Adrift in drafts

Less than six months into my first year of my PhD and I am on draft number 9 of my preliminary literature review (in Cambridge, we write a first year research proposal of 12,000-20,000 words and have a viva on it before we get such privileges as a locker in the PhD room). As a relative newbie, perhaps I am being naive but the process of redrafting is actually pretty satisfying.

The Merriam-Webster definition of a draft (incidentally, a word that originates in the Middle English word draght, related to the word for drawing) is this:

a version of something (such as a document) that you make before you make the final version. (Merriam-Webster, 2014)

However, I feel that writing drafts is not as linear as implied by this definition. As Elbow points out,  “writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking” (1998. p.15). For Elbow, each draft marks a development of thought that may be returned to, refocused and revised. It is an iterative, circular and systematic process of clarification and discovery. This approach is reminiscent of the Vygotskian view of the intertwined nature of thought and language.

My supervisors and my incredibly wise father both gave me a similar piece of advice – keep former drafts. I may have cut a paragraph from my current draft due to word count constraints, but will want it in the extended edition. On a contrary note, I may inadvertently regress my research questions or focus and not remember quite why I altered it in the first place. So, having previous drafts to refer to is an incredibly useful idea. So, instead of just having one document (imaginatively) called ‘Literature Review’, I currently have Literature Review drafts 1.1-1.4 from before my supervisor gave me initial feedback and Literature Review drafts 2.1-2.5 responding to points my supervisor highlighted. There will undoubtedly be drafts 3.1-3.x and possibly even 4.1-4.x. Most of these will be filtered out and archived by the time I submit my interim report, but even now it is rather heartening to go back and see how my thinking and research has developed and refined.

The distinction between drafts is not that I rename it every time I made a slight edit, nor do I label it a redraft for the same reasons every time. Sometimes, I change drafts because I have added or taken away a significant amount of text (usually at least a page). Sometimes it is that I have refocused my ideas. For example, following a discussion with my supervisor, I re-drafted to make my focus much more process-orientated, rather than concentrating exclusively on outcomes. While I may not have added many more references, my approach has undergone a change, so a new draft is justified.

Between each draft, I tend to take a couple of days off to get my mind clear and give some distance. Then, I often print out the document and go through it, highlighting the main points of each paragraph, figure and section. Are they clear? What is their purpose? How do they relate to the surrounding information? Are my references useful and correct? Finally, I ask my long suffering family to read over it to check that it is clear and purposeful for an independent reader.

My tips for drafting

  • Allow more time than you think you need to redraft, always. If you don’t use it, enjoy a brief and guiltless break. Far better to have extra time at the end than to procrastinate and then panic.
  • Due to the healthy fear of losing what I am working on, I save all my drafts directly into Google Drive and, just to make doubly sure, email myself everything at the end of each day. Don’t let your work be lost through carelessness!
  • Are you saying what you want to say? Is it worth saying? Will the intended reader be able to understand it? What are alternative interpretations or arguments? These are simple questions but worth bearing in mind.
  • One of the most memorable pieces of advice I have come across about re-drafting is the piratical ARRR approach. This suggests; Adding, Rearranging, Removing and Replacing. I think that the order in which this is proposed is a useful one, but it assumes that your general focus or approach has remained unchanged. It is, I suppose, a bit granular for a first re-drafting, but useful in the final stages.

Drafting is an incredibly useful process in developing an argument and, even more fundamentally, in identifying exactly what your argument is, why you are proposing it and what evidence you can provide. I try not to approach it as a box ticking exercise or as a self-satisfied grammar check, but as a thoughtful and engaging activity in its own right. Hopefully, I will continue in this happy attitude in years to come.


Elbow, P. Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1973, 1998. p.15

Merriam-Webster (2014) ‘Draft; definition. Available at: [Accessed: 2 Feb 2014]


Distance Learning I

After the epicurean excesses of Christmas dinner, I have returned to my studies. In addition to my PhD, I am studying for an English Literature degree with the Open University. Although distance learning is by no means new, it remains revolutionary in several senses, most especially in terms of individuality, openness and technological advances.


Distance learning, in the form offered by the Open University and indeed by many other providers, gives more breadth and scope for individual interests. As there are none of the timetable clashes that inevitably happen in traditional universities, a distance learning student can tailor their choice of modules to suit their interests and personal and career commitments. You could take a module in Japanese, then look at Philosophy, then Astronomy – in whatever combination the individual student wants. So, education is opened to people who may find it difficult to fit study into their everyday lives, or who want a more broad education.


The Open University, in common with many distance learning institutions, differs from traditional universities in that it does not select or refuse students based on academic qualifications. While academic selection would not worry some of the attendees of the OU, this openness encourages more students to return to study and to use education to improve their career or just satisfy their curiosity. Not every teenager feels able or suited for a university course at 18, whether for financial, academic or personal reasons. Distance learning enables them to return when they feel ready, at a pace suited to them. The mean age of OU students is somewhere in the 30’s, but the youngest graduate was only 16 when he completed his mathematics degree.

The OU fee’s are also generally much lower than traditional university fee’s – my English Lit degree will have cost me approximately £4,000 spread out over the 5-6 years it will take me to complete the course. Not chicken feed, but more manageable than £9000 a year, you will admit. The OU fees also include textbooks, DVD’s, audio-materials and access to forums and tutorials. No worrying about how to afford the £120 book your lecturer decides is vital to the module. There are also the bursaries and loans to help struggling students. So, distance learning really is democratically open both on a financial and academic level.


Since the earliest examples of distance learning in the 1700’s, distance learning has utilised technology to promote learning. First correspondence courses then radio, followed closely by television and finally the internet. The internet offers synchronous learning tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Skype and asynchronous possibilities through VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments e.g. Moodle, Frog etc.), forums, blogs and so on. This use of technology encourages communication between learners as much as between learner and instructor. Learning is a social pursuit and technology based communication is not only a useful motivational tool, but also fulfills valuable educative goals.

The advent of tablets and sophisticated mobile phones has opened other avenues for distance learning. Apps such as OU Anywhere, Duolingo, Notability, Google Drive and iTunes U have transformed learning. Now you can learn a new Russian phrase, edit an essay or complete a quiz while waiting for a bus, sitting in a dentists waiting room, wherever and however you choose.

My next blog post, inspirationally called Distance Learning II, will look more at apps for learning, particularly iTunes U and the design and evolution of iTunes U courses to support learning in the classroom, at home or wherever life takes you.

Happy New Year!

Deadl(ine)y Motivation

I’ve just finished my first draft of my first essay for my PhD. I feel quite proud. Not necessarily of the work itself, which I will probably drown in red ink tomorrow, but of successfully meeting my self-set deadline. The essay is due in at the end of February, but my incredibly wise supervisor wanted to look at it a month before that. So, I decided that I would aim to get it done before the Christmas break so I could choke down some turkey before tackling a second draft.

I am a part-time student, so finding a balance needs some degree of dedication and no little loss of social life. During my masters last year (which was also done part-time), I made some rules for myself to help drive through:

1. Plan, plan, plan. If I had a weekend visiting my sister, when would I make up the work?

2. Allow more time than you think. Sickness, tiredness, social life, just plain procrastination all eats away at unconsidered trifles of time. Don’t say I can get it done in three weeks, say I will get it done in four. Make an achievable deadline and don’t treat it as flexible.

3. Set daily limits that you can achieve. On working days, I told myself I needed to read at least four papers or write 200 words. Non-working days were 10 papers or 500 words.

4. Bribe yourself. From little things like finish reading this paper and you can have a cup of tea and a biscuit, to a new book or ball of yarn for every 1000 words or a couple of days off when a draft is completed. Whatever works for you.

5. Talk to people. Don’t hole up and convince yourself that you are the only person going through this and no-one will understand (we’re not teenagers). My Dad is a life-saver for bouncing ideas around, editing suggestions and so many  other things. People help. Going to that voluntary lecture or writing group might seem like it’s taking time away from writing, but a change is often inspirational.

6. Don’t eat crap. Literally and figuratively – junk food is not going to help long term. Eat a proper meal and exercise and keep brain and body happy.

7. Enjoy it. You started this because it interested and enthused you. It’s still fascinating, still important. Don’t get so bogged down that you forget how exciting your research and writing is.

Relating to several of these is the academic spin-off of nanomo (committing to writing a 50,000 word novel in the month of November), acwrimo. Be your own cheerleader and set deadlines which you then tell people about, therefore making it seem much more solid. If you haven’t already, learn how you work best – in the mornings with baroque music playing, in the afternoon in silence or during the midnight hours with synth-pop howling soullessly.

I can do this and if I can anyone can!