My carpet was hidden underneath 40 pages of junk spread across my living room.
I felt nauseated at the thought of trying to put the pages into a logical order for my literature review.
For the past two months I had tied to pull together over 100 references into one coherent chapter.
I had written 40 pages, but I might as well have taken a 2 month vacation because my draft consisted of over a hundred incoherent paragraphs.
I felt like I wrote some of the information 10 times, and some of the paragraphs contradicted each other.
My supervisor was expecting a draft from me in a week, but I was embarrassed to show him what I had written.
If he had seen what I had written up to that point, he would have finally discover that I had no clue about the literature in my field.
Every morning I decided to work on my literature review, but I opened up the news, and before I knew it was already noon.
I tried to write, but I felt paralyzed and I had no clue how to get moving again.
My supervisor asked each day how the draft was coming along, and I forced a smile, telling him that everything was on track.
As the deadline neared, I was sure that my supervisor would discover that it had all been a facade.
I was neither a good researcher nor a good writer.
I had just been going through the motions for the past five and half years, pretending to be an ideal grad student to live up to my supervisor’s expectations.
While I kept a cheery face, I felt like I was stuck in a deep well of sticky mud, sinking deeper every day, just barely keeping my head above the ground trying to breathe.
In the past deadlines had motivated me.
I had written dozens of term papers in college, and even when I procrastinated, I still got an adrenaline rush 24 hours before the deadline and was able to pull something acceptable together.
But this time manuscript was different.
The closer the deadline was, the smaller I felt.
It felt like my body (and brain) were shrinking, and I developed tunnel vision, not just about this literature review, but my life altogether.
I got the approval to defend and if I didn’t make this deadline, I would need to stay for another semester (or year) and I was sure my committee would raise the expectations again for my thesis.
If I couldn’t meet this deadline, how could I meet even higher expectations?
I had to figure out a way to get unstuck from this mud pile, or I would sink and be forced to quit graduate school after investing nearly 6 years of my life into it.
After a week of staring blankly at my computer screen I decided to print out what I had written up to that point.
As I looked through the 40 pages of manuscript scattered across my living room floor, I noticed paragraphs that were nearly identical and I crossed them out with a thick black marker.
When I deleted those paragraphs from my electronic file I was left with only 10 pages, but I felt like I could finally breathe again.
I could work with these 10 pages, put the paragraphs into logical order and start creating a manuscript that was coherent.
Over the next two weeks I added more references to my literature until it was about 20 pages long and covered the most important papers in the field.
While it wasn’t perfect, it was good enough to show my supervisor that I had actually made progress.
This small accomplishment gave me the momentum I needed to keep working on my thesis, complete each chapter and meet the graduation deadline that semester (barely, but still on time).
The Way To Get Into The Zone of Thesis Writing Is to Get Rid Of What’s Been Keeping You Out
During the first week of my postdoctoral fellowship my supervisor asked me to write a book chapter on a topic that wasn’t related to my thesis at all.
I had only marginally heard about this research area during graduate school.
I remember sitting at my desk for 10 minutes staring out the window wondering whether I should have accepted this postdoctoral fellowship.
How could I write a first-author book chapter as an “expert” on a topic I had no experience with?
It sounded dishonest and unethical.
I started getting the same nauseating feeling as I did when I stared at the 40 pages of the my “literature review pile” just a year earlier.
But then, I remembered the feeling of satisfaction as my draft turned from a “soup of ideas” into a coherent manuscript.
Yes, that literature review was related to my thesis topic, but my thesis was so specialized that 90% of the articles I reviewed were not directly related to my research.
I realized that I had already gone through the process of surveying literature that wasn’t completely within my area of expertise, and not only was accepted by my committee, but it was also published in a journal.
As a graduate student I had interpreted my struggle with writing as proof that I wasn’t smart enough to get a PhD.
I felt like I should have been writing faster, and I shouldn’t have struggled.
But as a postdoc, I finally realized how outrageous this belief was.
How could I have expected myself to be familiar with all of the literature as a graduate student?
Graduate school trained me to be an independent researcher, not an encyclopedia of knowledge (which would be impossible today given the rate at which new research is published).
As long I believed that I couldn’t write the literature review because I wasn’t an expert and that I should’ve known more by then, I couldn’t get into “zone” of writing.
When your unconscious mind tells you that you cannot or you “should” know more by now, you are unknowingly sending messages to yourself that you cannot do it.
Once I realized that writing my book chapter would be a similar to writing my literature review for my thesis, I sighed in relief.
I knew that it would be a messy process consisting of gathering articles, writing lots of incoherent paragraphs and then gradually putting them in order.
Unexpectedly, I finished the book chapter in less time than the literature review for my thesis even though it was longer.
I was already familiar with the process of surveying the literature and going through each draft of the manuscript, giving me the confidence I needed to finish writing.
5 Steps to Get Into the Thesis Writing Zone Even When You Feel Paralyzed
1.Recognize that your struggle is necessary part of the thesis writing process
As a first-year student I believed that once I got to the writing stage of my thesis, it would be a straightforward process.
What’s so difficult about summarizing the literature and writing up what I had been working on for five years?
As I started to review the literature I realized that some of the research conflicted with my data.
I interpreted my struggle during thesis writing as proof that something was wrong with me.
I remember smiling and telling my supervisor that everything was okay, but I felt like an impostor.
Once he reads my manuscript, he will be shocked and he will ask me why I had been faking that everything was going well.
The reality is this:no one will discover that you’re faking it – because you actually aren’t faking it.
If it was easy and straight froward it wouldn’t be called research.
Your struggle to pull things together is a training for your creativity, resourcefulness, and persistence all of which are essential qualities of an independent researcher.
When you hand in your draft, your supervisor will have comments (maybe even harsh feedback), but you don’t have to interpret is as a sign that there is something wrong with you.
Just take the comments and use them as a learning experience, to improve your writing.
There is nothing wrong with you.
You are not a fake.
You are a real researcher.
2. Eliminate or reduce distractions
It is tough to stay focused on your thesis writing when you keep getting interrupted by others.
External distractions are the most common reason that students don’t accomplish what they want by the end of the day.
Sometimes changing your space (go to a library, coffee shop, or a friend’s house), can help you to eliminate distraction so you can get into the “zone” of thesis writing.
The easiest way to get rid of them is to dump everything from your brain onto a paper.
Use a small notebook, or writing pad to write down any to-do’s or worries as they pop into your mind.
Be sure that you keep these notes in place where you can find them easily, so you can get to them once you finish your writing for the day.
Interestingly, after you finish writing, many of your to-do’s or worries may not seem so urgent.
3. Get clarity on your take-home message
Can you summarize your thesis or literature review in one sentence such as:”The purpose of this thesis/literature review is to….(fill in the blank).
The reason that I struggled with my literature review in grad school was that I was missing my aim.
I knew I supposed the give an overview of the background about my research area, but that was such a vaguely plan that it was tough to decide what to include in the review, and more importantly, how to present the data.
You cannot achieve a goal until you define what you goal is.
With each revision, I defined the scope of my review more clearly.
Most students try to cram too much into their literature review, which is why they feel overwhelmed.
4. Organize your manuscript as you write it
After you have defined your aim, create an outline of your paper and define each section in as much detail as you can.
If you are not sure about the structure of your paper, write down which question(s) you want to cover.
Then, as you gather your references and start writing, you can put the information in the corresponding section.
In fact, it will be easier to discuss your drafts with your supervisor when you have a structured (albeit still in progress) paper, instead of a collection of ideas.
During the editing phase one of the most disheartening experiences that students have is that they need to cut down so much of their writing (about 50% or more).
If you are worried that you may need that information late, set up another file called the “cut-out” file where you put all the writing that you have cut out.
I had a cut-out file for each of my publications.
I never needed any of the writing from there, but it gave me a peace of mind and helped me to edit my manuscripts more boldly.
5. Establish a sustainable schedule and stick to it
The way to produce good writing is to keep writing.
Inspiration will only come to you when you have been writing for a while.
You cannot command your mind to write something as substantial as a thesis chapter in a short amount of time.
In college when I had to write 5-10 page term papers I was able to pull them together in 2-3 days.
But a thesis chapter, literature review, or publication requires deeper thinking and analysis.
A thesis or publication combines original research with the literature and you have to make a convincing argument that your research is an original contribution to your field.
The most challenging part about writing is that thoughts are not formed clearly in your head, so when you start writing the sentences will sound awkward and incoherent.
Thus, it is very important that the schedule you set up for yourself is sustainable.
If you have a writing marathon for 8 hours one day, and then feel completely burned out the next day, you will lose you momentum in writing and it will be tough to get into the “zone” again.
Your daily thesis writing goal doesn’t have to be big.
On some days you may have only 15-30 minutes, but that short amount of time is enough to get your ideas on paper and continue your train of thought.
When you feel stuck, take a break and go on a walk.
Just remember to show up to write consistently, with the right mindset, and you will get into the “zone” and produce a high quality manuscript.
Which of these 5 steps is the most useful for you to get into the “zone” of writing?
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