I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it excruciatingly irritating to be in the middle of streaming a video or music and the computer stops and spins its little wheel while it downloads more data. Download download, sigh. And it always happens during the good bits. I’ve recently had to put signal boosters in the house in order to avoid too much of this wheelie-waiting around for the computer to do its thing.
Downloading, or pre-loading data, is also known as buffering because the data goes into a particular part of the computer’s memory called the buffer so it’s named … well yes. So why buffering a thesis? Well, it’s because it’s really helpful to do the same kind of pre-loading, accumulating process when writing the Big Book or the kappa /kápa (that’s the Nordic name for the chapter that goes with the thesis by publication).
Buffering is a great strategy to use after you’ve arrived at your overall thesis plan and before you’ve begun to write. You may have used a storyboarding approach to sort out the structure of your thesis – to decide on the order of the moves in the argument that you want to make. Storyboarding is a process for moving ‘chunks’ of thesis material around until you find the most convincing and persuasive order, and often new sets of associations and connections.
You may have even turned this storyboard into short or long abstracts. This is the list of short abstracts that I used for the most recent book. You can also see that I’ve jotted notes against some of the chapters as I realised things that had to be added or emphasised.
Of course I could have simply put this list on my desktop, but I find it’s sometimes helpful to use a combination of screen and material when writing. I find it useful to externalise the whole, as in this list which represents the entire book. As I write I continually see the text to be written as a discrete and physically separate object that I can still manipulate.
Once you’ve got your overall thesis in order, then it’s time to buffer – that is, it’s time to pre-load all of the material for the text, to collect together in one place all of the the bits, chunks and important stuff that you are going to need to write each chapter/section. You can do this buffering on screen of course. Or you could buffer in a much bigger way.
The picture below shows Dave McKenna’s thesis. Dave’s thesis plan ended as a wall of material. Yes, an entire wall.
Dave put up, on a wall in his office, all the pieces he needed for his thesis, organised into the relevant chapters.
Dave is researching policy. He told me that he got the inspiration for sorting out his thesis in this way from seeing local government professionals who often worked in this way. Everything stuck up on a big board so that everyone could see what was being developed. And his thesis wall was very handy, Dave said, for visibility/seeing the overall structure as he wrote. This “making visible” strategy took him through “the final push”.
Dave had, in my terms, buffered – he’d pre-loaded and put together the material for each section. He was able to move things around, between sections and within them. He could see associations and connections and finesse the internal chapter flow. You may notice that there are small red ticks on quite a lot of the pieces in the picture, which I take to mean that Dave may well have ticked things off as he wrote about them. So the wall was also a way of keeping track of what had been done.
Now of course you don’t have to take up a wall in your house and risk your paintwork in order to write your thesis. You don’t have to use paper and posits. However, one of the things I’ve learnt from working with artists is that something often happens when you work with objects that you can physically move and shuffle around. So there may be some good reason for working with stuff and working big. But regardless of whether you do this kind of process digitally or materially, it’s the buffering-as-organising-the-writing process that’s helpful – and my point.
Buffering, getting all of the stuff together before you start writing, minimizes the interruptions to your thinking and writing. It means you don’t get stymied half way through something really interesting by the equivalent of the little spinning wheel – the point where you have to drop everything to search for something obvious. The truth is that you’re probably going to have spin the wheels/stop writing sometimes anyway – as you write you’ll inevitably remember things you maybe hadn’t thought would be important at the start. But buffering the obvious things at the outset is a good way to make sure you keep the number of frantic searches to a minimum.
And there is also, as Dave suggests, a pleasing whole-ness about seeing the entire thesis laid out in front of you, with lots of content filling out each section. This is reassuring. Yes, there is a thesis there. I have loads of material, I know what I’m going to say.
Buffering. Sorting yourself out. Getting organised for the writing task to come. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. It’s a good strategy. See how it can work for you.
PS. Huge thanks to Dave KcKenna @localopolis for the picture of his thesis wall which, he tells me, is no more. I’m always keen to see pics of the strategies that people use to write their thesis, so do let me know if you have any to share.