Intuition and isolation in writing

I spent a better part of this year reporting, doing research and writing a paper on mining in Eastern India. The process of research is alienating and tiring, but at the same time exhilarating. At first it felt like I was in a vast desert. After much walking and thinking, getting lost, I eventually found myself at the foothills of a large mountain. Navigating the terrain, till one completed the journey, was trying to say the least. I make it sound so exciting and adventurous!

Wanted to put my thoughts here, for posterity and for beginners like me who find themselves conducting research.

Well, I think the only thing that keeps any researcher going, is the belief that one is thinking along the right lines. The challenge is always to see your work objectively, to critique it, as you go along and not be completely absorbed by it to the extent that you overlook obvious shortcomings. I am not sure I was completely detached in the whole process. While it is important to listen to yourself, it is also important to seek and ask for advice, while there is still time for it. One should not be too convinced and too sure of what they are doing. I am writing this in hindsight, but in reality, there was a constant pressure to meet deadlines, in order to complete the task efficiently and smoothly. There is no doubt that it is better to plan and divide the work consistently during the period of execution. May be because I am older, I cannot overwork myself in the last minute! More importantly, the process of writing itself is so beautiful, that one would not want to rush through it, even if it is something as dry as mining laws! I believe, the process of rewriting is even better.

To quickly lay out what the process of writing my master’s dissertation entailed, let me recap the last one year beginning June 2012. It began with understanding first, what would hold my interest for a year or more. Apart from interest, one also considered the feasibility of executing an idea, examining the constraints in terms of potential advisors, time and money to organize a field trip, in addition to what your schedule allows you to do.

I took this as an opportunity to understand what the Indian Constitution provides for in terms of protecting the environment. How did our laws evolve to protect the environment? It helped that the issue of illegal mining has been very current, so solutions to the problems are being forged even as we speak. As a journalist, it makes for a fascinating story to pursue, but as a researcher, it was difficult to keep up with the flow of information and fall back on already existing analysis on the subject.

There are two ways of approaching this. One is to first finish literature review and then do the fieldwork. And the other is to do literature review, before and after the fieldtrip. Well, the ideal thing is the former. But I believe, no amount of literature review can prepare you for fieldwork. So, in my view, it would perhaps be better if information gathered during fieldwork, prior to extensive literature review, guides subsequent research. What people tell you on the field, is irreplaceable, even in the face of a zillion journal articles.

There is a meta-narrative when one begins to pursue a subject. But there are so many layers and colors to the narrative, that it is impossible to put it all together in a linear fashion. It is only when the adrenaline rush of meeting people on the ground is over, and the countless pages of literature review is complete, that one can begin to assess the scope of what needs to be done.

Then there is a small matter of the theoretical framework! It is a big deal for an academic paper in the social sciences. Since I was not trained in political science for example, I did not give it as much importance as I should have. (My basic training was in the biological sciences and we approach things differently!). The idea is one employs theories relevant to the topic. A hypothesis is proposed and tested, to see if it holds good after taking your final data and findings into consideration. The theoretical framework, in other words, lays the foundations of your paper, based on which you construct your arguments and make a case.

The fieldwork is always difficult to organize. Establishing the actors in the problem and getting in touch with them is a big part. Seeking their time and convincing them to speak to you, is another. It was not easy to organize meetings while being in another country. However, in today’s world, one can easily identify potential sources pouring over the internet. These primary contacts lead you to others on the ground. My friends in journalism and my family, gave me important introductions and helped book tickets and manage logistics. When time is limited, one needs to execute the fieldwork as efficiently as possible. Truth be told, I had not fixed a single meeting a week before I was arriving for fieldwork, but had a broad idea about the people I would be meeting based on preliminary email exchanges. But eventually, people give you time, you organize stay and transport, things fall into place. Things go wrong, of course, but one some how manages to pick up documents, squeeze in one last meeting, and get on that damn flight home!

I also found it interesting, how enjoyable the process of listening to interviews was, when I got back. Ok! Not that much fun! But one looks at the issues differently, listening to them later. A big part of journalism was listening and talking to people. Loved going back to that. Never ceases to amaze me, how strangers can set aside time, and speak to you to tell their part of the story.

It was certainly painful to write and transcribe them, and then to fact check with interviewees. But it is vital aspect for establishing credibility. As an aside, it was also helpful to keep noting down findings and other insights as one went along, even though I was nowhere close to the end.

I must admit getting overwhelmed at the scope of the paper, when I began writing it. And realized the importance of narrowing down the terms of reference at the stage of research design. This was one of my biggest learning experiences during the process. Building the research design and defining the scope of the research, is done in negotiation with an advisor or  an organization one is doing the project for. But to be able to do this negotiation, it is important to know the terrain of your subject well.

Also, the point at which one must stop reading and start writing, is a difficult decision to make. But one way would be to write as you go along. So if your research can be compartmentalized into various parts, and if it is possible to write them separately, it is highly advisable to write soon after one has read enough about each part.

The findings are the most original part of the paper. One relies on instinct and interpretation as much as raw information. To make connections, across interviews, data and research is vital. This is a fulfilling process. In some cases, it reinforces your earlier assumptions about research and in others, you are humbled at the limitations of your understanding that you had at the beginning of the process.

It is indeed a celebratory moment, when a rough first draft is ready. For then you know the animal you are grappling with. Once a first draft is pinned, there is a great deal of rewriting and more research and more writing. So in total, one typically writes, almost twice the amount of the expected word length. I believe there are more efficient ways to do this, but I carry this practice from my days in journalism. Good research is a given, a necessity, but good writing can better communicate good research.

It is tiring and seems endless. It is a long haul and its best done consistently. I gave up writing on days it seemed impossible and stepped out to clear my head, or read stuff which was far away from my topic. I believe it was helpful.

Once it was done, there was a void for a while and I could not stand editing or looking at my paper one more time. After a few months, I have now got back to it and will try my best to get it published sooner than later!

Till then, so long.

One thought on “Intuition and isolation in writing

  1. Bravo! To write this for posterity is in itself a tough job after your grueling research work. Well done. Keep it up.

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