All writers (also aspiring writers, non-writers who are forced to write and people who just occasionally has something to say) have had the feeling of sitting down, staring at the screen and then feel the horrifying feeling of nothingness. Nothing. You have things to say. You have opinions about things. Though it simply refuses to leave your head through your fingers to your keyboard.
At least, I hope everyone has felt this way. Please tell me its not just me… please? For the safety of my sanity, I’m assuming I’m not alone in this and moving on.
As many of you might (definitely) not know, I am in the painful process of starting on my PhD thesis in Communication Management. For now, to be more accurate, I need to write something that will convince the clever people at the university that I’m one of them, and they should let me in. A desperate attempt, to say the least.
The problem I’m facing now is this: I dedicate time to work. I optimise my environment. I sit down with the tools I need. And then the ‘nothing’ part happens. I don’t have anything to write down. I’ve spent hours pouring over sources, books, journal articles and blog posts, yet I sit there with my mind blank.
I start to write, eventually. One very hesitant sentence after the other. Deleting two sentences for every one I write down. It’s a painful process.
The reason I can sit here and write about this (when I should really be writing about research methodologies) is because I figured out what my problem was. I was writing, but with reservations.
Allow me to explain. Academic writing, and any writing really, starts with reading. So much reading. And the more you read, the more you can write (in theory). I did my fair share of reading over the past few months and weeks. The reason I couldn’t write though, was quite simple. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to use the perfect sources, flesh out every piece of my argument (which I wasn’t entirely sure of what it was, to be honest), and I wanted it to read and feel like a true doctorate. I was obsessing over every bit of information, questioning every source and carefully thinking before I put something down on paper.
The second thing seriously hampering my writing, is that I am pressed for time. As a procrastinator I’ll tell you that I do some of my best work under pressure, but I couldn’t afford wasting any time by writing down something irrelevant to my argument. So each article was severely torn apart to determine if it was really worth spending time on and featuring in my writing. To my surprise, this cost me even more time not writing.
I was writing with the following reservations: It should be good enough; my argument should be clear and perfectly structured; each piece of information should fit perfectly with the rest; my sources should be relevant and credible; it should sound more intellectual; don’t go off topic; what does the other theses look like; how are other writers’ work structured and are mine good enough like that; should I copy off some else’s structure; impress everyone with the amount of work going into it; think of new arguments; see something new that other authors have missed; make sure all ideas link perfectly; follow the golden thread throughout; don’t waste time on concepts that might not matter later on, and I can go on but I don’t want to. I think you get the idea.
I overcame this feeling when I realised I need to sit down and get something on paper. Anything. I just need to write because if I send my study leader an empty Word file, she’s going to be pissed.
And then I actively ignored my reservations and started writing. About anything. I started off not even referencing anything, just getting my thoughts on paper. And from there on, it was easy. Well no, it was still damn hard – but I was getting somewhere. I wrote random paragraphs not related to anything else. I wrote and interpreted other authors’ work without connecting it to anything else. I jotted down each random idea and went into detail on insignificant things. And I started seeing results. Going over it afterwards, grouping thoughts together and ruthlessly deleting thoughts that didn’t make any significant contribution lead me to a first draft that wasn’t the worst thing ever (I’m being diplomatic, I still think it’s pretty bad). But at least I had something.
Side note from what I just read on Thesis Whisperer (and I quote):
“Composing a Thesis requires you to do different types of writing. Some of this writing is ‘generative’ in that it helps you form and articulate ideas by… just writing as much as you can, not as well as you can. It works best when you don’t second-guess yourself too much. The philosophy is ‘make a mess and then clean it up’. Perfectionist writers have a problem doing this…”
The point I’m making is this: Just write. Whatever feels right (dare I say, whatever feels… write haha) (that was the worst joke ever) because writing with reservations doesn’t amount to much writing at all. And even crappy writing is better than no writing.