One of the most common advice about writing is “just write something everyday” (see Narayan, 2012; Fallon, 2016). But this imperative is usually not enough. That is because this statement attempts to achieve the cause through the effect: write and you will care about writing. No, you should also care about writing before you write, and if you are writing about a topic you should also care about that topic enough to be driven to think about it, articulate it, and write it. As Fallon (2016) expresses, good writing is not cultivated by mindless practice, but by goal-directed, deliberate practice. Practice without direction is ritual or law without the spirit, whereas goal-directed practice is conscious of some complicated sense of ‘good writing’ that it aspires towards. A simple definition of this thing will not suffice, but you would perhaps agree that we get a gut feeling when we read good writing. When a piece of writing has a nice ‘ring’ to it, makes a complex point simple, provides some relief that you (or someone) understands the complexity of your topic, it reasonates with you. Keeping this sense in mind will allow your practice to critique itself, to play close attention to the writing that is working and the writing that is not by evaluating it according to a standard.
But just as we tried to express in the self-care section, it is important that the loftiness of the goal does not exhaust our pursuit of it. This unfortunately means to balance a paradox: be goal-directed, but take as your first goal to ensure that the goal is still directing you and not exhausting you to paralysis. Do not let your anxiety of writing imperfections stop you from practicing regularly, from being disgusted at your writing even when you are journaling alone, from having a distinct feeling of dread when the final paper is due. Care after yourself while also caring after your writing by designating times when you can lower the burden of your writing. Find enjoyment in writing activities outside research, in journaling, poetry, short stories, where you can ramble and joke and play with writing. This kind of writing will balance the moments where it is important to take your writing seriously (earnest towards some meaningful goal) with moments where your writing can play with itself (mocking the goal, conscious of its present imperfection). Like a royal court, good writing is improved by a jester.
Fallon (2016) reminds us this through her comments on fear being the biggest deterrent of good writing (p. 29). She believes that writing that begins from a place of assumed perfection, expecting a masterpiece on its first try, will inevitably end in more despair than it needed to be. As a consequence, Fallon advocates a for writing; which means to think of all of your work, and your writing style itself, as “in progress,” as always striving for improvement. While this might cause your eyelids to droop, it proves its duration when applied to our writing. Pride and arrogance stand in your way when we try to write well. One must admire great writing like a child does a role model, feeling the inferiority and obedience which inspires emulation.
In sum, without actually sitting down to write, none of this means a thing. But without actually thinking about what writing is good for, writing is not worth a thing. Writing is a praxis, and what fine peach jams it takes from the pantry of theory it must consume on the table of practice. It must determine through test, in pleasure, disgust or boredom, whether it wants to continue with that jam or move onto a tastier style. To refine this palette, it is important to make consumption of theory (reading great writers) and testing it in writing a regular practice. How you set about to develop your writing ritual will be unique to you, but the following 15 practices are offered as a list of things that past Honours students did to keep them focussed on writing. If you do not already have a ritual that works, we suggest shopping around for one that does and changing it up when one gets stale.
Box 4.4 – Writing Rituals
- Keep a commons journal with a list of all your ideas and research questions as they come up spontaneously (even on your phone)
- Use the commons journal as a list of “things to still write,” consider even scheduling days and times to attempt writing about those problems. Consider adding ambitions and fears to this journal.
- Shower multiple times of day in between writing.
- Run and exercise vigorously when writing is becoming stale
- Have Netflix (preferably Friends) or a nature documentary in the background while writing
- Turn up the heat and blast music when writing
- Open a window and feel the draft of cold silent wind while writing
- Write a page of notes before every meal or just incentivize your writing with whatever works
- Write with a friend you trust to keep you focussed on the writing
- Look back at a paper you are proud of (or one you are ashamed of) to inspire you to write
- Have a passage from a book or research article you love on hand to inspire you to begin writing
- Take stock of what you want to write by meditating before beginning (see chapter on self care for discussion of mindfulness and research)
- Put writing reminders and ideas in your phone or alarm
- Coffee, tea, and biscuits break!
- Set a time early in the morning or late at night to engage ‘mindfulness’ as discussed in the chapter on self-care. Take a moment to meditate, to think about your progress, problems, and well-being. Write down these concerns to incorporate them into your rest or writing.
Full discretion, I am writing this testimony as a way to procrastinate writing for my own thesis. I will let that speak for itself. Anyway, here are my expertly-crafted decades-long researched tips (for real) of how to get yourself and your thesis writing going.
Outlines, Outlines, Outlines
Even if you’ve spent the past four months ‘reading’ and are intimately familiar with your project and your data, I’m going to take a wild guess and say you will still struggle to get started on writing. A really good way to push yourself –to visualize your work better and to actually start writing –is by making outlines. Start off by using this as a productive procrastination method, and keep making outlines. The more you attempt to provide structure and clarity for yourself, the more confident you’re going to feel to start writing. Plus, it’s always beneficial to have your thesis compartmentalized in tidy boxes (which grow less tidy as you write). You can then use these as frameworks to guide your writing process. Additionally, it helps to make mind maps and other diagrams (I’m thinking lots of arrows), and the tactile act of scribbling with a pen on paper itself really gets the brain buzzing.
Prepare Presentations, Write Abstracts, Apply to MURC
Attempting to streamline your (initial) mess of a project and organizing it in a way that it becomes presentable to others is a hefty challenge. However, it gets easier as you practice doing it more. It helps to try to write abstracts with tight word counts so you can narrow what it is exactly that your final thesis is going to address. This also forces you to be selective about the elements of your work that are the most relevant. Similarly, preparing presentations under a tight time limit helps you see the most important and engaging aspects of your project, which goes a long way in informing your writing process (and eventually the editing process).
Make Friends in Class just so You have Someone to Read Your Work
It’s safe to say that you’re going to spend much time with your topic and will become very close to it. Everything either makes entire sense to you right now or it absolutely does not. Chances are, on both accounts you’re wrong! So get someone who has no clue what your project is about to read it and tear it to shreds (or maybe you will rouse deep interest in the person and change their political beliefs forever). This is a good practice to keep engaging in throughout your eight-month-long topsy-turvy hellish writing process.
Make Sure You’re in the Right Headspace/Physical Space
Writing is hard, it’s an active exercise and you’re going to have to put in a lot of effort every time you sit down to write. So before you get on the job, make sure you’ve psyched yourself up. You are in an environment where you can focus and on the chance that you lose that focus (which is almost certainly going to happen), the environment can put you back into the groove (by force, shame or inspiration).
Respect Your Time
Sometimes study buddies are great, other times they’re not. Similar to the previous point, make conscious decisions of how you are going to occupy your time because this is a task, and hopefully it won’t always feel like a chore. When you’re in the zone, make commitments to stay in the zone and don’t write OER testimonies to get away from your work.
I’m kidding, productive procrastination and breaks are important! Sometimes you simply must write testimonies to break from the passion project you are now beginning to despise (or take a nap, or go snowboarding, or write an award-winning play). Over the span of eight months you’ll start to know yourself a bit better. Don’t force yourself to do work when you know you can’t – this will also motivate you to put in more conscious effort when you know you can. You will start valuing the time you do have and when you do feel like actually working more, you will! It also helps to be in a space where you have the chance to go and grab a snack or a drink if you need to.
Intertwine Some Tasks
Like I said previously, I always have a pen and paper at the ready and I like to scribble and write down or draw out any random thoughts I have about my project. I’ve really enjoyed doing some parts of the thesis project simultaneously, like data collection and writing, so there is constant momentum. If I have paper to scribble on (or a boring notes app open), I can write down a few points of analysis while I read my literature.
Move Your Body!
I like high tables or standing desks or empty cardboard boxes to place on my desk so I can stand and do my work if I wish. It helps to move around and break into interpretive dances every now and again. I also like taking walks in the middle of my writing (and getting weird looks from everybody else at the library). It’s useful to keep exercising the rest of your muscles while you get into your head to flesh out your ideas and to keep the energy up so you don’t just spend eight hours hunched over, staring at your screen until you collapse.
Hit that Save Button
Nothing else sends sweet dopamine to my brain as hitting the command and S buttons on my laptop while I’m in the middle of writing and tearing my hair out and shaking my foot until it falls off. The short interval saves are going to keep you going and are also going to ensure that you don’t lose hours of work because you have 57 tabs open and you’ve been working your computer so hard that it has finally had it, and starts to spit out sparks, 1s and 0s.
Literally just Start Writing
No, but you’ll procrastinate because you’ll think you don’t know what you’re doing and nothing is making sense but when you start writing you’ll realize that you, the engineer, the curator, the cultivator of your project, in fact, do know something (or at least we can hope). This is time-old cliché advice, but you just have to rip the band-aid. Like that fish from Finding Nemo said, just keep writing (because that’s what fish do, right? It was definitely not a quote about swimming. Don’t look at me like that).
Anupriya Dasgupta, UBC Sociology Honours student, 2021-2022
Narayan, K., & Ebooks Corporation. (2012). Alive in the writing: Crafting ethnography in the company of Chekhov. University of Chicago Press.
Fallon, M., Brill Online Books, & SpringerLINK ebooks – Social Sciences. (2016). Writing up quantitative research in the social and behavioral sciences. Sense Publisher.
Thinking of one’s work as “in progress”, continually being improved rather than complete.