I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing process re: thesis and re: fiction, lately, because…well, the processes almost couldn’t be more different, what with one being an 80 page academic paper, and the other being, well, fiction.
Every time I meet my supervisor to talk about my thesis, I’ve sent her what I’ve had in advance, and she always, without exception, looks nervous about pointing out the flaws and “need more work” and so on. Last time we met, she could barely look me in the eye when she said that “this one section looks more like school level analysis than an academic analysis”, as if she was afraid I would be horribly offended or hurt – and I realised that years and years of writing fiction and having it beta read and criticised has pretty much rendered me…immune?
Or maybe not immune, per se, but I don’t get hurt or offended by any of her criticisms, because I’m approaching the thesis very much like I approach fiction – I need the criticism, so I can see where I need to change, and what to do better. It’s a learning process, every single time. There’s no end to the learning. There will never come a point where I’ve “got it”. I don’t know what she’s used to from other students that makes her that nervous, but I’ve accepted every single one of her criticisms, and I follow up with questions, and I change things, and then show her the revisions and then I ask her if it’s better or if it still needs work. I ask her about strategies and ways to tackle specific problems. I figure out what needs to be done to make my problems scientific ones. And I’ve never been hurt. Even when she said “school analysis”, which in retrospect I probably would’ve been upset about ten years ago. Thesis writing is really not that much different from writing fiction, when it comes down to it.
Then on the other hand, writing this huge ass academic paper is teaching me things about structure and storytelling (yes, strangely enough) that I’d begun to forget re: fiction. When I look at my body of work, most of my best structured work is four-five years old. Everything I’ve written in at least the past two years feels (to me) boneless. Somewhere along the way, my writing style changed and became not only heavily dialogue-based, but also basically just giant pillows of plotless fluff. No structure, no tension, no climax, no careful build of…story. I did try to combat that a bit with my latest finished story, a novella I spent a couple of months on last summer. I tried to work some structure into it, some more description, less dialogue. A faint smidge of plot. I re-read old work to see what I’d done, trying to figure out how to get my writing back on track. I don’t know how well it worked out as I haven’t re-read it since I finished it in September, and anyway I don’t have time these days to focus on fiction writing because I have my thesis and two jobs (yes, two. That’s an update for another day.) to keep me busy. Still, I feel like I’m stumbling over some “Aha! That’s what I need to do!” stones all the time, so I’m just…quietly picking up the stones and filing away the information for later application.
I’m also getting into some really nice writing habits, in that I get up in the mornings, get dressed, go to uni to write my thesis, or (now that I no longer have a place in the thesis office and the tables in the library are the wrong height for me) stay at home to write. It’s taken me over a year to build up the habit and get the routine going, but now I have it, and I keep at it. All those writerly advice articles (that all look and sound the same) that flood the internet about how become a better writer? They all mention routine as a key element. I am here to tell you it’s true. And that it does take a frustratingly long time to settle into a routine, but when you’ve got it, it’s the most pleasant thing in the world.
tl;dr: Writing fiction is good for your ability to accept criticism and writing a thesis is good for your ability to structure your writing.