AcWriMo: On the need for solid foundations

Guest post – Phil Powrie, Professor of Cinema Studies and former Chief General Editor of Studies in French Cinema. He was Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences 2010-2015.

“Writing a first draft is like trying to build a house in a strong wind.” — attrib. William Faulkner

When I started out as a researcher my then Head of Department popped into my office one day and saw that I had a lot of books open as I was writing. ‘Using one book is plagiarism’, he said, ‘but using many is research’.

Whatever you’re working on will be part of a broad field of research undertaken by many others. You can’t possibly know whether what you’re thinking of saying is original – an essential prerequisite for a successful thesis – unless you’ve worked your way through what others have already said about the area you’re working on and its contextual hinterlands. So once I’ve absorbed the primary material for a project, I generally start by making some notes about what interests me in the material; not many notes, maybe half a page, just a sketch. I call this the intuitive stage.

In the next stage, the empirical stage, I read as much as I can find on my topic, making notes as I go along, and, crucially, ensuring that I have full references (because there’s nothing worse than having to hunt down quotations many months down the line). I then collate the notes in comparative tables, so as to establish what the received ideas are and to what extent they’ve been modified over time. To know the unknown you have to know the known.

Research is never accepting what others say at face value

The more you read, though, the more you realise that a lot of scholarship is minimalistic: small bricks, very necessary for building something, but often relatively small advances in the topic. More often than not, I find that the bulk of what’s been said is not particularly useful for the line I think I want to take. Although that can be comforting – everyone says pretty much the same thing, so there’s room for something different – I also recognise that I must understand why I don’t find the work particularly useful before I trace ‘my’ line. I have to begin with what’s been said by others to set the scene, but then construct a position in relation to what’s been said, preferably one that takes issue with what’s been said, one that throws a different light on the topic. New knowledge can’t be just the accumulation of previous knowledge, or simple reformulation; it has to be the reshaping of that accumulation in a new light, less a reflection of than a reflection on other people’s work. A quest for knowledge is also a questioning, sometimes a brutal interrogation, of others, but also of yourself and the limitations to original thought that you almost inevitably come against. This is the critical stage, the stage where I critique the material, and also more often than not question my own capacity to say something that is meaningfully different.

At the end of this part of the process, I’ve got a lot of basic material, much of which I won’t use, but which was a necessary journey to get me to the crossroads where I have to start making choices about the shape of the argument. The crossroads is where I have to choose risk over safety, an unknown road over the predictable paths so well worn by others. At this point my argument has to be based less on a collection and comparison of other researchers’ work than on a methodological framework, on ‘theories’ rather than on empirical observations. Those frameworks are like sieves, separating what I need from what’s been said before.

Writing is like building a house

In this stage, the formative stage, I need much more than a sketch, more than a motley collection of bricks. I need to have a house in mind – hence the quotation attributed to Faulkner at the start of this blog – and for that I need architecture and design, something I can live in and live with.

What I’ve described so far is like choosing a plot and digging the foundations for a house. This house however is not a standard two-up two-down, it has to be a ‘grand design’. The mistake is to think that all the things others have said are the walls, and that I’m more than half-way to having a roof over my head. In reality, all those things I painstakingly catalogued and compared in the empirical stage are more like the rubble I need in the foundations of my house: they’re essential, but not something I need to make overly visible.

When someone reads what I’ve written, I don’t want them to look down at their feet and think about what they’re treading on, but on the spaces they’ve walked into, the vistas through the windows, the staircase that takes them up to another level.

This all takes time though. Like many builders, I leave the foundations to settle. They are too wet, too friable to build on. I shift my attention to other jobs. I do nothing with the material for a while, a week or so, maybe more, and return to it cautiously with a more dispassionate eye. I try to find ways to work through what I’ve got. In my case it’s going on long walks, because I find that the rhythm of walking helps me to bring order to the bewildering choices I could make. I could have chosen the Da Vinci method of just staring at the material until patterns begin to form. Or bouncing the ideas off others in seminars and conferences. And there are no doubt many other productive ways of letting the foundations settle.


After this period of cautious evaluation, I generally have a better idea of where I might go, because I’ve been away from it all, away from the warehouse full of bricks and plaster, nails and unpainted frames. I can now start to sketch what will form the first draft, the architecture of the piece, in the knowledge that like many housing projects, there will be changes along the way. And in the knowledge that, to pick up on Faulkner’s metaphor, winds will throw me off course and try to blow my house down.

 But that doesn’t matter, because I know that I have solid foundations.

If you like the use of metaphor for the process of writing, you can find a few more here: