The Third Obstacle: Actually Beginning the Thesis

I am now hard at work on my First Chapter, but while taking a coffee break and discussing the vagaries of tutoring with the boyfriend, I realised that I have, once again, completely neglected my blog. This is because I am finally, kind of, somewhat, on a roll. I have marked my last, done my last bit of admin, edited and submitted a paper for possible publishing and now the way is open for total and complete focus on my First Chapter. My First Chapter, with which I have been dallying for over three months.

You see, I was stuck on this monumental task of starting the thesis. My method of writing essays is generally straightforward – I start with my introduction, write my body and then conclude in a suitable manner. I usually run straight through, from beginning to end, and then proofread. I have never been the type for endless drafts and patching together paragraphs I had written out of order. The flow usually comes naturally to me, but I need to start at the start to find it.

However, one of the first things I was told when I started actually writing was that my introduction – the first part of my thesis that gives the overview and main argument – should only be written at the end, along with my conclusion. I thought, fine, I can do that. I’ll just dive straight into the Gothic’s history and development. It didn’t take me long to realise that I was drowning.

Turns out, I really struggled to get my footing without that first essential bit. I had my proposal, but short of copying and pasting it I couldn’t seem to get the basics down without thinking about what should already have been said. My writing, to use a rather obvious metaphor, was haunted by that which I had not yet written. It dogged my every word, and made me weigh every sentiment with what would be said in that phantom introduction.

I realised I was stuck on how to proceed. I looked around for writing sources, but there are very few guides on ‘How to Write an English Literature Master’s’ (please let me know if I am just being blind or silly). Our requirements are somewhat sketchy. Where science, history and psychology (among others) require methodologies and lit reviews, we basically get set to work in a ‘go-be-free’-manner. Of course the first chapter has to do certain things: it has to introduce your topic and your texts, situate your research in the field and cover the major theories you will be employing, but it took me a couple of months to realise just what this meant. Basically, it was a lit review, but of a rather loose and free kind.

By this point I had done massive amounts of reading, and while it seemed like everything on the Gothic said basically the same thing, I had to sift through all the accounts to get those essential nuances required for my specific project. I had to indicate my knowledge of the criticism that has gone before me, but if you’re dealing with a 250 year old genre, this task can seem near impossible. I didn’t know what to include and what to exclude, or how general or specific to be. I felt like I was in one of those subterranean passages, with a monster at my back (my own self-criticism, not my supervisor) and endless damp corridors ahead, slippery cobblestones underfoot.

So how did I find my footing? I got over myself. I realised standards of perfection weren’t important right at this moment, and the only way to get over this fear of starting was to plow through and find a way. Since then I have been writing somewhat consistently, and I have come to the conclusion that, for now, I will just write and write and write. I will not be bothered with word count (currently 7790 out of the projected 8000, and about 1/3rd of the content covered) until the draft is complete. To adopt Cam from Modern Family’s motto, I will dream big and winnow down. Dream big, and winnow down.

So, and I felt like my thesis-themed posts should from now on include some sort of advice, if you find yourself staring down the empty page of a first draft for a first chapter of an English Master’s thesis, these would be my recommendations:

  1. Go back to your proposal
    The reason my supervisor pushed me hard during the proposal phase is because this is not just a task to get done or an obstacle to overcome, but because the proposal will be your map through the devastation that is thesis-writing. Done well, it will almost naturally lay out chapters and it will represent your first chapter in miniature. I made a list of all the things I said I’d cover in the proposal, and this turned into my thesis plan and, when refined, my rough Chapter One plan.
  2. Becoming a Master takes time, and you’ve only got so much
    This is a marathon, not a sprint. I keep being bogged down by the overwhelming feeling that I don’t know squat because I’ve read only about a tenth of what’s out there, if that. However, don’t worry about reading everything (I have been told this many times). There will be a mountain of scholarship in every direction you contemplate treading. Get the basics down, find readers and general overviews and use those to find the more specified sources that you will need later on. One of the mistakes I keep making is going into too much detail in my first chapter, when I am just supposed to introduce the concepts on which I will later expand.
  3. Dream big, winnow down and save for later
    That being said, don’t worry too much about word count at the moment. Go ahead and write big, because there will come a time that you have to winnow, and it’s better to winnow down than having to build up. Write what you feel is important to understand, and leave it there until later. It might even be useful in a later chapter, and then you can just copy pasta (with a little editing, of course).
  4. Keep a Master Document, with servants
    Have a couple of documents or folders alongside your draft in which you can sort various things. I have a document for ‘leftovers’ – things I have written out and referenced, but that seem out of place or not immediately relevant; one for ‘later’ – things that are definitely necessary but that disrupt the flow of my current paragraph/section; one for my ideas and thoughts that I can’t reference or put into ‘proper writing’ immediately, and one for my bibliography – an immediate list of every person or source I use so that I am not left scrambling at the end of the draft. The Master Document contains my draft, perfectly formatted and referenced and ready to be proofread.
  5. Just Do It
    You can plan all you like, but there comes a time when you have to stop fussing over lists and schedules and actually get to that Master Document and fill it up. This is definitely the most difficult part, but just get rolling. Write anything. Some guides suggest ‘free writing’, but make sure you keep referencing in mind. Now is not the time to be too concerned with getting things perfect. Do the referencing and the formatting (because those are pains to have to add in later), but remember (and I have this pasted in big red letters over my desk) this is JUST A DRAFT.

And that’s it for now. I have to get back to the Gothic and how it makes use of history, and perhaps get some lunch. Hmm, lunch.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Psychology & Statistics Tutor:Mentor and commented:
    Essays, research reports, presentations, thesis…many situations in academic reflect wider life~ challenge~


    1. I suppose everyone always has a myriad of things to do, regardless of their field. I do think how you handle your academics is indicative of how you handle your life in some ways. I also suppose that once you hit tutoring, you get a broader taste of life, and not always a nice one. To the tutors \o/


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