Never-ending thesis chapters

My friend Anna (name changed for anonymity) has been writing a chapter for far longer than she wanted to be. And Lydia (name also changed) has been ‘stuck’ on a chapter for what feels like months. Because it’s been months.

They’re both weary, dispirited and confused: they’re realistic, regular writers, they show up weekly to our writing group, set achievable weekly goals and usually smash them. They’re both in the mid-late stage of writing up their theses, carried out extensive empirical research – the data from which still lights them up –  and keen to get their work out into the world.

So what’s going on with these chapters? 

Enter the Trojan horse(s)

Pandemic-related fatigue and disorientation aside (not to disregard either, but they’re not what I want to focus on today), it turns out Lydia and Anna are both working on what I think of as ‘Trojan horse chapters’.

This is when sections of writing (chapters, subsections, paragraphs, sentences) show up on your pages under the guise of something else. Sometimes you realise it’s going on as you’re writing, sometimes only when you finally print the full draft and read back through it.

So if you find yourself facing a potential (or actual) Trojan horse piece of writing, here are some reassurances to bear in mind.

Writing is thinking

There are different stages in the writing life-cycle, and the appearance of a Trojan horse is most common in ‘writing as thinking’ phases (I’ve talked about the importance of writing as thinking before, here). Shitty first drafts (credit: Anne Lamott) are often Trojan horses, and initial work produced with the input of two or more supervisors often become Trojan horses. 

Thesis progress is rarely linear or 2-dimensional

The book-like appearance of the finished thesis is misleading: it often isn’t a straightforward linear narrative with a beginning, middle and end. It’s more like picking up a 3D object, turning it in your hand and seeing it from different angles, noting how the light plays on it, then holding it against different backgrounds and exploring what you see. In words.

Given that, it’s not surprising that it’s not going to be straightforward to sit down and write from start to finish. We often recognise this intellectually, but when we start the actual work, we get frustrated and confused that we can’t write through from A-Z.

One of the best bits of pre-fieldwork advice I had from my doctoral supervisor was that if I kept asking my informants about one thing, and they kept responding by talking about something else, the two are probably connected from their perspective. 

The same seems often to be true of writing. If you’re trying to write about A and you keep writing about B, it’s worth pausing and seeing whether – and if so, how – A and B might be connected in ways you haven’t previously considered. Or maybe you need to write B (which may belong elsewhere) to get you to the stage where you can write A.

All writing is forward-motion! 

Is the problem that you’re not writing what you think you ought to be writing?

With enough practice, most of us can train ourselves to sit down and write for a given period (time-wise, your mileage may vary). What’s more difficult is to determine in advance what you’ll have on the page at the end of it.

You can swing the odds in your favour by getting to know yourself really well, as I talked about [here], but there’s invariably going to be an element of unpredictability to it. This is why I’m a strong advocate for factoring buffer-time into your planning: expect the unexpected and give it room on your calendar to breathe (see what I wrote about productivity vs creativity here).

If you’re not writing what you think you ought to be writing, get curious about that. Is it because you don’t really understand what you want to say? Give yourself permission to write through that, to map out on the page what you don’t understand.

Often, what you write is less important than what you do with what you’ve written

(Unless you’re facing a really tight deadline, of course). A folder, a file, Scrivener manages this nicely, a page in Roam research – it doesn’t matter where it goes, as long as you’re consistent in your practice so you know where to look for it.

Here are some practical things to think about when excising Trojan horse material:

  • Where and how do you file the (currently) extraneous stuff afterwards?
  • Do you need to add any bibliographic references or cross references to the excised section(s) to make them readable as standalone snippets?
  • Do you want to add any part-formed thoughts or notes to the excised sections before you save them, to nudge you when you come back to them?
  • How and when do you review it?

Happy Endings

Back to Anna and Lydia – these Trojan horse chapters they’re working on turned out to be maaaasssive, tens of thousands of words.

While writing this post, I’ve had an email from Lydia saying she’s finally finished it! She’s de-Trojaned (can that be a word, please?) the horse, created a ‘normal’ chapter, and in the process, has stocked her thesis-bank with the excised text, so it’s full of  contributions to other papers and chapters, just waiting to be used. Anna’s still working, but says she can already see homes for certain sections elsewhere in her thesis, but she’s not going to move them around until she’s ‘done’ with this chapter.

Trojan horses can feel a bit out of control and intimidating when you’re wrangling them, but if you play them right, you can get the full value and use out of what you’ve written. 

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