Thursday, 4 April 2013

Tales from the DPhil, Part Two: Writing the Thesis Like a Novel

Welcome to Part Two of this upstart series, Tales from the DPhil.  Today is the juicy stuff - writing tips!

Last term, I discovered that the single biggest stress- and anxiety-causing aspect of my doctoral experience was my approach to writing the darned thing.

In undergrad and my Master's, I did quite well writing essays by researching a lot up front, creating detailed outlines, and then racing through a draft with a quick polish at the end.  Because I always had hard deadlines, I always made them, even if this required some crazy writing days.

This is by no means an ideal writing strategy for a doctoral thesis.  A term paper can (but probably shouldn't) be a sprint.  A thesis is a marathon.  A three-year marathon.  A thesis also demands consideration, the evolution and testing of ideas and arguments, the honing of sentences.  I was trying to write chapters in big bursts (which didn't work) and then had no time for proper revision.  I became anxious about writing and avoided it.

So, I decided I had to make writing much less daunting.  I decided to write my thesis as if it were a novelI'm quite proud of this revelation.

I've been writing novelish fiction since I was fourteen.  I know how to write a big, multi-part project and just needed to apply the same strategies to my thesis.  I know from experience that I need to write every day, preferably to a very manageable word goal.

Principles that Have Vastly Improved My Thesis-Writing Experience

1.  Come up with a manageable word count and stick to it every day.  I've chosen 500 words, which I think is approximately an hour's writing, but it varies a lot.  It amounts to 2ish sides of A4 or about 3-4 pages in my Moleskine journal or 2-3 paragraphs.  It is extremely doable and non-threatening because it seems like so little.  Also, the more regularly you write, the more natural it becomes.  As a bonus, on the days I force myself to write, I usually end up over-shooting this word goal and write closer to 600 words.  But no matter what, something is better than nothing.  Progress is better than standing still.  And, if you write 500 words a day for one work week, you suddenly have 2500 words.  That's almost a conference paper.

2.  Write first thing every day.  Because I know that if I put off my writing, it probably won't get done and I likely will not get much research done either, out of a general sense of anxiety and procrastination.  Also, writing is always the hardest part of my day.  Everything after it seems easier and more enjoyable.  And, once you've met your word count for the day, you've met a mini-goal, which feels great.  Plus, you don't have to worry about writing any more until the next day.

3.  Don't start with a blank page.  What I've been doing is writing longhand rough words one day and then revising while typing them the next.  This allows me to a do a first pass of revision and gets my writing brain working before I have to tackle fresh writing, which in turns makes tackling the new words less frightening.  In an ideal world, I would also take notes and write down ideas for the next day's rough words - that can be a big help to getting started.

4.  Don't worry if the words are rough/awful.  Once you have words, you can fix them!  If you don't have any words to play with, you can't do anything at all.  It's taken me a long time to come around to revising my academic and creative writing and to find strategies to help me do it.  Sometimes having a pile of messy, meandering words is a gift because it's often so easy to see how they could be improved.  A nicely proofread piece of work can be harder to take apart and put back together again because of its shiny surface.

5.  Realise that words/writing time are not an end but a process.  This is another realisation that made me feel better about my messy, daily words.  I'm not writing just to meet a word count - I'm writing because writing allows me to think through the issues I'm dealing with in a way that research or even outlining can't.  Sometimes I have little revelations while writing.  I realise what my argument is, or discover something new about a text.  I've realised that I need to spend a good portion of every day interacting with my words on the page, whether writing or revising.  If you leave a project for a few days, it's much harder to get back into it and pick up the flow of ideas again.  (Noveling is the exact same in this regard).

I hope these principles might be helpful to any grad school brethren who may be reading this.  Do you have any tips in turn?  (They are always much appreciated - it's very easy to slack off when it comes to writing discipline.)


  1. I love tip number 4: don't worry if the words are awful. I have to keep reminding myself of this. I always want things to come out perfectly conceived the first time around. It just isn't possible, is it? Love your writing tips blog posts.


  2. i like all the tips what you have listed out..
    MBA dissertation

  3. One day at a time is a principle which can also be applied in thesis writing, which can be translated as write daily. Aside from making the writing task manageable, it also help writers become efficient which makes it possible to complete the entire paper before the deadline.