Start With Editing

So far this October we’ve given you some of our best tips to make dissertating feel doable and, dare we say it, exciting!, rather than terrifying.

If you are an astute reader (and of course you are, you smart cookie) then you’ve probably noticed that we haven’t talked much about writing at all. Certainly, we’ve talked about how to approach your writing with an understanding of the genre, unlearning unhelpful writing habits, and focusing on momentum. However, we still haven’t talked about how to sit down and write the thing.

Truth be told, the advice we can give here is limited. You are the expert in what your committee and department want just as you are the expert in what type of writing system works for you (e.g. mornings, midnight, in silence, on a bus, and so on).

However, there is one piece of advice we can recommend to all of you: start with editing.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by writers that editing an existing piece is 1000% easier than writing a piece into existence.

Starting a project as massive as a dissertation can be incredibly overwhelming. It’s hard to know exactly where to start. By now, you’ve certainly written enough things to know that you always write the introduction last but knowing what comes last just isn’t enough. What should come first?

Make it easy on yourself and start with editing.

Since this month’s focus is on writing a first draft you might be asking yourself, “Editing what? I haven’t written anything yet!”

Except that you have.

You’ve written seminar papers and prelim exams and a prospectus.

You’ve written lots of things that are, in some small way, related to your dissertation.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the document you are starting with is on exactly what your dissertation is on. It just has to be sort of, kind of, maybe, a little related.

This is the brilliance of editing.

After some failed attempts to start writing the dissertation I began to make real progress when I went back an edited an old paper from my Master’s which was on the Adolescent Family Life Act as a piece of Cold War legislation. My dissertation is a comparative study of virginity as a form of sexual regulation in World War II and the War on Terror in the United States. I wasn’t looking to write about the Cold War at all, much less about the rhetorical history of Cold War legislation. All of that is to say, the paper I was editing had very, very little to do in subject or time period of my dissertation.

However, in editing an older piece of work that was tangentially related to my dissertation topic I started to ask myself questions and make writing notes. Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Does this source also talk about World War II?
  • Are budget re-authorizations a good place to look for legislative changes?
  • How is this different from World War II and War on Terror? How is it the same?

In looking up and writing out the answers to these questions I suddenly had that most magical of substances–new material. From the answers to those questions and others, all inspired by editing an old draft of a kind-of related paper, I had material I could work with. I then began to edit the answers to the questions into a more coherent piece which, over time, became the iteration of the problem–why it was necessary to compare World War II and the War on Terror–rather than do a more traditional longitudnal study.

It’s important to note that when I started this process I wasn’t trying to shoehorn old work into my dissertation. What I was doing was looking at my old work to find the gaps between already articulated questions and the questions I had yet to articulate for my dissertation.

Moreover, I didn’t go through this process one time. Since editing a seminar paper felt like it gave me some much needed momentum I went back and edited my prospectus as well. What had I said in the prospectus? How would I say it better now that I knew more? Had new questions arisen since I defended my prospectus? Was my list of archives up to date?

Through editing these older works I was able to reduce the question from “how the hell do I write a book on this?” to “what questions did I leave unanswered in these older pieces and how can I answer them in the dissertation?”

The second question is much more manageable than the first.

Come back tomorrow when we’ll be talking about our favorite editing strategies.

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