I have spent enough years working with enough people to know that when it comes to self-directed research projects it is normally the fear of the total that causes the most distress to people. I should know, the distress I see in others was once the same distress I once saw in myself. It was during the first year of my doctorate and I wasn’t writing anything worth writing. The first year is often like this and so I imagined that I was roughly on the right track. I told myself that it was a good idea to be working through the things I didn’t want to write about in order to get to that which I did want to write about. But somehow, it just wasn’t working.
I soon realised that I had no real project.
I had managed to get a full doctoral scholarship based a research proposal that clearly promised enough to get the award but the problem was that the research itself was not going to sustain a doctoral-length study. It was too vague and not formed enough. You sometimes expect projects to sharpen their focus as you go through the early stages but this one was not going to work. Fortunately, very fortunately, I was able to come up with a convincing enough alternative (as well as being lucky enough to meet a new supervisor) and so I started afresh, this time with new purpose. With the problem of the topic resolved I now faced something far more pressing; how would I get the project completed within the time frame of my scholarship. For a wide range of real reasons, I really needed to finish as soon as I could.
But I was now facing the reality of writing – the reality of constructing eighty, ninety, or a hundred thousand words to make an original contribution to the body of knowledge.
These numbers hit me and haunted me. They loomed over me like skyscrapers, casting long dark deep shadows. I. Was. Paralysed. This was it. I had no more excuses. I had no more time. All I had was the pressing need for words, thousands and thousands of them. Thousands. Everything was predicated one me finding these words from somewhere. Anywhere. Thousands and thousands of them. And so I started writing. I wrote a paragraph. A small paragraph. It was probably one hundred words, give or take. I remember staring at this paragraph, expecting it to need deleting like the countless other paragraphs I had written and erased, written and erased. But this one stared back at me. It felt different to the others. It felt more convincing, more suitable for saving and that was what I did. I saved the paragraph and closed the document. I went away and left the paragraph alone. The next day I opened the document and the paragraph was still there. It still seemed suitable. In fact, overnight, the paragraph had somehow acquired a new tone, one I hadn’t noticed previously. It sounded formal, admittedly, but also also balanced and ready. When I read the paragraph it also felt connected to something, to an idea, a direction. Surprised but encouraged, I wrote the next paragraph. It was about the same number of words as the one it followed and that was the key, it followed. It wasn’t separate, it was connected. It lead somewhere. I saved the two paragraphs, closed the document and went away again. The next day, they were both there and when I read them I realised that I was so bothered by the total number of words I was expected to produce that I had lost sight of the fact that actually the total didn’t need to be my focus. That was too big and too abstract and just too much. I needed to focus on the way I was able to make a paragraph join another paragraph.
It was a small thing, a tiny thought, but central to everything that followed.
From then on I stopped thinking about the total and started thinking about the words themselves, their succession and connection, the way they flowed and fill the page. And so I resolved to write two hundred words a day and be happy with that. If I wrote more then that would fine, a bonus, a reward. If I wrote less, that would be fine too. When it happened I would save the document and walk away, confident that when I came back the next day I could start again. And I did. And I could. And so I did. Until the day arrived when I didn’t need to any more. Because I had finished. And my two hundred words had become ninety-six thousand words. Each one connected to the next. And the next. And the next.
And what a day that was.