Wrenching writing and difficult decisions

I had a realisation this morning, when I was sipping on coffee and redrafting the methods section of my paper. It’s something I’ve known for years, but it had never made its way into conscious thought until today.

I realised why I actively enjoy writing first drafts, and like each subsequent phase a little bit less.

It is because writing is essentially a continual process of making decisions.

In your first draft, if you can switch off your inner editor, you don’t need to make many decisions. This must be why I love free writing – it’s a way to get my ideas on the screen without any judgement of what comes out. There are no decisions that need to be made.

Each draft that follows embodies a series of decisions: Should this be included? Is this the most concise way to phrase my idea? Do I need a reference to back this up? Is this structure good? Do I need to explain this word? Am I repeating myself too much?

With the early drafts, you can reassure yourself by saying “oh, I’ll come back to this in my next draft. It doesn’t need to be perfect now.” And while I agree that fixating on one thing to the detriment of the rest of a piece of work is foolish, at some point you are going to have to answer these questions. You are going to have to make some final decisions.

Let’s be clear. I am not the voice of a woman who has everything figured out. I am a woman who finds the redrafting process anxiety-provoking. At the moment, I get through it by working hard, moving forward, and telling myself that I’ll come back and reconsider the decisions I’ve made at a later date. I am fully aware that at some point I am going to have to stop and call it “good enough”.

But our whole academic lives, we’ve been taught how to critically evaluate work by some of the leaders in our field. How can we consider our own work “good enough” by those standards? Perhaps there’s another post in that.

I do think that being aware that I am constantly making decisions is helpful. With parts of my thesis, I am getting to the point where I need to say “I have to make a proper decision on this now”. Or perhaps I should take the other approach: Trick my brain into thinking it’ll have the chance for an infinite number of “final” redrafts, and then, out of the blue, tell it that time is up.

What do you think? Do you have difficulty wrestling with writing decisions? Are you finding it easy to visualise your finished thesis, or do you feel like there are too many decisions to make between this point and submission? How do you know when to make the hard decisions, and call it finished? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.



  1. Thankfully I have never written anything as important as a thesis, but my solution has to been to think about what I’m writing as little as possible. I give myself almost no time for reviewing and editing to avoid the agony of correction.

  2. I’m just the opposite: I find first drafts the hardest. That’s because – as discussed in an article I tweeted today (Writing to Not Print http://bit.ly/1du5x7L) – I can’t think unless I write. I continually forget that and think I should know what I have to say before I start to write.

    Once I have a first draft, I find writing much easier. It’s that first attempt to get the ideas out and down that’s hard. I love improving the writing by repeated editing. A book I’ve found helpful is ‘Line by Line’ by Claire Kehrwald Cook.

    I spent two years not writing my PhD thesis. Then I started sitting in the library every day and wrote it in a year. I think it was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.

    You and I have a few things in common. My father was born in Glasgow. He was a musician. And I wrote a book on anxiety. I think you’re onto something with music and anxiety. Best of luck on your thesis!

    1. Hello Jan

      I went to a writing course a couple of years ago, and only 2 of us in the room liked starting writing and found editing hard – the rest (about 18 people) found drafts hardest. Perhaps starters and finishers should pair up and make superpowered writing teams.

      Thanks for the tips and for the luck :)


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