October 02, 2014

Starting a major writing project?

Are you worried about starting your major writing project? Here’s how to hit the ground running with advice from Graduate Writing Advisor Rob Desjardins at the Student Success Centre.

You’ve heard it time and again: get started early on a major writing project (such as a master’s or PhD thesis) so that you have time to edit and improve it. That’s great advice, but it’s often hard to put it into action. Students preparing for such a project may feel unready to write; they may think there’s too much left to read and too many ideas to absorb. They may be overwhelmed by demands on their time, finding it hard to chisel out the time they need to put their thoughts on paper. And they may be so critical of their own work that they’re reluctant to get started.

If some of this sounds familiar, don’t worry: a lot of students are in the same boat. You can find success by applying some simple (and some not-so-simple) strategies. 
  1. Break your project into manageable pieces. Writing a thesis or a major paper is a big commitment. Thinking about it in its entirety can be overwhelming. But the opposite is also true: if you can turn that big project into a series of small and manageable steps, you can give yourself a sense of momentum and traction. There are plenty of good project management systems online to help you with this planning; you might start by creating a simple Gantt chart.
  2. Budget your time. Time management isn't a personal virtue or a talent. It’s something you learn, like checkers or origami. Go browsing online for good time management strategies and plans; and while you’re there, check out this handout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It offers tips on avoiding procrastination and crafting a writing plan that’s sensitive to your commitments and habits.
  3. Start writing before you feel ready. Feel like you still have a lot more to read before you know enough to start writing? Here’s a little secret: that feeling will never go away. Start writing parts of your project anyway — and understand that what you’re working on, especially at the beginning, is just a very rough (and expendable) first draft. 
  4. Involve others in your writing. There’s nothing worse than spending months on a major project with only yourself as a reader and critic. The problems loom larger, and the task seems ever more daunting. Consider joining a peer reading group to share and workshop parts of your document; and if you’d like to discuss your writing with a consultant, contact the Student Success Centre or the Centre for Writers
Want to talk more about the challenges of thesis-writing? Contact Rob, the Graduate Writing Advisor, at rob.desjardins@ualberta.ca.