On Tuesday, I posted about “The worst thesis writing advice ever (and what to do instead)”.
I think it’s worth clarifying a little bit exactly what I meant!
The advice goes something like this:
“If you have writer’s block or are suffering from perfectionism, then the best thing to do is just get as much down on the page as possible, because then you at least have something to work with.
“Don’t worry about detail, you can come back later and sort it out.”
My advice though is to slow down and think about what you are trying to say, and take some time to express yourself clearly.
This means editing, because if you’re trying to express a complicated idea, your first attempt at a sentence probably won’t accurately convey the idea you have in your head.
The first point I want to clarify is this.
It is not about perfectionism! Not at all! There is no perfect sentence. The only question is, have you expressed yourself clearly?
I think this is a reasonable standard to set for yourself.
The argument goes that by just free-writing, you have at least a structure to work with, but if you haven’t expressed yourself clearly the first time round, then you might not understand what you were trying to say if you come back to edit days or weeks or months or years later.
And as for overcoming writers block, I think the advice to “get as much down on paper as you can” is not just wrong, but actively damaging.
Here’s what happens.
- You sit down to write, and have a ton of ideas in your head
- You write and write for hours, getting it all down on paper
- You skip detail, structure, flow and clarity, because you just need to produce more
- When you don’t know how to finish a section, you start another
- You run out of fresh ideas
- You slow down
- You realise you are exhausted
- You stop
- You sleep
- You start again the next day and….
- You have writers block
This causes that cycle of being productive one day and then useless the next.
The work you have is full of holes, is badly structured, lacks detail, then you have to go through the torturous process of sorting it out.
I would agree with the standard advice, if students were coming to me saying, “this works brilliantly, I’m so productive every day, and I’m making such rapid progress. I’ll definitely submit on time“.
But students aren’t telling me that. In fact, the only people who say to “just get words down on the page” are people who tell others how to write.
So if the majority of students are stressed, inconsistent, scared and slow when writing, maybe (just maybe) the approach most students take is wrong.
A better way to beat writers block
If you are struggling to write a single word, then “get as much down on the screen as you can” is awful advice.
Do loads of exactly what you’re finding really difficult!
No, if anything you should slow down…
Get away from the computer. Sit with a notebook and pen, and write ideas down that way. This frees you from any sense of perfection. It is infinitely better to do this on paper than on the computer, because you aren’t committing to any particular structure.
Write down the key ideas you want to talk about.
Then you can pick one idea, and break that down into a few key points.
Once you have a rough idea of the points you want to cover in that section, go back to the computer and just work on that one section.
Work on it until it is finished. Not perfect, but just to a point where you have said everything you want to say and inserted the references you want to insert.
Then that section is done! Congratulations, you are one step closer to finishing your thesis!
Writer’s block is simple. You either don’t know what you want to say, or you don’t know how you want to say it. Getting as much down on the screen as possible doesn’t strike me as a particularly sensible solution to either of these problems.
Instead, work out what you want to say, and then take some time to work out how to say it, one idea at a time.
Let’s apply the get as much down as you can approach to other creative tasks.
If you’re a mathematician, you need to take some time to think about the problem. You would never “just get as much maths down as possible”. You might sketch something out, but then you’d pause and think about whether it was appropriate or not.
If you are designing a house, you wouldn’t “just get some walls down, because then you have a structure to work with”. That’d be ridiculous. You’d be committed to a particular structure which you’d probably have to tear apart later. You’d start on paper and think about the requirements you need to meet.
If you were designing a chemistry experiment, you wouldn’t just get some reactions going, you’d pause and give it some thought first.
If you are cooking, would you just get some ingredients in the pan, and sort it out later. No! Because once you commit to putting eggs in, it can’t be undone.
Writing is no different. It requires care and thought. I can write 2000 words in a day easily, but at the end of the day it’ll be 2000 words I’m happy with. Not perfect, ever, but good enough and hopefully clearly written.
Finishing a chapter is often the hardest part.
Why? Because if you leave everything that requires some thought for later, you are left with all the difficult stuff at the end.
I speak to so many amazingly talented students, who have fantastic research to report, but they end up stuck with the thesis about 60 or 70% done.
Most have been through this free-writing (or generative writing) phase to produce the bulk of their writing. Yes, it can produce a lot of words quickly, but it is false progress if you then get stuck with a chaotic chapter with no clear narrative flow, hundreds of holes, no links from one paragraph to the next…
I always ask, “how much is finished, in a form you would be happy to submit?”
Often, the depressing answer is, “nothing”
But if you take the time to express every idea clearly, to think about how it relates to what you’ve already written, then finish each section as you write, then even if it isn’t perfect, you have work which is of a decent standard.
Knowing that you’ve done a good job on all the previous chapters means you can relax and focus on what you’re going to write next.
You can finish the day happy with what you’ve done, and start the next day on the next idea.