The First Chapter: Done, Dusted and Casualties Noted

"Monkey-typing" by New York Zoological Society - Picture on Early Office Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

It’s been a strange couple of months since my last post. During this time, I’ve completed a draft of my first chapter, started preparing for my second chapter, received feedback and spent a week frantically responding to that feedback. All of this is why my blog has been languishing in lonesome repose. The year ended without much aplomb, immersed as I was in writing and then trying to escape from writing, and it begun in a similarly toned-down state as I resigned myself to getting that stupid hunk of a Chapter 1 into a presentable state. I failed a bit, then hopefully succeeded, and though my pride suffered a devastating blow, I believe I know where to go from here.

I came back to Grahamstown still trying to winnow my first chapter down to a comfortable 10 000 words. When I finally felt like I had covered the bare minimum of what I needed to say, my word count came in at a whopping 25 000. Now, that’s half of my thesis, right there. The good thing was that I realised just how much I was capable of writing in one month. The bad thing was that winnowing down wasn’t as easy as I had hoped it would be. I finished around mid-December, somewhere around the deadline my supervisor had set, but I realised that I couldn’t send her 25 000 words. I winnowed down to about 16 000 with as much ruthlessness as I could bear, but it wasn’t enough. Predictably, when I contacted her to relate my progress, she suggested that I work on it for the rest of the holidays until I got it down to 10 000.

A month and much frustration later, I was stuck at 13 000. I didn’t know what was good or bad or necessary or just plain interesting. I have the burden of finding most things interesting, especially most things to do with what I’m researching. I had been stuck in that chapter and that research for so long and so deeply that I just couldn’t claw my way to a decent number. At this point, I sent a rather frantic message to my poor beleaguered supervisor, who agreed to give me feedback on this draft.

All I can say about what followed is: ouch. I had wanted feedback, had needed feedback, and boy – did I get feedback. Apparently it isn’t uncommon, but when I opened the document with my supervisor’s comments, there were 182 of them, and a whole lot of suggestions at the bottom. That was a bit of a shock, but fine, I had been told by various people to expect as much.

Then I started reading them. Oh my. I am not used to this.

You see, it has been my firm belief that most of my rather decent marks can be attributed to my writing style. In terms of essays, it is of course much more formal, apparently clear and at times even rather nice. I am not used to having my writing criticized. Usually I delve too deeply into background information (that pesky curiosity again), or I don’t make my point quite assertively enough. I have never received such criticism of my writing itself.

All of this was painful, but very necessary. I cried a bit, I admit. I felt like crawling under a blanket and never showing my face again. I felt like giving up academia and going to do something like gluing stuff together. But this was just something I had to get over. I felt like I had gone down some terrible rabbit hole, and now that I was in, there was no exit except through the other side. Like in my worst nightmares, I’m stuck, and I can’t get out – only through. My supervisor and I agreed that I had to rip off the band-aid in order to move forward, and get Chapter 1 dealt with before I started on Chapter 2. I was given a week to go over my 13 000 words and edit the living bejeesus out of them.

So, with much drama and much self-flagellation, I decided to get on with it.

My expression during most of this process.

I have also since taken down the little white papers stuck to my wall in moments of deep frustration that proclaimed “IT IS JUST A DRAFT” because, lo and behold, it wasn’t.

It was, but clearly ‘drafting’ is a very subjective term. I have decided that, even though I am essentially ‘drafting’ my chapters, ‘drafting’ does not work well for me. I stand by the advice I have given previously, but I seem to need to treat writing as a final product. I will not, in future, submit anything that is even slightly unpolished. I will not think that my topic and concluding sentences can be added during editing. I will not be ‘drafting’ so much as just plain ‘writing’. I know most advice dictates that writing is 90% rewriting, but I really should give myself a bit of a head start.

Much whining (poor Francois) and some wine later, and I’ve worked through the feedback I so desperately needed. I realised how much I had needed it, and – although painful – how glad I was to have received it. My first chapter is hopefully on track now (even though edits have pushed it back up to 15 000 words), and I am now going to delve into Chapter 2, where I actually get to analyse a text. You see, in Chapter 2, I can get into the actual revenants and hauntings, the murders and the suicide, the resentment and anger and grand narratives that are my bread and butter. I’m hoping to deliver a weekly update of my progress, some advice or hopefully useful accounts of my experiences going through this thing and perhaps even some travel bits on this blog from now on, time and trial permitting.

For now, though, bring on the ghosts and ghouls, the blood and the gore. I wants it, and I needs it. Oh baby, oh baby.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. the grad muse says:

    Your research topic sounds great — I don’t work on English lit, but who doesn’t love a bit of Gothic fiction? I’m also quite interested in philosophies of history and narrative. Lucky you for having such a lovely subject to work on! It sounds like you swallowed the bitter pill of your advisor’s writing feedback bravely, and now you can perhaps revel in how much improved your future writing will be, so long as you take that feedback to heart. Many months ago, I submitted two lackluster term papers to which I had taken the oft-proffered attitude of “Don’t get it right; get it written.” My advisors knew this, but provided me with detail writing critiques, nonetheless. Some of the nit-picking they did (criticizing my overuse of particular transitions, for instance) has not only improved my syntax, but also larger issues of structure. A blessing in disguise, to be sure!

    Interesting, now, the attitude you’ve decided to take to your writing, that it should be more carefully done, with more polish applied along the way. I’m looking forward to seeing how this works out for you — best of luck, and do bother to blog about your progress!


    1. So much for my bothering to blog about my process, although I blame this on being thoroughly submerged in my second chapter. Once again, I hope to be better in future.
      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Somehow I (we academics perhaps?) seem to always think that everyone else is having an easy time of it. It’s great to know that this is hard for most of us who attempt it, and that supervisors are stern the world over. As acknowledged, that sternness is a definite blessing in disguise. My second chapter (which I will be posting about soon) went over much better, and with fewer tear-inducing comments. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through all of this with the added worry of working in a different language. My proverbial hat goes off to you.


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