2,400 words plus into the body of one my dissertation chapters, it dawned on me that I was not in a place where I wanted be. The words were halting, the research I had conducted less giving, and, well, if one could use an honest phrase, when I read my work “bull s*#t” came to mind. Arrrggh.

“Writing is a thinker’s game,” said Professor Elizabeth Colwill to me some time ago at San Diego State. In History (note the capital “H”), crafting a story about what already played out once, using scraps of primary evidence, and a catalogue of opinions from scholars before you, to create something new and purposeful that adds to scholarly discourse while not making a fool of yourself: now that isn’t exactly too easy. Had I known History was a self-flagellating, barb-filled enterprise, I might have said yes to a lifetime of digging ditches.

So what’s a budding scholar to do? Answer: think without panicking. Which I did: I asked myself the following series of questions.

Where did I go wrong? At what point in the prose did my story, my perspective, my moment of intense, epiphany-driven brilliance go astray?

IMG_1371For that I needed my original purpose, my thesis statement for the section. Once found, I condensed it down to four words and placed them on a 2-inch by 2-inch post-it note, slightly decorated and highlighted, of course. Slap! A prominent place on the wall.

At this point, I re-read the piece looking for the place where I diverged from my original intentions. Each sentence and paragraph juxtaposed to the four words on the post-it note. At about the 624 word mark I found it: the place where things went wrong.

Arrrggh! How torturous the reality of knowing that nearly three-quarters of what I brought into existence was worthy of excremental statements. I hovered my cursor over the offending area and hit enter several times to shift that body of work way, way, way down and out of view.

But then, something wonderful happened. The postie on the wall glared at me and winked. It seemed to say, “You know this.” I researched my notes and discovered the proper direction the piece needed. I’ve now written but 130 words more, but already the difference is remarkable. The piece remains focused on the original intent. And, more importantly, gone is the pile of word-waste that would have made me look stinky before the eyes of my supervisors.

Professor Colwill was right. Writing is a thinker’s game. But thinking it through, finding the footing, realizing the gaff, and beginning the rewrites is what gets you to the winner’s circle… sans the panic.