Category Archives: Writing

Writing through (and after) the dissertation

At the beginning of April, I resolved to start each morning by writing at least 750 words. explains the practice, which is based on the idea of “Morning Pages” from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I neither write my pages longhand, as The Artist’s Way recommends, nor use’s online site (I use Day One, a well-designed journal app that syncs across all my different devices), but the concept is the same: start the day by writing, and focus on getting words on the page rather than making them perfect. The Artist’s Way emphasizes stream-of-consciousness writing, though without the explicit prohibition against lifting the pencil from the page that I’ve seen in some free writing exercises.

Sometimes I do use my 750 words for stream-of-consciousness free writing. I’m getting ready to write my job materials, and I’ve begun several mornings by just writing out all the reasons I’m a good teacher, or all the reasons someone should hire me. I’ll probably do that a few more times, re-treading the same ground in different ways, before I actually sit down to write a polished set of letters.

Sometimes I use my 750 words for a sort of narrative to-do list. I walk through all the things in my task manager and write about how and when in the day I’ll get them accomplished. I work out a plan for things that need to get done in the next few weeks. I reassure myself that I can get everything done, that I’m on track. On those days, writing about my tasks for the day helps me feel prepared for work I might otherwise find daunting. It’s a longer, more sustained version of the pep talk I give myself when I open my task manager and blanch at the volume or difficulty of things that need doing that day.

Other days, though, I ignore the stream-of-consciousness, just-keep-writing instruction and use that morning writing time for more formal composition and drafting. On those days, my rule for myself is that I can’t use those words on my dissertation or other research. Instead, I give myself some space to write something polished, focused, and having nothing to do with my academic writing.

The practice has some obvious benefits: it means I keep the writing habit, in some form or another. Most of my energy in the last month and a half was focused on teaching and grading, so writing every day made it a little easier to get back to the dissertation once the semester ended. Even now that I’m back, I’m working on revisions, so it’s often a small-scale business of adding footnotes and clarifying or re-writing individual sentences. Producing several pages of text each morning, even if it’s text about how much I don’t want to finish the grading, helps me hang onto the drafting habit when most of my efforts are focused on a different stage in the writing process.

It also reminds me that writing as an activity is separate from the dissertation–that is, that writing is not by definition chipping away at this document I’ve been working on for years. Uncoupling writing from dissertation-writing may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get a bit myopic this late in the process. Now that I can see the light at the end of the dissertation-tunnel, I’m getting myself ready for all the other kinds of writing I’ll be able to do.

Ghostwriting to pay the grad school bills

Amy Boesky has a lovely meditation in the Kenyon Review about ghostwriting, academia, and Sweet Valley High. Most of all, though, it’s a meditation on writing and authorship, and the creative and personal costs of academic work:

It took me five years to produce a 300-plus-page dissertation on early modern utopias and another five to turn it into a monograph that would eventually sell 487 copies. And yet, in a matter of a weekend morning, I could produce a chapter—a chapter!—of sparkling, exclamation-studded prose about those Wakefield girls. The Elizabeth in me loved the discipline, the reminder that while my twenties rolled on and I trudged back and forth from Eliot House to the library, lugging books in my arms like a woodcutter, I was producing pages—daily, weekly—that were being turned into actual books (OK, books with pastel covers, books without my name on them anywhere, but still!)—books that were selling, that were being translated (Hebrew, Danish, Dutch), that generated fan mail (OK, addressed to Francine and not to me). Books girls loved. The books I wrote as Kate William, the “author” name that came built in to the series, had readers.

AcWriMo update: Getting started

Six days into November, and I’m already a bit behind, thanks to an out-of-town wedding this weekend. And election day is, of course, a significant distraction, as was taking the cats for their annual vet visit this afternoon. But I have managed to get things started, and am hoping I’ll pick up some momentum now that my travel-filled October has come to an end.

I started the process off the same way I always do, with a rough outline that includes the anticipated sections, major points in each sections, and a number of bullet points that read something along the lines of, “Thesis will go here,” or, “Figure out what you’re contributing to the field and explain here.”

But instead of starting at the beginning, either of the chapter or of a particular section, as I usually do, I’m trying a slightly different approach. Whenever I sit down to write, I’m just picking a bullet point from the outline and writing a few paragraphs that cover it. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to which point I tackle when—it’s all about what I feel like writing about at that particular moment.

My hope is that this will make it easier to get several hundred words written each day. If there’s something I’m stuck on, or dreading, or tired of, I don’t have to do it. I can move on to something entirely different, and as long as I get something relatively complete written (draft-worthy prose, rather than fragments or notes), I’ll count it a victory. Of course, I’ll eventually have to tackle the difficult or boring parts, and I’ll also have to write transitions to fit all the bits and pieces together, but for this first part of the month, I’m focusing on getting as much on the page as I can. In a week or two, I’ll pause and re-evaluate my strategy, and figure out what works for the pieces that are left.


Let’s do this

Charlotte Frost has declared November AcWriMo–Academic Writing Month. Recognizing that the NaNoWriMo goalpost of 50,000 words is a bit much for many academic projects, Frost suggests setting ambitious word-count or writing-time goals and then sticking to them. The six steps she proposes are:

  1. Set yourself some crazy goals.
  2. Publicly declare your participation and goals.
  3. Draft a strategy.
  4. Discuss what you’re doing.
  5. Don’t slack off.
  6. Publicly declare your results.

I’ve had a busy October, but not a terribly productive one: I completed a fellowship application and a minor chapter revision, delivered a conference paper, and went to a wedding, but I didn’t produce much new material. Having wrapped up several things that were in progress, I need to decide what I’ll turn to next. I could return to a chapter that needs revising, or start on expanding the conference paper I delivered into a different chapter.

NaNoWriMo and AcWriMo emphasize drafting–putting lots of words on the page and pushing yourself toward a goal, and worrying about revising and refining later. In that spirit, I’m going to set myself the goal of a full chapter draft by the end of November. I’m not as concerned about word count–I don’t care if the chapter is 10,000 words or 17,000 words, as long as it’s complete.

I’m using the last few days of October to do some more secondary reading so that I can jump right in to planning the argument when November rolls around, though I’m sure I’ll have to go back and do more reading as I write. In the spirit of accountability, I’ll try to check in regularly with updates.

Napping my way to a better dissertation

I read David Randall’s piece on alternative sleep schedules after waking up from my recently-adopted mid-day nap. Randall, who has written a book about sleep science, explains that the notion that people need to sleep in single, eight-hour blocks of time each day is a relatively new one, and not even all that common around the world. Evidently, folks from Chaucer’s time through the sixteenth century often had both a “first sleep” and a “second sleep” with a natural break around midnight. I gather from Randall’s article that many people find themselves waking up around what we would think of as the mid-point of an eight-hour rest–Randall argues that we should embrace that rhythm, rather than fighting to sleep through the entire night.

Personally, I find that interesting but not all that applicable to my own sleep patterns, as waking up in the night is not a problem I experience often. My sleep issues tend to lie on the other end of the spectrum: I can sleep soundly for eight or nine hours a night, every night, and still need more. In the rare stretches of time when I’m able to go to bed when I want and sleep as long as I like, I’ll drift off around 10:30 and sleep until 8 or 8:30 easily.

Saying that makes it sound like I might be habitually over-worked and under-rested, with an enormous sleep debt to make up. But though I don’t sleep from 10:30 until 8:30 every day, I do get about eight hours a night. I’m not racking up a huge sleep debt and then trying to sleep it off (which doesn’t actually work, by the way), I just need more sleep than most people.

Since I have too much going on to spend almost half my day asleep, I’m always trying to figure out ways to feel well-rested on seven and a half or eight hours instead of ten. I used to shy away from naps because I’d lay down in bed and be out cold for an hour and a half. But I’ve recently moved to a bigger, better study cube on campus that boasts not only a window (natural light does wonders for my productivity), but also a napping bench. Now, when I get the inevitable after-lunch coma feeling coming on, I set my alarm for 25 minutes and take a quick nap. I wake up feeling clear-headed and ready to do something useful with my afternoon, which is exactly what science says a good nap should do.

If I don’t sleep enough, if I don’t stop and rest when I’m drowsy and muzzy-headed, if I try to burn the midnight oil and finish writing or grading, I find that what I’ve produced is generally crap. And not only is it crap, but it’s crap that I’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears to produce. I’ve fought through my natural need for sleep, fought off all of my body’s signals that it needs rest, and made my self generally miserable, and whatever I have to show for it is generally several times worse that what I could have produced in half the time if I’d been rested.

That’s why I’ve stopped giving myself a hard time for sleeping what often strikes the people around me as an inordinate amount (“I can’t remember the last time I slept more than six hours,” says what seems like everyone). Nor do I feel guilty about my post-lunch nap. The quality of the work I produce in the afternoon has improved significantly since I stopped telling myself to just suck it up and write through the drowsiness.

Graduate school encourages a lot of unhealthy physical and emotional behaviors, but the valorization of going without sleep has to be one of the worst. And not only is it unhealthy, it’s inefficient. There’s no pride in staying up all night to take twice as long to do a crappy job on something. If you’re working on an tight deadline, set an alarm*, sleep a few hours, and then give it another go. According to David Randall, that’s what people have been doing for centuries anyway.

* Because my body wants to sleep for what seems like forever, I often have trouble waking up, even if I’ve been sleeping for seven and a half or eight hours. That only gets worse as the days get shorter. It’s been pitch dark at 6:30 for the past couple of weeks. I just ordered a fancy new alarm clock that’s supposed to simulate the sunrise by way of a gradually brightening full-spectrum light. If it makes it easier to get out of bed when it still feels like the middle of the night, it will be well worth it.

The art of rejection

I’m into my fourth week reading correspondence between editors, publishers, and writers, and I’ve read so many well-phrased rejection letters that I generally tune them right out. But the combination of diplomacy and sheer wordiness of this one caught my attention:

November 6, 1901

Dear Sir:-

We are sorry to say in reply to your letter of the 2nd addressed to the Riverside Press that we cannot feel sufficient confidence in our ability to make a success of your book to warrant us in asking you to take the trouble to submit it to us.

We thank you, however, for bringing the matter to our attention, and we are

Yours very truly,

Houghton, Mifflin & Co.

Though not a shining example of concision, I remain impressed with the tactfulness with which the letter basically says, “Not only do we not want to publish your book, we don’t even want to read it.”

Citation: MS Am 2030 (214), Houghton Library, Harvard University

The end is nigh

I’m at what is simultaneously my most and least favorite part of my writing process: the end. I like this stage because, well, it’s the end. I can see the finished draft approaching, and I can be reasonably-enough sure of a timeline that I can tell my adviser I’ll have the draft done by a specific date. And then I’ll get it done by then, because the work left is discrete enough that I can schedule it in the remaining time.

I hate this stage because of the way I get to this point: I defer all the hard stuff, bit by bit, until that’s all that’s left. Half a dozen paragraphs end with “[Final sentence or two of analysis]”. Two different places in the chapter say, “Thesis-ish,” followed by some general notes about what I think that thesis ought to be. The conclusion is little more than a glorified outline. Another half-dozen paragraphs are comprised of informal notes and tentative claims, accompanied by the marginal comment, “Expand and polish.” And I have footnote after footnote that reads only, “Citation.”

Each of these places is highlighted so that I won’t forget about it, and accompanied by a comment reminding me what it is I need to do before I can un-highlight the relevant section. My job now is to go through the draft step by step, fixing one section after the next until no more highlighted sections remain. This is not fun. Sometimes it’s just tedious, like with the citations that need to be added, but other times it’s agony. That “Final sentence or two of analysis” is often the most important part of the paragraph, but it can often take a lot of time and energy to figure out what it is I need to say about the stuff I’ve quoted.

Though it’s unpleasant, this stage is an important part of my overall process. Those deferrals were all necessary to maintain momentum back when the imperative was to write a lot in each sitting, to get the whole of the draft out on the page. Agonizing over the last sentence of analysis, or the wording of a thesis I wasn’t even sure about would only slow things down. Getting the citations perfect is an insidious procrastination technique, not something that needs to happen the minute I add a quotation.

So here I am, with a mostly-finished but still very highlighted draft. When I get to this stage, even the scale of the timing changes. I work for twenty-five or fifty minutes (one or two repetitions of this technique) and then I take a fairly lengthy break, much longer than I would take if I were in the middle of the draft. Each time, I have to force myself to tackle just one more sentence. The best part, the part that keeps me going, is that each time I finish a difficult section, I get to unhighlight it, and the more quickly I work, the sooner I get to see my draft turn from yellow to a nice, finished white.

Sometimes I find that what I thought in the moment were unpolished notes are actually just a step away from finalized prose. All I have to do then is clean up the contractions, vary the vocabulary, and remove the  m-dashes that I’m so fond of when I’m making notes. Other times, and there’s one section of this chapter that’s particularly bad, I find that there’s still reading and thinking left to do. Those paragraphs I tackle slowly, half a sentence at a time.

When I’m at this stage, I find it difficult to turn my brain off, ever. I’ll be scattered all week, and I’ll have trouble getting to sleep each night as I run through the list of things still to finish. My usual work schedule doesn’t apply. Instead, I sit down to work on a section whenever I can push myself to, or whenever a moment of insight strikes, showing me how to handle a tricky sentence. I’ll be on all week, but it will only take a week.  On Monday, when I realized I had only the sticky bits left, I told my adviser I’d have a draft to him by Friday. Doing that provides the urgency I need to keep coming back to that “Final sentence or two of analysis” again and again and again until they’ve all been added.

Once I get everything done and sent off I will clean the house from top to bottom with a manic energy that will alarm the cats. First, though, I have some more citations to add.

Adding an iPad to the workflow: some results

I got a lot of great suggestions for solutions to my Scrivener to iPad dilemma. Ultimately, I ended up breaking down and buying Pages. I’m a sucker for design, particularly when I’m writing, and Pages is pretty, functional, and easy to use.

I realized that there were only a few documents I was actively working on that needed the formatting preserved—my conference paper, a couple sections of my dissertation chapter, some miscellaneous notes. Those I converted to word and opened in Pages before I left for the conference. Everything else—most importantly, most of the notes and evidence for the current chapter—I exported from Scrivener to a Dropbox folder so that I could access it with Simplenote if I needed it.

As systems go, it worked pretty well. I got some writing done in the airport and some more done the day before the conference. The Bluetooth keyboard from my iMac worked seamlessly. As is always the case, once the conference started all my plans to work on my chapter went right out the window, but given what I managed to accomplish before and after the conference, I wouldn’t call it a complete wash.

Continue reading


You know that moment when the pieces of your argument finally come together and you start to understand what it is you want to say? I think I just got there with this chapter.

Now I just have to write it. Sigh.

Frustrations and false starts

I’ll get back to reception some time soon, but right now I’m forcing myself to write something, anything, and publish it to the interwebs, because it has been a day full of denial and procrastination over here. I have a writing group deadline on Wednesday that I’d very much like to make, but right now all I have are some barely-strung together summaries of the relevant criticism and document after document of stream-of-consciousness notes.

Generally speaking, that’s about par for the course in the early stages of my writing process. As long as I continue to work consistently, the stream-of-consciousness notes will proliferate, but eventually I’ll reach a point where I see how to turn them into a coherent whole. The problem is that I’d like to hurry this process up. I’d like to get some feedback before I have a complete zero draft. But what I have now is not so much, and it’s not so good, and the anxiety-ridden perfectionist in me does not want to send it out to my writing group, even though they’re not going to think the less of me for sending them an incomplete, mediocre draft.

The advice I want to give myself is, “Just write.” That’s what I say to students, colleagues, overwhelmed consultees in the writing center: Just write, and deal with making it good later. Get something down, because having written something, even if it’s not perfect, always feels so much better than having something you need to write.

But there are points in my writing process, like right now, when what I’m writing is just dreadful. Not rough and in need of polishing, but bordering on useless. I must have scrapped twenty or thirty pages of potential introductions for the last chapter I wrote. And even if that’s necessary in the long run, it’s frustrating when you’re in the middle of it.

That’s all that I have to say. Just that things are going like molasses in January here, and it’s frustrating.