Monday, June 30, 2014

FAQ about Writers

Dear Parents, Pals and Partners, this post presents a bulletin, a plea if you will, from a writer to highlight the experiences and troubles faced when writing a thesis. You may have a partner, daughter/son, friend who is currently pulling his/her hair out trying to complete their thesis, and you might unwittingly, add on to more hair loss by your well-meaning, but misunderstood questions.

So in a desperate, last ditch attempt to ease these surrounding noises, I have compiled a list of FAQ about Writers. This list extends only to social science writers who are desperately trying to gain some control over their theses. Instead of finding my own community to commiserate with, I shall, in the spirit of my own research, empower and educate instead.

1)   “Why are you doing a masters in social sciences? What can you do with it afterwards? Why don’t you do an MBA instead?

AH…the question that we all ask ourselves every time we open our thesis documents. What ARE we doing, and why do we put ourselves through the brimstone and fire only to graduate into an unforgiving and ungrateful society who does not appreciate our work. Why do it at all?

My simple answer to what is a loaded question (I speak for myself) is that I just love having the luxury of finding out more about society on my own terms. Very few people are fortunate to be “left alone” to find out about society, for an audience that are genuinely interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Sure there are certain goals to meet, and certain interests to serve. By and large, I am left to imagine a different world, one that is possible only because we have the time (and training) to do so.

2)   That sounds a little self-indulgent…

I do admit that some research can be self-indulgent. There will always be intellectual differences over what counts. It’s not completely devoid from society. Remember your last paycheck? That’s called capitalism, and some dude in a stuffy old university office did it. He did not do it alone, and he had the help of graduate students. Ideas are built around people, and sometimes, graduate student “labour” to get through the grunt work for our professors.

3)   “Why is my pal, friend, child having such a hard time? It’s just writing, I thought being in a tertiary institution, they would already find that easy!”

Well, firstly, it’s a huge project. Writing is like cooking – one gets better at handling ingredients, knowing what flavours go together only with experience. We are only as good as our last paper. So every new project is a new challenge, a new conception and a new opportunity to gain experience. Ever had a moment when you wanted to say something, but couldn’t simply because you “can’t find the words”?

4)   “It’s just writing isn’t it? Why do they take so much time? I can write a 200 word email in 10 minutes!”

You might have heard how “fast” one can complete a term assignment of about 3000 words, so it’s natural to infer that a 10,000 thesis is just going to be three times the effort. It doesn’t quite work that way because it’s a dedicated piece of writing, that is, it takes more than the act of putting pen to paper to produce a nice shiny book-bound thesis.

Honestly, half the time, we don’t know where our data is going to take us, and that means room for error is huge because, you guessed it, reality is messy. We’re trying to condense that messiness within a limited word count, and to communicate ideas to our readers (as opposed to bombarding them with huge jargons). It takes time.

5) “I don’t know why my friends complain so much about their thesis.”

A thesis is not just a piece of writing. The process is rather long drawn and tedious. One has to read The Literature, and I don’t mean books as entertaining as Charlotte’s Web or Harry Potter (I wish).

I mean endless (coughs: boring) journals, edited books and references to check if “those who came before” have already done my bit of research. That means years of material to plough through. We’re also not just checking off a list of “has-beens”, but also considering the theories they used to explain their data, and how we might apply. Of course, people being people, not everyone agrees. We also have to keep track of the “conversations” that people have – in journals we call them debates or arguments. That potentially means we need to first digest what we have, let it sink in, and then politely write a response to those people, and add our own unique perspective that is relevant to our case study.

Think of this: You can’t go run after a full meal, so neither can we. The bigger the meal, the longer the time to digest and so the more elaborate the complaints.

5)   “But you have 8 working hours a day! Surely you are able to finish a chapter if you work fast enough!”

Well, that is technically true. I have worked for 8 hours straight and produced an entire chapter. However, like question 4, it doesn’t come immediately. Usually these “bursts” of productivity only come after a long long LONG period of gestation. It’s like waking up from a nap still groggy and you can only really get work done after you’ve shaken off the cobwebs of sleep. It’s the same logic here. Furthermore, writing takes a lot of mental energy; we’re always going back and forth our work to check for a million things such as:

i)              Typo errrors
ii)             Sentence structures, no matter how elaborate, dynamic, superfluous and intricate, really need editing, because they seem to ramble on.
iii)           Words that seemed to mean something, but actually reference another.
iv)           Complex ideas of performativity and intersectionality that requires a dose of reality so that people can understand already.
v)             Formating.
vi)           University guidelines (no endnotes, no footnotes, no-sense, no-time)

Plus, have you tried writing on a constantly empty stomach? The brain zaps so much energy, you’re always hungry, and we all know that is always a useful distraction to head to the kitchen and then…forget about time.

6)   “You have it better than most, since you got the freedom to do what you want when you want.”

Hmm…that is a tricky one. It is true that I have a lot more freedom in dictating my work hours; it also means that I take 100% accountability for my actions. There are no excuses and people implicitly understand that you are the creator of your own downfall.

There is an illusion of freedom because ultimately, we always gamble with our time and fight against procrastination. It’s a frustrating feeling when you consciously set aside 4 hours of productive work, only to feel absolutely lethargic at the desk. We could force ourselves to produce something. Yet whatever words are on the screen will just be gibberish and the fear crawls in when we imagine our supervisor’s disapproving look when we hand in something rushed, harsh and marsh.

7)   “You don’t do anything but write all day, that’s not really work is it?”

That’s a question that I really hate answering.

Firstly, it’s true writing is a sedentary activity, but please do not let that deceive you. Sitting at a desk the whole day can hurt our bodies in irreparable ways. It is not easy to walk away especially when the words start to flow. I have forgone meals precisely because I cannot give up my writing momentum.

Secondly, it IS work that requires heavy lifting, albeit of a mental nature. Like what I mentioned previously, it’s like keeping many conversations going on at once, and also at the same time, making sure you don’t lose the one you had with yourself. It is not just writing, but also communicating which means…

It is a lot of work to not miss anything. We always run into the danger of mis-representing, mis-interpreting, mis-taking a source, mis-read a theory, mis-hearing our respondents when we play it back, mis-leading our readers, mis-appropriating quotes (the ethical horror!), mis-placing, mis-construing the scale of importance of our study etc. etc. There are a lot of considerations within the academic community and we take it very seriously if any of the “misses” happened.

8)   “I always see my friends so free when they write their thesis. They can go Starbucks and hang out at cafes all the time.”

Can I also add that it is also taking a toll on our pockets? All writers have their quirks when they work. Some require a cup of coffee on the top right hand corner while others work best from 2am-5am. For me? I’m at Starbucks because the background provides a good blanket noise for me to zone out.

9)   “At the end of the day, it’s just a thesis. There’s no need to take it seriously because no one is going to read it anyway.”

It is somewhat true, since most people don’t have access to university libraries or publishers of journal articles. It is true, that even within our field, it is small and specialised. The people who read our work are going to be busy with their own work anyway.

Yet, it is a small effort within the constellation of knowledge, and we’re not looking to be popular (if we did, we won’t be doing this). At least I don’t. A thesis is not simply a book; it is a project that involves people to take part in it, which in turn can shift people’s perspectives. I consider it a privilege that such a project could be catalogued and given some attention.

10)  “Okay so at the end of the day, what use is a thesis when you go out to work?”

Education is not about taking a certificate and flaunting it to our future employers. I think the education that I received, and experiences with I gathered from writing humbles my place in the world. Writing teaches us one aspect of working life: we can put in hours and hours of effort, but the pay off is not going to always be proportionate. Conversely, sometimes minimal effort reaps tremendous results when the stars and planets align. Nevertheless, we should press on because as long as we believe that it is important, then people will believe that it is also. Grit, it’s what success is really about and writing a thesis definitely grew some of those in my teeth.


  1. Love it! it makes the self doubt now seems legit and not very very intimidating (though still intimidating).. thanks Claudia, it gives me some comfort to want to persevere through it :) <3

  2. Aww no problem! I don't think we're all alone in this! press on!