You’ve started writing an essay, Masters dissertation or PhD thesis. In my case, it’s a new novel. Somebody asks how it’s going, so I ask myself ‘Am I beyond the point of no return?’
Academic work involves a variety of points of no return. In a 1,500-word essay for which you’ve chosen a line of argument and three themes, it might be when you’ve covered two of those themes. You’ve drafted your introduction, written 800 words (400 for each theme) and your argument is working. For practical dissertations, you may reach the point of no return when you discover whether your data analysis confirms your hypothesis. For PhD students, it may be your upgrade from MPhil or writing a Year 2 progress report and research plan charting the road towards completion.
It’s important to celebrate these points of no return. Firstly, writing can be a lonely business, full of moments of self-doubt. A point of no return marks a milestone achieved. Secondly, passing a point of no return is the moment to switch from looking backwards, worrying ‘should I have started from there?’, to looking forwards towards the end. There will, of course, still be problems to overcome, but your commitment to going forward is built on solid foundations.
My point of no return is roughly 25,000 words into my historical novel. If my characters are lively, their dialogue unforced and my notebook abandoned, I’m over the point of no return and the book will be finished. Finishing is no guarantee of success but, like pressing ‘pay’ on a non-refundable holiday, the course is set.
Ah, you may be asking, but what happens if at 25,000 words the course isn’t set, the characters aren’t breathing, the dialogue is stodgy and I’m glued to my notebook of ideas? Setting a point of no return is the best way to prepare for such a possibility. It will force you to stop, take an objective look at your work and spot any wrong turns before you go any further.
In one-to-ones with PhD students during writing retreats, we discuss wrong turns, with ‘why didn’t I spot that earlier?’ a shared writerly torment. It’s good to discuss how to deal with that sick feeling of ‘wasted’ work. My colleague Lucy English has good advice about text recycling, and once you’re back on course it’s a comfort that even deleted work has its uses.
A point of return is a good friend. After you’ve either changed or confirmed your course, when somebody asks how the writing is going, you can reply with complete confidence ‘I’m beyond the point of no return’ and know that every writer from every age is cheering you on.