Actual thesis advice: Make a BDP (Big Damn Plan)

A post with actual advice about actual PhD writing! I think this may be the first time I have offered proper advice. Don’t get used to it. Below (um, quite a lot below. There is… preamble) is pretty much the best tip I have…

Well, as previously noted, my whole ‘getting back into blogging after handing in the thesis’ resolution went the way of all things aka it quietly decayed before its time like trees broken by a storm or something I’m sorry I’ve been teaching about Milton today sometimes this happens. 

I handed in my thesis a few months ago and since then have been in the odd no-man’s-land between submission and examination. It’s a bit like the time between Christmas and New Year, except that you don’t get to spend it watching Elf and working your way through a selection box. (Well, I did spend some of it watching Elf and working my way through a selection box. My father wraps up Cadbury selection boxes ‘from Santa’ for my sister and me every Christmas, despite that fact that at time of writing we are, respectively, 26 and 29 years old, because he is an adorable human being. When I was a child I was unnecessarily Charlie Bucketesque about it and kept my store of chocolate going till Easter, but now I am a ravening hellbeast who ate it all in a few days, and then bought another Wispa because I had forgotten how nice Wispas are).

Maybe it’s best to reflect on the PhD experienced straight after submission, when it’s all still fresh. Um, Kirsty, you appear to be… just blinking a lot. And saying ‘Ohgodohgodohgod I bet it’s full of mistakes ohgod’. Right. Maybe give it a couple of days… Oh. You’re in a pub. You’re in all the pubs. That’s the sort of dedication a PhD demands, I guess. Perhaps in a few weeks, then, when it’s all sunk in and you’ve had time to – hang on, where has the time gone? That’s months, just – you’ve been teaching? That’s not much of an excuse – well, fine, OK. So it’s been months, Kirsty, and by now you must have some clear opinions on how to do a PhD.

Nope.

Not a sausage.

Not a chipolata. Or not much of one, anyway.

I'm not sure those sausages are a foodstuff so much as the physical expression of transport ennui

My thesis is a big blue book, a copy of which sits on a shelf downstairs. How I feel towards that big blue book is sort of indicative of how I feel about the whole damn ridiculous-and-occasionally-awesome circus of making it: it’s simultaneously unworkably giant (it is a very big blue book. Suitable for pressing flowers or dropping on the heads of invading armies) and weirdly small (I spent four years on this! It should be more impressive somehow, surely).

This is all by way of being ridiculously lengthy preamble to a fairly practical thing. One day in the indeterminate future I might write a halfway-serious post about the stupid stress of finishing a thesis, or indeed the precipitous emotional tumble that I – and I think quite a few people, though by no means everyone – found was waiting for me afterwards, like a treacherous kink in a slushy halfpipe (I have been watching the Winter Olympics. I have a deep and abiding weakness for any sporting championship that involves lots of different events I know basically nothing about. I have never been skiing, did one unsuccessful snowboarding lesson on a dry ski slope as a teenager, and the closest I’ve ever been to the sparkly gorgeousness of figure skating is probably going to the ice rink next to the Toys R Us in Plymouth while wearing jeans I’d customised with multicoloured sequins, at some point in the late 90’s, when people did that kind of thing to jeans. Anyway, how about that halfpipe?).

That poor innocent denim, what did it ever do to anyone

That says ‘shoes’, not ‘shots’. I was sadly never in the habit of concealing shots of alcohol in the hems of my voluminous jeans.

Frankly, though, that’s not a thing I’m up for right now, because hells no. But I did have a realisation the other day, while talking to a student about the pitfalls of keeping track of an argument: I made a plot of my thesis towards the end of it and it was basically the best thing I did.

The context was this: I got a new supervisor (long story, but for entirely-good-no-drama-brilliant-for-my-thesis reasons), and he asked me to explain the argument of my thesis. My explanation was… not good. I made about as much sense as some of the judge’s decisions in the women’s halfpipe final I mean seriously I know it wasn’t an entirely clean run but the tricks were amazing I SHOULD REITERATE I ACTUALLY HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF SNOWBOARDING WHATSOEVER

Well, what we had here was a failure to communicate. I’m traditionally better at communicating when I write stuff down, so I decided to make a big plan of the whole thing. I entitled it ‘Thesis chapter breakdown’, which coincidentally is also an emotional phenomenon that turned up a few times towards the end of my writeup – a phenomenon that, I found, my Big Damn Plan was really helpful for avoiding. Or limiting, at least. The day or so I spent carefully breaking down the arguments of my chapters was pretty much the most useful time I spent during the whole four years, and then once I had the plan it I felt less like I was floundering around in a big mess of words and more like I was making a formed thing. I mean, obviously I beat myself up because I spent a day not writing in actual chapters, but I am an idiot.

In fact, I wish I had made one of these much earlier on and adapted it as my project changed. Most of of the PhD advice I’ve ever given has started with ‘Hah, don’t do this thing I did…’ but I wholeheartedly endorse the making of a Big Damn Thesis Plan.

EDITED TO ADD: discussing this on Twitter has reminded me of something I should really acknowledge at this point – that this big picture stuff is really difficult. Both practically – theses are long – and psychologically. By the point I came to make my Big Damn Plan my thesis felt like a big smog of words I couldn’t see my way out of. I sat in the Rare Books Room at the BL and forced myself to write the plan whilst basically flipping out, like I had intellectual vertigo – this is why it took a whole day – and then felt so much better once it was written down. There’s the tough bit of my advice, I guess: breaking down your argument, especially when dealing with stuff you’ve already written, can be really difficult but is absolutely worth it. I can’t overstate how useful this was to me, both in terms of actually practically working out what to write, rework, and cut, and in terms of making me feel more in control of my material.

This is what the plan looks like (adapted, obviously. I have removed my own thesis plan from it, but inserted the plan for one chapter of my mooted next project, a rumination on how I have spent much time watching winter sports recently). Click on it to enlarge, because this WordPress theme makes pictures a bit small:

I can rationalise my love of the Summer Olympics because I used to do athletics but winter sports are like another universe to me so I am going to blame this on free-floating procrastination

Two other projected chapters are ‘”Look at those mountains!”: Why watching cross-country skiing makes me want to do it myself, and why that would probably be a bad idea’, and ‘”So it’s like normal luge, but they lie on top of each other?”: Doubles luge and why it looks kinda weird’

I’ve also attached it to this post as a .doc file (it’s an A3 file, incidentally):

Thesis chapter breakdown example

Download it! Use it! Adapt it! Add more chapters if you are doing more (I wrote very long chapters). Don’t write the chapter planned in this example because it does not advance scholarship in any way I can think of!

Hopefully it’s fairly self-explanatory, except maybe for the bold/not-bold text in the final column – the bold is the basic scope, and the not-bold the actual pithy bit of the argument I want people to remember.

So essentially that was my big thesis-writing discovery – and I wish I’d started planning/keeping track of writing like this sooner (while writing undergraduate essays, frankly). I hope it helps some people – and I’d love to hear any tips about this sort of thing! Obviously this is a pretty arts and humanities focused model, so any advice as to how I might make this more useful for people in other fields would be much appreciated, too.

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Get a new plan, Stan

Blackadder: Am I jumping the gun, Baldrick, or are the words “I have a cunning plan” marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this conversation? 
Baldrick: They certainly are. 

(Blackadder the Third, ‘Nob and Nobility’)

Nothing good in academia happens without a plan.

I am telling myself that, repeatedly, because the time has come to start writing a new chapter. I’m having the usual excitement/anxiety I get when I realise I’ve probably done enough research to get writing;  I start thinking ‘OK, this is it. This is the CENTRE of the whole THESIS and I have to NAIL IT’. (I think that every time. I imagine I’d have trouble writing if I was like ‘eh, this argument’s pretty incidental to the stuff before it, to be honest’).

Said performance anxiety is particularly high this time because:

  1. I’m going into my fourth year soon, I really should start treating this as the home stretch and, y’know, sprinting.
  2. Writing my last chapter felt like attempting several simultaneous acts of keyhole surgery, whilst playing baroque music on a harpsichord, in a blizzard.

I am aware that what I was actually doing was writing some stuff about history and books, and printing it out, and looking at it. Actually, I think a lot of the problem was that I couldn’t understand why it was knotting up my brain so much.1 I’m quite happy with the finished chapter, and a little perplexed by how deceptively simple it looks from this end of the telescope. But I’m going to try my damnedest to make things a little easier on myself this time.2

Hence the plan. I suspect a lot of confusion and soul-searching could have been avoided if I’d been a bit more strict with myself about planning. Because, as I say, nothing good in academia happens without a plan. No good lectures, no good seminars, no good papers, and certainly no good monster chapters. I’m going to leave seminars to one side right now because teaching is too important for me to treat it here as a sideshow to the business of writing, but suffice to say that I had the above realisation following a reading group in which I presented some letters to a bunch of nice folk I know very well and man, I should have made an actual plan for that.

I have precious little advice and few words of dubious wisdom this time. Instead, I’m going to blather about the many ways in which I am just a bit rubbish at making and sticking to plans for things I write. You can stop reading now if you want, I won’t judge you.

Anyway: teaching plans, no problem. I might deviate from a seminar plan or just outright ignore it if the class goes in another interesting direction, but it’ll be there and I’ll know it well and refer to it. I have a far more complicated relationship, though, with chapter outlines and so on.

I usually do at least attempt a plan of some description. I tend to fill them with jokes, weird shorthand, and vaguely aggressive notes to myself, just because that’s how I write when I’m thinking and planning. Which is more-or-less fine, except that quite often a supervisor or two will want to read what I’ve planned, and then I have to spend ages making it fit for consumption by a person who isn’t me. Even I’m a little too embarrassed to send a senior professional colleague a document that says ‘Even if I don’t do much this poem is angry doggerel gold’ and ‘Subtle this the hell up. And play nice’.3

Another, more serious, problem is that my plan-making process tends to go something like this.

  1. Start making plan.
  2. Enthusiastically plan first bit in some detail.
  3. Become increasingly vague as plan progresses.
  4. Spend rather too long coming up with snappy titles for the different sections.
  5. Get bored with planning.
  6. Decide to start writing because hey, let’s see how it goes.
  7. [Optional if planning in manuscript] At some point during or after points 1-6, lose piece of paper on which plan is written.

And the third and most serious problem is that as soon as I get into the writing of a piece – particularly if it’s a long piece, like a chapter – I find myself ignoring the plan. It just never quite works when I start writing stuff down. About a third of the way through I’ll begin to know what I’m doing and then I’ll be able to plan the rest, or at least sketch it out. But that opening third is not the most pleasant of experiences.

I suspect that struggling over and reworking and essentially writing through the difficulties (structure-wise, argument-wise, etc) of my chapters is a crucial part of the process for me. I think-write, always have done, whether I’ve written a detailed plan or not. The best things I’ve produced have often been the things I’ve been just about ready to tear my brain out over, repeatedly. At the same time, I’m not so wedded to some idea of the mystical ‘process’ by which I call down my chapter-writing muse that I’m not willing – eager, even – to keep on working at methods of making it a bit less psychologically draining.

The plan I have made for this coming chapter is better than most I manage. I have planned half of it, and have a basic idea of the argument of the second half. And, well, screw it, I’m going to give writing the first half a go, because I imagine that it will swing off in some unexpected directions pretty quickly so I should just get going and find out what those directions might be. I’m also hoping that maybe, maybe, the plan will help even if I don’t stick to it.

In fact, I’m wondering whether sticking to the plan actually isn’t the point at all.

Some of the best seminars I’ve taught have been ones that have headed entirely off-piste. You can’t go off-piste, though, unless there’s a piste. And a chairlift to get you up the mountain. And I have never been skiing in all my born days and should shut up about it now.

But what if the plan that nothing good in academia happens without is not actually a plan you stick to? Surely sticking to your initial plan for anything that takes a writing, researching, playacting-out, defending, hating, sobbing over, contradicting, negotiating process is like actually staying with the kid you march home from primary school one day and inform your mum you’re going to marry. It might work for a tiny minority of fortunate-but-presumably-not-fond-of-variety people, but for the majority of us some combination of fate, practicality, personality, and perhaps eventually sexuality manage to separate us from the people that were our One True Loves for a Week in Year 2, while the appeal of the awesome Lego skills/Ninja Turtles backpack/ability to do the best handstands in the class that first drew us to them fall by the wayside of our developing psyches. I mean, the ‘our’ thing is an ineffectual stab at comradeship here because I was over there reading something. But kids do this, right?

Anyway. That child with the Ninja Turtles backpack or whatever probably grew up perfectly nice, but you’re probably not with him or her. They’re doing their thing, you’re doing your thing. Plans got changed.

See, they weren’t bad plans, necessarily, but the process of living changes how you want to live. And thus it is, perhaps (she says, hauling it back to the topic) with academic stuff. You plan so you know where to start, where you might head after that, and (eventually) where you were going to go so that you can decide to head off in a different direction.

Writing, at least in my experience, will almost always sabotage itself. Writing helps you notice and think things about texts, events, and arguments that you don’t necessarily get by just reading and thinking about them. I usually disagree heartily with each plan by the time I’ve finished writing, so surely I should stop beating myself up about the fact that I never stick to plans. Some people progress intellectually by disagreeing with others; I apparently, progress by disagreeing with Past Kirsty. That idiot.


1. I suspect it was a case of Too Many Books. Lots of little pamphlets, dancing before my eyes…

2. My brain, immediately: ‘Hah. Good luck with that.’

3. Actual quotes from my current chapter plan. I’m not sure why I need the instruction to be nice.