Writing is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, delusional, or one of those utterly bizarre people who find it easy. June in Canada brings dandelions, complaints about the weather, and, for those of us in universities, thoughts of writing. This is that magical time when the dust of the academic year has settled, yet no one has started counting down the days until September. It’s the time of year when both professors and graduate students are supposed to be productive. You know it, I know it, and those living with us certainly know it. The end of undergraduate classes and most committee work means that we’ve run out of excuses for not writing. For graduate students, spring brings with it plans to finish before the next academic year. The vast majority of MA and PhD students with whom I’ve worked have finished and defended their theses in August – so early summer is when stress becomes as unavoidable as black flies.
So, instead of finishing my own writing project today, I want to give some unsolicited advice to graduate students and their supervisors. In giving this advice, I’m also taking it, because my first suggestion is to embrace what I call productive procrastination. I just made that up, and I’m not going to Google it, because I know that someone else has no doubt already invented the term. I don’t know what Google means by productive procrastination, but it is advice that I have been giving students since I started teaching. Like most useful ideas, it’s a simple concept. All it means is that, if you’re struggling with procrastination – work avoidance in general, or writer’s block in particular – then my suggestion is to avoid the all-versus-nothing quandary. Like a light switch, this quandary entails writing productively or not working at all. As much as anything we do in life, writing is an emotional enterprise. How we feel matters as much as what we think. Writing feeds on momentum, and a negative feedback loop is as fatal to a thesis as a lack of intellectual ability.
My advice is that, when you are having a bad writing day, as many of us have with regrettable regularity, you should find ways to maintain some momentum. That does not mean checking your Twitter feed obsessively to follow what the productive people are doing, but rather finding discrete tasks related to your own thesis that you can complete in a short period of time. These tasks can vary, but here’s a list that I typically offer to graduate students each June: write your table of contents, start a list of potential titles, update and proofread your bibliography, revise your outline, check your formatting, edit your footnotes, and reread and polish the sections that you’ve already written. These are all things that will need to be completed sooner or later, and working on them keeps you engaged with your thesis and your ideas percolating. Alternating between larger conceptual tasks and smaller practical ones also helps to refresh your perspective and to see how pieces of your research fit into a larger puzzle. No one writes a thesis – they write one paragraph, in one chapter, at a time – and focusing on the component parts mitigates the danger of having your thesis hover over you, like an existential cloud of dread that you can see but never touch. One of the myths about writing is that it’s just, well, writing: all you do is bang away at your laptop until you’ve typed enough stuff to satisfy your committee. In my experience as an author and a supervisor, good writing comes only after a great deal of reflection and experimentation, and it often comes in bursts, particularly in the final months. This makes June such a challenging time, because this is after the research is finished but before the full thesis has taken shape. June feels uncomfortably liminal, for students and supervisors alike, because we have enough hope to waste time yet enough worry to know better.
There is an immense literature on the powerful roles of psychology in all this. I’ve read enough of it to know that it generally supports common sense. Middle age takes a lot of things, but it gives one an appreciation for how many aphorisms are actually true. All that stuff about staying positive and imagining yourself being successful – the blah, blah, blah – actually has a point. You do need to fake it until you make it. If you’re not feeling productive, then try acting productive by completing a modest task that avoids something truly onerous but keeps you from wasting your entire day following Trump’s latest outrage on Twitter. Keep in mind that your supervisor has likely felt, or feels, that way too. (If you’re unlucky enough to have a ridiculously productive supervisor who writes three books a year while blogging from a rain forest, then you should stop reading this). Keeping lists of modest tasks and crossing them out is always a good idea. And keeping away from toxic people or situations is absolutely important, which is why Facebook may not be your best friend at this time of year.
Much of the stress of writing comes from its rawness and incompleteness. The perfect page is the blank page. What makes writing a thesis so hard is that you have to decide what you type: unlike an exam, which comes and goes regardless of how much you study, a thesis is over only when you make it over. Sentences rarely capture full thoughts and never capture the full depth and scope of the evidence and the scholarly literatures that you’re supposed to have mastered. Which is why writing feels so itchy so much of the time. For a history thesis, this is doubly difficult because the choices for students are so open-ended. The fact that our discipline is so open to so many choices – from evidence to theory to methodology and to style – is its strength and its weakness. There is a moment that comes in most of my relationships with graduate students when we discuss a specific problem or passage that they find exceptionally difficult. It is often unexpected evidence or something that they looked hard for but could never find in the archives. It’s at this moment when I remind them that what matters, at bottom, is not what they found per se, but how it matches up to their claims. If their research turned up evidence that does not fit their hypothesis, then they should revise their hypothesis, rather than continuing to look for evidence to confirm their thesis proposal. I don’t recall where I first heard it, but this always reminds me of the saying that one should cut the coat according to the cloth. If you didn’t find what you expected, that’s okay, because you can tailor your argument to fit what you did find.
To make these decisions successfully, a graduate student and their supervisor have to communicate. There are different ways to communicate effectively, depending on contexts and personalities, but, whatever way you talk to each other, you should think about writing as an organic process. Your thesis mutates as you write it. This means that you need to reflect regularly and honestly about what you’re doing and how you want to do it. Some graduate students may be able to go away and write productively all alone in a library carrel, but my experience is that theses require conversation and company. Supervisors need to calibrate their advice and expectations according to where the student is in their writing: the closer a student gets to finishing their thesis, the more specific and practical the advice should get. Disciplines vary immensely, but one constant feature for finishing a history thesis is that graduate students should write toward the evidence. That’s a truism, of course, but it’s one that too often gets lost in the avalanche of forms, emails, and committee work. As universities become increasingly captive to the dominant audit culture and its attendant bureaucracy, it’s too easy to lose sight of how advice needs to be tailored to the student, the research project, and the actual timeline to completion. Supervisors need to talk with their students, early and regularly, about expectations and goals, so that everyone has a sense of when the thesis meets the threshold for each stage of the process.
Those discussions rely, like so much else in life, on incomplete data. In my experience, a thesis is rarely completed, in the sense of having fully accomplished everything that the student and supervisor had originally planned. Typically, a student submits a MA or PhD thesis because of an external factor, such as the cut-off for qualifying for autumn graduation, the end of scholarship funding, or the start of a new job or career opportunity. Those factors are as valid as any other reason, in my opinion, so long as the thesis meets the standards and criteria for the graduate program. For meeting summer deadlines for submissions and oral defenses, what gets left out of a thesis can matter as much as what gets put in. Resisting the urge in July to jam every last bit of theory and research into your thesis can be as important as avoiding writer’s block in June. A good graduate thesis requires coherence and clarity: its arguments must be supported by evidence, not drowned in it. If your evidentiary reach exceeds your analytical grasp, your arguments will snap apart like old rubber bands. Rather than thinking about theses as intellectual products, wrapped in our mind’s eye in a neat bow, we should think about them as roads down which we walk. Those intellectual roads never end, because historical research never ends: there is always one more potential source out there, one bit of important evidence or one more book, just waiting to be read. What matters is knowing when it’s time to walk home. Stomaching the loose ends and the mess on the cutting-room floor can be gut-wrenching. But knowing when to stop writing is as important as knowing how to start.
Writing a thesis means that it’s always there. Whatever you choose to do – from your first coffee in the morning to when you’ve read your last article in the evening about how Trump is ruining the world – your thesis is there, waiting impatiently to be written. Doing anything other than writing, e.g., reading blogs, can make even the most mentally healthy person feel helplessly guilty about wasting time. For all of our reverence for radical causes, academic culture is still awfully Puritan. Giving or reading unsolicited advice will never get that next chapter written. But pausing for a moment to reflect on how your struggles are shared by most people who try to write can, for unfathomably human reasons, make a difference. So, if you’re going to end up procrastinating tomorrow, take time to do it productively.
Jerry Bannister is an associate professor of history at Dalhousie University.
John Bingham says:
Wonderful comments, Jerry!
Jerry Bannister says:
Thanks, John, for the kind words. There was, of course, lots that had to be left out of the post. I had wanted somewhere in the post to point out that, for students finishing their theses, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone else does not have to be wrong for you to be right. Lowering the argumentative bar, and seeing degrees rather absolutes, can do wonders in the last couple of months, especially during the revisions phase. While burning down straw men can be fun and even productive early on, by June it’s important to think about what one is arguing *for*, not just against.
Shannon Conway says:
Dr. Bannister, thank you for sharing these thoughts. As someone in the middle of a doctoral programme in history, I found it was a genuine relief to read that my “productive procrastination” is a reasonable way to work on tougher days.
Peter McDonald says:
I had an excellent supervisor who was quite fastidious about his own publications and wouldn’t take inadequate work from students, but who was also realistic. He was very good at warning his students off the temptation to perfectionism, and would remind them that a doctoral thesis was supposed to be what a competent and industrious student would produce in three years, not the last word that could ever be written after consulting every source and publication that might just possibly have some remote tangential bearing on the subject. Good advice indeed!
Jerry Bannister says:
Thanks, Peter. One of my former graduate students used to remind me that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The problem of perfectionism is part of the larger problem of trying to exert too much control. This has important implications for submitting a thesis and for preparing for an oral defense. One of the things that I try to discuss with graduate students as they prepare for their oral defense is that we need to make a clear distinction between what we can and cannot control. While graduate students can control what goes into their thesis, they cannot control how readers will react to it. Writing defensively and trying to pre-empt criticism can create more problems than it solves. Readers bring their own perspectives (and, yes, biases), and, while they are usually reasonable, they are almost always resolutely independent in their views. The best thing for a student to do before their oral defense is to get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, and avoid stressful things and people. Such advice is easier to give than to take, of course, and I remember well how I stressed out before my own oral defense at U of T, when I insisted on futilely re-reading books right up to the last minute. The oral defense itself deserves a separate post, because there are so many misconceptions surrounding the process.