The story of my thesis

It’s the new year and it’s time to get into a new writing project… or to reactivate an old writing project… or to get back into writing after a nice long break.

If there has been a really significant stoppage, then you might want to jump back into my longer recommendations for ‘getting back into writing after a break‘. But a lot of the time, all you need is a bit of a warm up, something concrete and discrete and practical to do for the first 10 minutes of your writing day.

If you have ever been to one of my workshops in the last decade, you will probably have done this warm up. In fact, if you came to a multi-day writing retreat I ran, you would have done this at the beginning of each day. It is the most powerful, most flexible, simplest tool in my writing tool box.

The version of the writing warm up I use merges two steps from Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers: Spontaneous and Generative Writing.

Spontaneous writing draws from Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers as well as older automatic writing strategies pioneered by artists like André Breton, and Dorothea Brande. If you have ever done the “morning pages” from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, you will also have experienced the power of simply putting words down on paper, with no interference from your conscious brain.

The instructions I usually give are taken from Elbow:

The idea is simply to write for ten minutes… Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing.  Never stop to look back, to cross something out… to wonder what word or thought to use, to think about what you are doing. If you can’t think of a word or spelling, just use a squiggle or else write, ‘I can’t think of it.’ Just put down something.

Elbow, 1973, p. 1

This is the opposite of how many people write—and it does not produce good formal academic writing. But it does produce words, often far more of them than you thought you could produce, and it often comes out easier than you expected. Just writing, about anything, connects you to the act of writing, which can help you warm up.

The difference between spontaneous writing and generative writing is that we give you a writing prompt–we ask you to write about a specific thing. By prompting you to write about something relevant (what do you plan to do today, or what is your opinion about that article) you can start to produce fragments towards a useful terrible first draft.

The usual prompt I give people is to ‘tell the story of your thesis’: where did it come from, how has it been progressing, how are things now, what future do you plan for it?

This ‘story’ opens up all sorts of useful links for people:

  • reconnecting with why you started on this doctoral journal
  • identifying positive progress
  • identifying road blocks and challenges
  • reflecting on where you are and how you feel about that
  • reconnecting to the future you imagine for your research

Sometimes, I write alongside the workshop participants (tweaking the prompt to be ‘the story of my current writing project’) and I have really varied experiences with it.

Sometimes (as Boice notes), I find it hard to start writing. “I have nothing to say. My mind is blank.” I write those things down, and keep writing them down, until I can turn the corner with “but if I had to explain what I was trying to do, I guess I’d say something like…” and there we have edged the door open to words.

At other times, I find myself listing everything that is wrong or difficult with a project. Half-way through the exercise, I reflect “wow, I really am having a tough time with this draft, maybe business as usual isn’t going to cut it this time”. Another version of that is a list of all the other urgent tasks that are getting in the way of writing. Having written all those tasks down, I often use the last few minutes of the practice to write them into a to-do list, so I finish with a practical plan.

On other days, I find this is just a really easy, cruisey, soft, fun, low-key way to get started on my writing. I doodle-noodle my way down the page, looping and scrawling, and then, somewhere on the back of the worksheet, something crystallises and I nail down exactly that elusive idea into the potent phrase that I can drop into my draft and then unpack, unspool, enlarge, expand.

Regularly starting with this exercise means I know that whatever I’m experiencing, it will pass, it will change. I get less hung up about the bad days and less attached to the good days. The inspiration comes and the inspiration goes, but I can keep making progress anyway.

If you’d like to try this practice out, it’s pretty easy.

  1. Get out a blank piece of paper, or open a new document on your computer. I personally like to do this in pencil on the back of a big envelope so it is clearly not ‘real writing’.
  2. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  3. Write! The prompt for this exercise is ‘the story of my thesis’.
  4. When the timer goes off, finish off that final thought and then stop!
  5. Well done! you did some writing!

People are often surprised at how much writing they got down, and how annoying it was to have to stop writing. That’s awesome! You have obviously warmed up, and are raring to go, so it’s a perfect time to keep on writing.

Sometimes I have made useful progress on my draft in the writing warm up, in which case I’ll keep the sheet of paper to use for notes so I can use it in my real draft. On other days, I’ve just dumped a lot of rambling feelings on the page, and then I find it really satisfying to crumple up the page and throw it in the bin.

There is a much more streamlined and polished version of this exercise in the new Writing Well and Being Well book. In any book, there is so much to cut so the word-count doesn’t get out of hand. And yet there are always more things to say—rather than just deleting or silencing those thoughts, it can be useful to have an ‘extras’ place. I hope these ‘extras’ are useful to you as well!

Photo by Ugo Mendes Donelli on Unsplash


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