a metaphor for thesis completion?

I read a tweet not too long ago from Margaret Atwood. She announced that she was just about to ‘go down the writing burrow’ for a while.

Her metaphor of the writing burrow really struck me. The ‘burrow’ clearly signals that you will be out of communication for a bit. You’re going to be cut off, living in your own world, tunneling deep into ideas, hibernating until the writing is done.

The notion of the writing burrow also rings true to me. It suits those times when I have to be completely obsessed with producing a particular piece of text. But it flies in the face of all that writing advice which says that all you have to do is to write regularly every day and the big pile of words will just appear. You do have to write regularly, yes, but sometimes you have to do more – you have to become completely obsessed with your project, absolutely and utterly compulsive about getting the writing done. Total focus is the only way, it sometimes seems, to produce the work.

This was how I got my own thesis done. I can clearly remember cranking out two to three thousand words every morning and then spending the rest of the day getting organized for tomorrow’s stint. Even when I wasn’t physically at the desk, or in the office, my brain was still half at work on the writing. There were notebooks in every room in case I had a thought, a flash of something I should add in, or something I needed to change.

This was of course quite a strain on domestic life. I wasn’t up for distracting conversations some of the time. Or I perversely wanted an engaged listener because I needed to clarify something that I couldn’t quite sort out in my head. But then I often got distracted when my partner started a conversation about something not related to my writing. Fortunately, this single-minded anti-social period didn’t last that long, and my partner was patient and tolerant. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have finished my PhD in good time if I hadn’t been in a position to burrow into the writing process in this way.

Now I’m sure that not every thesis writer has to narrow their focus and attention this much in order to write the Big Text. I’m sure that many people do write on bit by bit and get it all down and done. But I do suspect that going down the writing burrow happens more and more often than we say. The last few months of the PhD sometimes really DO require the PhD researcher to become completely and thoroughly immersed and embedded in their text.

And… I’m not at all sure we do PhD researchers a favour by not acknowledging that there MAY be a need for them to spend time getting down and dirty in the writing burrow. I know it’s scary, and I know it might put some people off, but really, it is how it is for some of us. Burrow, burrow, scribble scribble, another fat book. And how good to know that’s how it is for Margaret Atwood too!!

What’s your experience of thesis writing? Was/is it a burrow, or something else?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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13 Responses to a metaphor for thesis completion?

  1. Carol Webb says:

    More a series of tunnels, some longer than others, the light at the end of each so welcome and seen so differently after the writing experience.


  2. lemexie says:

    “Down the burrow” is an excellent metaphor. Partners of “the burrowers” need a sympathetic network group and suggested coping strategies to support them during this phase.


  3. Ddubdrahcir says:

    There is an element of always thinking about it, but when it comes to writing, I always need a run-up and a big window. Snatching an hour doesn’t work, but having four or five does. I work full-time and am finishing off my PhD (and we have a small child!), so burrowing is always brief. But give me an hour to think myself back in and a few hours to write, edit, or cogitate, and it trundles on.


  4. jcolton360 says:

    It is like a burrow – and jobs going into that space – but often there is someone at the entrance calling down to me. It’s usually my beautiful daughter and she scoops me up to the surface. When I can’t burrow, my writing is disjointed and loses its thread. It’s a difficult choice.


  5. During my PhD it was a burrow indeed, but as a post-doc I’m finding it harder to just be “out of communication for a bit… to be cut off, living in my [your] own world, tunneling deep into ideas, hibernating until the writing is done”.

    My inbox is, on a weekly basis, flooded with a number of requests/favours from colleagues. Most of the time it is difficult or impossible to say no to some of these requests, some from senior academics, meaning I can’t just disconnect, hide and write. As someone once said: your inbox is someone else’s to-do list. Oh how I wish I could ‘go down the writing burrow’ like Margaret Atwood!


  6. Karenmca says:

    ‘The writing burrow’ is a great metaphor – and not just for thesis writers! I also find that having a nice coffee mug which I ONLY use when writing, is another small way of getting my mind in ‘the right place’ down that burrow! (Hobbits, the lot of us?)


  7. Jill Berry says:

    Just popped my head out of the burrow to read this, and am now going back again….


  8. Man, I hear you, Pat! My PhD is nearing completion and I find I need time to write (think, edit, rewrite, etc) that is simply not possible right now. I work full time in teaching in the uni music system (plus owning and running my own music teaching company) and I find there is a vast difference between teaching and writing head spaces. It’s a horrible feeling to know I can’t really burrow deeply into my nearly-ready-to-submit writing when I have 135 undergraduate students to teach (including 25 1-2-1 singing students), plus 100+ essays to mark and 10 shows to mark, as well as 35 teaching hours per week. Burrowing is a great name for it, by the way. Immersion? I wish.


  9. sush says:

    Reblogged this on reflections on the everyday and commented:
    I’ve been having quite a few conversations about thesis writing and writing in general. I find writing hard, mainly because I am “burrowing” kind of writer, and as this post says, that is against almost everything one is taught about writing. One must learn to write in bits and pieces and multitask. Its multitasking when writing that is hard for me. I need to focus on one piece for at least a day before I can write but with all the other tasks at hand, I find that hard to do and hence it takes much longer to write.


  10. rral says:

    Write like that seems hard to me. My style is more write a little everyday. Some days I write more than others. I cannot just immerse myself in the job. The multitask job works better to me. I know that at some point people (maybe the supervisor) will require this to me, but the idea really put me off.


  11. Amyra says:

    I only wish I had the luxury of going ‘burrow’. I am nearing the finish line and still wondering if there could be a way to be committee to thesis writing without the domestic life disintegrating around me? The never-ending chores and woes of a single mom with three kids leaves neither time nor space to ‘burrow’ longer than a couple of hours max! Any advice would be gold to me. Thank you.


  12. Carole Tansley says:

    Alternative metaphors…cell, prison, panic room, alternative universe….


  13. Nichola Voice says:

    My husband refers to my burrow as a padded cell, but to me it is much friendlier than that. I am definitely a burrower, and when the body leaves it, the think-tank normally stays there. Getting close to submission day, and feeling under control as I am lucky enough to be able to burrow daily.


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