Dissertation Guide

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What stops people writing?

“Worrying about style is a real inhibitor. I think worrying about style involves a number of things. One is the first-draft-or-final-draft syndrome, which is; “‘This sentence isn’t perfect, therefore I must rewrite this sentence before I write the next one”,’ which is a desperate thing to do, and really should be the last thing you do, by and large, unless there’s a really good idea and you need to correct the sentence now or you lose the idea for ever more. But unless you feel it’s that, forget it, leave it alone and go on to the next sentence. The aim is to knock out as many words as you possibly can as soon as you’ve sat down and don’t really worry about style at all. Because the more you practise these things the more naturally a bit of style will come anyway, with luck. The crucial thing is getting the words down and then worrying later about how it looks.”

“You only have writer’s block if you’ve stopped. Writing can’t be blocked if it’s running all the time. It’s disused drains that get blocked, isn’t it? You go away for a month and you get back and there’s something wrong with the pipes and it’s because you haven’t turned them on or flushed them out or whatever.”

“I think the other bit for students, academics, is worrying about being an academic. That is, ‘I’ve read Michel Foucault and, yeah, I’ve just about understood him but somehow my language doesn’t sound like that, therefore I’d better make my language sound a bit more like that.’ Michel Foucault is probably not the best example because it’s in translation.”

“I’d even push the drain analogy further, and actually say that there is a drain function; if you keep the flow going through, you also get rid of the crap. A lot of the time, we’re trying to sort out what is surplus, or excess, or irrelevant. We can only do that if we are constantly sorting through it, constantly filtering, on the way, and if you don’t write, what you do get is a big build-up of all sorts of things and you don’t know what these things are because you have not been in this constant process of sifting, sieving, filtering, siphoning, whatever you want to call it. Therefore you don’t know what is there and of course it comes through the rush in a mess. I am thinking very definitely of drain-clearing experiences here. What you do when constantly writing is bleed off the stuff that you don’t need so that you’ve still got an eye on what is relevant. Writers have to write in order to get rid of stuff in order to locate the things they want to celebrate. It is partly cathartic and purgative as well as being celebratory.”

“I think a lot of academics generally have trouble because they put a lot of rigour into the front end of a project, particularly in designing statistically valid approaches and representative samples and all that, and then at the back end they can’t apply that sort of thinking to writing in the same way. You can’t choose a representative word out of the dictionary as the next one in the sentence. Nobody applies sampling techniques to which quote you put in your literature review, which data you actually put in the text. I think that gives people a lot of trouble. They need to be rigorous and representative, but they also need to think metaphorically and creatively and string words together. They need to recognise above all that all writing is a creative act. The best you can do is just give your own honest interpretation of what really happened.”

“Writing is always a communicative event, so you’re always addressing somebody. If students are confident in the support of their immediate addressee – the reader, their supervisor – and if they can chance their arm to some degree, and if they feel relatively safe addressing somebody, then they can do it. There are two kinds of problem. One is when you don’t feel safe addressing somebody else, maybe because you are overawed by their apparently prodigious knowledge or their particular manner (which is ultimately inhibiting to you). The other problem is if you finish up addressing only yourself and have forgotten what you want to say because it becomes a closed circuit. It sounds like you’ve hit a wall, but I don’t think that’s quite what happens. I think you go into a spiral. I think you go into a self-involved spiral which is self-defeating because you can’t disentangle the critical and the creative. If it didn’t seem worthwhile you would lose enthusiasm and lose direction, and you would shut up in the end. There’s the matter of trying to get down the things that really interest you and that you think are really important. Not just what you feel you ought to say, but what you really want to say.”

“Frank Smith, in one of his books on writing [Writing and the Writer, 1982], distinguishes three kinds of writing block – physical, procedural and psychological. Physical blocks come when you are too tired to write or too tired to solve your writing problems, and obviously the best advice there is to rest or recreate yourself in some way. Procedural blocks are when you can’t decide what to write next or you’ve got too much to say, and they are best solved by making notes or just writing what comes to you and then breaking it down in a way that makes more sense, or going off and finding the answer to a question. The third kind, psychological block, is much more complicated and varied.”

“One problem that is especially relevant to thesis writers is a possible reluctance to commit yourself to a long writing process from which there will be no turning back. Maybe it’s better not to start at all, a little voice inside tells us, especially if we are not sure of ourselves. I think one way to deal with this is through the planning. If we can break it down into manageable targets, one day at a time, we will achieve our goal. The main problem, though, the one that I meet a lot in academic writing is the fear of failure as measured by some sort of high standard that we set ourselves. It’s like there’s a teacher inside us saying ‘That’s not up to scratch.’ This form of writing block is caused by what Frank Smith refers to as a failure to separate the creative part of writing from the judgmental part. If you feel the fear and fear the failure, then you’ve got to find a way to get in touch with the creative part of your writing. You can come back to it and judge it later, you can always change what you’ve written, and you can decide later when to show it to someone.”

“Sometimes a fast, freeflowing form of handwriting can not only solve the problems of block but it can produce better writing. There’s perhaps more of a rhythm to your voice. I did an exercise in a staff workshop once, where I took them seven or eight drafts of an academic paper I’d written. The first draft was a hundred words of notes and odd sentences in my note-book; there were a couple of handwritten drafts on foolscap paper, several typed drafts with corrections and feedback comments and the final journal version. One person looked at the note-book notes and said, ‘”I can see the paper from these notes. I can envisage it”.’ When I looked at the notes I could see much more energy in the first version than in the final version. I certainly thought the first line was more engaging. I guess too much editing can deaden the writing.”