Remix: Writing vs. Editing

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting a primer on the difference between your writing and editing brains and how to train them so you can get some sh*t done. Enjoy!

When I was in coursework I often had 3 seminar papers due around the same time at the end of the semester. Combined with teaching responsibilities and the rigors of trying to be a person (e.g. cooking, cleaning, showering) I often wrote these papers at the last minute.

What I mean by that, is that I would often have some books, some notes, some ideas and no words on paper. I would sit down at 7:00 a.m. the day the paper was due and write as many pages as possible before the paper was due at 5:00 or 6:00 or 11:00 or whenever.

This process got me through my MA and all of my PhD coursework.

Although there are undoubtedly people who are more prepared for their lives many of the graduate students I knew, operating under the same constraints, used a very similar process.

Similarly, your prelims exams are timed and whether you have a day or a week you are cranking out a large amount of writing in a condensed amount of time.

In each of these situations, you are going from having next-to-nothing (or nothing) and turning in a finished product. The consequence is that you combine the writing and editing processes somewhat. As you write you’re thinking to yourself, “Does this tie-in with what I want to say in my conclusion? Does this make sense here?”

While that’s not ideal, it’s certainly workable in a project that is (a) under 50 pages long and (b) not the foundation of your future scholarly career.

Dissertations, however, are significantly longer and more important to your overall career making a habit that was functional for previous parts of the process a detriment to your dissertation writing.

One of the most important things to do when writing a dissertation is to un-learn writing habits that got you through previous work but will work against you in a dissertation.

I speak from personal experience. when I started writing the first draft of my dissertation I would make a claim–not even a particularly bold claim or a claim central to my argument–just an ordinary claim. I would then, trained from years of writing and editing simultaneously, ask myself how that claim fit in with the dissertation as a whole. In the rare cases where that question alone was not paralyzingly overwhelming, I would then ask myself how I would defend that claim if I were asked about it in a job talk. This would then lead to an afternoon spent researching the literature and experts related to that one simple claim and no writing would get done.

I have an anxiety disorder so my brain tends to perceive everything as a slippery-slope anyway and for the longest time I perceived this as a problem that was mine alone.

Until, one day, my friend Marc confided that he had a similar problem when he started writing his first draft. I asked Marc how he dealt with this problem and he said one of the most brilliant things I think I’ve ever heard:

I think of my dissertation as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster. I’m trying to bring this thing to life but first I have to make all the requisite pieces. I used to get derailed from writing thinking I needed a heart, an arm, a specific thing at a specific place. If I wasn’t making what I thought I needed in the moment I would get paralyzed wondering where, exactly, the paragraph I was writing would fit–would it be a toe or a nose or what? Now, I’ve given myself permission just to write and to trust that everything I’m writing is like making a piece of the monster. I don’t need to know where it goes right away. I’m just building a critical mass of pieces and I trust when it comes time to assemble them I’ll be able to figure that out.

If the idea of your dissertation as a Frankensteinian monster, while seasonally appropriate, doesn’t make sense to you then feel free to substitute whatever building or growing analogy does. Some other examples include:

  • Each sentence you write is like a brick for the grand edifice that will be your dissertation but before you can start building you have to make all the bricks.
  • Each sentence is like planting a seedling in the ground and editing is your harvest. You have to plant your seeds and give them sun and water and space before you harvest.

The analogy you use isn’t the important part. The important part is that you begin to train yourself to think of writing and editing as separate processes and, in so doing, set yourself free simply to write without wondering if it “fits” the larger project.

A measure I developed to do this was my Wild Promises document. Any time I was writing I would have up a separate Word document titled Wild PromisesEvery time I made a claim like “I will revisit this issue in chapter three,” I would hop over to my Wild Promises document and make a note to myself saying “Be sure to revisit topic X in chapter three.”

This did several things. First, it removed the worry that I would forget to revisit topic X in chapter three because I hate nothing more than when an author makes a promise in a chapter to revisit something and then never does. Second, it gave me permission to delay thinking about how topic X threaded through multiple chapters and just focus on what I was writing about topic X in the moment. Finally, if I got stuck working on chapter three I could revisit Wild Promises and see what I had said I was going to write about to jump start my brain and alleviate writer’s block.

I’ve shared this method with several dissertating folks and they’ve reported that it has aided their process immensely and I hope it helps you as well.

Come back tomorrow when we’ll be talking about some of our favorite editing processes.

The Dissertation Bottleneck

There are a lot of weird things about dissertations. Some of them are just inherent in the writing process (#writingisweird) but some of them have to do with the fact that dissertations are an especially difficult genre of writing.

If you are in a PhD program, or grad school generally, chances are your social media is filled with memes about the oddities of grad school and dissertation writing, but as much as grad students love to discuss how f*ing weird grad school is we rarely discuss the absolute weirdest things about writing a dissertation: The Dissertation Bottleneck.

The Dissertation Bottleneck is the term I’ve given to the fact that no single part of the dissertation process prepares you for any other part of the dissertation process.

We’ve talked about the many oddities of the dissertation process before, particularly because it is one of the few truly medieval processes left in modern culture. Even among the modern apprenticeships the PhD process is unique in that each separate part of the process requires a completely new skill set.

In an ideal world, your committee, and particularly your advisor, would be able to mentor you as you transition from stage to stage of the process. But this is not an ideal world and faculty are overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, when coming up with the idea for this website, several faculty said the thing that there grad students most needed was a guide on how to transition from coursework to exams to prospectus to dissertation writing to defense. So, due to the dictates of capitalism I have jumped into the breach!

Below is a brief description of each of the four parts of the process, from coursework through defense:

Course Work: This is the most familiar part of the PhD process. If you are in a PhD program it’s probably because you are a good student who likes learning. If you did a Master’s before your PhD program your two years of course work will feel similar to your MA program in many respects. If you’ve gone straight from undergrad to a PhD program, or if you are coming to a PhD program after working for a while, the course work portion of your PhD will feel most familiar to your previous experiences as a student. There may be some differences in the amount of material you are expected to cover and the metrics by which you are evaluated but this part of the process is learning in classes. You can do this, for sure.

The dissertation bottleneck effect is most pronounced near the end of coursework. The entire point of coursework is to prepare you to move beyond coursework. By your last semester of courses you’ll feel frustrated with reading other people’s work. You’ll have a broad sense of your field and where your work falls within it. You’ll be looking forward to starting your own research.

You will celebrate turning in your last seminar paper, and you should, but you will come to miss the structure and relative simplicity of coursework.

Prelims/Exams/Fields: In brief, your preliminary exams, or prelims are the time at which your committee assesses whether or not you are familiar with the fields in which you wish to contribute as a scholar. We actually had a whole series on how to prep for prelims and, though we say it ourselves, it holds up pretty well. If you want to know more about what prelims are we recommend this post.

What’s important for this post is that the entire prelim process is drastically different from what you’ve done before and is, typically, not explained well.

The biggest connection between prelims and coursework is that prelims can be partially understood as your own ideal course–the course you would put together for yourself to prepare you for your dissertation. Then you read all the books (not really) and take a test on their concepts.

By the time you’re done with prelims you should be able to articulate the major conflicts and themes in the fields you wish to contribute to.

Prospectus: Personally, the prospectus was my absolute least favorite dissertation task. The prospectus itself isn’t terribly long–often shorter than a seminar paper–but it is hard. The prospectus is like planning a road trip to a place you’ve never been. What you’re trying to do is think ahead to what the journey will look like while simultaneously being frustrated by the fact that you have no idea what variables will inevitably fuck up even the most perfect plan. Don’t let the seeming paradox of the prospectus–drawing a map of a place you’ve never been–daunt you from the task. The big gap from the prelims to the prospectus is that, while the prelim exams make you aware of the gaps in your field of knowledge, your prospectus is your plan for how best to fill one of those gaps.

The thing is, knowing that a gap exists is not the same as knowing how to fill it. Anytime you’ve called a plumber, an electrician, or your apartment’s maintenance person you know acutely that identifying a problem and being able to fix a problem are very different skill sets.

Coursework is your training on what things should look like. Your prelims are training on how to identify problems in your field. Your prospectus is your plan on how to fix a part of those problems. The progression of steps makes a certain logical sense but require different skill sets and different training. Knowing what things should look like does not inherently prepare you to fix problems in the way things are anymore than enjoying ice cream prepares you to manage a restaurant.

Finally, after all of that there is the final stage in your graduate program.

Dissertation: Writing a dissertation, like writing any book, is an experience that is hard to describe. Just as learning how to identify a gap in your field doesn’t necessarily equip you to fill that gap your training in how to identify and critique the manuscripts of others does not inherently prepare you to write a manuscript of your own. It is necessary, but not sufficient, preparation. There are a lot of very successful editors who wouldn’t want to be authors.

Our October series is going to be a deep dive into how to manage the writing process.

Our point here is that, if you have felt lost and confused as you move from one stage of the process to the other then You. Are. Not. Alone.

No part of this process is clearly explained and, what’s worse, some of the skills you need to get through one part of the process are actually antithetical to other parts of the process. I know a lot of grad students who were very good at coursework. That is, they were very good at showing up to class on time, prepared, and writing seminar papers synthesizing other people’s work. In every case I can think of, the better someone was at coursework the more they struggled to write the dissertation. While coursework rewards your ability to follow a schedule that’s been set for you through the syllabus writing a dissertation requires you to be able to set, and stick to, your own schedule while also identifying all of the relevant materials and why they are relevant.

In contrast, I know a handful of graduate students who absolutely slogged through coursework or prelims because they were more interested in generating original answers to intriguing questions than reading what everyone else had to say about their topic. Several of these students put off the prelims process for over a year because it was so antithetical to how they worked. Once these students were allowed to build their own schedule and do their own research they flourished, often finishing their dissertations quickly.

It’s not that any of these people were dumb. They just had skill sets that didn’t work at parts of the process. In fact, part of the genesis of this website was a moment when, over drinks with a dear friend (who is now a PhD) I confessed that I had no idea how to start writing my dissertation and had tried to Google it late at night. I was completely surprised when this scholar I respected immensely told me she had done the same thing at every part of the process! Our confession made, we discussed how frustrating it was that all of the clear advice on how to move through a PhD program was geared towards STEM students. In that moment, abd2phd, was conceived.

At this point you might reasonably be asking yourself what this long diatribe has to do with our September focus on letting go of perfection to be productive.

A lot, actually. A lot of PhD students have always been very good at school. Their PhD program might be the first time they have significantly struggled. Combine this with the lack of clarity on the parts of the process, the fact that the skills for one part of the process aren’t the same as the skills to get you through the other parts of the process, and a perception that everyone else knows what they are doing and you wind up with grad students mired in shame.

Shame that they don’t inherently understand the steps of the process. (Who would?!)

Shame that they aren’t doing as well as everyone else. (You are!)

Shame that they are no longer “good at school.” (Because you aren’t “in school” anymore! You’re a young professional!)

Shame that while they did well in one part of the process they are struggling with another. (That’s normal!)

Underlying all that shame is a deeply held sense that we need to be perfect on the first try. But that’s ridiculous. And impossible.

It’s this shame, rooted in the idea that we need to appear perfect, that keeps us from asking, “What the hell are prelims?” and, instead, googling, “What the hell are prelims?” at 3:00 a.m. and then going to bed crying because none of the answers are helpful.

If you want to get through this process you need to understand that you will not be good at every part of it. That doesn’t make you dumb. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t cut out to be a scholar. It means you’re human, and that’s ok. At least, that’s what my therapist spent five years telling me and she always kept it 100.