Tuesday 26 May 2020

Managing a Creative Writing Dissertation

By Rosie Anderson

I remember before I started writing the dissertation for my MA, the most daunting part was the word count, 12,000 creative words + 3,000 reflective commentary. I know my fellow Creative Writers felt the same way, usually for different reasons, though. Some people were frightened by the prospect of having to write so much. My problem, and always was with every single essay or assignment I ever turned in throughout both my undergraduate degree and Master’s, was that I was concerned I’d end up writing 50,000 words and have to spend weeks trying to cut it down. 

A related problem for me that again applies to every creative piece I’ve ever written is that I have a tendency to waffle and include far too many unimportant details like the breed of dog an unseen neighbour has. I also then find it really difficult to cut things out because I convince myself the story is incomplete if readers don’t know that Sally from next door has a Bichon Frise (she wanted a Dalmation but the house wasn’t big enough and she was worried about walking it three times a day with her dodgy knees). Anyway, needless to say, I was mainly really worried about the word count, but I did manage to get around this with a solution I think actually applies to people worried that 15,000 words would be too much. 

I decided to tackle the creative part of the dissertation in three separate chunks. My logic for this was that I could set a word count for each part. I knew that I’d obviously go over the word limit for each, but cutting 2,000 words out of three 4,000-word short stories was far less daunting. I know that my friends on the course also decided to think of it like this, because writing three short stories / chapters is far less frightening than a solid block of 12,000 words. Similarly, it helped to plan out the reflective part as three separate topics (you could include subheadings too if you’re feeling particularly exuberant). 

Another issue I had was actually choosing an idea. I was toying with the three fictional short stories, as this lent itself quite well to my idea of writing the creative piece in three separate chunks with a firm word count for each. It also, to be blunt, seemed easier than anything else because I’d done short stories for every assignment so far so I was quite used to them (they’d started to develop as little formulas). In the end I decided against this idea, as I wanted to do something that would force me to focus on an idea I’d had for some time.

My piece was part of a memoir I’d been planning for a while that focussed on the year my father was ill. I chose to do this because I was very interested in completing the memoir as a novel-length piece, and I hoped that getting 12,000 words of it out of the way would help. It formed the first part of the memoir, and I split it into three chapters (which then had mini chapters within them as I included flashbacks to my childhood as separate parts – spoiler, there’s a vaguely insecure Bichon Frise in it). This did indeed really help, and it was a project I’d been too intimidated to start sooner, but I was pleased to find that once I was into it, I really enjoyed writing it. 

The final challenge I’ll mention is the Reflective Commentary. I think this is often something people are less enthusiastic about in the assignments, but I cannot express enough how helpful writing my Reflective Commentary was, and how much it’s helped my Creative Writing (not just with this piece) since writing it. It was a real opportunity to research the genre and understand how to improve my work. It also helped me develop my writing, notice flaws and ‘bad habits’ I was repeating over and over and (although possibly unique to my work) really helped me to understand my feelings towards a difficult personal subject.

This last part isn’t necessarily advice, because I think (given how subjective Creative Writing is), you should definitely tackle your reflective commentary in a way that suits you, but I just thought I’d mention how I actually wrote mine. I completed a first draft (and by first I mean I wrote about nine first drafts, cried because I had to cut out 10,000 words, removed every single use of the words ‘thus’ and ‘indeed,’ found I then only had to cut out 3,000 words and continued to redraft), where I wrote out my research (including mentioning the books I’d read about the genre / subject matter, and the books I read within the genre, the primary texts). I then compared my written-out research to the first drafts I had of my creative piece. This meant a lot of redrafting of my creative piece, and I found it useful to track what I was changing in light of the research (I think I actually got really fancy about it and edited the document with track changes and added little comments about which bits of research led me to make them – this probably isn’t as revolutionary to you as it seemed to me at the time – pretty sure I went around for the rest of the week acting like I’d just invented Microsoft Word). All this redrafting did seem like a lot of work at the time, but it meant that the edits I was making were much more specific and effective. It also meant I then had to update my Reflective Commentary, literally copying and pasting my little comments and making them sort of make sense in the document (and removing ‘thus’ and ‘indeed’ from every single one). 

I hope this was helpful! Best of luck to all those doing the MA Creative Writing Dissertations this Summer, and to all embarking on longer writing projects – hopefully by the time you’ve finished, we’ll be out of quarantine. You could mention how the quarantine has affected your writing in the Reflective Commentary, although maybe it’ll be nice to focus on something other than Coronavirus, which takes up about 75% of my conversation at the moment. The other 25% are the words ‘thus’ and ‘indeed.’

About the author
Rosie Anderson grew up in the Midlands and currently works as an Editorial Assistant for the Environment and Sustainability list at Routledge. She studied at University of Leicester for both her undergraduate degree in English Literature, and her MA in Creative Writing. She enjoys reading and writing short stories and her first story published, Just a Cat by Fairlight Books in 2019. She has also had blogs published online by BEAT, a charity that supports people who have suffered from eating disorders.

No comments:

Post a Comment