I’ve been struggling with my thesis for a few days. Somehow I knew what I wanted to say in my second chapter but everything I’d written just looked messy and random. It just didn’t work and I had no idea how to fix it. And then I suddenly got a brilliant idea. Well, the idea itself it not so brilliant, but it made a huge difference. I’ve got a proper second chapter now…
Anyway, the Dutch novelist Renate Dorrestein wrote a very useful book on writing fiction which has, as far as I know, not been translated into English. This is a pity for I read my copy so many times it’s almost falling apart. Her most useful advice ever is very simple. If you really don’t know what to do with a sentence, a paragraph, a whole chapter: just delete it. Throw it away. It might be good, but in the wrong place, or simply irrelevant to whatever it is you’re trying to do. I often do this when I’m stuck and it works. Even though I’d recommend saving the naughty piece of text nonetheless because even though it seems useless now, it might fit perfectly somewhere else.
These are some other techniques I often use (mostly for academic writing, but I think they can also work for other genres).
1. Move things around
This is what I discovered yesterday. My ideas were all right, they were simply in the wrong order. It takes some courage to rip your text apart and move paragraphs around, but it works. Suddenly my chapter looked clear and convincing (at least to me). Do create a new Word-document for this, though, and save your old version, just in case things don’t work out as they should.
2. Leave it for a while
If you’re completely stuck, and don’t know what to do, put the text you’re working on away for a few days and do something else. When you return to the text everything will seem clearer because you’re able to look at it from a distance. Be careful though: some people confuse a healthy distance with procrastination. Eventually, you will have to start writing again, so don’t leave it too long.
3. Just write
Many people are afraid to start writing because they think they need more time to prepare, a better structure, more coffee, or whatever. Even though I recommend writing with a plan in mind (and coffee) sometimes you just need to get started. It doesn’t matter that your text doesn’t make sense and is full of typos. By writing your ideas down you’ll learn how to structure them and you’ll see whether anything is still missing. Polishing a not-so-great first draft is much easier than trying to come up with a perfect one.
4. Take your time
I have a friend who when we were at uni together always started writing his essays the night before the deadline. He always got insanely high grades too, the *** (sorry Paul, I really love you, honestly). Actually, I know many people who always start writing the night before the deadline and pretend it works. It doesn’t, for most of us. Paul is a genius (you don’t know him, but trust me). Most of us are not. Deal with it. Start writing your essay as early as possible and stop calling blad planning “the way I work.” It’ll save you a lot of trouble.
5. Use pen and paper
One of my teachers once said that he always noticed whether students had started writing their essay on paper, or whether they had written it entirely on a computer. The former type, he stated, usually had a much better structure. Many students disagreed with him, but I think he was right. You don’t need to write your entire essay on paper but it helps to write some ideas down and create a structure before turning on your computer. Also, it helps to print your work now and then to read it on paper. It makes a huge difference, also because you’re more likely to spot small errors.