Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Turning to Some Self-Help

There comes a time in every thesis when you simply must turn to some self-help books.

I had resisted for ages - not (solely) out of snobbery, but because they appeared to be time-wasters, excuses for not getting on with the job (said with gruff Aussie accent).

I have relented, first with Authoring a PhD by Patrick Dunleavy, and now with Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker, and, a little off topic, Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod.

The first book is highly technical and written in a slightly smug, 'You silly little novice' style. But it's a solid attempt at boiling down each of the components of thesis writing. If you're up for having your structure divided into proportions and number of words, this is for you. The second is more emotionally trustworthy - don't let the business speak title throw you! It follows the 'I will first come right down into your steaming mess of a mindset and only then will I help drag you out' approach, one which allows you to feel relaxed about accepting the advice (which is, essentially, how to become addicted to writing and to recognise psychological traps that stop you from finishing). The last is a bunch of swiftly dealt creativity tips from a cartoonist-blogger.

Here are some of the many tips from them (two each) that have stuck with me:

  1. See the literature review as context not conflict - new writers often feel they need to prove that other researchers got it wrong.

  2. Manage the readers' expectations with regular chapter and paragraph length and by watching the conceptual weighting throughout a chapter and then the whole thesis. Well-organized writers signal to readers what a chapter and a thesis will do. They make promises and keep them. You need to give equal weight to each issue if you say you will give equal weight.

  3. When you're stagnating, try writing about what might be troubling you: Are you worried your supervisor might not like it? Are you uncertain if you believe what you've argued? Or is there something in the material itself that disturbs you?

  4. Try to summarize each of your paragraphs in a single sentence - find out whether your paragraph has a central idea or too many ideas. This then serves as a chapter outline.

  5. Don't worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually. Inspiration precedes the desire to create, not the other way around.

  6. The best way to get approval is not to need it.
Feel free to share any writing or motivational tips that have made things easier for you. Good luck (to me if no one else)!


Good Enough Woman said...

I have read the Dunleavy, which was a good thing to do before I got started much at all. It did help me think about structure. I've got the "15 Minutes" book, and you've inspired me to take a look at it. I'm at a place right now where I'm thinking these things:

I have GOT to work on this thing more often, and I know NOTHING, and HOW will I keep all of my sources organized?, and How will I remember what I've read, and the most recent one--Oh my God, my sources are all going to going out of date by the time I finish . . .

So I'm not much help. But I am carefully following your path to get ideas! I think about Dory in "Finding Nemo"--Just keep swimming, just keep swimming . . .

Anonymous said...

Ooh, thanks for this...#5 and #6 on your list of tips are especially striking, and I think I could do with taking them both to heart.

The idea that "the best way to get approval is not to need it" reminds me of something a great little talk that Xander showed me the other night, about motivation:

Basically the guy points out that people who are engaged in creative activites actually perform better when there's no traditional incentive--monetary or otherwise. In other words, the activity has to be enough on its own. So if you're writing something for the sake of writing it--not for the sake of earning a bonus or gaining approval--you'll be more succesful at it, and you'll think about it in a more creative way.

Worth thinking about, anyway!


Bavardess said...

Thanks for the book recommendations. The thought that haunts me in those darker moments is 'who is actually going to care about this? Why does it even matter?' Pure existentialist angst, I know. I try to just ignore that voice when it pops up.

"Don't worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually." - yes, but sometimes it needs to hurry the hell up! (speaking from personal experience today, with a deadline looming.)