PhD Tools: Freewriting and Journalling to Think Through your Work

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

A few years back, I read a book with the (intentionally) provocative title, Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes A Day. I was travelling back to Afghanistan from a short stay in Europe, and I was sat in Istanbul airport, waiting for my connecting flight. I remember the moment quite clearly, because a long wait time plus a delay didn't phase me. I was sucked into the book and the idea that the author presented. (There's also another good one along a similar theme: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul Silvia.

Basically, she explained how writing for a very short amount of time each day, taking the time to think through whatever was going on with your research, but on paper instead of your head -- was a trick that would really help your work. It's not a new idea, this technique of freewriting. When you take this time, these 15 or 20 minutes, you aren't writing a section of your thesis itself, you're writing almost a note to yourself about how it is going, what you think are important things you  need to consider, whether this is a useful line of inquiry and so on.

Since that day, I've incorporated this kind of writing much more often as a general practice. There's a great service run by all-round make-useful-things-for-everyone-to-benefit-from person Buster Benson called 750Words. It sends you a friendly reminder every day to write 750 words on its site. There's all sorts of gamification and encouragement of writing streaks etc, and while writing the middle sections of my PhD, I would check in to every day at the start of the morning to journal out my current research position and think through whatever problems I was about to face in my work that coming day.

It may feel a bit redundant at times, but I've found the practice really useful. Give it a try. You might find that it works for you.

PhD Tools: Pen and Paper

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

It's worth also talking in general terms about pen and paper. Readers of this blog would be right in considering me as someone who uses many different digital tools. Yet I am also a firm advocate for the use of paper and pen.

I've written before about my use of a four-color pen. This was one of the more useful discoveries of 2015.

Using pen and paper offers the opportunity for slowing down and thinking in different ways about particular problems. Needless to say, pen and paper as a tool is firmly 'distraction-free', perhaps unless you're someone who likes to doodle.

I like working on problems from different perspectives throughout my attempts to tackle whatever complexities arise. For this reason, I'll spend some time outlining, some time free-writing, some time structuring and restructuring things I've already written, some time talking things through with a third-party, and some time making mindmaps or lists of ideas with pen and paper.

The full handwritten overview of all my PhD chapters, glued to a large white sheet of paper

The full handwritten overview of all my PhD chapters, glued to a large white sheet of paper

This cycling through different ways of composition / thinking on paper is something I developed over time, and it was in part a product of my time in Kandahar. Electricity was in limited supply, as was the internet, and some days there would simply be no way to write on a laptop. Sometimes even the laptop wouldn't start because the temperature in our little room on the roof was too hot. So I developed things to do during those downtimes, so that I wasn't completely hampered from working. The interruptions and lack of power was such a prominent feature of life that to allow yourself to be dictated by that would be to never complete anything.

So I would read books or articles on my Kindle. I would make lists in my notebooks. I would make lists of things to look up when the internet or electricity came back. I would make lists of tasks. I would outline sections of whatever I was writing. I would have focused discussions with Felix about a particular section or issue. Pen and Paper was at the centre of all of this, and I took that on to my life when I returned to places with constant streams of electricity and internet connectivity.

I've actually found that I'm the most useful and productive (in a holistic sense) when I'm in that disconnected mode, without the reliance on the internet to look everything up, and forced to just forge ahead with the hard work of thinking.

A particular model for this was the work of Erich Auerbach and his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which he wrote from Istanbul during the Second World War without access to many sources. As Edward Said explains in his Introduction:

"He explains in the concluding chapter of Mimesis that, even had he wanted to, he could not have made use of the available scholarly resources, first of all because he was in wartime Istanbul when the book was written and no Western research libraries were accessible for him to consult, second because had he been able to use references from the extremely voluminous secondary literature, the material would have swamped him and he would never have written the book. Thus along with the primary texts that he had with him, Auerbach relied mainly on memory and what seems like an infallible interpretive skill for elucidating relationships between books and the world they belonged to."

My hunch is that the limitations on his work process, and access to sources, was one of the things that made that book so great.

Pen and paper don't need batteries. So give it a try. Go somewhere new, or somewhere you feel like your energy gets recharged, take a notebook with you and make notes. You can always type them up later on, but for now, just write and think.

PhD Tools: Think better with Tinderbox

[This is part of a series on the tools I used to write my PhD. Check out the other parts here.]

Tinderbox is a tool for writers and thinkers that can handle most things that you throw at it. Anything to do with thinking, it can probably do what you want. That said, there is a slight learning curve to the programme, and it may not be to everyone's particular style. With those caveats stated, let's dive in.

Any PhD student generally takes a lot of notes. Notes on books or articles you're reading, or notes about points you want to make in the argument of your text / writeup. There are purely text-based / database-style systems that can handle these kinds of notes (like DevonThink, about which more soon) but none with the flexibility or visual features of Tinderbox.

A list of notes, for example, can be transformed into a visual / spaced-and-linked map of meaning like traditional 'mind maps'. You can switch back and forth between outlines and maps easily (or even display both on the same screen/window) and display notes as well.

It's fast, it doesn't break or crash or slow down your computer, and it helps you think things through in the way that is best suited to your needs. Too often, software forces you to think in a particular way (i.e. the way of the software creator), but Tinderbox adapts to the way you were thinking and allows you to draft notes and structure accordingly.

I've written elsewhere about some things I've done using Tinderbox, so no need to mention all that here, but some things I found specifically useful for my PhD:

1. Small databases, constructed on the fly, while taking notes from books. An example of this is a database of key players or individuals from within the Taliban who occurred at various places in my notes. This grew to a pretty extensive document, but Tinderbox allows you to make these kind of structured data sets without needing to think too much about how the data might eventually be presented or used. Changing things is easy.

2. Timelines -- Tinderbox can display lists of events with start and/or end dates on a timeline. I used this to create the TalQaeda timeline, for example, or the list of moments where the Afghan or international military forces claimed to have killed or identified a Chechen fighter in Afghanistan (

3. Working through 'unstructurable' ideas -- There's often a gap between the ideas you think you have in your head and the ideas as they are expressed on the page. I have found Tinderbox extremely useful in allowing me to find a way to make the two align closer together, or to figure out a structure or a sequence to parts of an idea in a way that makes most sense.

You can also use Tinderbox as a day-planner or a task outliner (like I discussed in my post about Trello), though I think it might be less suited to this task when compared to Trello.

The forum for Tinderbox and related products is a great place to discuss method, process and different ways of structuring ideas. Users are a mix of complete beginners and others who have been drafting books, novels and essays using Tinderbox for years. I find the discussions in the forum are often stimulating; asking questions there is an interesting way to rethink a particular mental quandary you might find yourself in.

BONUS: Listen to my podcast interview with Tinderbox's creator, Mark Bernstein, for more on the vision behind the software and for some practical tips on structuring ideas.