Writing. Putting finger to keyboard. Churning out the thesis (or paper or grant proposal). This week’s cartoon in the THE reflected on this challenge of thesis-writing, ending with the punchline ‘Writing: the most impossible short distance in the history of humanity’ despite everything being in the poor student’s head. It is all too easy to look at the blank page and freeze into hopelessness. But perhaps that isn’t the right way to tackle things. I find that my writing works best if I’ve turned things over in my head well away from any keyboard or paper.
Now of course I’m not in the business of writing a thesis these days, and the strategies that work for one type of prose and a particular individual, may not apply to other people in other situations. Nevertheless, I think sitting down and trying to write a thesis from beginning to end is likely to end in trouble. It is too huge, too shapeless to work like that. For my own students I always insist on a thesis plan, ideally sketched out a year or so in advance to identify what has been completed and what is outstanding. Perhaps even more importantly this can serve to identify those dreadful known unknowns: the holes that are left in the overarching narrative when trying to pull together disparate experimental results for instance. If you know what’s logically missing before the final frantic weeks you have some hope of plugging the gaps satisfactorily.
That skeleton structure for the thesis, I believe, also helps to break down the monolithic task into something more manageable, less terrifying (see some previous thoughts on thesis-writing here). Where one goes next I think is very personal. Some students start at the beginning and write in a linear way from chapter 1 to chapter 9 (or whatever). Others prefer to get the results down first and come back to the introductory chapters and literature review later, although this can cause confusion over cross- references. Some like to get the figures organised first, to be sure that they are clear on the way the evidence is building up; they can then write the text around the figures. Whatever works for the individual has to be the right way forward in my view.
But there is still the question of how to get the words down on that paper, even when the structure is clear. And, for other situations – writing posts for this blog for instance; for a student newspaper contribution; for a science-writing competition; or, for me in particular in the months ahead, those speeches I am sure I am going to have to give pretty regularly – the structure (or even content) may be far less obvious anyhow. How best to tackle that prose? I find as I try to organise my thoughts it is best just to let the ideas swirl around for a while. Ideally such swirling should not be done as one tries to go to sleep, or sleep is likely to elude one. If I do make the mistake of letting it happen in bed I can find myself getting angry as it is perfectly possible to lie there mentally perfecting the text with no way of capturing the words on paper: I do not keep a Dictaphone or even notepad by my bed as I’m quite sure my husband would object.
Good moments I find to try to organise my thoughts are when I’m cycling, running or walking: in other words, when I am away from my computer and away from other people. This can apply equally well to the mental processes I need to go through ahead of some difficult meeting or a talk for which I’m trying to find a structure or a hook to get it off the ground. At times like that my mind is free to wander; wander it often does in ways that can be surprisingly creative and constructive. It is as if the not-constrained mode of thinking, the darting to and fro between different trains of thought, allow new connections to be made which enable me to see things with fresh eyes even if the content (for instance of the science) is unchanged.
Of course, as with lying in bed without a Dictaphone, I have no way of capturing the elegance of the sentences that I internally construct. I cannot necessarily mentally retain the absolutely awesome alliterations that I would like to pepper my text with nor retain the order that seems so logical in my brain when away from the computer but which may escape me once I sit down again. Nevertheless, as a way of being creative I would recommend it to those of you struggling with thesis, proposal or manuscript writing. If you’ve got writer’s block get up, walk away and do something physical but not too exhausting. Let your mind go where it will and see what it throws up, at least for a little. It breaks the monotony of staring at a screen with a flickering cursor but nothing else to focus on and it might, just might, get the creative juices flowing again.
Right now of course what I am really mulling over (though I’m procrastinating actually doing anything about it) is moving house. After more than 30 years in the same place it doesn’t need much imagination to visualise the piles of stuff that we have accumulated, much of which we really don’t need to heft over to Churchill Master’s Lodge. But what to leave and what to take (particularly a question when it comes to books) certainly needs a lot of thought before we start filling the tea chests. Whether the blogposts will continue to flow during this period remains to be seen.