Archive for the 'Writing the Dissertation' Category

Finding Ways to Write

The world of graduate writing tends to be a lonely place. Graduate research and writing is not often taught explicitly, tutoring support seems more often aimed at undergrads, and a functional dissertation group seems harder to find than a tenure-track job. Of the grad students I know that have left their programs, 3 out of 4 left during the dissertation-writing stage (for a host of reasons unique to each individual, but still). Of course, there are shelf-loads of books devoted to not only writing, but actually “surviving” the dissertation, but everyone hates to tell a grad student to read just one more book. So, here are some things I’ve been experimenting with in my quest to Finish. This. Damn. Dissertation.

Goal-based writing sessions with other people.

This is a new model of writing group for me. In the past, I’ve tried diss writing groups based on peer feedback. We had a group of 4 grad students and each week (or every other or so), someone shared a piece of writing, and everyone else responded. This was the classic model in our department, but it didn’t work that well for me. I clashed with some of the other personalities involved, and the pace was too fast–I needed longer periods of ME-time in my writing process before I wanted to know (or cared) what readers thought. Responding to other people’s work so frequently was also time- and energy-intensive.

My new model of writing group is completely different. Four of us (2 grad students, 1 lecturer/PhD, and 1 Assoc. Prof) meet twice a week to WRITE. We don’t read each other’s work, we don’t respond as readers, we’re not even in the same disciplines. We come together ready to write, and begin each session by stating our goals for that writing session. We sometimes ask questions or pushback during this part of the session, if someone’s goals aren’t clear, don’t sound productive, or their rationale isn’t clear or convincing. Then we sit and write. At the end of the session (1-2 hours, sometimes more), we check back in with the group about our progress.

Having this dedicated time and space to write has been great–I’ve never skipped a session, it functioned as a real obligation in my calendar (unlike solo writing sessions, which are all too easy to cancel/postpone/schedule something else during), and the group created a sense of both community and accountability.

Document progress.

In addition to discussing my writing goals with my group, I’ve also started to keep track of my progress in a writing journal. (Okay, it’s just a googledoc, but “writing journal” sounds way better.) At the end of each session, I record how many words I added to my draft and write a quick self-assessment about my work, ideas, research, process, progress, and/or goals for next time.

Schedule downtime.

Stop working at a certain time and/or don’t work on certain days. Have a hobby. Be a real human being, not a grad-student drone. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and while it’s certainly true that maybe I would have been one of those superstar students out of the door in 5 years (I think maybe one person has done this that I can think of), but I like living a fuller life, feeling human, and to be honest, my brain absolutely need breaks from my work. My work suffers or stagnates when I’m mentally exhausted anyway, so I might as well be smart about how I’m expending my energy.


Dissertation Writing: External Deadlines

Expanding on my earlier post about some of the tools I use for writing and revision, I want to talk about how I manipulate my life to give myself structure, accountability, and a schedule. In other words, I have to set up external factors to motivate my writing because at its worst, writing a dissertation is isolating, exasperating, and draining. There are no clear deadlines, no discernible markers of progress or success, and that makes it hard to keep moving forward.

One of the most successful things I’ve done is to find external deadlines. While my department does have clear expectations about when the prospectus should be filed after the exams (6 months), almost everyone exceeds that deadline without consequence. (Give any writer–or grad student, for that matter–an inch on a deadline, and we’ll take a mile.) So knowing that firm deadlines motivate me, I’ve done two things to make substantial progress on my dissertation: I presented work at a conference and I applied for a research fellowship.

When I applied to present at Conference X, I had been working on my prospectus unsuccessfully for a year (gulp). I had been involved in a dissertation group and my advisor had seen drafts, but I wasn’t getting the proposal (or my thinking) to where it needed to be. My advisor suggested that I set it aside and begin working on a chapter. While I resisted this advice at first (I *really* wanted to get through this hoop), I eventually realized that this fit into what I already knew about my process: I suck at introductions. I always skip over them and write them later, sometimes even last. And to a certain extent, the prospectus functions like a speculative introduction to the dissertation. At about this same time, I saw the CFP for Conference X, a national conference whose theme was almost exactly the topic of my dissertation. I knew I had to go, not only to present my own work to a theoretically ideal audience, but to meet scholars in my field, hear papers and lectures, and network. So I picked my best idea from the prospectus (one which felt the most concrete and manageable, a good starting place), and wrote the abstract.

The process of writing the abstract, and eventually the conference paper itself, pushed my thinking in exactly the right way. When I had been floundering through the prospectus before, it was because I had been lost in the Big Picture. Doing the conference paper, however, allowed me to start up close and in detail (my strengths as a writer and researcher), and build my Big Picture around that. The conference paper also gave me that priceless feeling of progress and accomplishment, since I now felt like I had a “draft” of a chapter–well, at least a 10-page seed for one.

But doing the conference wasn’t enough. I still needed to file my prospectus. Enter the research fellowship application. At the time of this application, my funding for next year was up in the air. I was in panic mode, doing a ton of online research for dissertation, research, and travel fellowships. I found one that I was really excited about, although it was a little unusual. (While my work is interdisciplinary, I’m in an English department and on the surface, the funding institute probably seems like a strange choice.) My application included writing a 5-page research statement, including the purpose of my research and my methodology. Basically, I had to write a prospectus. But there were some key differences:

  1. I had presented part of my work, which gave me a concrete foundation for thinking about the Big Picture;
  2. I had a real audience, which made a huge difference in how I presented myself and my work;
  3. I had a real (really desperate) purpose, which I didn’t have before.

As soon as I had submitted my application, I revised this research statement and submitted it to my advisor as my prospectus; it was (finally) approved. (I did not get the dissertation fellowship I had applied for, but did accept the travel fellowship they offered instead.)

As I write this research narrative, I realize that luck, timing, and desperation seem to play a big role in the progress I’ve (finally) been able to make. And while those might be significant factors, I think it’s also been about finding myself an authentic audience and giving myself a real purpose in writing.

But I also have to be careful; now that I’ve tasted the tantalizing authenticity of writing to real people that I don’t know, I have to also resist that temptation. While these external outlets forced my progress, they can also tempt me off course. I can’t spend all my time applying for fellowships, attending conferences, or even thinking about publication–I’ve got a dissertation to write.

Dissertation Writing: Tools and Work Habits

As many writing instructors like to say, “writing is a process.” For the graduate student writer, the process of dissertation writing is new and strange, dramatically unlike writing seminar or conference papers, and well beyond the dreaded 10-page research paper of our undergraduate years. It’s something we’ve never done before and for which we (usually) haven’t been formally trained. There are lots of resources of course, books and websites and blogposts, but often our best practice–our process–comes about through practice, discovery, and trying lots of new things.

My process has been a long one (and I’m not done yet). I’ve come to realize that I need to pause in my writing and research. I need time and space to think without writing. I need to take my time to reflect and discover. Unfortunately, though, I also need to write. So here are some of the tools and tips which have helped me to streamline my process.

  • I use Zotero to manage my sources. I love that I can archive websites and pdfs, add notes and tags, and sync across different computers. I tend to “collect” articles and book titles in open Firefox tabs or unread messages in my inbox. Zotero has made my life much easier; I can collect my sources and citations right in my browser. (Zotero can also generate bibliographies, although I haven’t tried that yet.) I exceeded the storage capacity they offer for free, but I am happy to pay the small annual fee to support this project. Zotero works really well for me, but there are other ways to manage sources and citations, such as EndNote or RefWorks. (My university offers students free RefWorks accounts–check your library!) There is usually a bit of a learning curve when you first start using source management software, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
  • I use Googledocs for notetaking. I started using Googledocs when preparing for my exams; I created glossaries of key terms and concepts for my historical and conceptual fields, and then generated tables of contents and linked to my reading notes. It was a very clunky way to keep track of reading lists, but it’s a great way to take notes. I use Zotero now for my sources, but I still use Googledocs for reading notes, mainly because it’s so easy to find forgotten quotes and references by using the search function.
  • After seeing several students lose work on broken laptops, I started using Dropbox to back up my work. (I had been emailing my work to myself, but that is still pretty risky as a back up system.) Because I work from several computers, I really like web-based applications, and Dropbox is fantastic. I installed it on my home laptop, but I log in via the web from school. After writing sessions at school, I upload my draft(s) to Dropbox via the web login; once I get home and turn on my laptop, Dropbox automatically syncs the new documents.
  • I just started using a 3-ring binder. I often used binders to organize course materials and recipes at home, and I thought it would help me organize my writing. I have a section divider for each chapter, into which I’ve inserted chapter outlines. So far, I like being able to glance down at the overall plan as I draft the chapter draft; it’s a good way to keep my writing goals in sight (literally) without having to stop the writing, scroll to my outline, or open (yet another) file on my computer. They’re not there yet, but I also plan on filing “active” material there as well; the drafts, notes, and printed articles that are usually spread all over my desk now have a home.
  • I also use markers and highlighters to help with revision, especially re-organization. I print the current draft, and color-code highlighters to specific ideas or concepts. Once I’ve marked like ideas (or differentiated between background information and my own claims and analysis), I have a good visual picture of my draft, and it’s much easier for me to improve the structure and organization. I either start making changes in Word or (and this way is usually more fun) use scissors on my paper draft, cutting out errant paragraphs and taping sections into their new homes.

What is a dissertation, anyway?

Definition of DISSERTATION

: an extended usually written treatment of a subject; specifically : one submitted for a doctorate (
The word “thesis” comes from the Greek θέσις, meaning “position”, and refers to an intellectual proposition. “Dissertation” comes from the Latin dissertātiō, meaning “discourse.” (wikipedia)
(I know, I know, quoting definitions is lame! But the word nerd in me just can’t resist dictionary definitions and etymologies.)

While the holidays are never exactly restful, I have taken the opportunity to get some distance from my dissertation (and the fellowship proposal I’ve been writing for weeks). I’ve also been making some headway on reading some books about long-form writing; unlike the books I often use in my undergraduate writing courses, these are books specifically about writing books, theses, and dissertations.

I’ve started with How to Write a Better Thesis. Written primarily for students in the physical and social sciences, and based on the standards at the University of Melbourne, the book is not an exact how-to guide for every graduate student (nor is it intended to be, as the authors point out). Rather, it’s an interesting mix of pointers for students not in my discipline, along with broader principles-based discussion that extends to academic writing more generally. For example, the authors discuss the tensions between rational and creative modes of thinking and writing, and outline strategies for making that tension actually productive, rather than paralyzing. (And actually, reading about the conventions governing dissertations in other disciplines has helped me to crystallize the expectations in my own.)

But what has really caught my attention is their opening discussion: what is a thesis? Evans and Gruba start with the guidelines identified by their institution (the University of Melbourne). Here are the attributes of a passing thesis:

  • The thesis demonstrates authority in the candidate’s field and shows evidence of command of knowledge in relevant fields.
  • It shows that the candidate has a thorough grasp of the appropriate methodological techniques and an awareness of their limitations.
  • It makes a distinct contribution to knowledge.
  • Its contribution to knowledge rests on originality of approach and/or interpretation of the findings and, in some cases, discovery of new facts.
  • It demonstrates an ability to communicate research findings effectively in the professional arena and in an international context.
  • It is a careful, rigorous and sustained piece of work demonstrating that a research ‘apprenticeship’ is complete and the holder is admitted to the community of scholars in the discipline.

As Evans and Gruba point out, most of these criteria are really about the PhD candidate, not the thesis itself.

This observation seems pretty obvious/basic, but it really opened my eyes about the role of the dissertation in graduate education and, more specifically, the point of a dissertation for someone who does not intend to join the “community of scholars in the discipline” in any traditional sense. As a PhD in English (in a program which only accepts T-T positions as a successful outcome), I’ve been trained to see that the dissertation is really a book draft. Given the ever-increasing expectations about publication history (in both the job market and for tenure review), it seemed clear that the dissertation had to function as a book draft. Having this context in mind while trying to write the dissertation is obviously a tad overwhelming, and absolutely contributes to the sense that as a graduate student, one never actually accomplishes anything: I finished coursework! (Quick, study for exams.) I passed my exams! (Good, you can finally start writing that dissertation.) I finished my dissertation! (Sure, now start revising it. You need to publish a book to get a job/tenure.)

Of course, this paradigm was shattered when I finally realized that I don’t want a traditional academic career: I plan on either leaving academe or pursing alternative paths within it. So with this new roadmap, what’s the point of a dissertation? As a faculty member recently asked a friend of mine with the same general plan for herself: why finish the program/write the dissertation at all?

I have a few answers to that. First of all, although my career path will not be traditional, I am invested in the academic community. And even if my dissertation won’t need to function as a book draft, it does need to establish my credentials as a member of that community. In that case, it’s less distressing to think that all of 5 people will ever read it.

Secondly, even if I completely transition out of academe, the dissertation still demonstrates my skill set: research skills, communication, ability to synthesize complex information, large-scale project management, etc.  But since I am interested in pursuing hybrid positions within the digital humanities, I also now have the luxury of writing a somewhat untraditional dissertation, one which deals directly with the digital humanities, media history, scholarly editing, and electronic editions, areas in which demonstrated expertise (in the form of a dissertation) will hopefully serve me well in the kinds of positions I will be seeking.

And finally, there’s also the personal challenge of whether I can do it (although I suspect this might be the least productive/unhealthy? reason). As a writing tutor, I’ve been working for several months with a PhD student in Physics. He’s entering his 10th year, and has not made much progress on his dissertation. The experiments are finished, he’s completed lots of background reading, and has even published some articles, but he struggles to write the thesis itself. As he explained to me in one of our first meetings, this is his only chance to produce such a long piece of writing, a synthesis, the whole of everything he knows. (He expects to go into research or industry, where no one expects him to publish his dissertation as a book.) Unlike the view of the dissertation as a book draft (which emphasizes process and denies a sense of completion), he sees the dissertation as the endpoint, the finale, his Last Chance.

As my career goals have changed, my dissertation has taken on these same qualities: it’s my last chance for long-form writing. Since I have funding until the summer, I feel comfortable with my decision to continue working on it. But, if I don’t get funded for next year, I am going to have to make some tough decisions about how, when, or whether to finish.

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.

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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