Tag Archives: dissertation

Writing through (and after) the dissertation

At the beginning of April, I resolved to start each morning by writing at least 750 words. 750words.com 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 750words.com’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.

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.

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.


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.

Why I study reception: methodology(ish) edition

Still blocked on this chapter. I’ve resolved not to fight it too much, but to get some other things done, too, while I wait for things to work themselves out. In the meantime, what it is I’m doing when I study reception:

As I noted earlier, I want to know what people said about novels when they were first published, and what sort of strategies they had available for reading them. To be honest, that’s often enough for me—if my committee would let me stop at description, I’d read a whole bunch of reviews and describe away. But that generally falls a bit short of an actual argument, so the most important part of my job (and what’s been holding me up for a while on the new chapter, just like it did on the last one) is showing what it is about the reviews that’s significant to our understanding of the novel, the criticism, or some other broader issue.

In order to do that, the first thing I do is find every review I can of the book and read them all, labeling each one with the major themes that I see recurring. Scrivener is particularly good at handling the practical side of this, but that’s a different post. Then I read them again, and again, paying attention to the different strands running through them, and then I keep reading them until I have some sense of the story they tell. Then I try to tell it.

Not very systematic, right? It generally takes a whole lot of re-reading and writing a bunch of crappy notes before I figure out what it is about the reviews that’s interesting and significant. Once I see the seeds of the argument, it gets a bit easier. Then I’m putting together a case and providing evidence to support my claims that we should interpret the reviews in the way I’m proposing.
The evidence I provide is textual—direct quotation, paraphrase, and analysis of the reviews. And this is where it starts to get sticky, because how much evidence is enough evidence? None of the patterns I point out are going to be present in all the reviews. The impulse then is to count—tally up how many review deal with x theme and offer some percentages. But there are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics. What would the numbers actually show? That 36% of the reviews that I have available evidence this trend? My data set is “reviews I am able to find.” I’m able to find enough reviews that I can make some fairly confident arguments about the patterns and trends I see across them, but that doesn’t make them a statistically significant sample size of all the reviews of the book that were published. In this case, statistics would be damn lies, provided to give a sense of significance that mostly just takes advantage of our cognitive biases about certain types of data.

And that’s why the “so what” part of my argument is so important. I need to find compelling connections between the reviews, the novel itself, the historical context, and the criticism. If I can do that, then I don’t have to rely on some false sense of quantitative significance to justify my argument. Unfortunately, finding those connections takes a lot longer than crunching the numbers.

All of this puts me on the fringes of DH work and debates about quantitative analysis in literary study. I don’t do quantitative analysis, and despite the hypotheticals above, I’ve never attempted it, but I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. Most of the time, I have trouble seeing what data mining actually adds to the conversation, but in the face of curmudgeonly responses like Stanley Fish’s, I sometimes want to try it out just to be ornery. I’ve got some more thoughts on data mining that I want to work through at some point, but until then, Ted Underwood has a pretty thorough response to Fish’s grumpy rant.

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.

Spring semester reboot

One of the benefits of the academic calendar is that each new semester provides a convenient point to reassess how things are going and start fresh. The spring semester doubly so, because it comes on the heels of new year’s resolution-making. I generally try to separate my yearly resolutions (which are almost always related to keeping my house cleaner) from my academic goals, so while I made a few personal resolutions at the beginning of the year (again, focused almost exclusively on being less of a slob), I’m just now sitting down to set some work-related goals.

This is especially important because I’m on fellowship this semester. No teaching, no office hours, no staffing the writing center–just me and my dissertation, all day, every day. Every time I tell someone I’m on fellowship, the immediate response is, “How will you manage your time?” My interlocutor usually follows this question with a fairly lengthy description of how much trouble he or she would have getting anything done with so much unstructured time. After the fifth or sixth conversation like this, I found I’d developed a fairly reasonable-sounding set of answers, which serve as the basis of my semester goals/don’t-squander-my-time-on-fellowship plan:

1. The first thing on the list is to keep doing what I’ve been doing, only better. I’ve done a pretty good job over the last year of devoting my mornings to writing and writing-related tasks (outlining, note-making, etc.). My best energy is morning energy, and I need to keep taking advantage of that. This means maintaining a consistent schedule that gets me started by or before 8 each morning.

2. Find out how best to use my afternoons. When I’m teaching, I schedule as many things as I can in the afternoon, when I don’t have as much focus and won’t be as productive in my writing. Stepping into the classroom always gives me an adrenaline boost, so I’ve taken to requesting afternoon classes–that way the adrenaline counteracts the afternoon lethargy. There are certain stages in my writing process when I can work straight through the afternoon and into the evening, but there are other times, particularly early in the drafting process when every sentence is like pulling teeth, when trying to write in the afternoon is a terrible use of my time. With that in mind, I’m going to try to save email, reading, research, and possibly blogging for the afternoons.

3. Set deadlines. That one’s pretty obvious, and it’s something I’ve been doing for the past year or so with a lot of success. Between my writing group and my dissertation advisers, there are plenty of people I can be accountable to.

4. Set ambitious goals. Having been given all this time, I want to make good use of it. On the one hand, I want to forestall any self-flagellation that’s likely to come mid-semester when I start tallying up what I have and haven’t accomplished, so I’m deliberately marking these goals as ambitious, best-case outcomes. If I fall short, it will be because I set a high bar, not because I got lazy. But I need urgency to get things done, and in a semester of unstructured time, I’ll have to manufacture that urgency. With that in mind, my goals for this fellowship semester are to get two chapters drafted and last semester’s chapter revised.

On that optimistic note, I declare the semester officially begun. Bring on the lounge pants and endless mugs of tea!

Slow starts and motivation

I’m making lamentably slow progress on the chapter I wanted to have drafted by the end of the summer. I haven’t given up all hope of meeting my deadline, but I have reminded myself that sometimes the early stages of the drafting process take longer than you want them to. The difficulty for me is identifying when I’m dragging my feet because I’m mentally not ready to start writing—I haven’t done enough research, I don’t have a strong enough grasp on the secondary criticism, I have no idea how I want to focus my argument or what I can add—and when I’m just procrastinating because intellectual work is hard first thing in the morning and it’s much more fun to read every diverting thing I can find on the internet. I’ve been doing a bit of both lately, but this week I’ve finally been able to see the structure of the draft start to take shape in my head. I’ve got a good sense of where it can start, and what several of the body sections should address. I still don’t know how it should end, nor what the ultimate argument will be, but I’m not going to sweat that until I’ve got several thousand words written.

It helps that I presented a very preliminary paper on the subject of this chapter at a conference in late May. Having to write the paper forced me to synthesize some of my thoughts about my research and turn what seemed like the most interesting avenue into a short, focused argument. That argument may not be all that central to the final argument of the chapter, but it gives me a place to start.

Perhaps even more helpful to this very intimidating chapter-writing process is the response my paper got when I presented it. I didn’t set the world of American literature on fire or anything, but the panel had upwards of 25 people in the audience (!), and I got several questions that indicated listeners were interested and engaged in the argument I was making. The next day, a scholar whose work I’m familiar with and admire approached me to say he’d enjoyed my talk. And last month, a very major scholar in the field contacted me about my paper—he hadn’t been able to attend the conference, but had seen the title of my paper in the program and had some questions about my research in relation to a project he’s working on.

While none of these encounters have any really tangible consequences for me professionally (although I do have my fingers crossed for a citation somewhere in the last scholar’s book), they’re all helpful affirmations that topic of this chapter is one that others find interesting. Keeping that in mind is an invaluable corrective to the frustration and pessimism that creeps in at the early stages of the writing process. When I start to think that I don’t have anything significant to say, or that nobody will want to read forty pages about what reviewers had to say about this one novel, I can remind myself that what I’m working on is of interest to people other than myself. It doesn’t make the early drafting stages any less painful, but it does make them feel a bit less futile.


After successfully defending my prospectus yesterday, I am unofficially ABD. I still have to file paperwork to enter candidacy, which requires me to have a full, five-person committee, something that may take a while to put together. But I’ve jumped through the last major hoop prior to defending the dissertation itself, which feels good.

Now that the prospectus is behind me, my major goal is not to lose momentum. Fortunately (I guess), I’m scheduled to present a paper on what is essentially chapter two of my dissertation at a conference at the end of May. This should force me to jump back into my research and resist taking time off after the push to finish the prospectus. Much as I dislike the time and energy conference-going, and networking in particular, requires, I’m making an effort to present on the early stages of each chapter at various intervals over the next year or so. My hope is that this will provide some helpful external motivation to keep moving.

The prospectus exam was really helpful and not at all adversarial, partially, I think, because of changes my program made to the exam process a few years ago. Previously, the exam would be a joint prospectus/three area exam, meaning that the conversation was theoretically supposed to be both a discussion of the prospectus and a broader examination on the three major areas the prospectus would engage with. After an external review and some wrangling among the faculty over the proposed changes, the two components of the exam were separated into two different exams–a field exam at the end of the third year that functioned much more like a traditional comprehensive exam, and then a prospectus exam following completion of the prospectus. Since I’d taken the field exam last June, the focus yesterday was exclusively on the prospectus and my dissertation, not on examining me on the field more broadly.

And now to tackle the dissertation itself. The first thing I’m going to do is to renew my commitment to writing every day. I let this slip a bit as I was finishing up the prospectus, but I’m recognizing anew the need to make writing a habit. And, more practically speaking, I’ve got a paper to deliver in just over a month and nothing to show right now but an abstract, a chapter summary, and a whole bunch of raw data. Better get on it.