Working on Writing

December. For those of us on the Job Market, a time of particular professional anxiety. My December, however, is in limbo. Deadlines for local teaching opportunities and dissertation fellowships are fast approaching, so December is about deciding. Should I stay put, re-apply for the writing center position I hold now, and keep working on the dissertation? Or should I cut the apron strings, try for some alternative academic (or non-academic) jobs, see what happens, and plan on finishing the dissertation in my spare time? (As was suggested to Michael.) Either way, my goal (for now) is to Finish. So, December is about the work of writing.

I recently came across the Thesis Whisperer‘s 5 Books to Help You with your PhD:

  1. The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Greg Colomb and Joseph Williams
  2. How to Write a Better Thesis by Paul Gruba and David Evans
  3. Helping Doctoral Students to Write by Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson
  4. The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg
  5. 265 Trouble Shooting Strategies for Writing Non-Fiction Barbara Fine Clouse

(Definitely check out the original post — each book has a lovely little gloss/review.) From teaching argumentative writing, I’m familiar with The Craft of Research, but the rest are new to me. I had to order most through inter-library loan, and the first batch arrived today.

In a dorky way, I’m excited to read them. I know that part of me is still looking for the magic formula that will just make this dissertation happen, but I also know that new techniques and fresh strategies do exist, and do help writers unlock what they want to say. I’m not talking about writer’s block exactly, but rather the problem of habitual writing and routine language. I’m working on a chapter draft, and I keep doing the same cycle over and over again: draft, print, re-organize, re-draft, print, re-organize. At this point, this might be exactly what I need to be doing in this early stage of writing, but I also just feel that my brain is working in the same old ruts. I phrase and formulate things in a certain way, and I want to break the cycle. So, I’m taking a break from writing to learn more about it.

One book that I have read is called The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. As the title conveniently indicates, it’s very practical. What I liked best about it was its focus on creating a schedule. From what I can remember, the first step is to identify your A time, the time of day when you’re at your best. Even recognizing this consciously was a huge help for me. I realized that I’m at my best writing-wise was about midday, which explained why trying to write in the late afternoon was so very agonizing.

Parallel to the division of time into blocks of best ability (A, B, and C times), you also split up the writing project into manageable sections; the most difficult tasks, such as drafting 2 pages of a particular section, should be done during your A time — but other times of day aren’t a waste. You can do less essential writing tasks during your off-times, such as fact-checking or tracking down sources. Graduate students are often doing many things at once, so part of the writing schedule has to include days when you know you just don’t have hours to devote to writing. But having a clear schedule of writing tasks makes those non-writing days much more manageable (as in, I don’t feel guilty that I’m not writing!). And actually, for quite a while now, I’ve treated my academic life like a 9-to-5 job; I spend most weekdays on campus, working my various jobs and writing, but take evenings and weekends “off.” (Of course, some of my down time includes lots of reading online about academe, the digital humanities, and higher education, but still.)

I’m wary that my interest in reading about writing is (just another) a procrastination tactic, but I hope not. As a teacher and writing tutor, I’ve seen undergraduate writers change as writers, and I’m hoping I can do the same.


9 Responses to “Working on Writing”

  1. 1 WorstProfEver December 8, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Sounds like a good plan, and why not read up on the writing process? If you’re worried about it being procrastination, just give yourself a time limit for how long you’re allowed to research. And amen to blocks of best ability; it’s quite addictive if you let yourself get into the habit, and that’s a good thing! Funnily enough, I think I’ll be writing about writing on Monday. Must be the season…but best of luck with your research, and your writing.

  2. 3 Anthea December 11, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    I like your plan. You just have to research up to a point and then stop..otherwise you risk just continuing ad infinitum. So, I’d agree with Worst Professor Ever’s comment.

  3. 4 Eliza Woolf December 11, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    I recommend Bolker#s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day–

    Although it sounds silly, it really helped me out when I was going through a serious slump period during the dissertation writing process. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to finish this 300 pg wanna-be book with the amount of time I had available. Bolker notes that even small segments of time here and there (spent writing or preparing yourself for the next writing session) are better than nothing and can in fact be very useful.

    Also, the book made me realize that finishing the dissertation was entirely feasible. Sometimes you just need a little outside pep talk from a disinterested party to keep you going. (I ended up passing this book on to another friend who went through the same angst phase a couple years after I did!)

  4. 6 Michael December 14, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    I like Destination Dissertation.

    But then again, we all read my last post, so maybe that’s not such a good book after all. πŸ˜‰

  5. 8 ingermewburn January 19, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Thesis whisperer here πŸ™‚

    I love ‘do your dissertation in 15 mins a day’ as well – it was one of the first books I read after ‘how to write a better thesis’ and very nearly made the list. I like the permission it gives you to write messily; some of the advice on

    You can find similar advice here in the pdf ‘learning how to work’

    I also wrote a post on the dissertation, thesis document comparing it to an avatar. I think this metaphor is helpful:

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