What Writing a 12,000 Word Thesis Taught Me (yes, that’s a flex)

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I’ve never climbed a mountain, backpacked through Europe, or run a marathon (or a half marathon for that matter). Aside from a three-week group tour of northern India when I was twenty, the most ‘extreme’ thing I’ve ever done is write a 12,000-word thesis during my Honours year in Musicology.

Without a doubt, it was the most intensive project I have ever undertaken, and the most drawn-out: I started brainstorming topics in February 2018, and didn’t stop writing and editing until the day I submitted in the last week of October, eight months later.

The thesis I wrote was a ‘baby’ version, completed over two semesters. It was a marathon, not a sprint, but two semesters is actually a pretty short timeframe when compared to the four or five years it takes to finish a Masters thesis or PhD.

The process of committing to a research project of this size forces you to confront certain situations head-on. Every student will experience this differently, but rest assured, breakdowns are a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Or rather ‘how many’ and ‘how severe’.

Musicology is a broad academic term which spans the fields of music history, music and culture, music theory, and other related fields. So it makes sense that a musicology thesis (take a shot every time I use the word) has a lot in common with an arts faculty thesis. It often takes the form of an enlarged essay, typically with three or four chapters as well as an introduction and conclusion.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

But unlike a typical undergraduate essay, you have to attempt to find an ‘angle’ that hasn’t already been dissected in someone else’s work. Let’s say you’re really enthusiastic about the films scores of a certain composer. It’s not enough to simply describe a handful of those film scores, you have to find a way to use evidence and interpretation to show how the film scores achieved a certain creative goal, or were a part of a particular creative movement, etc, etc. (That’s what I did).

I’ve provided this dry background information so that I don’t come across as completely hysterical when I describe the heightened emotions a Really Big Essay caused me.

All I knew when I started the semester was that I wanted to study films scores written by Erich Korngold. I have always been someone who has a real ‘gut feeling’ reaction to music, someone who doesn’t enjoy decoding the chordal structure of a page of sheet music, or diving into the numbers-and-patterns side of thinking, but who will happily tell you the varied emotions a piece of music evokes. I’ll meander through adjectives until the cows come home.

It suited me perfectly that I actually couldn’t access the scores, as they weren’t out of copyright or available for sale, and the original annotated copies were kept in the Warner Bros. archive in Los Angeles.

But to finally arrive at my point! The act of finishing a task of this size taught me some valuable lessons. (As I’m sure those who have run a marathon will tell you). If you are interested in finding out what these were, please read on.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

De-mystify the creative process

Every single artist whose work you revere, was an imperfect human being. An extremely talented one, but a human being nonetheless.

I will never stop feeling inspired (and intimidated) by freakishly talented people. But feeling that way shouldn’t prevent you from contributing your own work.

200 words a day/ create a daily baseline

I hate the word ‘goal’. The overuse of the word makes it sound so disingenuous and unachievable.

Putting that feeling aside, I realised if I was going to finish 12,000 words by my deadline and have time left to edit them, I needed a daily baseline so that even on an ‘off’ or ‘average’ day, I would produce a minimum number of words. It wouldn’t actually matter if those words ended up in the final draft. The importance was in the fact that those initial rough paragraphs would create a jumping off point for the finished product. Every day that you’ve written something, is a productive day.

Ride the wave/ Follow the rhythm of your natural work habits

I am not a morning person and I never have been. But I realised that if I got up about 8am or 9am each ‘writing’ day, got myself set up in a café by about 11am or 12pm, I would be able to work solidly for about three hours. I am the kind of person who concentrates better with the hum of background noise (assisted by caffeine, of course) so a café is my perfect working environment.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

I’m also quite extraverted, so I baulk at the idea of sitting in a silent room, completely undisturbed. I became very friendly with my local baristas, and the relaxed environment was great for starving off anxiety. (I actually mentioned these coffee creators in my acknowledgement page, because who knows if anything would have gotten done without the holy power of soy lattes)

You can learn! And you can learn quickly!

When I first met my thesis supervisor, she casually mentioned a handful of film criticism resources I had never even heard of. I felt like an absolute pretender, to say the least. But I picked up the fundamentals pretty quickly, and after a few months I felt quite confident in expressing my opinions when it came to analysing the interplay between music and film.

I will always have the tendency to underestimate my own knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner, but we should all remember that it isn’t a permanent state. If you’re hungry for knowledge and read widely with a discerning mind, you’ll become more confident in no time.

Grace under pressure

When working on a significant milestone along the path of your studies or career, you can start to feel the pressure. You want to do your best but it can be exhausting to sustain that intensity.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

There will be moments where you will feel like everything is suspended in a delicate moment of balance, and could hurtle towards disaster any second if you don’t hold your nerve. Becoming comfortable with this discomfort is a skill in itself.

Roll with the punches

A thesis, much like a home renovation, will throw certain roadblocks your way. Some of them will be immovable. It doesn’t make you a ‘quitter’ to admit that

An absolute favourite quote of mine comes from intrepid adventurer Bear Grylls: ‘Improvise, Adapt, Overcome’. It places the focus squarely on the present, and responding to the circumstances in front of you. Don’t waste time thinking about all the ways your current situation could be better, because you could do that forever.

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