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How to Curb Overambition


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Any tips? Most of my writing projects during my MA have been characterized by me trying to jam too much stuff into one project, which results in not enough depth and also a bit of chaotic structuring. I attribute this to getting really excited when I discover new topics and then trying to say everything I can at once. It's really been messing my writing up and holding me back from delivering really solid, concise, and tight arguments.

 

I'm getting a lot of this feedback back from professors (and I'm going to ask them for their tips as well) but I wanted to hear what the community thinks first.

 

Thanks in advance!

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When I have that problem, I make a point of working without a thesis statement. I just start writing, and if I have a new, dissimilar idea, I make a few line breaks and start writing about that. When I start going back and forth on a few ideas, I begin to see which one has the potential to be wrapped up most concisely...which usually leads to a thesis statement.

 

Honestly, there used to be a time where I would agonize over finding a thesis statement before I wrote a single word. Nowadays, if I'm having trouble narrowing things down, I do like I suggest above -- I do some research, write, write, write some more, and the thesis comes about organically.

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For me it helps to turn on my bullshitometer really high towards what I write: do I really have sufficient evidence to claim this or that? Or would actually necessitate some more evidence I don t have time to get at this point?

Another thing is to make an off topic check for all things: does this matter for my argument? All that doesn t gets dumped to footnotes.

Edited by random_grad
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When I have that problem, I make a point of working without a thesis statement. I just start writing, and if I have a new, dissimilar idea, I make a few line breaks and start writing about that. When I start going back and forth on a few ideas, I begin to see which one has the potential to be wrapped up most concisely...which usually leads to a thesis statement.

 

Honestly, there used to be a time where I would agonize over finding a thesis statement before I wrote a single word. Nowadays, if I'm having trouble narrowing things down, I do like I suggest above -- I do some research, write, write, write some more, and the thesis comes about organically.

 

 

For me it helps to turn on my bullshitometer really high towards what I write: do I really have sufficient evidence to claim this or that? Or would actually necessitate some more evidence I don t have time to get at this point?

Another thing is to make an off topic check for all things: does this matter for my argument? All that doesn t gets dumped to footnotes.

 

 

Awesome strategies! Thank you both. Gonna have to print them out and hang it above my desk as a reminder.

 

I normally just launch right in and starting writing without a thesis as well... but I guess my problem is I can't detect my own bullshit yet  :lol:

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I think one trick is to move away from the seminar-papers-are-the-final-product mentality and toward the seminar-papers-are-just-the-beginning mentality. As you are focusing on one paper, keep some post-its or the Notes function on your phone open to jot down ideas that emerge. These will be the starting points for future projects. You can turn to those notes when, say, you're expanding a paper into an article or trying to come up with a conference proposal. So many ways for your class writing to evolve in graduate school, so there's less pressure to try to do everything in one paper!

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I think one trick is to move away from the seminar-papers-are-the-final-product mentality and toward the seminar-papers-are-just-the-beginning mentality. As you are focusing on one paper, keep some post-its or the Notes function on your phone open to jot down ideas that emerge. These will be the starting points for future projects. You can turn to those notes when, say, you're expanding a paper into an article or trying to come up with a conference proposal. So many ways for your class writing to evolve in graduate school, so there's less pressure to try to do everything in one paper!

Proflorax bringing the wisdom, as usual. This is definitely something that takes awhile to learn and I don't think I really grasped it until a few months ago. Every idea you have can be used at some point in the future, so think of your papers as opportunities to try an idea that you have that's most interesting to you right now. Last semester, for example, I decided that one of my seminar papers would be about poetry (which I never write about) and that I would be experimenting with my scholarly voice. I told the professor and he was on board, and honestly? It wasn't super successful. But I wouldn't have been able to write the much better papers I've written this semester without having done that practice.

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Thank you proflorax and dazed! It's so comforting to know others have struggled with similar issues. I got a project back and it was apparently not so successful either and I just felt completely defeated and not even sure I can move forward with my work. Now I have some strategies under my belt!

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I tend to overwrite and then go back and cut, cut, cut.  Sometimes the raw material is useful (as others have said above) in other contexts.  Carving away at things that sounded good in the moment but pull you away from your main thesis (which, I've found, often appears on a second or third draft) can be hard but ultimately satisfying.  

As an undergraduate, I had a writing teacher who would advise me to take the final line of a poem I brought to him, and start writing from there.  I found that nearly impossible to do at the time, but in my professional writing, now, I often find that the real subject appears toward the end, and I do just that, make the end the beginning and start from there.

 

Also, that feeling of defeat is often the precursor to learning something new and important.  I struggled a lot with writing academic papers in my MA program.  The feedback I was getting was, essentially, that I was being too associative.  I fought and fought and fought with that, and the fighting made me a better writer, not only in academic writing but in the writing I've done since to make my living....  Failing with good guidance is one of the reasons for school.

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 the real subject appears toward the end, and I do just that, make the end the beginning and start from there.

 

So true! I've had that quite a few times, sometimes at a very late stage of writing the paper. It's devastating to not have the time to develop that new idea and it never works to put it in the conclusion as an after-thought... At the same time, it provides a basis for a continuation of the project in a new context.

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This thread is proving amusingly pertinent to me right now, as I am finishing up a 12-15 page paper this afternoon. I have written most of it by now (through to the bottom of the twelfth page), but have yet to write a conclusion, most of an introduction, or (amazingly) even a thesis statement! Fortunately, I have somehow managed to keep it all on the same narrow topic, so I'm not actually worried about it...but I've never written this many pages without having a thesis statement.

 

On of the (many) things I love about writing is that while there are many rules, how you work within those rules is completely up to you. Sometimes I write an introduction last. Sometimes I write a conclusion first. Sometimes (like now) I leave both to the end. It's empowering!

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This is a great topic! I just finished up my honors thesis and that was a real bear. I ended up falling back to my fiction roots and re-read Stephen King's On Writing. Which I always found helpful. Here's his top 20 hints to writing, which you'd think are only applicable to fiction, but in writing about literature I've found them really relevant.

 

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/stephen-kings-top-20-rules-for-writers/

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I tend to overwrite and then go back and cut, cut, cut.  Sometimes the raw material is useful (as others have said above) in other contexts.  Carving away at things that sounded good in the moment but pull you away from your main thesis (which, I've found, often appears on a second or third draft) can be hard but ultimately satisfying.  

 

So true! I've had that quite a few times, sometimes at a very late stage of writing the paper. It's devastating to not have the time to develop that new idea and it never works to put it in the conclusion as an after-thought... At the same time, it provides a basis for a continuation of the project in a new context.

 

Very true for me, too.  One thing that's wonderful about writing in the age of computers is that it's easier to keep all the fragments.  I had a teacher in undergrad who gave the most wonderful writing assignments that really allowed me to approach academic writing as if it were poetry or something.  She would give finals and midterms where, as the term progressed, we would gather short passages together from readings done in her class and juxtapose them in pairs of block quotes and then when the time for the exam came, we would time ourselves and take an hour to just free-write responses to our little collections of juxtaposed passages from literature, history, and theory.  When she advised me on my honors thesis, she simply had me write her a journal entry every week based on whatever I was reading at that time.

 

Because of her, I came out of undergrad with what William Burroughs would call a Word Hoard.  My thesis notes were at least 100-150 pages that eventually were winnowed down to 43 and I still keep all the fragments.  The way I started writing my writing sample for grad school applications was to go back to my collection of fragments and juxtapose ideas I had written anywhere between 2 months and 2 years earlier and eventually ended up writing a 20 pager that will go in right back with the hoard of fragments from whence it arose.  So to reiterate what others have said, it's worth it to keep the things you throw out sometimes -- sometimes those fragments will provide you with a word, or a quote, or a reference, or simply be a catalyst for more thoughts.

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Proflorax bringing the wisdom, as usual. 

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Aw, shucks!

 

But seriously, like dazedandbemused, it took me a long time before I started seeing seminar papers as beginnings rather than ends. I don't think I truly figured this out until last semester, when I had two options: turn in a mediocre paper I wrote in a day or turn in a stellar, overly ambitious paper that I wouldn't finish by my due date (the date the doc predicted I would give birth, not the paper deadline). I chose the former, but now I am revising it and getting ready to send it out. 

 

My former poetry professor used to tell us that a poem is never finished--merely abandoned. I would argue this is true for not just poetry but all writing. Hold that with you as you go through academia, and the pressure to produce brilliant writing all the time will slowly subside (slowly. very slowly). 

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