Questions about writing (Part I)

Writing is fun. It is also difficult, stressful and at times, excrutiatingly bothersome. And every writer, be that in academia or in genres of fiction, is plagued by questions about the writing process. Recently I have asked myself three recurring questions which I can’t answer ultimately but I think I have reached a point where sharing my ideas and insecurities is better than pretending that everything is going smoothly.

How many citations are enough?

I have battled with this feeling, the constant nagging that I could – and should! – add more citations. There is always another recently published book or article that is relevant to my research. And I don’t even dare to think what I’m missing outside my regular research routine. The pressure to have enough citations is real and so is the pressure to cite the right publications. Do I cite my supervisor’s work? Luckily, my supervisor’s field of interest is only adjacent to mine so that her articles and books only fleetingly touch upon my research interest.

How do I handle research that is in opposition to my own?

I found my theoretical framework and research methodology basically by a lot of ’no not like that‘. I read an article and disliked the approach. Then I read another article and found that lacking, too. Now I’m not going to delve into which theories are fitting or which sort of research or how you figure out which is the right methodological set-up for your thesis.

Instead I want to say something about how to deal with current research that is at the other end of the scale. For example, violence is an important part of my research. The question arose what I mean by violence. Is it structural? Physical? Where do I place political violence? Once I decided what my definition of the phenomenon is, I had to decide how to handle the opposing theories. I answered this question surprisingly quickly and simply chose not to mention why I picked this theory and rejected the others. (And I sincerely hope my supervisor lets me get away with this.)

The case is different with opposing interpretations and premises, though. I can’t just skip over the fact that other researchers came to different conclusions. It is somehow required that I mention the colleagues in my field of research and position myself with regard to their findings. While I can’t seem to be able to avoid this minefield altogether I can at least limit the hazard zone – by putting the honourable mentions in the footnotes. There is no need to start an academic brawl or make an enemy by putting a drive-by review in your thesis.

When is my chapter done?

I have asked my post-doc office neighbour this question. She laughed and gave me a look full of pity.

When I asked my supervisor the same question she told me that a good stopping point is when it reads easily, without interruptions and open questions. When I answered every question I asked. And even though it may never be complete it will feel ready at some point. And guess what? One of my chapters feels that way. I have said everything I wanted to say. I would have to specifically go through my sources to find another bit of info to add to that chapter. That’s when I decided that this chapter is done in terms of content. Of course, it still needs a little tweaking here and there, a couple more citations and editing. But my line of argument is done. I would present and defend it the way it is now. (Which feels pretty awesome, to be honest.)

TL;DR

Acknowledge that you cannot read everything that has ever been written on your topic.

Be polite to other researchers and their work.

Don’t overthink this. The perfect, completely finished thesis (or article, book, etc.) does not exist.

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