Bad things happen. (In no particular order of awfulness :-- ) Your baby never sleeps. Your field notes fall off the roof rack somewhere in rural NSW and are never seen again. Your marriage breaks up. Your house burns down. Your teenager stays out all night. Your computer crashes. Your supervisor dies. You develop writer’s block. Or, in my case, I had just submitted my thesis when a scholar I had been particularly critical of got blown up by a home-made bomb. Clumsiness? Conspiracy? Who knew? Whatever the case, I was suddenly speaking ill of the dead.
When things go wrong, you can’t necessarily fix them, or it may be a long process. But at the same time, there may be things you can do to re-balance your life enough, either so that you can carry on studying, or so that you can return to study when your are ready. Your supervisor can help you think about what to do; and, in any case, he or she is going to need to know if you encounter a serious obstacle, so don’t try to struggle on without telling your supervisor. If the relationship is a good one, she will be a source of support. If it’s not so good, you may like to just go in and tell her that you have this problem, and you’re handling it in whatever way you are handling it, but you wanted to keep her informed. She should appreciate your openness and respect your readiness to deal with what is happening.
On the following pages, we’ll work through some of the things that commonly afflict writers in this context, and I’ll offer some suggestions about how you might deal with them. You may also like to go to the site below, where the University of Queensland’s learning advisers give good advice on some of the pitfalls of the research process.
• The University of Queensland’s Student Services site, “PhD -- First Thoughts to Finished Writing” has “Frequently Asked Questions” at http://www.uq.edu.au/student-
services/linkto/phdwriting/fr_phfaq.html. You may find some of the following helpful: – “I am three quarters of the way through but it isn’t as fruitful as I thought it would
be. How am I going to rescue my thesis?”
– “Now I see how I should have done it all along. Is it too late to change?” – “Coping with your highs and lows”
– Why am I doing this and how do I keep myself motivated for three years? – then click on “Dealing with isolation”
• Also, at the Monash site for postgrads, you might like to watch some of the videos of students talking about their experiences – “Snapshots from the research journey” -- particularly the one titled “Riding the roller coaster”:
Always back up your work. Of course you know that you should make electronic copies and store them in different places. But it’s also a good idea to print as you write, and keep your work-in-progress in a binder with sections for each chapter. That way, you’ve always got a copy (in your hands, to feel proud of! -- And to write on, and cross out, and highlight, and cut
up, and stick back together in a better order….) And if all else is lost, you can scan the printed version to restore lost or damaged files.
This is more common than you would think (or maybe not, since you’ve clicked on this topic!) What you can do about it depends on what is causing it. There’s a good breakdown of common causes of writer’s block at The University of Queensland’s Student Services site, “PhD -- First Thoughts to Finished Writing”, at http://www.uq.edu.au/student-
services/linkto/phdwriting/fr_phfaq.html, under “Frequently Asked Questions” click on “Writer’s Block”.
Here, I’ll share what I know about this – and I’m going to start with the cause that’s hardest to deal with, so I can finish on a more positive note!
Some people do well on every assignment they complete, but they don’t complete very many. There’s no doubt about their ability, so why don’t they hand in the work? When I talk with people in this situation, it seems to be perfectionism that holds them back. They’re afraid the work will be less than perfect, and they would rather fail than hand in less than perfect work. The problem with this is that they do fail, unless they can bring themselves to settle for work that is simply adequate once in a while. I want to say to them, “If you write something, it may not be the best you could do – but you’ll have something to revise and improve, like
However, this is advice you could think of yourself, given ten minutes, and if you’re unable to take it, there may be an underlying emotional cause that just won’t listen to reason. In fact, people have sometimes acknowledged that the writer’s block is just part of a characteristic pattern in their lives, where they keep choosing failure rather than put up with uncertainty. Or they prefer to judge themselves harshly rather than expose themselves to other people’s judgement. If this sounds like you, I’d urge you to talk to a counsellor. The university’s counselling service is free, and the staff there have the kind of experience you need to draw on.
• Read the handout “Thesis writing for perfectionists” by Dr Wendy Larcombe, of the Language and Learning Skills Unit at Melbourne University:
Expect (and Learn) to Revise
But maybe there are other, less deep-seated reasons for your writer’s block. Maybe you’re so good at academic work that, at earlier stages of your education, you didn’t have to work through a number of drafts to produce the quality of work that was required of you. But at this level of postgraduate study, you can’t expect to write anything well enough the first time. Don’t be alarmed by this – just be aware that this is how it is for everybody in academic life, including your supervisor – and get started learning how to revise your work. There is
material in this resource on how to revise, and a couple of appointments with your academic skills adviser will probably help too.
The most important thing to remember is that most people can’t be creative and critical at the same time. Peter Elbow, a writing teacher of considerable renown, points out that most professional writers do their first draft for themselves, just to get their thoughts down on paper where they can see them, and they don’t worry about language or structure until a later stage, when they’re ready to write for another reader. Then they step back, allow themselves to be critical, and make all the changes that will help the writing to communicate with someone other than its creator. Obviously this process is going to take time, so build that time into your planning. (What planning? – You may like to consult the section on “Managing yourself and your Thesis”!)
• Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with power : techniques for mastering the writing process
2nd ed. New York; London: Oxford University Press.
• Elbow, P. (1998). Writing without teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University
Break the Task Down
Another reason for writer’s block may be just that you’re daunted by the size of the thesis. You’ve never written such a long and complex document before, so how are you going to do it now? Remember, though, that you don’t have to write it all at once. Spend some time breaking it down into chunks – chapters, headings and sub-headings – until it seems more manageable. Map these out on your wall planner, or your calendar, and you’ll see that you do know where you’re going, you do have the time to get there, and instead of thinking “I’ll start writing the thesis today and hope I’m finished by November,”, you can be thinking “I’ll write up my observations of gift-giving at the betrothal ceremony this week, and next week …” – whatever’s next. Also, remember that you don’t have to write it in order. You can start with the material you feel most confident about, and by the time you’ve got that out of the way, you’ll be more into the rhythm of writing. Of course, you have to give careful attention to putting the pieces in order eventually – you may like to read the section on “Cohesion” to help with that. And finally, there’s an address on your screen for the Online Writing and Communication Centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where you can read about chunking your work.
• MIT Online Writing and Communication Center,
http://web.mit.edu/writing/Writing_Types/writingthesis.html: “Writing a thesis”
Warm up your Brain (Literally!)
Finally, my personal approach to writer’s block – and to writing generally – is to read some material that’s relevant to the topic I want to write on – maybe a few pages of my rough notes, maybe an article I’m trying to respond to in my writing – so that I set up for myself a specific problem I’m trying to solve, or an example I need to work through – and then I have a hot shower or a long walk. I believe that these activities increase the blood flow to my brain, although it may also be important that nobody can distract me while I’m doing them. But somehow I can solve the problem or compose a key paragraph or two and then leap on the computer when I get dry or get home, before I forget what to write.
Getting Some Perspective
When I talk with research students each year in the postgrad seminar, people say that it helps them just to know that other students are in the same boat – that they’re experiencing the same challenges, having the same feelings about their work, and getting on with it somehow. If you join, or set up, a network of fellow students to meet with regularly, it may help all of you to keep your studies in perspective. If you’d like to start a group, but you’re shy about suggesting it, you might like to ask your program’s coordinator to bring up the idea in a seminar.
Many students find it very useful to form a thesis writing group, or “writing circle”, that offers not just mutual support but specific help with the writing process. Such groups meet regularly to share parts of drafts that they are working on. They can give each other feedback that is different both from supervisor’s feedback and from the kind of feedback that writers can give themselves. Unlike the supervisor, your peers don’t know enough about your topic to fill in bits you haven’t explained fully enough, so they can let you know where they need more explanation, information, or examples. And unlike you, they aren’t so close to the work that it’s hard for them to judge it reasonably.
These meetings work best if they have some structure related to their purposes. If you are interested, you might like to read the online resources listed below.
“Thank You for Your Support” by Michael Kiparsky in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wednesday, August 8, 2007, at http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2007/08/2007080801c.htm “Tips for Successful Writing Groups” by Dr. Chris Golde of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, at http://www.chris.golde.org/filecabinet/writegroups.html
“Support groups/writing groups” at the website of the Centre for Academic Development, The University of Auckland, at
Try to Laugh…
I hesitate to suggest that anything connected with thesis-writing could be a laughing matter, but evidently many people think so, because there are websites devoted to thesis humour; and now that it’s all behind me, I enjoy the jokes. I hope you can, as well, and the web addresses are below. One that merits frequent visits is a comic strip on the site known as “PhD – Piled higher and Deeper”. What it is that’s piled higher and deeper, I leave it to you to conjecture. Another site which you might love if you are a Philosophy student, or if you’re not but have been scarred by Philosophy at some point in your life, is listed too. And strangely, it includes some Archaeology jokes too – enjoy!
• “PhD – Piled higher and Deeper:
http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=847 • “Dictionary of Useful Research Phrases”. To reach this, go to
http://students.washington.edu/asubram/links.htm and click on “you must read this”. Philosophy jokes
Philosophical Humour. To reach this, go to David Chalmers’ webpage at http://consc.net/chalmers and click on “Philosophical Humour”
Lightening the Load
I’ll finish here with some ideas for getting yourself more time, more help, or more resources. First, you might consider whether you could change your enrollment from full-time to part- time, or perhaps defer until you can devote more time to your studies again.
Secondly, could you call on your network of family and friends for some specific kinds of help? ( When I was writing my thesis, my husband made me a child-free hour each day, in which I got more done than I could do in a full day B.C. – Before Children. Now I make that hour for my daughter, who has a baby of her own. You may never be able to pay your helper back, but maybe you don’t have to – just pass it on when you can.)
Third, is there a free or affordable agency or social service that offers the kind of help you need just now? Or does the university have an office that could help with finance, housing, employment, counseling, or academic skills advice?