While primarily intended for students completing a masters thesis, this post might also interest those writing seminar papers or other projects, such as scholarly articles or essays. These seven tips, thoughts, and provocations derive from my own successes and failures, good intentions and bad habits as a writer. Add your voice in the comments! In case you stop reading here, know that however hellish the process, there is nothing quite so pleasurable as producing a polished piece of writing. Also, remember that your health and wellbeing are more important than your thesis. If you feel more depressed, anxious, tired, overwhelmed, or stressed than is manageable for you, I hope you will reach out to a friend, family member, classmate, or advisor. Please prioritize your health (completing your thesis can wait).
1. Write about what you care about. In my opinion, this is the most important aspect of any piece of writing. No matter how experienced or talented a writer you are, if you are not passionate about your topic, your writing will suffer. That said, writing about topics that are important to you can trigger emotional responses that might make writing more difficult. That’s one of the reasons why I like tip number two.
2. Journal about your topic and writing process. Journaling has always been a part of my practice as a writer, and when I am working on a project like a masters thesis, my journal becomes a companion text as well as a support system. At the beginning of a project, I use my journal for exploratory writing. I often craft an initial claim about a text through exploratory writing, and it also provides the foundation for close readings. I like to journal by hand because it allows me to be more playful and to worry less about whether my writing is “good” or “correct.” Through journaling about what interests me in a particular scene from a text, I generate new ideas and sometimes find myself heading in a different direction than I thought I’d take. Journaling also allows me to express emotions that inform my writing but that won’t make it into the final piece. In this way, journalling helps me understand the relationship between my life and my scholarship. Perhaps I am writing about a character who is judged for non-conformity to traditional gender roles and this topic is triggering emotions related to my own similar experiences or my fears of judgement. (Perhaps “perhaps” is unnecessary. As a woman writer who writes about women writers, this kind of thing happens somewhat regularly). Realizing that I am being triggered lets me both care for myself and positively draw upon my emotions and experiences instead of feeling overwhelmed. Journalling also allows writers to practice the interpretive and analytic skills used in close reading. Which brings us to number three.
3. Close Reading is Fundamental. While situating your work within in the relevant scholarly conversation is important, as Professor Moglen and others in our department stress, your close readings represent the core of your project. I like to start with close reading and generate my claim from there. Then I do research in order to understand how my reading of a text/s fits into the scholarly conversation. Then I go back to the text and note if/how the existing scholarship changes my reading at all. Then I go back to my close readings. Eventually, I clarify my argument. This is my process, and it’s likely different from yours. However you work, the goal is to develop your close readings so that they support your claim about the text and show how what you are saying differs from what others are saying. Focusing on close reading can help with the latter, which is one of the challenges of writing a thesis or seminar paper.
4. Clearly Articulate and Distinguish Your Argument. Doing literary research for a thesis means you have encountered (or will encounter) many different arguments about the text/s you are writing about. Hopefully, you have stuck to a good time line and have taken good notes. If you are just starting your research, take good notes. While or soon after reading a source, mark important parts of the argument, restate the argument in your own words, and articulate how it relates to your argument. This will make your life a lot easier when you start to incorporate research into your writing. Don’t be afraid to describe how another scholars work is similar to yours, but also don’t nit-pick their argument. You might really disagree with how they read a particular scene, but if its not relevant to your argument, let it go. Be generous to others and focus on your argument. And, finally, think about your audience.
5. Write with Clarity and Revise. Avoid overly complex sentences. Revise and revise again and get rid of overly complex sentences. I say this having recently reread a paper from last semester. Way too many complex sentences. Let the good ones shine but don’t overdo it. Think of your reader. Use revision to polish ideas, enhance clarity, and (lastly) “fix” grammatical errors.
6. So What, Who Cares? Why do you care about your argument? Who is your audience and why should they care? Does your paper offer answers to these questions? If not, your reader will be lost and your thesis will lack a sense of purpose. As you are writing, keep these questions in mind. In revision, make sure you have addressed them. If you aren’t sure, have a conversation with your advisor or another trusted reader. Composing out loud can be super generative. Remember, you can go to the writing center (even if you work there!).
7. Finally…Take breaks! Take an hour, an afternoon, or even an entire weekend off. Or at least a fifteen minute nap. Or a walk around campus. Or call your friend. Or read a book for pleasure. Do something to relieve stress and get some space from your project. You will feel better and be more productive if you take breaks. You will return to your writing with a fresh perspective. Also, intellectual labor is work, and the Wobblies are rolling in their graves as you work overtime without additional compensation on your literature and social justice thesis project. So, take a walk for the Wobblies, or join one of the many social justice events happening in a city near you.