Voracious reader and DPhil candidate blogs about books and scholarly life.
Though I’ve never had a very serious bout of writer’s block yet, and I’ve written three theses before (two undergraduate, one graduate), writing can be awfully hard. I am not the kind of person who sits and stares at a blank page – I simply don’t even bother opening the page before I feel like it. That’s not how a 100,000-word DPhil thesis is going to be written, of course. Very helpfully, the English Faculty recommended us the book How to Write a Thesis by Rowena Murray to help us overcome writing obstacles. The book is full of useful writing prompts, and here’s one I’ve just tried out: “Write continuously, non-stop, for five minutes, in sentences on this question: What do you think of the idea of writing 1,000 words in an hour?”
Well, this is what I produced in five minutes:
Writing 1000 words per hour does not seem impossible, of course. The problem is knowing what to write about. I personally never use those schemes I’ve been taught to use in high school, which divvy up the essay, paper or whatever you’re writing into sizeable chunks. I usually just start writing my argument and see where that leads me. So how do I cope with word counts? I usually don’t struggle with them that badly, although my current supervisor says I am quite wordy in my academic writing. Perhaps that comes from too much blogging over the summer, when I did little else, and I didn’t do any academic writing until I got to Oxford and started on my thesis. So perhaps the problem is that I fill my word count too easily and then am satisfied with it. I usually don’t have the problem that other people have of writing too much and then having to cut the whole thing down to the word limit again. That would be quite hard, I think: I always think that everything I put in is important. Now my supervisor has asked me to cut down, however, and I have tried to do so especially for conference papers and writing samples that I base on my previous writing but that have much narrower word counts. This turned out to work quite well, actually, though I felt that an important part of my argument was being removed. Even with a DPhil thesis this might be a problem, I think. Yes, even with a word limit of 100,000 words! That’s not just a book, that’s a big tome, if you’ve ever looked at one in the library. Though that may also be because they print them single-sided and double-spaced. Awful waste of trees if you ask me. Especially when the library contains so many books they don’t all fit in there.
315 words! If all of my writing went so smoothly, I would be done in 1587 minutes. 26 hours, rather than three years. Let me just emphasise that the other 26,254 hours of my DPhil will be spent making sure that my thesis will not be such an incoherent ramble as the above.