I simply KANT write my thesis...help me?
June 1, 2012 1:54 AM   Subscribe

I need advice on how to finish this master's thesis that is consuming me with guilt, anxiety and helplessness

I should be writing my thesis, like right now, but something in me just can't. I was supposed to get 30 pages to my advisor a week ago, but I only have 10 of this chapter, 20 of the overall thing (70 ish pages total is the goal). There's just something stopping me, every time I sit down to work on it. I panic about it every second that I'm not writing, but when I finally try and work I get exhausted almost immediately, I feel like I'm in a test and can't think, my notes seem like total nonsense...I'm a mess. I saw the advice everyone gave RogerB here , but I'm not being a perfectionist (though I have the same problem of being a habitual writing procrastinator), I just almost physically can't force myself to do it.

This is a really horrible open ended question, but I need help. I feel like I bit off more than I can chew as far as writing for my topic (a feminist interpretation of Immanuel Kant's ethics, using DeBeauvoir and Iriguray to analyze the metaphysics, if anyone's curious), but if asked to TALK about it, I can go for hours. The writing part is just glacially slow, and I'm really running out of time, since my defense is in 2 months. It's not possible to get an extension any more, I'm already graduating in summer and my department will be gone by next academic year (hooray for cuts in higher education). I should have been working more on it for the past 4 months, but it just kept getting pushed to the back burner, between other school work and teaching. Beating myself up over past procrastination has been my favorite activity for the past week or two, and I need to stop that since it isn't helping me.

My committee is generally disinterested and under educated about my topic in general, but they're the best I got since my Kant specialist was denied tenure last semester, and after all that he totally checked out. I can't talk to anyone about it in specific detail because it's so goddamn specialized. I need general writing help, general advice on how to overcome my anxiety about writing that is preventing me from writing, and any other advice about thesis writing that might be helpful. I'm so stuck and it's eating me alive.

Memail me if you'd like to see the google doc of what I've got so far, I guess.
posted by zinful to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Have you written an rough outline of the paper? It helps me to just work on a little section at a time instead writing the paper order. Stuck on the intro? Then move on to another point and just type roughly what you want to say (statements, ideas, key words - doesn't have to be pretty), then go to another point and do the same, then go back and flesh things out a bit more, etc.

Since you say that you can talk about it for hours about it, how about recording yourself talking about topic with a friend or teacher and then you can listen to it while taking notes. Or maybe you can get one of those speech-to-text programs?
posted by littlesq at 2:15 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

*the paper in order. arg.
posted by littlesq at 2:16 AM on June 1, 2012

Get something onto paper (or the computer , you know what I mean) , I agree with littlesq.. try recording your self and then transcribe the result to the document, it would seem a very good idea.

Having got SOMETHING onto paper you will be encouraged! Separating the acts of thinking and transcribing will ease your worries. When you are transcribing you can do small edits for clarity but do not get to hung up on the style at this point.. you just want to brain dump to the document. Once you have done that you can then rework though it imagining that you are editing somebody else paper, be impersonal, it is just some work you have to do, not something that will make or break your career.

Good luck, you can do this!
posted by foleypt at 2:22 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with littelsq and foleypt. Sit down with someone and talk it out. Then transcribe the whole thing. You'll have some content to work with, and talking it out might help with structure, clarity, all that good stuff.
posted by misfish at 2:23 AM on June 1, 2012

I've also found using the pomodoro technique really helpful.

You just set a timer for 25 minutes, work solidly until it goes off, then take a 5 minute break, and start again with another 25 minutes. After 4 pomodoros, you can take a 10 minute break.

This worked really well for me in getting a flow going.
posted by misfish at 2:27 AM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Most theses seem to be graded more on the format than the ideas within the document. So just pay attention to those items and you will be fine.
posted by tarvuz at 2:40 AM on June 1, 2012

You can't go back, you can only go forward.

I agree with recording it and transcribing it. Do what's easiest for you, not what you think you should do.

Break down everything into smaller pieces. Write up a list. Cross them off as you go. It's a powerful motivator for getting stuff done.

Focus solely on your thesis for 40 minute blocks then go do something else for 10 minutes. Jump up and down the spot if you have to - get away from it and do something else.

And remember, all of this will be over soon.
posted by mleigh at 2:44 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

If 40 minutes is inconceivable (and it would be for me), then just do as long as you think you can do. Start with one minute on, one minute off if that's all you can do. Build up from there.

Also, "procrastinate with work". If you can't face the actual writing right now, then sort out the bibliography, or find that quote that you know you put somewhere safe.

Do you have any friends that studied the sameish stuff. Can you give them a call and ask to talk your thesis through with them. They don't need to be in the same speciality, just be knowledgeable enough to follow what you're talking about.
posted by kjs4 at 3:01 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wait, you can talk about it but not write?

You need a helper! Recruit a friend with a scant understanding of the topic if possible. Give them a synopsis of what you've written so far, and then get them to ask you any of the following: why, how, what, where, when, who. Talk back to them, and then make notes after of anything that came out that you liked. Rinse, repeat, until you have a full page of notes.

Then buy them a beer and type up the notes. Then get them back the following night and do the same. Don't do more after the beer, otherwise you might end up writing about sandwiches and pandas.
posted by greenish at 3:08 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you can't get started on this thing because it feels like you have to write the WHOLE THING RIGHT NOW, try to remember this: you don't have to write the whole thing - that would be insane - you just have to write one sentence. Done? Now you have to write another sentence. It might not be a good sentence, and you might not even end up keeping it, but literally the only way to actually complete this thesis is to write a sentence.

Also, when you start trying to work, set a timer for 10 minutes. When the timer rings, set it for another 10 minutes. Repeat. It doesn't matter if you work or don't work during each 10 minutes, it's just good to have something breaking up the time so it doesn't feel like you have 4 HOURS to work - you have 10 minutes to work, then you can see what happens.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:29 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Greenish, that is awesome advice. Hopefully someone loves me enough to actually sit down and do this with me.

I've been trying the pomodoro because it generally works really well for me, but I just spend the 25 minutes staring at the screen and my 5 minute breaks smoking and beating myself up. I'm going to keep on with it though, it's a great time manager.

You all are awesome. Keep it coming, please :)
posted by zinful at 3:31 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

That feeling physical blocked thing is an anxiety symptom. But the great thing is, because of that, every little step that you can take to reduce your anxiety about the process will help to lift the block. I get this about papers, but also about housework and just tons of stupid stuff, and sometimes it's just: Okay. Right now, my entire goal is to just pull up the document. Everything else can wait, but I need to take a step, so I'm going to do that. Okay, now I have the document open. That wasn't so bad, a little less anxious. I'm going to read through the part I'm working on. No creativity necessary, not too bad, a little less anxious. If I break those parts down like that, by the time I get through the first few steps, I'm back engaged in the work again and a lot less freaked out. The goal at first isn't so much forward progress as just getting back into it, and that helps reduce the pressure; once I'm engaged, forward progress is really usually not a problem and I can usually work for fairly long periods if adequately caffeinated.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:05 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I went through this recently, even down to the point where I could talk about it but not write about it. Here's what helped:

-Talking it through with a friend. I talked about it with just about everyone, but especially with 2-3 other students in my program. We met every week for an informal thesis support program, and then helped each other through it the rest of the week as well. Literally talk both of you through your chapter, and record or write down the solutions you come up with. Even if you're not good friends with the others in your program, find someone who is also writing (or just finished writing), and offer to trade in-kind or buy someone dinner while you talk it out. Lots of fellow thesis-writers will be happier to help than you might think. (Even in the depths of my panic, I loved taking an an afternoon to talk through someone else's problem.)

-Write in a new medium. For whatever reason, my brain very easily flips into "this draft must be PERFECT the first time around" mode if a word document gets too big or if I just look at a computer funny. Don't be afraid to open a new document to work for a little while, and you should absolutely get yourself away from the computer. I have about 250 notecards that I made in the last month of my writing that outlined every part of my chapter. I intended it as a big outline but I ended up breaking each chapter down to an almost paragraph-by-paragraph outline with notecards as I worked. It took probably 3-4 days out of the month just to write the notecards out, but oh my goodness they were so helpful. There was just something soothing about firing off cards for an hour or so, spending three hours stretching them out across my living room floor, shuffling and reorganizing them to see if another idea worked better, and then during writing just picking up a card out of the pile, knowing I needed to write about the history of the germ theory for 1-3 paragraphs, throwing everything I knew at it, and then moving the card to the back of the stack when finished. It helped me visualize how much I had left to write, which was also a huge motivator. I also brainstormed on whiteboards, scrap paper, the notes feature on my phone, anything to get away from the computer.

-Consider the most productive ways to spend your time, and accept that sometimes means taking time off. If you spend 25 minutes staring at the screen and only 5 minutes working, consider how that's your brain telling you "I can't do this right now." So what can it do? Sleep? Go for a walk? Organize a bibliography? Notecards? Taking time away from the thesis to help your brain recharge isn't procrastination, but a really valuable activity. There's a difference between "I don't want to do it now; I work better under pressure anyway" and "I need an afternoon away or MY BRAIN IS GOING TO EXPLODE." Your mind is giving you legitimate signals right now, so don't ignore them.

-Freewrite. It was stupidly simple to trick my brain into thinking "oh, this part of writing isn't for real so you can go ahead and write now" when I opened up a new word document, closed my eyes, and just started thinking about what I wanted to say. Every paragraph inevitably began with "So... what do you want to accomplish? Well, I guess the first thing is that..." and the first paragraph was always more or less trash, but once I connected to that "I can talk it out" part of my brain I generally ended up producing a lot more quality work. The trick was to keep my eyes closed, or fixed on something besides the screen; watching what I wrote triggered my editing skills, which destroyed the content-generating momentum.

-Change location often. Do not sit in one place every day. I was dragging 20-25 books to the library every single day just so I would not be at home, because my patterns at home had fallen into a rut. You know that advice about how to keep your bed only for sleeping, so that when you lie down at night you can help trick yourself into thinking "oh it's time for sleep now"? Same idea. If I sat down at my desk at home I triggered the "waste time" part of my brain, and it was a lot easier to actively cut off that process at the library. I worked for 18 hours every day at one desk in the library for a couple days, and then when that stopped helping I packed up and moved to a different part of the library.

-Tackle the easiest part first. Don't work on what "should" come next, or the hardest task, or the most time-consuming task. Always start with the easiest task. The easiest task is the one your brain is ready to work on, and helps you generate momentum. There are no extra points for working on the harder components first, so don't do it. Even if it means skipping ahead 2 chapters to write an isolated paragraph about some completely minor detail, that's one thing off your list for later.

-Steal the structure of others' work. I had a hard time writing my introduction because I had no idea how to organize it, so I opened up the book that I thought had the clearest introduction and studied how the author organized it into sections. Then I checked another book, and a third -- they all had similar organizational structures, so I followed that. Sometimes when I was trying to use a more creative writing approach and wasn't quite sure how to do it successfully I picked up a book that did it well and pulled apart its paragraphs for the purpose and structure of every paragraph to help. (I did this when I wanted to use a personal anecdote to bookend the entire thesis because the books that did those were among my favorites, but I couldn't get over the weirdness of using "I" in an academic work so I pulled down a few books to use as a guide.)

-Finally, take advantage of all your school resources. Your school almost certainly has a counseling center, and do not be afraid to walk in and say you need to talk to someone. Stress from school is one of the reasons your counseling center exists, so it is a very legitimate problem for which to ask for help and one that your counselors are very experienced in handling. Even if they can't talk with you about your subject at all, don't underestimate the value of just having a place where you can go and vent and bawl and catastrophize in ways you can't with your friends or advisors. This type of stress is incredibly hard to deal with, and I wish I had been a lot better about pro-actively managing it.

Good luck. I rewrote 2/3rds of my thesis the month before my defense, so I know how hard your next 2 months are going to be, but I also know it's doable. It might involve being entirely miserable, not sleeping for days on end, and pulling all-nighters in the library, but there is an end in just 2 months. It feels never-ending now, but this feeling that you have right now is part of the writing process; it too will pass and be replaced with more confidence once you clear this hurdle. The next 2 months will not always feel as bad as this.
posted by lilac girl at 4:20 AM on June 1, 2012 [13 favorites]

Try the writing center at your school? They always help me take my jumbled ideas that I can talk about and make some sort of outline out of them. They do the dirty work of listening that a friend may not want to do.

Also, I sometimes voice record myself talking about my topic, then transcribe that recording onto paper, and then I have something to work with.

Have you tried any CBT to get past whatever is making you panic and freeze? Sometimes just doing one worksheet can work wonders for my writing anxiety.

Finally, you are ALMOST incapable o making yourself do this, not incapable. You are physically capable of sitting down and making yourself write, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Remember that.
posted by whalebreath at 4:32 AM on June 1, 2012

It can also help to just try to write a really bad version. If I'm really stuck and everything sounds like garbage, then I'll purposely try to write a really awful rough draft. It always ends up being decent.
posted by whalebreath at 4:33 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

My situation was different than yours because I was working full time while writing my thesis. First, I put it off for four years (there was no deadline). So I'm not sure if this advice will work for you, but it worked for me:

1. Therapy. I was doing it for other reasons but somehow it helped me feel accountable to someone for my thesis. I needed SOMEONE to care whether I finished it or not.

2. A deadline. In my case, I wanted to relocate and start a new chapter of life, and I didn't want to drag unfinished thesis baggage with me. The big "carrot" for getting it done was to simply never have to think about it again.

3. A lifestyle change. This was a biggie. I finally realized that I was never going to fit thesis writing around the rest of my life. I had to make some changes and sacrifices for a few months while I knocked out the thesis. I started getting up at 5am and writing for two hours a day before work. I decided it didn't even matter whether anything I wrote was good - I just had to get something written, for two hours a day. The pages kept adding up until finally I had a draft. It took some revising but it's so much better to have pages and pages of text than...not.

Good luck! You can do it, and you'll feel awesome when this weight is off your shoulders.
posted by TrixieRamble at 7:19 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I were in your position tomorrow, I'd wake up an hour early tomorrow and I'd tell myself that I'm not allowed to have coffee or a cigarette until I write 250 words. That's, like, a paragraph. And yes, it will probably suck, because no coffee, and no cigarette. But you'll be 250 words further than you were the day before. Then just repeat it the next day. Once you have something down on the page, it will be easier to start to think about accumulating words more earnestly.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:39 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh man. This condition is so familiar to me. It's more than just simple procrastination. It's like hyper-procrastination combined with flop sweat, writer's block, and a low-grade panic attack. None of the usual tricks helped me at all.

I was going to offer roughly the same advice as lilac girl's suggestion of "write in a new medium". When I had my bout of whatever this is, I found that while I was incapable of making any progress writing anything in say, Word or emacs, I could still write emails. So, I started drafting things in MS Outlook or gmail. Something about switching from a word processor (which is used to write Real, Official Documents[tm]) to an email client (which is used to write worthless, ephemeral emails) was sufficient to break whatever was blocking me.

The other advantage is that writing inside an email limits the amount of procrastinating you can do by fiddling with formatting. Don't fiddle with formatting until the end.
posted by mhum at 8:06 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I went through the exact same thing a year ago. I know exactly of what you speak. A couple things that helped me:

- Lower your expectations for daily output. The (seeming) enormity of the task paralized me. I told myself "today will be a success if I can get one page done before noon, even if it's crappy. Whatever else happens today doesn't matter". Getting myself rolling with an achievable goal in the morning led to more productive days, since the pressure would be off in the afternoon.

- Find a non-judgmental friend, and tell them you will be emailing them your daily output at 6pm (or whatever) every day. Tell them they don't have to read it but you would like some positive feedback please, even if you've just written a couple paragraphs.

- After getting deep in a hole, I went and talked to my supervisor. I said "I'm having trouble with this, but I really want to finish. Here's what I have done, now let's set achievable goals to get to the end". It was hard to admit how far behind on things I was, but that was really the first step towards actually finishing.

- Sometimes it was good to just worry about getting words on the page and not worry if they made sense or not. For me, editing was much easier than trying to write a sensible first draft.

- Set hard limits on how long you're going to write for each day and each week. I decided I was going to write 9-5, Monday to Friday and try to live like a normal person. If 5pm rolled around and I hadn't got much done? Doesn't matter, heading home. This ended up making me way more productive during my writing hours and stopped the thesis from consuming my life.

This is a really horrible open ended question, but I need help.

It is not a horrible question. Search "thesis" in AskMe, or "thesis procrastination" on google to see hundreds of other people asking the exact same question. Knowing I wasn't alone was I real help to me. Good luck!
posted by no regrets, coyote at 8:38 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

This question of mine from my first semester of grad school term papers might be useful to you. I just finished my thesis (and to be honest I wrote most of it in the last couple weeks - some habits are hard to break!) but I especially like the advice above about moving where you work a lot - I wrote chunks of my thesis in various parts of my school's library, the undergrad library, and every room of my house. I also had to let go a bit and decide that it was more important for it to be done than for it to be perfect.
posted by naoko at 8:45 AM on June 1, 2012

When I used to face things like this what would help me is something like this...

- Make a bunch of mind-map style outlines of everything I think is necessary to cover and/or everything I know about the subject
- This is nothing fancy, just topic headings with lines to sub-topics, and maybe lines between related issues, maybe some key points jotted here or there as they occur to me
- If there is some major conclusion that the work is going to draw, I'd also focus on what that conclusion is, and why I think that is the conclusion. Not writing it yet, more outlining it as a way of understanding: "If the conclusion is X, what evidence or analysis is needed to support it?" i.e. It's another part of the outlining or mind-mapping process
- Write some subsection, it doesn't matter too much which one, and don't worry about being coherent, or length or anything else, just write in some fashion, knowing it will all get rewritten later
- Reoeat, write more subsections
- Once there are a bunch of sections, reconsider how they're ordered and organized
- Think about writing link sections, if such are needed to help the flow
- Keep doing more sections until something exists for each thing-that-needed-to-be-covered
- Review for coherence and rewrite things you said badly. You still don't have to be perfect, just improve what you can see to improve.
- Review for length... for me this normally means: cut, cut, cut, find more concise ways to say things, drop sections that are not absolutely essential. (YMMV, I tend to write more than fits into target word limits on first attempt. But that works out for me as it's easier to decide what is least essential than to be groping round for more things to say.)
- If there are going to be intros, summaries, conclusions, recommendations and such, I'd write them at this point, making sure they match what's in the body
- Final review of content, check your thinking, polish up your writing
- Final review of layout and incidentals, spell check, tweak table-of-contents etc etc
- In an ideal world, it's great if you can the thing aside for a short while, and come back to it for one last look with fresh eyes. You'll notice stuff that escaped you while you were too caught up to see what you actually wrote versus what you meant to say. It helps to even see things in a different format, like printed out rather than on screen.

Probably this process works for me is because it turns one big and daunting task into lots of small tasks, and small tasks that I don't have to get perfect on the first attempt. Also it's a process, and to some extent any process helps because at least it gives you a next-thing-to-do.
posted by philipy at 9:43 AM on June 1, 2012

On the talking front, I had this problem exactly and when I started using voice recognition (for other reasons; I am using Dragon which is expensive but Windows 7 has built-in that's not terrible) it got me over it. I start up my document, put on my headset, close my eyes, and pretend I'm telling a friend about it, and when I finish ranting there is a big messy pile of text ready for editing. It's like the high-tech equivalent of what Greenish suggested (although this method is just for rough writing, but sometimes that's the start you need). If you're inexperienced with voice recognition the accuracy can be pretty low, but once you get better at it it works like a charm.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:14 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

When this happened to me (I spent a couple of months where, on my writing days each week I would get up with the intention of writing and then miserably surf the internet all day, with increasing agitation), the thing that got me out of it was talking* - generally not talking through the subject matter, just being honest about how stuck I really was. I had a wonderful, non-judgmental friend who met with me a couple of times a month and just listened. You really need to find a way to dial down the shame, because it is feeding the anxiety that is blocking you. The right counsellor could also help with this.

*Okay, that was sort of one of two things - the other was that I changed topic quite late in the piece. Obviously this is suboptimal but in my case the first topic was a bit of a hopeless case, and even though it meant abandoning the work I'd done before, it was a HUGE relief.
posted by Cheese Monster at 3:57 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I'm writing something huge, it helps a lot not to force myself to write it all in the order the reader will see it. I jump around to the most fun and interesting bits to talk about, without worrying about introductions or transitions and so on. Then, once the basic meat of what I'm talking about is there, I rearrange for flow and add in the missing bits.
posted by Andrhia at 6:49 AM on June 2, 2012

You've got a lot of great advice here already, so I won't pile on too much. This happened to me with my MA thesis, and what got me through it was a combination of a few things; primarily, a friend was in the same situation and we discovered we could work together very well - we'd meet at a library, a coffee shop, a restaurant - anywhere we felt productive, even for the smalllest amount of time - and would work together. The encouragement, both active and tacit, was crucial for us both. Freewriting every morning helped - it got me writing *something* when I was the most stuck, and you'd be surprised how something can turn into *the* thing that you need. Location change was important, too; when working at home felt too stagnant, working at my department felt too claustrophobic, etc, I would seek out new spaces like a cat crawling after a sunspot - and it worked.

Basically, find what it is that makes you feel safe and productive and just *write*, and eventually you'll see that you're on the right track. Nothing helps more than realizing you've gotten the momentum you thought you'd lost!

And maybe most of all, note that you *can* get through this - look at how many people in this and the linked threads have chimed in with "oh man, this was me!" You're not alone, and there are a lot of success stories from people who have struggled with precisely what you are struggling with. You can get through this!
posted by AthenaPolias at 8:32 AM on June 2, 2012

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