Monday, 18 May 2015

'Your thesis isn't meant to be interesting'

I was sitting with my supervisor one day and going through a piece of my writing in which, alas, the (flowery, pretty) language, and in particular the (alliterative, beautiful) words I had chosen to end on were found wanting. The problem was, the pretty writing created ambiguity. 

'Do you really mean (X)?' my supervisor asked me. 'Or did you just choose those words because they sounded good?'

She had me. I marvelled at her powers of discernment.

'I guess I chose them because they... sounded good', I said.

My supervisor understood.

'You know', she said, 'your thesis isn't necessarily meant to be interesting.'

…I wilted. 

My thesis isn't meant to be interesting. I like nice writing, and that's basically of no use here. My thesis is meant to be boring. (Of course, the other problem was that I was not yet a fully-fledged writer of theses, and as such I actually had no idea as to what 'meaning' I was trying to get across; therefore, making the writing nicely obscure and 'flowery' suited me fine. I didn't yet have a clear point that I wanted to make. I wanted to write 5000 words of something and be left alone.I wanted to hide behind 'interesting' writing so I wouldn't have to commit to any concrete ideas yet.)

'Mate, that's rubbish!… I want your thesis to be interesting!… What if I want to read it one day? … Ignore this advice!' - was the general consensus amongst loved ones when i told them this news.

But my supervisor had a point. Your thesis is being written for a grand total of maybe two people: your examiners. It needs to be as clear as possible for them to understand. You need to take them by the hand and walk them through your ideas, and if there are any words in there which are just there to sound pretty, but actually don't clarify what you mean - or worse, create confusion, or suggest that you are going to lead them down avenues that you are not - then they need to go. It took me a long time to get my head around that one: how to write nicely, but in such a way that nothing detracts from what you really mean, and nothing creates ambiguity.

Of course, now that I'm trying to turn my PhD into a book, I am having to do a bit of a volte-face. Because a book, which is aimed not at two examiners but at a paying market and (hopefully) an international readership, HAS to be interesting. It can't just be full of sentences that just say things like 'In this chapter I will demonstrate' and 'I have thereby shown' and '(X theory) cannot be sustained'. It has to lead the reader into each chapter 'nicely', maybe with a much broader point, or an anecdote. The other day, I came across an article by a book-marketing guru (which inspired me a lot and which I have been trying, and failing, to find again and put on here), who makes the distinction between writing a 'good' book, and writing an 'interesting' one. He says, it's not enough for your book to be good; it has to, has to be interesting.

To all of you thesis-writers out there: your thesis doesn't need to be interesting. Don't get too paralysed by the writing. Just write; try to make your point as clear as possible; if you're not sure yet what your point is, it will come out in the successive drafts. 

But do save the interesting stuff somewhere, in a file or at the back of your mind, for later. You never know when you might get to use it.

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