In sympathy with all those researchers out there trying to get the tough papers writer, Dr Matthew Partridge offers his advice…
Writing is hard. It can be hard to start, hard to end and hard to keep doing it even when you’re in the middle of it.
For short pieces, like writing blog posts, the start and the end basically merge together to make a middle (fun fact: I sometimes write the end before the start). Especially if you really expand the introduction with long run on sentences that don’t especially add anything to the piece but serve the purpose of giving the impression that there is deeper content than is really written.
For longer pieces of work, like a thesis or reports, the start can be more difficult as you need to introduce or wrap up a lot of other context in a nice and satisfying way. In a thesis, the introduction can end up taking multiple chapters. In papers, the introduction can be longer than the results section… but both start and end pale in comparison to the desolate middle writing section which has a special kind of way of wearing you down.
If writing something is like a journey, then the start is an uphill climb. The end, an exhausted stumble to the finish. But the middle is a marathon through a featureless flat desert.
The start nicely sets up your work and to write it you can draw from lots of reports, papers and other sources. It follows a very conserved structure. You can approach it head down and power through.
The middle however has no clear structure. You and your work define it and there’s no one to show you where to go. Just an empty expanse, and you are the only one that can navigate it. A big featureless expanse which somehow you need to cross… err fill. This metaphor is getting very confused, but it’s the middle of the article so it’s to be expected.
If you’re really good at planning out your writing this can help, as it gives you an idea of what you need to do for this middle section, but all thesis plans are only good until you try and write them. If you’ve not got everything pre-organised, then you have the double problem of trying to work out what is meant to be there AND where it’s meant to go.
Either way, this middle section can feel very unrewarding, as the more you work on it the more it appears to neither fit nor flow together. A sense of looming dread that somehow, it’s all completely wrong and out of place sets in. All you can do is keep writing and slogging away at it.
Eventually it will all start clicking together – instead of feeling like a featureless blank desert, the piece will start to look like a poorly constructed child’s drawing of a desert with green bits. Then a nice cartoon picture of a desert with trees. And finally; a half-decent painting of a small oasis.
If you are currently in the middle writing slog with your work then just remember we all go through it. That bit in the middle, where nothing looks quite right and we can’t see if it’s good or bad, is tough. But at the end it will all of a sudden come together and you’ll see the bigger picture/painting… at least for a couple of weeks until the reviewers write ‘NOPE’ across it.
Best not to think about that right now… be positive!