Writing towards the thesis

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After recovering from the shock of it being both January and 2016, I’ve come to realise that this PhD is actually going to involve me writing a thesis. Not only that, but it turns out they take a really long time to write and the sooner you start writing, the better. Who knew?

My study is longitudinal and involves me doing interviews pretty late on in my PhD- in the first few months of third year- and if I have any hope of finishing on time, I need to be writing as I go rather than waiting until third year to write the entire thesis.

I confess I have been a little in denial about the whole thing. I’ve loved interviewing so much, and having just completed the second round of interviews with my participants, I’m now having to face the fact that I have to try and turn these women’s experiences- their hopes and dreams which they have so willingly shared with me- into a coherent, academic piece of work. It feels like a big responsibility, and pretty daunting if I think about it too much.

I have nothing resembling a chapter at this point. Not that it’s good to compare yourself to others because every PhD is different, but it is a little concerning when you hear from people who began their PhD at the same time that they have three draft chapters already. I do have some material to work from- even if it is only a threadbare literature review, an incomplete methodology and some musings on my initial data. But it’s something, which is generally better than nothing.

It’s the data chapters which intimidate me the most. Despite (partially) conquering my fear of engaging with my data (which I wrote about last year- see here), now that I have to actually write about it I feel the same old familiar panic start to descend when I open a new document in Word.

Speaking to a fellow PhD student recently, we shared our fears about writing. We both admitted that because we felt what we were about to write was bound to be dreadful and juvenile and meaningless, we avoided even starting. Something can’t be dreadful if it isn’t written, can it? But your own weak and weedy words staring back at you can seem to prove your worst fears- that you in fact really have nothing intelligent or interesting to say.

In addition to this fear of the blank page, as a feminist researcher I’m acutely aware of the need to write in a way which does my participants and their stories justice. How do I represent the richness of their lives and the fullness of their experiences in just five or six chapters? There have been extensive debates amongst feminist researchers about the possibility of ‘giving voice’ to others (see for example, Olesen, 2005), and the seeming impossibility of this task doesn’t make beginning writing any easier.

Writing is a discipline, and it’s one I need to develop. Early on in my PhD, my supervisor recommended that I read On Writing by Stephen King. Unlike my partner, I’m not really a fan of sci-fi/horror so had never read any of his fiction, but encouraged by the fact that it was not an ‘academic’ book, I got it out of the library and later went out and bought my own copy. King talks about the need to write every day, for at least a couple of hours- even if all you produce is utter drivel. He argues that writing is a process, a tool which needs to be kept sharp, and that the only way to do this is to force yourself to sharpen it every single day- even when you don’t feel like it, even when you feel like you have nothing to say and even when you hate every word you write.

There are lots of things I want to do this year. There are fantastic sounding conferences in lovely places that I want to visit, journal articles I want to write and publish, teaching I want the experience of doing, not to mention money that I want/need to earn. However the one thing that I really need to be doing- as my supervisors helpfully remind me- is writing. Even if it’s not very good, even if I have other commitments which mean I can only do an hour some days, and even if it’s absolutely the last thing I want to be doing.

There might be a lot of things I want to do this year, but not all of it will be possible. I intend to start as I mean to go on, however, and at least this post is evidence- both in theory and practice- of my commitment to writing and my determination to be afraid of it no longer- or at least a little bit less.

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One thought on “Writing towards the thesis

  1. Don’t mention the writing! Also good “Writing for social scientists” by Howard Becker (I think…) even though I’m not a social scientist I found it really useful! Good luck – it sounds like you’re doing brilliantly! 🙂

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