Often when I tell someone I’m a writer, and that my life’s dream is to publish fiction novels, they give me this look. It’s a look of utter confusion—confusion that morphs into disbelief as they say, “Then why the hell are you studying science?”
But I love science. Facts and figures and the rigour of the scientific method are things that appeal to the analytical part of my brain. And let’s be honest. When a character in my epic fantasy project starts spouting the Law of Conservation of Energy, I should probably acknowledge that science is an integral part of who I am.
If you’ve checked out my About page, you’d know that I’m currently studying a double degree in Science and Environmental Engineering. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I decided to defer this year so I could pursue an Honours degree for science, stretching my expected time at university from five and a half to six and a half years. Yikes!
I thought it would be great. I’d get to look at rocks (nerdy, right?), there would be no exams (I’m sick of those things), and I’d have much more flexibility with my working hours (more time for writing!). Plus, there’s the added advantage of learning new skills and being perhaps a little more qualified for that graduate job. The downside?
Now, I’ve done a lot of scientific writing in the last few years. I’ve written 3000-word essays, various technical reports, and that 50-page maths project in my first semester that made the tutor’s eyes bulge. But something felt different about writing a thesis…and not in a good way.
Two weeks ago, I sat despondently at my desk, despairing over how I was going to turn this…
I was on the verge of throwing my laptop across the room. Fortunately, it was spared from an aerial journey by a little voice in my head—a little voice that whispered an absurd suggestion in my ear.
Why don’t you treat it like writing a story?
My initial denial was a knee-jerk reaction. There couldn’t possibly be enough similarities between thesis writing and story writing for that to work out. Right? But the idea had rooted itself in my mind, burrowing deeper and deeper with every passing minute, until I could no longer deny that it had merit.
So I started thinking of my thesis like a story, and considering it in terms of the key stages of my writing process. This is what I found…
Story writing vs. thesis writing in six stages
STAGE 1: RESEARCH
Story – I always conduct research before starting a story, regardless of the genre. If it’s fantasy, I need to know how that obscure weapon works, or understand the naming conventions in that ancient civilisation. If it’s contemporary, I require a firm grasp of the education system in the country of setting, or how a young person with pyromania feels and behaves. Research is vital. It informs the story and makes it more realistic.
Thesis – Obviously, the main purpose of a thesis is to present research. The main purpose of an Honours degree, in fact, is to conduct a research project. Research is what I’ve been doing all damn year, from that week back in February spent gazing up at coastal cliffs and hoping my assistant warned me before I was wiped out by a wave, to that day a month ago when I took a trip 100km out of town to use an analytical device not found elsewhere.
STAGE 2: PLANNING
Story – Writers plan to differing degrees, but as I’ve discussed previously (see JOURNEY PART 3: The hand of the gods), planning is an essential part of my writing process. I can’t seem to get past the first few pages of a story unless I know exactly where it’s going and what will happen next.
Thesis – I started at my blank thesis document for a long time, wondering where to begin. There was just so much to write about! Eventually, I typed out my headings: abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, references, appendices. Then I typed out sub-headings. Slowly, a definite structure took form, and my thoughts and ideas slotted smoothly into each section. Planning, I realised. This was planning.
STAGE 3: DRAFTING
Story – The best part, in my opinion. There’s something liberating about getting the story out of your head and onto paper, but it’s hard work too. You have to leap over the hurdles thrown in your way, if not smash right through them. Because once the first draft is written, you have something to work with. Before then…well, there’s not much else you can do.
Thesis – The absolute worst part. Evil Incarnate. The discussion part was the Devil itself. It’s no small feat to take an entire year’s work and turn it into a few pages of text that not only draw out the main findings but analyse what it is they mean. However, the same principle applies as it does in fiction writing: I realised I needed to get the first draft out there, no matter how terrible it was.
STAGE 4: LETTING IT SIT
Story – I’ve recently discovered the importance of letting a first draft sit a while before jumping into edits. I forced myself wait six weeks after finishing the first draft of Holding Up the Sky, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But it helps you gain some distance, lose some of the emotional attachment, and thus makes you more likely to identify necessary changes.
Thesis – I finished the first draft of my thesis yesterday evening, and decided to do something similar. My brain feels like a pile of mush and goo, so it’s probably not a bad idea. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of taking a six-week break. The thesis is due next Friday. So I’ll take today off. Just today. Probably.
STAGE 5: EDITING
Story – I don’t have a whole lot of experience with editing, but I know that it’s more than just correcting spelling and grammatical errors. It’s not only about doing the editing yourself, either. Remaining objective about your own work is near-impossible, so it’s vital you seek feedback from someone else. And you need to take that feedback on board, no matter how much it hurts.
Thesis – I sent my supervisor a 16-page snippet of my thesis the other day, and it came back with 29 major revisions I need to make. Which is good. The goal is to produce the best result possible, after all. But it’s kind of soul destroying too.
STAGE 6: PUBLISHING
Story – The final stage of writing a story, right? Sure, not all stories are published, but I plan for mine to be—in some way, shape or form. I write first for personal enjoyment, but I want others to enjoy my stories too. Even if it’s just my family and friends.
Thesis – I must admit I’m excited about this part. We have to colour print and bind copies of our thesis for submission. It will cost a small fortune, but I’ve always loved making things that resemble a book. I’ve already started looking into the different ways I can get my thesis bound…
As you can see, there are actually a lot of similarities between writing a fiction novel and a scientific thesis, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first glance. I have a week and a half until my thesis is due, and for the first time in months I’m finally feeling good about it. Thinking of the project like creating a story certainly helped me conquer the Evil Incarnate that is thesis writing.
How did you conquer Evil Incarnate? Or have you encountered a different type of project where it helped to think of it like writing a story?