Alternative Ways to Meet Thesis Word Targets: Death, Trauma or Self-Mutilation?

I’ve been writing up part of the chapter quite intensively for the past week or two. I’ve been so embroiled in this, I forgot to mark this blog’s second birthday on the 14th June (for she’s a jolly good fellow, etc.). I did remember to mark my own 24th birthday with some cake and pitchers of Pimms.

Each time I start the intensive writing process, I set myself the target of 1000 words a day. Some days, this comes easily and I pass that target by 3pm. Other days I can be still sitting staring at the Word document at 6pm with bloodshot eyes, a stack of tea stained mugs, messy hair and only 700 words to show for all my head scratching, before I give up and hope the next day will be better.

I’m always on the look out for tools to make myself produce more/better words. I’ve tried turning off all internet connectivity, or blocking certain web addresses which are known procrastination hotspots. I’ve even turned off the laptop completely to see if I can produce anything better without the looming word count easily accessible. During a visit to one of my procrasination hotspots last week (yes, sometimes I work willfully against myself), I read this article about this app, Write or Die, which allows you to write in kamikaze mode. It allows you to pause typing for 45 seconds before it starts deleting words you have already written.

I have not downloaded this app, for I fear in the course of a day it might delete my entire thesis. What if I can’t find a reference in time? What if I can’t turn it off? Frankly, chopping off a finger every time I don’t reach my 1000 word target would be about as effective a method of encouraging me to write more. It would work, but if it didn’t the consequences far outweigh the reward. More importantly, I am fairly sure that the stress involved in the 45 second rule would probably hospitalize me eventually which would overall effect productivity more.

Some days, I don’t need any additional stressors.

The Writing Job and the Thoughtful Obsessive

I’m not really working on my thesis at the moment. I’m back in Northern Ireland for Christmas and since I’ve handed in a chapter draft, and my suitcase can’t fit many books, I’m taking a break… sort of.

I found this quote on writing (fiction), which struck a lot of chords with me since most of the past term has been spent thinking about writing.

“Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.”— Sarah Waters.

Writing may be a job, but in many ways it is more than simply producing 500/1000/5000 words a day. Even though I’m technically on a break, I’m reading some Irish women’s fiction (because god forbid I should allow my mind to stray or become polluted). I’m also reading a critical book for review. And I’ve been floating some thoughts around in my head both for my next chapter plan and noted some changes I need to make to the draft I’ve just submitted. I’m making notes on one book I did bring home, and before I get back I’ll need to make a start on a conference paper, plus possibly submit an abstract for something else. I’ve also been finalizing the CFP for an event I’m running on contemporary women’s poetry in Oxford in 2012.

If writing is a job, thesis writing is more like an obsession.


I’ve been thinking lots this month about the importance of getting words onto the page when it comes to my thesis, and all the many problems that poses.

November, as anyone with writer friends will know, is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) when people across the world aim to write a 50,000 word novel (or first draft of a novel) in just 30 days. Successfully completely NaNoWriMo is fairly heroic, and I’m not the first person to have thought about parallels with thesis writing and novel writing. Some livejournal-ers have already discussed starting a NaReWriMo (National Research Writing Month).

I’ve also recently come across 750 words – another online community which encourages people to sign up and write 750 words a day – without thinking too much about editing those words. This is another great idea and I can certainly see the benefit of producing 22,500 words by the end of a month.

However, the issue with academic writing is that for the most part it is about quality and not quantity. If I wrote 22500 words in a month it would take an age to follow up the ideas, pick out the ideas worth pursuing and then work more on them. It is more important to produce words that really get down to the issue you are meant to be responding to – making the words count rather than obsessing over the actual word count. The only problem – 5000 quality words do not make a thesis.

And, as we hurtle towards the end of term here in Oxford I’ve been setting myself a target to write up 1000 words a day of the chapter I’m working on. Given how mind-meltingly difficult some of the concepts I’m trying to explain are, this is no mean feat and I find myself having to take regular breaks and often work until 10pm at night.

I’m finding the problem with milestones like this is that the reality of academic writing involves cutting ideas that you thought were working but soon glaringly aren’t. Keeping them in for the sake of word count vanity is clearly not wise, but cutting them out feels like a step back.

Isolated research also means that when you do meet the target, there is no one there to celebrate with you. Which is why at the end of your day, I recommend visiting Freelance Thanks – for all the empty praise you need (even if it isn’t really aimed at researchers..).

Getting Somewhere

Yes, it is the return of the progress meter which I used frantically during my MA. This time it is for my sample of writing for transfer, with the target being 10,000 words.

I’ve been working on this for ages, but the progress has been slow on the actual word count because my readings require a lot of leg work in terms of reading the poetry and the theory and then re-reading the poetry to apply the theory. However, I’m hoping now that it is just a case of writing up I can get this into a good draft by next week to send to my supervisor.

4324 / 10000 words. 43% done!

Working at the desk of course means that I’ve done even more online procrastination than usual. My favourite distraction this week has been this tongue in cheek article on Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ as a radical text.

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