Friday, December 2, 2016

Stop Reading and Start Writing: Good Advice?

The Passion of Creation, 1892, by Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945).

This entry is dedicated to those of you working on the dissertation proposal as well as to those who’ve cleared that hurdle.  At bottom it also calls out to thesis and dissertation writers in STEM and related fields.

Slouching towards Proposal’s End

It was rough, putting my dissertation proposal together.  Winter merged into early spring as I ran ideas past my director and formed my committee, taught two sections of English 203, and completed an internship on campus.  All the while I was steadily tracking down books and articles and even a few dissertations related to my research, reading them extensively and intensively, rereading notes and papers from courses I took last year and several years before that, compiling a colossal bibliography, staring into space, making notes and plans in my head and on paper and screen, thinking ideas aloud during long walks and bike rides, and trying to explain what my dissertation would be like to colleagues, friends, and family members whose quizzical grimaces, doubting frowns, and muffled guffaws in response to my ramblings linger on in bittersweet memories of that drawn-out span of time.  The best part of it, of course, was when the actual writing happened.  Once I finally entered the “zone” and was drafting and revising my proposal in earnest, things moved ever more smoothly and swiftly.
Sound familiar?  Most likely you can offer up an account like the one above about your progress on your proposal (or, for that matter, your progress on just about any major writing project).  Plenty of similar accounts on the proposal can be found on relevant blogs like The Thesis Whisperer (a particularly popular blog, which we here at Project Thesis recommend).  Such accounts tend to convey the idea that accomplishing the proposal is like completing the dissertation in miniature. It’s a big project but not as big as the main event.  It’s simply another engagement with the writing process. Many predictably advise that in order to complete it you must eventually do two very important and rather obvious things: stop reading and start writing.  But, in the cold light of second thought, to what extent is that bit of advice helpful?
Stop reading?  

It’ll never happen.  No matter how many times others tell you to stop reading and start writing, no matter how many times you say this to yourself, those words and the message behind them won’t dissuade you from naturally turning from your writing, at some point, to read something else. Perhaps it’s a secondary source like another research article that may shed more light on your project.  Perhaps it’s a book chapter you read two months ago that now seems to deserve another look.  Perhaps it’s a primary source, a text or study you’re analyzing and have read countless times before but now feel compelled to return to once more.  Turning to readings such as these when you need to be writing is often branded taboo.  Consider, however, that in some cases this judgment may a bit too drastic.  Recall the writer in the picture at the top of this page.  He’s clearly engaged in the writing process but isn’t putting words down.  He appears to be working out an idea in his head.  What should he do next?  Continue thinking with his eyes closed?  Draft whatever comes to mind?  Why not turn to some of the notes or books by his side?

Reading through a Writing Delay

Sometimes during the writing process writers get stuck in the drafting or revising stages and need to find a way back in.  Temporarily revisiting the pre-writing stage at such times can be a constructive move.  Among the various strategies for pre-writing, there is certainly a place for reading or rereading old or new sources.  Yet when you do turn to reading or rereading such materials to reactivate the writing you need to do, heed these tips:

Set suitable reading parameters
For example, if you’re proposing a dissertation on popular songs during the American Civil War,
clearly you should stick to sources within the boundaries of this topic area and avoid irrelevant
readings about, say, Modern Art.

Read and write in tandem
Reading broadly and deeply is a fundamental component of your project, but, naturally, you do need to write in order to complete it.  However, instead of thinking you should be either reading or writing, accept that, as you progress, both reading and writing can overlap.

No matter what your field is, embracing reading while working through each stage of the writing process is an idea worth considering.  Certainly, however, the nature and scope of the reading involved will vary from one field to the next.

A Call to Writers in STEM and Related Fields

Incidentally, if you happen to be working on a thesis or dissertation in the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, or related fields, we’d be interested in hearing from you about your experiences with your project proposal (or hearing about your project as a whole).  What important differences in process or approach do you notice between your own work and what you read about here (and elsewhere)?  We invite you to drop ideas in the comment box below.


  1. Just to add to the parameters bit, I think even arbitrary parameters can help, just to stop the expansion of the reading pile. By arbitrary I mean something like date or geographic parameters.

    In my bibliography class, we practiced "having to stop somewhere" by collecting bibliographies on popular authors. To do all of it is impossible. Even deciding "I won't look at anything before 1990, unless it's a seminal article" can be more helpful than parameters of "relevancy" (because our minds will try to make anything relevant if we want to read it!).

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