Stop reading, start writing

When it comes to writing, as I’m sure many people can relate, one of the things that can really hold you back is the fear that you don’t know enough material to get started, or that what you’re writing doesn’t sound any good. The most important thing to do is just to start getting your thoughts down on paper, without worrying about small details like individual words and sentences sound. Once you have ideas down on paper, you can identify the specific gaps in your knowledge that need filling and focus your reading a lot more efficiently. In a first draft, it’s the bigger picture — the structure and logic of your thought progression that matters the most. Editing and polishing can (and should) come later.

Of course, as easy as it is for me to make comments like that in hindsight, it can be incredibly difficult to put into practice. The truth is, I procrastinated big time. And I don’t mean that I wasn’t working on my proposal until the last minute — in fact I was consistently spending huge chunks of time working on it! But for all the hours I’d spent sitting in front of my laptop screen, I hadn’t actually written a word of my literature review… What had I been doing? I’d been reading. Articles upon articles. There was something comforting about researching — it made me feel like I’d been making great progress — I’d been taking plenty of notes (and sure, reading the literature is a critical stage of the process), but it had gotten to the point where I was reading to avoid getting started on my own writing.

And the more reading I did, the more overwhelmed I felt when I tried to think about how I would structure my proposal. There were so many pieces to the puzzle — so much underlying theory, so many different approaches and findings — how would I even start fitting it together in order to explain and justify the study I was working on with my supervisor?

The first critical step I took was to force myself to disconnect from the internet and not to open another article until I had a decent chunk of my own writing. The literature review in a research proposal should be like a ‘funnel’ — you start broadly, then narrow down into the rationale for your specific research aims and hypotheses. But how broadly should you start? How much detail should you include?

Damien gave me a tip that I found really helpful in this stage of my proposal writing. He told me to work backwards from the hypotheses — and that everything in the literature review should build up to and contribute to explaining how we had arrived at those specific predictions. If there was content that didn’t add to this explanation, it probably wasn’t necessary. So that’s exactly what I did — I laid out the reasoning behind our aims and hypotheses, in the simplest terms possible. It was only once I had a proper structure and a logical progression of points that I started to fill in details of empirical evidence.

As straightforward and simple as that sounds on paper, don’t get me wrong — it was an exhausting and stressful process frantically putting together a draft in time for the submission in week 6 (especially since I’d started writing so late).

But, now that it’s in, I can appreciate the upside of the drafting process…

Serial procrastinator that I am, I think that being forced to hand something in so far in advance of the final submission has been super valuable. Rather than still being caught in my reading trap, I now have some solid content down on paper which I have some time to edit and refine.

Rough as my draft is, I am interested to see how the proposal reads to someone with little or no background on the area of research. Sometimes when you are so immersed in your own writing, you stop being able to tell whether what you are saying actually makes sense to anyone other than yourself!

I also think that the peer reviewing process will help me evaluate my own work more effectively, as we have been given some specific guidelines on what to look out for when reading a proposal.

So for now, it’s time to start reading the articles I’ve been assigned and try to give some helpful feedback to my peers :) On an exciting side note, I am also almost ready to start collecting data (updates to come soon)!

Elizabeth.

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