourses, a geography of the unnoticed, representing the affective. It is also about avoiding spending another €3,500 in early 2014 to extend my time as a student to a fifth and unnecessary year. By then of course, this wonderful government will have pulled all the right levers, regained our sovereignty and there’ll be jobs apelnty for us graduates.

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4 thoughts on “Writing practice

  1. If you can condense the argument into 50000 words (even if the PhD is 100000) then that will surely make the book you simply must publish at the end of this all the more readable, accessible and effective!

  2. Reading back over this later it would seem as if I am apologising for writing almost 40,000 words of geographic thought and practice. I am so ungrateful to myself. 🙂

  3. I heard this advice for a good speech many years ago – say what you’re going to say, say it and say that you’ve said it. I wonder if a PhD treatise is much different?

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