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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve revisited my life as a student. That’s not to say I haven’t been studying on a regular basis, but the last fortnight or so has seen a return to more “intensive” times. Having c. 20,000 words to prepare for Ph.D transfer, plus a rationale to tie it all together has led to some very late nights, not to mention days in the library. With the presentation still to prepare, not to mention the thesis, this looks likely to continue for some time. As an undergraduate student I was fortunate enough to study full-time and work part-time; this time the roles are reversed.
As an undergraduate, you get into the flow gradually; at the beginning the dissertation appears impossible; how can anyone write 10-12,000 words on just one subject when you’re struggling to write 1,000? By the time you get to that point, the question changes; how can I be expected to get everything I want to say into just 10-12,000 words? The process and progress is gradual and at times, haphazard; when you are in the throes of studying, success can be almost imperceptible. It is only at the end when you can really begin to consider how far you have come, from that early timorous foray into academic life. By the time you get to graduation you have forgotten the anxieties which often go hand-in-hand with academia.
Although I have studied more or less constantly, since taking my first hesitant steps back into education via an Access course, it’s been some time since I have been confronted by word counts and deadlines. For almost a decade, I’ve been setting them for other people rather than be subject to them myself. It’s come as quite a shock!
I’d forgotten how painful writing can be, especially to deadlines, reliving all the old anxieties and noticing the feelings of inadequacy flooding back. Not only trying to satisfy curiosity, develop understanding and construct arguments, there is also the knowledge that this is not private, your output is designed for an audience, albeit small. When I start writing, it is if I am back in primary school, trying to make sentences which not only make sense, but say what you want them to say. Trying to ensure that the words you choose are not going to bore your audience into submission and yet still get your message across. The perpetual internal competition, between wanting to give up and wanting to succeed, seems to grow ever more insistent the more you write.
So why do it? Why not just walk away, do something less painful, less challenging, less meaningful? Why bother with education when you don’t have to? The answer for me, as with all of us, is intensely personal and largely integral to my own sense of being. Even to put my rationale/motivation into words is extremely difficult; I’m not sure I have the words to do justice to the experience. Fortunately, some years ago my daughter did find the words; replace Philosophical/Philosophy with Criminological/Criminology and you’ll get the gist….
The Philosophical Orgasm
Philosophy is difficult. You can read the same piece over and over, making little progress each time, losing faith and on the verge of giving up and then… something happens. The fog clears, everything slots into place, the philosophy offers itself up to you, the tension subsides and your whole being is filled with warmth and understanding; new clarity dawns. This moment is something many of you will be familiar with. It comes on quickly, and strong. And it changes the way you understand forever. You’ve taken it, conquered it, made it yours. Borges sums it up perfectly; in that moment of clarity we become part of something larger than ourselves – we access that shared knowledge (shared, that is, by all those who have gone before, who have walked the same path) and can speak the words as our own. Some people call this the ‘Eureka!’ moment, but I am inclined to say there is even more to it than that. The Ancient Greek εὕρηκα translates roughly as ‘I have found it!’, hence its association with scientific discovery. We can all recall the story of Archimedes jumping out of his bath and running naked through the street exclaiming ‘eureka!’ upon his discovery that the volume of water displaced in his bath was equal to the volume of the part of his body that was submerged. In the case of philosophical understanding, something more personal is going on. It is not merely a case of seeing how concepts operate within arguments – the understanding goes deeper than that, is internalised, changes you. It’s like an orgasm in your mind, that permeates your whole being. The more difficult the philosophy you are trying to grasp, the more intense the orgasm. It isn’t about finding a solution to a problem, it’s about augmenting your ideas in preparation for the next exploration. On each subsequent journey, you’ll take those new ideas along with you. (Saffron Garside).