Conducting an Extended Writing Project

Sustaining an Extended Writing Project

Before beginning any extensive project, it is always wise to size it up before hand, considering whether and how it can be completed. This wisdom certainly holds for beginning an extended writing project such as a book, thesis, or dissertation. All writing requires planning and organization, but lengthy projects demand special diligence and foresight.


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Counting the Cost




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Counting the Cost
Before beginning any extensive project, it is always wise to size it up before hand, considering if and how it can be completed.  This wisdom certainly holds for beginning an extended writing project such as a book, thesis, or dissertation.  All writing requires planning and organization, but lengthy projects demand special diligence and foresight.  Consider the following advice when thinking about a potential project:

•    Be Realistic about your Timeline
We all know that writing takes time.  But how much time a project will require is sometimes difficult to judge, especially if you have no prior experience with an extended project.  Consider that you will need ample time for research (exactly how much research is hard to say from the beginning), including time to clarify your specific topic.  Be sure to budget plenty of time for secondary literature review, as well as time to reflect on primary sources and develop your own thoughts.  You must have sufficient time set aside to write initial drafts of important chapters and sections for review by an advisor or reader, and you will then need time to respond to their feedback, rewriting some or all of your initial work and conducting additional research.  After taking stock of the full scope of work required, consider that there are many other important responsibilities in your life that require your time and attention.  How will you project with work responsibilities, family and community relationships, rest and recreation, and spiritual well-being?  

•    Clarify Realistic Goals
As you take stock of your available time, energy, and interest for your project, consider also the purpose of the final project.  Do you want to publish your work as an academic monograph, or are you content simply to submit your dissertation and complete the PhD?  Is an article to be published in a respected journal, or could you publish it more easily on the web?  These goals will tighten or relax the requirements and pressure you feel and the pace at which you write.  Give yourself freedom to avoid perfectionist tendencies and decide on a responsible goal for your writing.

•    Choose an Interesting Topic
Since you will be spending a significant bit of time reading, thinking, and writing about your topic, choose a topic that interests you.  Topics that are interesting are also usually important—whether to how people think, how they live, or both.  Finding a topic about which you are especially passionate is an excellent way to infuse your academic work with zeal, focus, and momentum.  

There is no greater source of confusion, frustration, and wasted time in writing than disorganization.  Organization is important on several levels, each of which is essential.

•    Organization of Ideas
This is perhaps the most elusive but most necessary level of organization, especially for the kind of in-depth study involved in an extended project.  When writing a work of some length, you will need to discuss and present a wide range of thoughts, information, and arguments.  When beginning a project, the various aspects of the topic can be overwhelming and confusing, and it is easy to find yourself lost cacophony of ideas and information.  But it is the task of a writer to take a complex and thorny subject and present an intelligent and clear analysis of it.  You must therefore master the details, organizing them under an overarching vision for the work.  Without a clear perception of what you are seeking to do in your project, you probably will struggle to put the pieces of your work together, to decide what goes where, what aspects are central and need further development, and which information might be passed over until another project.
    It is therefore especially necessary that you keep this overarching vision for the project—the big picture—in the forefront of your mind as you plod along in painstaking tasks of research and writing.  Toward clarifying and maintaining this vision, there is no substitute for regular conversations about your work with peers and advisors.  Talking with others forces you to articulate your ideas clearly, and these conversations can reveal places where ideas need to be developed or challenged.  Professors and fellow students can provide invaluable feedback on your work and may be able to point you to resources of which you are unaware.

•    Organization of Research
Because extended projects usually involve extensive research, the organization of research materials is vital.  As you begin accumulate a variety of materials on related topics, it becomes necessary to organize these sources in a system that allows you to locate sources quickly and easily.  This organization can be accomplished though the use of folders or hanging files labeled by topic, into which articles, photocopies, and your own notes can be placed.  Alternatively (or in conjunction with a physical system) it is possible to keep an electronic filing system with articles, bibliographies, documents, and notes arranged in folders for easy electronic access.  Electronic files have the obvious advantage of being portable and allowing easy transference of data among files and documents.  Whatever system you devise, it should be clear and useful, helping you to save materials carefully for quick location when the need arises.  
    Several useful software programs exist for organizing personal research libraries.  Some examples include Zotero [link to]  and Endnote [link to] .  Students are encouraged to consult their peers and professors for specific advice regarding these and other helpful programs.  To listen to an audio discussion of using Zotero for research, click here [link to Tommy Keene’s audio].

•    Organization of Writing
Writing for an intensive project involves a cyclical process of writing out initial ideas, evaluating and reconsidering those ideas, and re-writing more refined thoughts and arguments.  This process is closely tied to the analytical process of research [link to “Analysis” section?].  A successful writing process provides a format for you to write out thoughts on your topic throughout this process.  Consider keeping a list of research questions, a bibliography, a working outline, and a document (or several) for jotting down thoughts on various topics as they come up.  While a system of electronic folders allows easy access and transfer of material among documents, some students work better with hard copy folders.  Whatever system you use, be consistent and make the system work for you.

With a long project, it is especially important to keep working at a steady pace.  Periods of rest can sometimes be necessary and beneficial, but putting the work down for too long can cause you to lose your focus and momentum.  Making steady progress on your project requires diligence, devotion, and a regular habit of work that includes the following characteristics:

•    Steady Reading
Regular reading on your topic is essential for handling your topic carefully and competently.  Even if you are unable for a period of time to write or conduct intensive analysis of primary sources, you can still peruse secondary sources, familiarizing yourself with the works of other scholars. Depending upon your research subject, you may benefit from alternating your reading between primary and secondary sources.  As you become more aware of the issues and debates among scholars, you prepare yourself for a more precise and probing engagement with your primary sources.
    Because even an interesting topic can become tedious over an extended period of time, you may benefit from adding some variety to your reading.  Consider picking up a book or article whose topic is interesting but perhaps only tangentially connected to your topic.  You may find yourself stimulated toward your work in new ways.  For example, if you are studying American Presbyterianism in the early 20th century, you may find your perception of that period enhanced by reading a work of fiction written in that era.  Additionally, your style of writing and command of language always stand to benefit from observing the strengths of a variety of writers.

•    Steady Writing
Writing a thesis or dissertation can be a daunting task.  The longer you wait to begin writing, the longer the work will hang over your head.  Achieving a sense of momentum and direction is greatly facilitated by a habit of regular writing, and the more you are used to sitting down and writing out your thoughts, the better those thoughts will be.  If you can identify a regular time and place that help you to focus and write, you can make writing a part of your regular schedule, breaking the looming task of writing into smaller, more manageable bits.  
    Many writers find it helpful to begin writing by allowing themselves simply to write freely without giving too much attention to grammar or style.  By getting one’s ideas out in this fashion, a writer is able to do the work of articulating important thoughts without worrying firstly about phrasing and word choice.  This method of writing can be useful even before the research is completed, as an aid to thinking about the research question and proposing possible solutions.  As you write out important thoughts, save them in an accessible format, such as an electronic “notes” file specified by topic or else a file folder containing related research documents.  Remember, the more you do early on, the more steadily your writing will flow throughout the process.  

•    Regular Deadlines
Because many long-term projects are self-paced, setting and achieving regular deadlines is a necessity for making headway on large projects.  Such deadlines are only useful, however, if they are actually heeded.  Setting and meeting deadlines for small, achievable goals can help you build a habit of making steady, identifiable progress.  Consider sharing your deadlines with other students, writers, or your advisor and asking for help to keep you accountable for your progress.  

•    Working Smart
There are sometimes opportunities that allow you to make headway on your project while working on another project.  For example, you may be able to direct your research for a class term paper to the topic on which you plan to write your thesis.  By the time the term paper is written, you will have made substantial progress on your long-term research goal.  Or perhaps you could write a sermon that is related to your topic to give as a guest preacher.  In addition to the direct overlapping of work, some positions, such as ministerial or educational positions, provide sabbaticals that can be used for research and writing, as well as other assistance with research and writing.  As you become aware of such opportunities, try to use them strategically to make progress on your project.

Remember, steady and consistent progress requires patience, faithfulness, and self-control.  These attributes are not natural but are the fruit of the Spirit’s work (Gal 5:22-23), obtained gradually over time through faith, work, and prayer.