On Writing

There’s a certain irony, I think, in this blog being updated so infrequently. My goal as a PhD student is to make writing a daily discipline, yet little of that writing ever sees the light of day. But that’s how it works- you write 4 paragraphs, and count yourself lucky if one paragraph is kept in the final manuscript.

It helps me to read old drafts or abandoned projects to get a sense of my growth. To that end, I was also reading my writing from my time as a graduate (MA) student at the University of Chicago. Back then, I was a fairly prolific writer. My hard drive and cloud services harbor the proof of that fact.

Between 2011 and 2013, I wrote 41 articles for the Bertelsmann Foundation’s “Future Challenges” project- most, if not all of them can still be found here. In that role, I wrote about a wide range of topics, including education and workforce issues among youth in sub-Saharan African states (including the push to tout education privatization as a way to increase primary school enrollment), GMOs and biodiversity (from a political economic and ecological perspective- on the effects of biotech and agri-business acquisitions of land, water, and intellectual property rights and subsequent effects of deforestation, displacement, and water shortages), political conflict over natural resources (e.g. conflict over Lake Turkana, which borders South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya), urbanization, climate change,  and public health systems in African states.

At one point, I did aspire to being an international relations scholar whose work focused on land tenure, citizenship, & nationalism in East Africa. My MA Thesis, entitled “If You Don’t Have an ID in Kenya, You Don’t Exist”: Or Kenyan Nubis as Biopolitical Subjects was probably the piece de resistance of those aspirations.

Looking back is a different way of seeing. Reading my MA thesis, I get the sense that I was constrained by the vocabulary of a field that does not readily address “the subaltern” outside of the “view from nowhere.” My literature review ranged from a reading of Wendy Brown’s work on sovereignty to Agamben and Foucault’s work on sovereignty and biopolitics, finally settling on Achille Mbembe’s work on necropolitics. In the feedback from the readers, it was noted that my literature review seemed to function as “name-checking” rather than as a way of setting up an argument. That was a fair point all things considered**, but “done is better than perfect.” A “done” Master’s thesis got me into a doctoral program, where I can more truly realize my potential as a ‘scholar.’

Five years distance makes it easier to see how my thinking and writing has changed over the years. In the shorter term, I am also seeing growth as I transition from writing term papers to journal articles. Much of a grad student’s career (well, in the social sciences) is spent with a focus on writing term papers that demonstrate one’s knowledge of foundational concepts in one’s field. Then, after the qualifying exams (or comprehensive exams or area exams), graduate students are expected to produce journal articles, which are written with the assumption that the audience knows the foundational concepts and only requires a short literature review that links them to your project/study.

With the help of my advisor’s feedback, I am working on two manuscripts- or two chapters of my dissertation. Both began as a term project that was subsequently split into two papers. The first paper is the hardest, because it was written as a term project, and, as such, requires a great deal of re-organizing and re-writing. To further complicate matters, I updated the data analysis, including more complex models, which means the methods, results, and discussion sections need to be re-written. The second paper was written in the format of a target journal, so finishing it has not been as painful.

I’ve found that it helps to allot time for writing, and make sure that that time is used for writing tasks (which includes reading or revisiting notes). If I don’t make time, that time will be filled up rather quickly by other aspects of my life.

I’ll end with a question for you, dear reader: What helps you with your writing process? Is it a ritual? In my case, it’s cleaning the house and boiling water for tea. Is it a mindset? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


All the best,

Arrianna Planey



**I would like to note that my MA thesis was written in 4 months. As a PhD student, I more fully appreciate the amount of time it takes to produce quality academic output. In that light, I can say that I am proud of my MA thesis.

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