The worst thesis writing advice ever (Part 2!)

Read part 1 here

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.

  1. You sit down to write, and have a ton of ideas in your head
  2. You write and write for hours, getting it all down on paper
  3. You skip detail, structure, flow and clarity, because you just need to produce more
  4. When you don’t know how to finish a section, you start another
  5. You run out of fresh ideas
  6. You slow down
  7. You realise you are exhausted
  8. You stop
  9. You sleep
  10. You start again the next day and….
  11. 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.

Some analogies

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

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.

 

 

Comments

    • James Harlan says

      @ Jack Ross, yep, there’s a lot of contributors that we can think of that may affect writers’ performance.

      But, I’ve heard that other writers don’t believe that “writer’s block” exist.

  1. says

    Anne Lamott nailed this issue in her book Bird by Bird in the Chapter “Shitty First Drafts.” Expect your first drafts to be “shitty” but expect them to be a draft. The process of working with your ideas on paper will transform them despite your best efforts. Fighting with them to get them into shape on paper is the process that will clarify them.

    I always try to give the oral presentation of a piece of work before I write the paper–I think we focus more on the story and how to tell it when we talk. Having done that, its easier to flow it out on paper–it will still mutate but you’re not working from scratch.

    That said, I think most of the analogies you offer are badly off base. Its easy to rearrange words and paragraphs on a page, its not easy to rearrange walls or to rearrange ingredients in a chemical reaction or a supper pot.

  2. Tom says

    Coming at this from a non-PhD candidate’s perspective, what you say applies to so many other fields as well.

    I work in the “creative” industry and the single biggest thing that kills the progress of talented people is never committing to finishing anything- because they get stuck in a perpetual editing/ polishing / mixing cycle.

    The ones who make it ate those who get it done, polish it a bit, accept it may not be perfect, and move on to the next task.

    It’s a discipline, and it works.

  3. says

    While I still use stream of thought writing, I support and applaud what you are saying. However you write, ending up with an unmanageable, unedited pile of words is less than useless.

    Stream of thought does have some genuine uses for me which I don’t want to go into here as I feel it may cloud the fact that I fully support your campaign against reams of unedited paper.

    Another interesting point you make about overcoming writers block i.e. stepping away from the computer and making a good plan cannot be overstated. This is just as important, if not more important than editing. If you have an amazing plan, you can afford to throw a few bricks down because even if you do it quickly, you’ve already decided where they should go. However you write, the better and more detailed the plan, the easier writing is.

    • jameshayton says

      Yes, stream of thought IS useful. If you know a subject extremely well then it’s almost like talking to someone!

      The problem is that it’s default advice given so often for beating writer’s block, but I think it’s the creative equivalent of getting out of debt using a credit card. It’s a short term solution that makes things worse further down the line!

  4. Antoinette says

    You are absolutely right James.

    I get so stuck when I just throw stuff down – desperately trying to grab at a thought or a phrase. When I make myself stop and think about it, I find it helps to ask one question … “so what?”. ‘So what’ does it have to do with what I’m trying to say, the point I’m trying to make, etc.

    Once it’s in my draft it’s like a virus that I can’t kill. I start to write more sentences and even whole precious paragraphs trying to make it fit – when it never did.
    It’s way harder to cut it out later or edit around it. It might be a great set of words, but it might also be crap where I’ve put it and maybe it’s something better said in a different paper, in a conference presentation or elsewhere. But it’s in my thesis draft and I’m going crazy trying to make it work, when it just doesn’t!

    I do find that I need an ‘electric shock’ to remind me to stop and think. I usually realise it when I’m in the bad 5% tail end of the 20% of the 80/20 rule! It helps to exclaim “what on earth are you doing?!” to snap me out of it :)

    Prior habits keep creeping back in. I’m yet to stop doing it, but your email is a great reminder to keep alert for it.

    I could put it like this: Just writing for the sake of writing when you aren’t clear on what you’re trying to say and why, is like filling your sack with fools gold – makes you feel excited at the time, but won’t impress anyone later and you don’t take the time to pan for real gold because you’re too busy filling your sack with all that glitters and shines.

  5. Maria says

    I totally agree with you James.
    I have started to follow your advice to slow down and write clearly what I want to write since your last blog. I also stopped jumping to new things whenever blocked and I think the result is much better.

    It works psychologically as well. I always struggled with the feeling that nothing is actually ready. Nothing can be submitted. Everything is kind of half backed. Now, I am working on the backing :-))
    Thanks James!

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