Clear and to the Point

29 April, 2010

Project cycles

I’ve recently discovered that graduate students typically a crisis when writing their thesis, when they despair of ever finishing their degree. At the time it seems like the collapse of their hopes for a career. It might be easier to handle as a stage in the normal writing-project cycle.

I’ve been writing technical materials for years, mostly in project three to eight months long, and still suffer from the emotional ups and downs of writing. Every project has similar emotional phases: excitement at starting out, wonder of discovery at learning the material, puzzlement or even bewilderment about how to organize the information, feeling productive at putting it together, and then doubt that it will ever be finished. The last stage is surprise and pleasure as it all comes together and doesn’t look so bad after all. The crisis might be less severe if thesis advisers would only tell their candidates to expect those phases and keep slogging, get a good night’s sleep or go for a walk and then come back to do a short manageable task.

It’s very daunting to start writing without a clear plan and just hoping to have everything down by the last page. It’s like setting off one day to walk across the continent. To help keep it manageable, I suggest outlining the topics and sub-topics of the thesis and then roughing out each one with a few sentences & a note of any illustrations or references. You can run such a plan past your adviser to make sure you’re on the right track. Then, with the logical structure in place, it’s easier to fill in the details. It’s more like riding to the next town, checking your itinerary, and buying a ticket to the next town—except that you don’t have to do the sections in order. Fill them in when you have the information or the inspiration. This is called top-down design and it’s one way to cut a project down to size.

I hope that helps (similes and all)!

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