Preparing for a binge writing session


This post is about organising yourself for a ‘binge writing’ session.

While ‘snack writing’ (writing small amounts, consistently) is good practice, there comes a time when deadlines require the strict application of bottom to seat. These binge writing sessions are much better if you prepare well in advance.

As I write this, I’m running a thesis bootcamp weekend at ANU, where we challenge people to write 20,000 words of their thesis. Long time readers may recall Liam Connall’s post about the general concept of bootcamps (Drop and give me 20,000 (words)!) I encourage you to read that post if you want to learn more about what a bootcamp is and how to run one.

I want to acknowledge Liam, along with Peta Freestone and Katherine Firth for their excellent work in developing the bootcamp concept, particularly their idea of generating a ‘thesis map’. At ANU, we will not let people come to bootcamp until we have received and reviewed their map.

The rest of this post is the text from my Thesis Map handout. I hope this post will be useful to others who are planning bootcamps. Or maybe you want to bootcamp yourself! This planning activity can help you make the best of an uninterrupted stretch of time to really progress your writing.

If you like, you can skip the post and go straight to the formatted version of this hand out, which might be easier to read (WordPress does crappy tables)

Why are we asking you to do this activity?

We want you to make a plan to write at least 20,000 words. These words can all be in a couple of specific chapters, or they can be parts of all the chapters. A thesis map helps you organise the writing as a list of actionable things to do, rather than a bunch of thoughts and ideas swirling around in your head.

The Thesis Road map document is for you, but we will be reviewing your map to assess your support needs. If we think your map is not complete enough, we will be in touch. You can make this document in MS word or your preferred program, but you’ll need to use one that handles tables.

Making a useful thesis road map will take you at least a couple of days. Some people find it can take longer than a week.

As tempted as you will be, please don’t rush through this step. People tell us the thesis road map is a total game changer and continues to be valuable as they finish their thesis. Inger has used this method of organising herself (and others) through eight published books: it works.

Step One: produce some summary statements

Start with some overall direction statements at the top of the page – this helps us understand your overall topic and match you with people with similar interests.

Complete the following sentences and include them as bullet points at the top of the document:

  • What is your thesis about – but in just one sentence (plain language please, no more than 50 words):
  • This thesis contributes to knowledge by (up to 100 words):
  • This study is important because (up to 150 words):
  • My key research question(s) are: (up to six questions)

Step Two: prepare a writing table. 

Pull out your latest thesis annual progress report – it should contain a chapter outline. If it doesn’t, or it’s out of date, you’ll need to draft a new one. We want you to turn this chapter list into an actionable writing plan using the table format below.

We find this format works for most people, but feel free to modify it if you want to add more information.

You can attempt to map out all the chapters in detail (highly recommended), or you can just concentrate on a few where you want to add the most words.

Remember, you just need to plan out about 20,000 words of work. Here’s what to include in your table:

Thesis Title:

Proposed Thesis Length: (be as specific as you can – don’t just say ‘100,000’ because that’s the maximum.)

Due date: (this should be the date that you plan to submit to the university – it may be before or after the date that is currently in the system as your maximum completion time)

List of chapters: (include your current chapter list here, with proposed word counts if possible)

Chapter to work on at Bootcamp – Title and Synopsis

(No more than 200 words.)

Briefly describe the content in this chapter and what it contributes to the overall thesis. How does it progress the argument, answer your research questions and/or inform the reader about the topic?

State of the subsections of my chapter

Every chapter will have subsections. Most thesis subsections are 500 – 2000 words, but they can be longer or shorter, depending on the topic. (if you don’t yet have subsections, look at the guidance below about how to outline.)

Now colour your subsection headings:

Green – needs editing, but generally ok.
Orange – I see the ‘through line’ here. It needs some thinking work, but I generally know what it’s about and where my argument/explanation needs to go.
Red – I have no idea what goes in here. Gah!

Next Actions / Notes

Assess what you have in your subsections. Write some notes about the writing that needs to be done. These notes are for you – they don’t have to make sense to us.

Here’s a formatted version of this hand out with some sample text so you can see how it all looks in a table. 

The orange parts are the best bits to tackle in Bootcamp!

Orange bits are the areas of your thesis ripe for adding words – especially with the ‘first draft’ mentality we will be pushing at Bootcamp. Use these bits as a basis for planning where you want to add words.

The green bits are very tempting, but you might find yourself editing and not progressing the word count. It’s good to know where they are so you don’t get drawn in too much.

The red bits can be a bit daunting when you are under pressure, but you might be surprised what comes out when you start writing in the way we encourage you to at bootcamp. Our philosophy is ‘make a mess, then clean it up’. Your thesis road map table can act as a way to capture thoughts and ideas about what might be in the red bits as you write.

Depending on how long you have before boot camp starts, you might be able to do work on the red bits and move more of them into orange. Go for it!

Help please! My thesis is too much of a mess to make a map!

Relax, this is normal. We find a surprising number of people have not thought about their thesis as a whole for a while (or ever). If you found your materials and chapters are not planned enough to put in the table, here’s two techniques to create a bit more order:

Technique one: The Snowflake method when the chapter is still really formless

The snowflake method enables you to plan the ‘story spines’ of your writing, while keeping your plan flexible and responsive to change.

Begin expanding your chapter outline by including a short synopsis of around 300 – 400 words. This is essentially an abstract for the chapter. Ask yourself:

  • What are the main points this chapter needs to cover?
  • What resources/evidence will I need to draw on to demonstrate these?
  • How does this chapter relate to my overall argument?

When you have the synopsis ready, make a list of provisional subheadings under the chapters. This is the second level of organisation. These subheadings should show the order in which you plan to arrange material you are writing. Add a provisional word count for each subheading (ideally you should have no more than 2 pages between each subheading).

Under each subheading, try to put in a third level of detail to your plan. This should be a series of sentences that act as a ‘storyline’: they capture what each paragraph under the subheading will cover.

You can start this third level with a messy list of whatever you think should go under the subheading. This can be notes to yourself, reminders, bits of data and analysis, lists of literature – whatever you like. Remember, as a general rule academic writing should contain some or all of the following elements:

  • ‘Knowledge claims’ or ‘truth statements’
  • Inferences / speculation / propositions
  • References to prior work
  • Definitions
  • Evidence/examples
  • Acknowledgement of counter arguments / examples
  • Conclusions

Now have a go at putting this detail into the map format above. Make sure you chase up as much of this detail as you can before you come to Bootcamp.

Technique Two: The reverse outline method when you have a bunch of messy stuff that doesn’t look like a chapter yet. 

This exercise is adapted from materials published on the Explorations in Style blog by Rachel Cayley and on various writings by Dr Claire Aitchinson on the ‘story line’ technique.

A reverse outline is a plan made from an existing draft. The idea of the reverse outline is to diagnose any potential problems with your arguments and identify ways forward without mucking around too much with the existing text and potentially destroying good work.

Here is a step-by-step approach:

  1. Number the paragraphs in your original chapter draft.
  2. Cut and paste sentences containing the key idea from each paragraph into a new document, preserving the paragraph numbering. If none of the sentences has the key idea, write a brief sentence capturing what the paragraph is about (or should be about).
  3. You should end up with a list of sentences that capture the ‘storyline’ of the chapter. Read through the new document and be ruthless – is there a coherent story emerging?
  4. If you feel the overall story does not flow properly, or has gaps, rearrange the sentences in your story line and add in new ones as appropriate. New sentences should have the number plus a letter – i.e. 7 then 7a, 7b etc.

When you are happy with your story line, have another go at filling in the table. Before the bootcamp, make some time to cut and paste anything useful from your existing writing back into a new document and put comments over it about where you want to add words.

I’m a historian / Lawyer / Mathematician: none of this will work for me.

Hello lovely people! I have heard this complaint consistently over the last 10 years.

First of all – I hear you, but some of it will work. Give it a go at least. Send us whatever you manage to do with a note at the top about your circumstances.

Mathematicians: it’s usually the stopping to format equations that gets in the way of ‘flow’. We recommend just drawing it on a piece of paper, snapping a photo and inserting that into your document as a placeholder. However, sometimes the work IS the creation/formatting of the equations – if that’s the case for you, chat to us. We can ‘count’ equations as words so you still get the rewards and a sense of how much progress you have made. Identify which ones you need to make before you come to bootcamp.

Historians / Lawyers: your biggest problem seems to be marshalling sources with a high degree of precision. I know doing this at bootcamp, without all your physical stuff, can be a source of anxiety. Also, the nature of the work means you feel the need to check stuff all the time, breaking writing flow.

To get the most out of Bootcamp, you need to find ways to minimize this ‘churn’ by treating the writing like a stir-fry: cut up your ingredients as much as you can in advance. We recommend you look at the notes for ‘Building a second brain for writing’, particularly slide 18, for some ideas about managing your information down into digestible ‘chunks’. If you are excited about Obsidian and want some tips, email Inger (she can nerd for Australia about it. Hey, if you want to do all your bootcamp writing in Obsidian after watching that video, we witness you!)