As the old proverb goes, the longest journey begins with a single step. Notwithstanding the fact that most journeys these-a-days begin with a trawl through Google Maps (other maps are available), this wisdom still rings true. If only that first step wasn’t always so difficult…
As we tiptoe towards the end of Academic Writing Month, thirty days where we put off the PhD in favour of bashing out blogs about the thesis, I would like to note, for the record, five things which I have done to delay the moment of terrible truth which is me sitting down at my desk, opening that most thrilling of files (PhDyayIamfulloffirstyearconfidence.doc), and making good on the magnum opus.
Before we go any further, two words of warning: ‘don’t’, and ‘maybe’…by which I mean, don’t try this at home, and maybe some of these were dreams.
- Perfected the squash to water ratio. Pretty self-explanatory. I am no scientist, but I sure know how to experiment (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more). On one balmy April morning, I became enveloped by a thirst for knowledge, which ended up with me wasting (no, not ‘wasting’…’sacrificing’!) thirteen litres of squash in a quest to find the perfect dilution. It may have taken me seven hours (and seventeen toilet breaks), but I did it. Now, I ain’t gonna tell you what the magic number is, but suffice to say, it’s a multiple of e. Need I say more?
- Counted to a thousand and one. A friend foolishly claimed that I could not count to a thousand without getting bored. I saw his thousand, and raised him a single digit more. Oh, the look on his face! Or, at least, how I imagined he might look…he left after six hundred and fifty-four, claiming that I was ‘not right’. I’ll tell you this, I wasn’t wrong.
- Wrote an entire thesis which was the mirror image of my actual thesis. Have you ever wondered what your thesis might look like if the first premise was reversed? I did, but unlike you (I imagine), I did something about it. The first premise of my own research was ‘Some of this history stuff probably happened’. But, I said to no-one in particular, what if it didn’t?!? Eighty thousand counterfactual words later, I was a Doctor of Lies. True story.
- Won the Eurovision Song Contest. Impossible, I hear you cry, or, maybe, невозможно, or ómögulegt, or similar. But no, I jest not; once, to put off the chapter awaiting my frozen fingers, I devised a stirring-yet-catchy anthem about unity against adversity and how love can conquer even the harshest Coventry winter. It was incredible, and my supervisor was, once I had explained why the chapter was incomplete, really rather impressed. It’s probably on the interweb somewhere: try searching for ‘I left my heart in Westwood (and now I’m at Gibbet Hill) [remix]’.
- Dotted every i and crossed every t in all of my essays. This doesn’t take very long when everything is written on a computer…but if it delays the inevitable by 12.7 seconds, then it is a worthy endeavour.
If there is a moral to this story (and there just might be, y’know), it is this. Academic writing can feel like a chore, akin to a distant relative who comes and sits in the corner of your bedroom, consuming endless cups of coffee and giving nothing in return. But the trick, I have learnt, is to shake that relative by the hand and say, ‘Ah, let us dance.’ If you cannot make the first step, make the second step and come back to that first step later. Just do something, even if it is an affront to every value you have as a venerable scholar. Because, and I say this from experience, it is far easier to make something bad better than it is produce perfection from thin air. Hey, I didn’t count to a thousand and one by starting at nine hundred and ninety-nine, as tempting as that was. To create the perfect glass of squash, I had to pour in some boring, nutritionally-vapid water first…because I needed that something to which I could add the dazzling flavours of apple and pear.
Is that moral enough for you? Because this, this first step can be the difference between soaring on the wings of a thesis-eagle, waving with reckless abandon to the sun of submission, and finding yourself sat staring at an empty page wearing nothing but a threadbare dressing gown, as I was not forty minutes ago.
On that note, I bid you adieu. Happy academic writing, and may your words be wondrous, your paragraphs powerful, and your chapters a celebration of life itself. Here endeth the lesson.
Text and photo credits: (soon to be Dr) Thomas Bray (@ThomasBray12)