6. Dissertation Writing – the Scribble Habit

This is the sixth article in the fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles click here

This is the second article in the segment on ‘writing.’ In the previous Article we discussed the importance of quick capture, so that you never forget an idea. This article is a little more free form.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given with regards to writing my first dissertation is:

When you have a fairly good idea of a topic area, sit down and try and fill an A4 sheet with all your opinions about it.

The key here is just to write – no one’s going to read it, and it really doesn’t have to be perfect! Let your mind wander. 

When you just scribble something down, you might also find that you are taken in another direction with the idea – for example you might have been thinking about how the main character looks when another character sees them through a doorway, and this makes you think of all the other doorways in the novel, and maybe even about the ‘doorway effect‘ (where you go into a room only to forget why you came there in the first place.) Is that useful? Who knows, but it might be later. What I’m saying is that it won’t all be gold dust, but just thinking about things a bit will show you the limits of your ideas now, get the little grey cells working and show you which bits are interesting and could work across your dissertation.

It’s better to do this as soon as you feel vaguely on top of an area, because you’ll never be ‘all over’ every part of your diss. Strike while the iron’s hot!

Tactics and Prompts

To get yourself started, maybe set a 5 minute timer, as recommended by Neel Nanda, and scribble down as much as you can before the time’s up.

If you want something more structured, prompts can be really good. Here are some general ones:

  • In my dissertation/project I will be exploring…
  • The main question that interests me is…
  • I want to find out whether…
  • The books/papers I have enjoyed reading most are…
  • My dissertation/project is important to me because…
  • The stage I am at now is…
  • The first thing I would like to write about it is… 
  • I have nothing to write about because…

Why free writing?

Actually writing is the best way to work at the potential and the limits of your ideas. 

Your diss will only appear at the intersection between thinking and writing; at some point you have to make your thoughts ‘real’ by putting them on paper. If you can’t express what you’ve been thinking about, or find that your writing is taking you in a different direction, be aware of that. Go where your pen is taking you (and later jot a note about the direction you thought you were going in.)

When you’ve been doing this every now and again for a couple of months, you’ll find you have lots of pieces of paper, and you can sort of flick between them and look at what you’ve written and you’ll find that there are similar streams of thought running through them. It’s like the same ideas are coming round and round in different hats. This is why I’d recommend using a physical pen and paper for this. There’s something different about turning over pages and moving them around on the desk in front of you that stimulates idea generation.

Writing your thoughts down also encourages you to become a reader of your own work which is super important for being able to see which bits of your work are good and should be expanded, and which bits are woolly and you should cut. 

The final thing I’ll say is making the effort to do this kind of free writing, or ‘brain dump’, exercise regularly throughout your project will produce serious dividends. The point is that it’s an accretive, iterative process. You build things up bit by bit. This is such a helpful process, I highly recommend you give it a try. In the next article, the third in this segment on ‘writing’, we’ll discuss putting it all together; read it here.

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