The PhD writing process is beginning. I can’t tell you how terrifying it is to stare at the glare of the empty screen, the cursor pulsing coldly overhead, and two years of thoughts churning like indigestion in the frontal cortex. Stare long enough and madness descends: one’s hands begin of their own accord to rattle out a frenzy of gibberish, just to stem that arctic gaze.
Having never written anything quite on this scale before, the whole process is really very mystifying to me. I’m experimenting, therefore, with different methods of compiling the thesis, and I’m going to write about them here as I experiment. Those of you who have already done your PhDs may snigger at my ungainly fumblings, and/or share your writerly wisdoms, as you will 🙂
So here’s how I’m starting. Having hashed out a skeletal chapter plan and the overarching conceptual framework with my supervisor, I’ve decided to start work on the chapter I have most material for. I’ve broken down this chapter into four ideas – call them thematic modules, four big themes I want to address in this chapter. Then, I’m going to try to continue with this modular approach. Instead of attempting to write the chapter as a whole (beginning with that terrifying cursor), I’m going to write mini-essays around each big theme. I am not, however, treating these mini-essays as sub-chapters — they’re just ways for me to draw the relevant source fragments together and to get my thoughts about them straight in my head. These mini-essays will inform, rather than form, the larger chapter.
The idea is that breaking down the chapter like this allows me to sort my source material in a more focused way: I’m using the four themes like boxes into which I can categorize my sources. The mini-essay will then be a kind of exercise in writing prose-bridges between these sources; it will also give me a non-threatening space in which I can write myself into dead-ends, as I inevitably will. And the exercise will give me the confidence with my material to compose the larger chapter more organically, and more quickly.
That’s the idea anyway. I’ll let you know how it, you know, actually works out. Any other ideas about how to compose an 80,000 word thesis will be most appreciated!