20 to 200 Pages

I find dissertating (I actually kind of hate that word) to be a strange activity.

On the one hand, I know academic writing. I’ve participated in peer review and have been published. I’ve taught in a writing program for several years. I’ve helped train new writing instructors (other grad students). I’ve taken and taught pedagogy classes for teaching writing. I tutor undergraduate writers. Although I love-hate teaching, I really enjoy talking about writing: audience expectation, supporting claims, organizing information according to principles like give-new and end-weight emphasis. I love introducing student writers to the strange new world of revision strategies, such as reverse outlines, cluster diagrams, highlighting, and reading aloud.

And it’s this intimacy with the writing process that often makes my own writing experiences so frustrating. I guess it’s partly the age-old dichotomy invention and execution, but that’s not very satisfactory. To the extent that writing conference and seminar  papers (8-10 and 20-30 pages respectively) doesn’t feel like adequate preparation for planning a book-length study, this could be another example of graduate programs failing to train its students, but that seems reductive as well.

I’ve read books and gleaned tips about managing the research and writing process, and have often found them helpful. (I often recommend The Clockwork Muse as a really practical guide to prioritizing and scheduling research and writing activities.)

But the fact is, I’m just not used to thinking about argumentative claims on such a large scale. And it’s in the moment of writing, siting at my desk, surrounded by open books, notes, outlines, drafts, scissors, tape, stapler, and those little post-it bookmarks, that I struggle most. What do I need to say? And what’s the best way to say it? How do I go from writing 20 pages to 200 (or more)?

What the hell am I doing?

I recently saw Scott McLemee’s post at Inside Higher Ed about Critical Intellectuals on Writing, a collection of interviews with leadings scholars, thinkers, and writers in the humanities. The central focus of each interview is on the process of composition, and the answers vary pretty dramatically: philosopher David Donaldson begins by imagining the first sentence, wonders what comes next, and then begins crafting the paper in his head. When he actually begins writing, he often discards those first few pages.

Slavoj Žižek, on the other hand, writes in “abstract units;” each unit develops a line of thought for 3-4 pages, and often corresponds roughly to subsections within a chapter. These units get recombined into larger units — once upon a time with scissors and tape, and now with copy, cut, and paste.

Feminist philosopher Sandra Harding begins by outlining her argument, which is often a critique of a particular claim, and then begins by writing the most difficult section, the “most problematic aspect,” first. She then goes back and forth between sections, “growing them up and keeping them in balance with each other.” She puts the draft aside, comes back, and often starts over — building new drafts from the remains of old ones.

What’s particularly striking about these scenes of writing is how completely nonlinear they are. Of course, the nonlinearity of the writing process is something I know and emphasize repeatedly while teaching and tutoring. I know that writing is not just a product, but a process of discovery. But teaching the messy, scary, unpredictable process of discovery, is obviously not the same as living it.

And that’s what I need to learn.

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8 Responses to “20 to 200 Pages”


  1. 1 Michael November 13, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I’m much more like David Donaldson when it comes to writing. Of course, I have been so drained, so burned out, so frustrated, so lost, so incredibly unenthusiastic about my dissertation that I haven’t written a single word since I passed my prospectus. It’s been a completely worthless semester, and I’m not sure I really care.

    • 2 alternativephd November 13, 2010 at 2:02 pm

      I know the feeling. I drafted my prospectus several times, and then my advisor said to set it aside and begin work on the first chapter, so that’s where I’m at. I keep doing the same thing over and over: somehow draft 50 pages (of writer-based, disparate sections), print them, reorganize, revise. Repeat. (That’s the other downside to really investing in the idea of “process” — it’s endless!)

      I consider myself fairly motivated to finish (really, to move on with my life), but sometimes I just can’t make myself open the draft and even look at it.

      Re: lack of enthusiasm, do you think it’s related to the process, or more related to the topic itself? Sometimes I struggle with the idea of switching topics, but I don’t have enough critical distance to determine if those moments are an authentic re-assessment of my project, or just general malaise/frustration.

      I’ve found external deadlines to be a decent motivating factor: informal diss groups, conferences, fellowships.

      Each week, I tutor a grad student in Physics working on his dissertation: the experiments are complete, he’s published a few articles, but he’s just not writing (and hasn’t in at least a year, I think). It’s weird and refreshing to work with someone from such a different field who’s having the same basic issues.

      • 3 Michael November 13, 2010 at 2:23 pm

        My lack of enthusiasm is multi-causal.

        First, yes, I’m not a huge fan of my topic. It isn’t horrible, and I am somewhat interested in it, but it isn’t a topic I love. Unfortunately, the topics I love were shot down–not because they weren’t legitimate topics, but because they didn’t lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Oh the horror of writing a qualitative dissertation! I was told in no uncertain terms I had to do a quantitative dissertation despite what the program has told us for years. Unfortunately, in my subfield the quantitative work is incredibly complicated.

        Second, and related to the first, I disdain quantitative research, especially in political “science”. I see it only as a way to legitimize the work as scientific. I can’t even open my statistical program to do analysis because the very thought of doing something I believe to be useless doesn’t compute in my head. I’ve been indoctrinated with rational choice theory while here, yet much of the dissertation process counters rationality.

        Third, I’m not enthusiastic about finishing because all I want at this point is a post-academic job. My experience in academia has so jaded me that if I graduate, I don’t even want to walk, be called “Doctor”, or celebrate. I just want it over. That said, I still try to find–somewhere deep down–motivation to finish what I started. Sunk costs, sadly, are an incredibly horrible thing.

  2. 4 alternativephd November 14, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Oh, yikes.

    Depending on what your post-academic goals are, is it possible to approach your dissertation as some sort of preparation? I’m not familiar with your field, so this might be a completely pointless question — but beyond the “I can manage a large research project” skill set, is there a way this project/the experience of completing this project can contribute to your (alt-ac) goals?

    For me, that sort of question has helped me to rethink the purpose of my diss. On the T-T track in my field (English), the diss is basically a draft of the 1st book, which is essential for being a decent job applicant/for tenure review. If I choose not to pursue T-T, then the purpose of my diss changes — it becomes a more finite endpoint (a sign of degree completion rather than a first step in a long process) & gives me experience that I can translate into other contexts.

    But…that’s on a good day, of course. =)

  3. 5 WorstProfEver November 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    My two cents: everybody has a different process, but I agree that regular writing/editing is the key to finishing. Liking your topic? Completely irrelevant, even for people I know who are now finishing their tenure books!

    As with most things, persistence is more important than any given approach. But asking yourself why you’re doing it is still a good idea. (And to be frank, I’m not sure hotshot academics can answer that question in a way that’s relevant to those starting out.)

    @Michael For my own blog I’m trying to line up some interviews with successful people who’ve left at various stages, including one person who left with an almost complete diss and seems pretty happy about the decision. I think the ‘not finishing = failure’ is just a precursor to the ‘leaving = failure’ setup; in the same way, ‘I’ll just finish the diss’ becomes ‘I’ll just finish the book’, along with the whole ‘one more year’ thing.

    In the end, whether you finish or not is your choice, but it should be your choice, serving whatever goals you set for yourself.

    • 6 Michael November 15, 2010 at 10:08 am

      I’m looking forward to them as well.

      And yes, you are right. It all leads to “one more year.” I don’t like quitting, or failure. Even worse, I don’t like the idea of having to explain why I quit to EVERYONE. None of my friends or family know what academia is like. They think it is just sitting around reading and writing. What could be easier than that? None of them understand how it tends to tear you down.

      Plus, I want to burn my PhD just like you. 😉

      • 7 WorstProfEver November 16, 2010 at 9:57 pm

        Ah, but who gets to define what you do as quitting or failure, as opposed to making a healthy life choice? Why worry about explaining anything to people who will never understand anyway? You can’t let others define your success; this is exactly how the academy continues its choke hold on you. More meditations on that in future posts…

        Re: the burning, if you must get then burn the damned thing, do it sooner rather than later. I wish I could telepathically communicate how empty it felt the day I officially got my PhD — it was perhaps the most disappointing day of my life. Honestly, if I could get back the years I would.

  4. 8 alternativephd November 14, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    @WorstProfEver: I’m really looking forward to these interviews — thanks for the heads up!


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