This week I cut up my thesis…

… Well, part of it.

So I’m not sure whether I was driven to this point through pure frustration or I had a moment of clarity but either way last weekend I took a pair of scissors to my latest chapter draft. I divided it into paragraphs, or the smallest unit I could without losing comprehensibility, and then began a process of marking each snippet as “main argument”, “tangent”, “background”, or “unknown”. I enjoyed picking colours (green, red, blue, and grey respectively) from my book of rainbow sticky tabs. Being away from the computer felt too good – was I deceiving myself? Surely this was just a novel way to procrastinate?

Actually, this process has yielded a breakthrough. Chopping the chapter into blocks of thought made it startlingly clear what was useful and what was guff. But once I’d got down to the core of my writing (green) I needed to make sure it was actually saying what I thought it was. This is where phase two comes in: take a post-it, summarise the point you are making in one or two sentences, and then stick this to the fragment. The hardest part of this was being honest about what I’d actually written, which sometimes had no bearing on what I had wanted to say. I took care not to treat the bits in order as I didn’t want to be filling in the gaps in my mind.

Now I’m entering phase three. My plan is to take the pieces and use their post-it-summaries to write an outline of what I currently have. This should then be added to and refined to form a very detailed plan. I’ll only then go back to the laptop, writing and refining with the argument and structure at the forefront. After that I will return to the blue, red, and grey and assess whether they are still relevant to the chapter as it then stands.

I’d be really interested to know if anyone else has taken a similar/similarly crazy approach to redrafting, particularly if it involves getting away from the computer. Before tearing it apart I was frustrated and bored by this chapter. Now I’m excited to get back to what I wanted to say.

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The Defensive Voice.

I have a problem.

My default setting is the back foot.

A thesis (particularly a literary one) is where you are supposed to present your ideas for scrutiny. You need to convince, persuade, and inform. But it’s not just about your ideas, it’s about what you think of other people’s. My own thesis will fulfil the requirement for originality, not through some act of discovery, but through my own original interpretation. I’m not breaking new ground, I’m re-tilling someone else’s field.

So, my question is this: how do you assert your own position in a way that allows for the position of others?

In the epic I’m studying the characters often get the answer to this question wrong. This leads to defensiveness, misunderstanding, conflict, and, eventually, death. Fortunately for me I am not fighting for the kingship of Thebes, and my own aristea will be fought with words, not swords. But it’s still difficult when faced with a conflicting scholarly idea not to go on the attack. It starts when you read a carefully crafted sentence that conflicts with your own reading of the text. “How dare they?”, you think, “This is wrong because my way is right. I must show everyone how wrong this is!” As I said before, the problem with this is that with this type of thesis wrong and right are rarely black and white: it’s more like fifty-thousand shades of grey. And, if you do go on the attack, it conversely makes your own position seem the more insecure.

My supervisor tells me that language is the key to solving this issue. Choose words that are neutral in order to avoid a fight you don’t need. This doesn’t mean you cannot be passionate, it just means you don’t always have to be dressed for war.

Writing is not conflict; it is intimacy.

The Blank Page

I can’t think of anything harder to face than the overwhelming emptiness of the blank page. After battling with a particularly tricky chapter draft I’ve needed to come back to the beginning, and the beginning is terrifying.

Of course, a blank page doesn’t mean starting again in my mind – my head still contains all of the ideas, struggles, and information that I’ve gained through the last year I’ve been writing. There are also a couple of hundred notes, tagged and ready in Evernote, and 30,000 words of a previous draft. Both of these things are waiting to fill up the page before me. 

Yet, I delay. 

I don’t want to spoil the pristine page. At the moment it is full of potential but when I begin to type I am closing off avenues of thought, avenues that might be better than the one I choose. 

I also don’t want to deal with the weighty draft from before: it’s too big, too messy, too much. But I need to. I need to start breaking it down, unpicking the careful hours of writing and re-sewing my argument. This is the most painful part of the writing process: the redraft. The blank page of the new document is scary, yes, but it’s also hopeful. Staring at a load of work you thought was done, but isn’t, is simply demoralising. 

I search the internet for writing advice. I pour over blogs on how to complete your thesis. I procrastinate by setting up Scrivener workflows and choosing fonts. However, none of this helps. The remedy for both the blank page and the difficult second draft is the same: start writing. Nothing will change unless you start.