Remix: Start With 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 why it’s important to start writing by editing and how to do it. Enjoy!

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.

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.

Remix: Macros, Mids, and Micros

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. It seems fitting that one of our first posts ever was about breaking goals down into macros, mids, and micros. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that breaking goals down into doable pieces is something we’re constantly talking about and this is where it all started. Enjoy!

There are many things that academics are good at, but that’s not why this site exists.

One thing that academics, particularly grad students, are bad at is practical goal setting. In the early days of an academic career, there is a fair amount of structure established for you by course work where the syllabus establishes what you read, by when, and gives deadlines for turning in work. This isn’t to say that improved goal setting can’t improve your experience of coursework. It can, but that post is for another time.

Today, I want to focus on the latter half of a grad students career when the structure of course work disappears. In my personal observation, everyone tends to talk about time management as if it is the panacea to all of the difficulties of being post-coursework. Time management, on its own, however, is meaningless. What exactly, are you managing your time for?

You are managing your time (or attempting to) to make progress on your exams or your dissertation. How do you know if you are making progress?

You know you are making progress by setting and meeting goals.

Goal setting is the heart of time management and yet, at least in the academic circles I’ve been privy to, it is left out of the conversation almost completely. I suspect the reason for this is because academics are very, very bad at goal setting in any meaningful way.

Let me give you an example. At the beginning of this semester (fall 2017) I sat down with a friend to determine our macro goals for the semester and the micro-goals that would get us there. I initiated this conversation after some business classes had introduced me to the concept of macro and micro goals and setting them with a partner.

Our first attempt at goals was a train wreck. My friend listed a micro-goal as finishing edits on a chapter.

This, beloved, is not a micro goal. This is a macro goal. It makes a certain type of sense that, with the ultimate macro-goal of the dissertation on the horizon chapter revisions do seem like a micro-goal. Yet, chapter revisions are comprised of several independent tasks (the real micro-goals) and take days to complete (at best).

Why does it matter?

Well, if you set revising chapter three as your micro-goal you are going to wind up frustrated and discouraged. Instead of focusing on the progress you’ve made you will wind up feeling like you never get anywhere.

I believe this is why so many grad students prioritize teaching tasks over dissertation tasks despite dire warnings that “teaching is a time suck.” Teaching inherently has a micro-, mid-, macro-goal structure that is rewarding. For instance, in one of my classes this semester I have 15 students. If I want to get their papers back to them in a week (ha!) I know I need to grade two papers a day–that is my micro goal. I can adjust it based on what else is going on–if I have a day where I miss grading papers I can add two more to the next day or grade three papers per day over the next two days. When I grade 8 papers I know that I’m over the halfway hump. In a career where most of our labor doesn’t produce tangible results teaching let’s us see that we are making progress and it can be addictive.

This is actually really good news because it means you already likely have experience with setting micro-, mid-, and macro-goals. The trick is learning to apply it to dissertating–the ultimate in structureless, macro-goals.

First, what is a macro-goal in the context of dissertating? A macro-goal is any goal that is in the future and relies on the completion of several other discrete tasks. These discrete tasks can then be broken down into your micro- and mid-goals. Let’s go back to that chapter revisions example.

Macro-goal: Revise Chapter 3. This goal will likely take several days, at a minimum, and relies on you completing several other discrete tasks such as proofreading, rewriting, and citing.

Mid-goal: Proofreading. I use the model advocated by Kellee who conducts the UNSTUCK productivity group over at The Professor Is In and it has transformed my editing process for the better.

Micro-goals:

  1. Read through my draft. That’s it. Just read. No pen, no marks, no margin notes. Just read it.
  2. Give it some breathing room (try one of our recommended 5-minute videos here).
  3. Read through my draft and put a check mark next to anything I think needs editing. No notes. No comments. Just a check mark.
  4. Give it some breathing room.
  5. Read through one more time and add a comment for every check mark on what you think needs to be done.

Ta-da! I’ve transformed the overwhelming process of “Revise Chapter 3” into several things I can do today and each time I cross off one of these micro-goals I can see and feel my progress. (Kellee calls this “feeding the Lizard brain” which I love.)

My next Mid-goal will likely be Rewriting and here are some relevant micros- for that goal:

  1. Make all spelling and grammar edits. (Pro-tip: I use a highlighter to highlight my own comments after I make the requisite changes so I don’t go in circles or waste time looking for where I stopped if I get interrupted.)
  2. Make any syntax edits. (What the hell did I mean when I wrote that sentence, anyway?)
  3. Make notes on any changes to the argument. These will become your next set of micro-goals. For instance, do you need to look up that one article that will tie together the transition from section two to section three?

Let us know how goal-setting works for you and what you’d like to see next!

Happy New Year!

Welcome back, Beloved!

We are so happy that you are here! We’ve been so in the work that we haven’t noticed a couple of big milestones have happened.

First, we had our two year anniversary back in November! Holy Cow! It seems amazing that this little site has been around for two years already. It’s been a joyful, at times chaotic, journey–much like the process of dissertating itself.

Second, we have over forty (40) followers! To all of you who have clicked the “follow” box, we cannot thank you enough for letting us into your minds, into your hearts, and into your inbox. We are here to serve you and we are so grateful to connect with you.

As we move into our third year of existence we’re making a couple of changes.

First, we’re going to add some new pages to help clarify our mission, who we can help, and how. Get excited, folks 😉

Second, we are working on some brand new series taking on some big dissertation challenges for the the upcoming academic term. While we work on these changes we’re going to be re-posting our favorite/most popular posts from the last two years.

Today, though, we can’t wait to share a little piece of advice we came across from our friends at Panda Planner. You may have previously encountered this advice:

A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action becomes reality.

I think we can all acknowledge that’s good advice but how do we put that into practice? It can be hard if you struggle with executive function or if you have perfectly normal executive function but have professional training in connecting disparate parts rather than breaking things down into discrete pieces.

Here’s how Panda Planner suggests we break our goals down.

First, make a goal. Easy–I know we all have a million, maybe start with one slightly more doable than world domination. For example, one of my goals for the new year is to stick to my budget.

Second, set a date by which you want to achieve that goal. The date by which I went to be living by my budget is March 1st but I know that I often underestimate how much time change takes so I’m gonna give myself until May 30th.

Third, every week, keep track of your goal. If it’s a weekly thing, like a budget, did you meet it or not? If it’s a daily thing, how many days did you succeed?

Fourth, analyze what went wrong? For instance, I’ve already broken my resolution to stick to my budget because I needed new clothes for a conference next week.

Fifth, test a solution. I’m going to take my mom’s recommendation of buying one new professional clothing item with every paycheck instead of putting it off until the last minute and see if that helps me stick to my budget next week.

Above all, be patient with yourself. It’s not about flipping a switch and changing your life–it’s about building new structures to live in.

There’s A Reason You Can’t Do It

Last week we talked about the role of executive function in your life/dissertation.

While executive function in adults is understudied we do know that problems with executive function are part of ADHD, ASD, and anxiety.

I’m not a neuroscientist, or a psychologist, but as someone who lives with anxiety I’ve noticed two important things. First, most of the PhD students I know are neurodivergent in some way. (I know, I know–there’s all sorts of caveats here: maybe all my friends are neurodivergent because I am, maybe it’s a self-selecting population, etcetera–but I’m not worried about the mechanism here.) Second, it TOTALLY makes sense that people with anxiety, ADHD, ASD and other brains impacted by executive dysfunction are really good at PhD programs.

Our brains are really good at finding connections other people might not see and weaving them into arguments to create knowledge.

This natural propensity is enhanced by the structure of a PhD program itself which encourages us to think not in five paragraph arguments but in five chapter monographs.

When we train brains that are already good at making connections to make more connections we really shouldn’t be surprised that we have a bunch of people who struggle with the executive function skills of breaking a task down into parts, planning, organizing, and completing it.

I would argue that humanities students struggle with this more than STEM PhDs because STEM PhDs are often based on fieldwork, an equation, and experiment, and so on. In short, STEM PhDs have a definable start and finish in ways that humanities projects often do not.

For instance, in my own project I was looking at how U.S. doctors and legislators talked about virginity in World War II and the War on Terror. Part of my committee, the part made up of historians, wanted me to do a longitudnal study instead of a comparative study. Even when I got them to agree to a comparative study there was still the problem of how to define WWII and the War on Terror. For instance, did I define WWII as when the US entered the war? When the war started in Europe? Or when the US army started preparing to enter the war? Defining the War on Terror was even more complex as a War on Terror is, by definition, and endless war.

My point here is that breaking our projects into workable pieces is HARD and it’s made harder by the fact that our job and our training are teaching us to look for connections between those pieces.

When you look at your project you see all the connections. The inside of a dissertating brain usually looks something like this:

Conspiracy

If it feels crazy-making that’s because it is.

You are not crazy or dumb for having difficulty sorting through the connections. It’s antithetical to everything you’ve been trained to do. That’s why, sometimes, you need someone else to come in take a look at your project to help you sort it into doable pieces.

In theory, your committee should be able to do this for you. That is, after all, what committees are for. In reality, there are a lot of reasons you might not seek this sort of feedback from your committee. Maybe they’re on sabbatical. Maybe they only read finished work. Maybe their feedback is contradictory or unhelpful.

Fellow graduate students can be a great resource to give you this type of feedback as well. I’ve known graduate students who have been able to get reading/writing groups together that meet regularly and give each other feedback. This has been extremely successful for them.

I tried, several times, to set up a graduate student reading group during my PhD. It never worked out.

In general, I’ve noticed that reading groups tend to work out if you have a group of people who are on fellowship. If you have a group of graduate students who are teaching or TAing it’s a little harder to get going and may never take off.

Sometimes graduate students can offer you much needed sympathy and support but not the perspective you need. Sometimes you need the help of someone with more distance from your project and your program. And that’s okay.

Getting a PhD isn’t about how smart you are. Getting a PhD is about persistence and persistence is, among other things, about knowing when to ask for help.

If you need it, or think you might need it, we’re here for you.

Fall Break

Hi All,

Here in the states we’re approaching Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving is a heap of white people bullshit but it is a break built into the academic calendar so we’re going to take our own advice and take the week off to rest after finishing up our two month long series on teaching time management.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing this week we are wishing you the very best.

If you need to procrastinate, check out our revised Services page and let us know what you think.

Also, don’t forget to book your end-of-semester coaching session a.s.a.p. ! First time clients get a 20% discount on an individual session!

Bring Your Work to Class

Humanities PhD programs will pull you in a lot of different directions. Almost every humanities PhD student I have ever met is trying to be their best researcher-self, teacher-self, activist-self, and human-self.

It’s a lot.

We’ve talked before about learning to balance these multiple desires and multiple expectations. One part of balance is recognizing that all these aspects are unique expressions of who you are. Your researcher-self informs your teacher-self and both are probably motivated by experiences your human-self has had.

It can be helpful, for both your sanity and your students, to bring your researcher-self into your classroom.

Advantages to you include, but are not limited to:

  • Getting feedback from an educated layperson (your students)
  • Learning your own material better through teaching it
  • Getting some free editing

Benefits to your students include, but are not limited to:

  • Seeing you as a scholar
  • Seeing the process of how scholarship happens
  • Helping them think of themselves as scholars
  • Practice in editing
  • Learning more about your specialty

Often graduate instructors don’t have the luxury of teaching an upper division class related to their area of research. It can be difficult to imagine bringing your highly specialized research into a survey class but there are several ways you can do it.

One former professor of mine would bring in a couple of pages of her work in progress (WIP) the first day that her students had to turn in a paper. She would have students spend the class editing the document looking for everything from unclear arguments to comma errors. Her reason for doing this was to help anxious students relax about turning in their work by seeing, in real time, that even professor’s need help to make the work excellent.

When I taught public speaking, I employed a similar strategy. I would bring a short section of my own WIP and have students work on turning it from a written argument to an oral one. First, they would convert the long-form document into an outline. Then we would work on how to appropriately cite sources and why I used the sources I did. For them, this was a conversation on different sources for different audiences. For me, it was preparation for how to orally present my work at conferences

giphy

These are not the only ways to bring your work into your teaching. In a composition class you can have your students edit your work. In a disciplinary class you can have them analyze your methods.

However you decide to do it, bringing your scholarship to your teaching will benefit both you and your students!

Stop Working So Hard

You are working too hard on teaching and you need to stop.

I know you think you’re not doing enough, but I promise you that you are doing too much.

How do I know this?

Because all new professors do too much. (And, yes, if you have yet to defend your dissertation I’m counting you as “new.”)

I think there are a lot of reasons why PhD candidates work too much on teaching. In part, it’s because teaching is significantly clearer than dissertation work. You have a time that you show up at a place and you do a thing and then it’s done in stark contrast to dissertation work which you can start whenever you want and never feels done. It’s significantly easier to measure your progress in teaching. If you have twelve papers to grade and grade six of them then you are halfway done in contrast to dissertation work where you may write 600 words but how close is that to done, exactly? Perhaps the most seductive thing about teaching, though, is that it lets us feel like experts because when you teach you are automatically viewed as the expert in the room whereas, with writing a dissertation, we are constantly thinking about how to prove that we know a thing.

Teaching, as we’ve said before, expands to fill the space you give it and many, many ABD students give teaching too much of their time because, for the reasons mentioned above, teaching feels good when other parts of the PhD process do not.

As always, there is something about the type of person who wants to get a PhD in the first place that lends towards the teaching-too-much problem. If you are getting a PhD you probably love learning and you probably want other people to love learning which means you’re going to put a lot of your time and energy into making your classes a space where students can love learning.

These are all the reasons why I know you are teaching too, too much and you need to stop it.

Here are three ways to help you teach less without short-changing your students:

  1. Let go of the idea of coverage. It’s not possible to cover everything in a single class particularly if, like most graduate students, you are teaching an intro level survey class. You will want to cover everything, but you can’t. The professor who first gave me this advice used this example, “So what if you teach a class about the 20th century and don’t cover World War I?!” This was from an historian. Her point, however, was that when putting together your syllabus you have to let go of the idea that you will cover everything. Instead of trying to cover everything include a mix of what you think they absolutely need to know and what you find interesting.
  2. Limit your teaching time. Again, teaching will expand to fill the time you give it so one of the absolute best ways to do less teaching is to limit the amount of time you allow yourself to teach. I mean this literally. Set a timer when you work on teaching tasks. The timer shouldn’t be for longer than an hour. When the timer goes off you stop doing teaching things.
  3. Time your teaching. Set a time limit for how much teaching work you will do per week. The general assumption is that you’ll spend twenty (20) hours a week on teaching things and the same amount on research and writing things. In reality, most people work far more than this on both their research and teaching. However much you actually work commit to spending absolutely no more than half of those hours on teaching things. The important thing here is to make sure that you count ALL of your teaching hours. This doesn’t just mean you count the hours you spend grading. It means that you count the time you spend in the classroom, in office hours, prepping for class, and grading. Time all of those things, add up how much total time it is and when you reach half of your working hours for the week it’s time to cut off teaching.

If you practice these tips you will reduce the amount of time you spend teaching which will give you more time to dissertate. I know first hand, however, that it can be difficult to put these tips into practice because it can feel that limiting our time on teaching will, somehow, short change our students.

I can only promise you that it won’t. Putting these tips into practice for the first time may feel scary but I would urge you to try it for a month and see if the quality of your teaching decreases.

In my experience, when I limit the amount of time I spend on individual teaching tasks and the amount of total time I spend teaching weekly my teaching improves immensely. It improves because I have more energy and focus for teaching. It improves because limiting time helps me prioritize my teaching tasks. It improves because I feel less distracting guilt that I’m not working on my dissertation enough.

We hope that these tips will help you save time on teaching and create time for dissertating from now to the end of the present term. For our next couple of posts we’re going to focus on how to set up your syllabus so that you have less grading and less class prep from the beginning.

How to Fail

Earlier this week we shared that a crucial part of making progress on your dissertation isn’t just letting go of perfection but actively giving yourself the freedom to fail.

Today, we’re going to share our favorite ways to fail.

If you take lessons in acrobatics, stagecraft, or tumbling, one of the first things you will learn is how to fall. While we’ve all been challenged by gravity a time or two there are better ways to fall than others. There are ways to fall that you can recover from so the routine goes on and, if you can’t recover, there are ways to fall that minimize the possibility of injury.

In the same way, there are better and worse ways of failing.

Trying to prevent failure in the dissertation process is futile. The only thing you can do is learn to fail forward.

If you’re in a US institution then you are in a culture were we are discouraged, in numerous ways, from talking about our failures.

Beyond this broader cultural taboo, however, is a problem peculiar to academia: most of us chose to be in academia because we’ve always been good at learning.

We were the kids who got “A”s on most of our school work. We are better than average at testing of all kinds, at reading comprehension, and writing. We like making nuanced arguments. Many of us were encouraged to go to grad school because we are good at these things.

We choose graduate programs that play to our strengths. For instance, I find media and culture incredibly interesting so I picked a PhD program that would allow me to focus on cultural critique and media analysis. Once I was there I had a choice between collecting data through interviews or analyzing historical documents. I love analyzing documents. I’m very good at it. I conducted exactly one interview during my MA program and learned that I hated it.

My story is not uncommon. Most of us, particularly in the humanities, are blessed to be able to choose our programs and projects according to what interests us and what we are good at.

This will serve you well in coursework and even through your prospectus writing.

It will work against you in writing your dissertation.

You see, for many of us, pursuing a career in the academy has kept us safe within the bubble of our skill where we rarely have to fail. But writing, like most successful ventures, is a process of failing until you succeed.

I think one of the reasons a full 50% of PhD students drop out is because writing an original manuscript like a dissertation requires them to fail and it feels indescribably yucky.

You are not going to complete a dissertation without some version of what feels like failing and when you’re not used to it “failing” can feel like dying.

I put failing in quotes there because what grad students count as failure often wouldn’t count as failure in a different workplace.

I passed my prospectus defense with revisions and I counted that as failure.

Every time my advisor gave me back a draft with extensive notes I felt like I had failed.

If I hadn’t been so used to turning things in and getting “A”s on the first try I might have had a better adjusted sense that revision is a normal, inevitable, vital part of writing.

In my workplace now it’s normal for most projects to go through several stages of revision and it’s not failure; it’s not even a big deal. It’s just work.

Beyond that, most graduate students I know, particularly those in the humanities, hold themselves to an impossible, invisible standard known or cared about by no one but themselves. That standard is often simply, “be perfect.”

No one can be perfect but when you’ve always been close to perfect, an “A” student, being less than perfect can feel like failure. When the only way forward is through imperfection and failure and you’re terrified of failure then you may find yourself standing still. I’ve known people who have stood still, doing nothing on their dissertations, for years. I know people who have left their graduate programs rather than face the sort of failure inherent in the writing process. If you want to finish your dissertation then you have to give yourself the freedom to fail and you have to learn how to fail forward.

Write Badly. Write as badly as you can. Instead of worrying about how to write a good sentence or how to succinctly state the significance of the problem do those things as badly as you can. It’s always easier to edit than to generate original content. The most intimidating part of a blank page is the pressure we put on ourselves to write something brilliant. Set that aside. Write as badly as you can. You can always make it beautiful later.

Writing Is Not Cooking. My aunt taught me that, when I was cooking, I should always add less salt to a recipe than I thought was warranted because, while I could always add more at a later stage, I couldn’t take the salt out once it was in the dish. This is a good principle in cooking and a terrible principle in writing. You can always go back and erase what you’ve written if you decide you don’t like it or it doesn’t fit. Don’t stop to think or critique your work while you’re producing it. Don’t worry or wonder if what you’re writing is good. Just let it all flow out and trust your inner editor to clean it up later.

Create a”Pieces” Document. I suggest doing this for every part of the dissertation: each chapter, the introduction, even the acknowledgements. A pieces document is an intellectual security blanket. When you know that a sentence or a paragraph or a section doesn’t quite fit where you want it to but you don’t want to delete it because, damn it, you worked hard on those words, then you can copy and paste it into your “Pieces” document. Chances are you will not actually go back and use these pieces in your dissertation. If you’ve made the decision to take them out then they probably need to be out. However, reading through my old “pieces” document has often worked as a great way to get over writer’s block.

Follow Bunny Trails. One of the most defeating experiences as a writer is when you spend all day (or week or month or year) chasing down a lead. Sometimes all you have is the name of a scholar who said something you know would tie together your whole argument in this one place. Sometimes you remember the gist of what was said but not who said it or where. Sometimes, you find what you’re looking for but once you find it it’s not obvious why you were so sure it would fit. Sometimes, you spend all day looking and you don’t find what you’re looking for. Either way, at the end of these days it’s easy to feel frustrated with yourself for wasting so much time chasing down a bunny trail. But those bunny trails are actually an essential part of the writing experience and help prepare you for your dissertation defense. In your search for whatever piece of scholarship you are looking for you are acquainting yourself with the literature of your field. If you find the thing you were looking for and it doesn’t fit then you’ll be prepared to articulate to your committee or a job search committee why you rejected it because you made a conscious decision to do so. Mostly, you have to trust that you’re not an idiot and if you have a hunch that you need to hunt something down then that work will pay off sometime, somewhere. It always does.

This is the last entry in our September series on letting go of perfection and embracing progress.

For October we’ll be focusing on how to spend less time teaching and create more time for your dissertation without short changing your students. This is one of our favorite topics and we can’t wait to dive into it with you!

Free to Fail

My birthday was last week and I threw a party. In lieu of a cake I made dozens and dozens of macarons.

They were delicious (it was the cake batter buttercream) and my guests were very impressed.

Several people told me that they didn’t know I had such advanced baking skills as macarons have a reputation for being particularly difficult to make.

But here’s the thing about macarons: they aren’t that hard to make if you have the right equipment. To make macarons you need the following ingredients:

  • blanched almond flour
  • powedered sugar
  • cream of tartar
  • egg whites
  • granulated sugar
  • flavored extracts or emulsions (if you want to add them)
  • food coloring (if you want)
  • filling (I like buttercream but you can use jam, ganache, or whatever you want)

Other than the blanched almond flour, most of the ingredients are common place and not very expensive.

The equipment, however, is a different matter.

Macarons are ridiculously hard to make if you don’t have a stand mixer to make that crucial meringue. You can make a meringue with a hand mixer or, god forbid, a whisk but it takes sooooo long and will tire out your arms.

You also need something to sift the almond flour and powdered sugar together.

Once you mix the batter together and it gets to the stage where you can make a full figure eight with the batter sliding off the spatula you’re ready to put it in the piping bag. Piping bags are a wonderful invention but they take some getting used to.

From there, pipe the macarons to the size you want, bang the tray on the counter three times, let them sit for twenty minutes, and put them in the oven.

After that, you’ll probably have pretty good macarons.

You see, the process is time consuming and resource intensive, but it’s not particularly difficult.

I was thinking about this while I was making endless macarons for my party and realized that most skills are that way: not particularly difficult if you have the resources, the time, and the freedom to fail (as I did with my first several batches of macarons).

Dissertations are the same way. The PhD process, from course work to prelims, is designed to give you the resources you need to complete the project.

If you’ve completed those things then I promise that you have what you need to write and defend a dissertation.

To make that crucial transition from ABD to PhD, you need to give yourself the other two things: time and the freedom to fail.

This month we’ve been covering the latter. Next month, we’ll be covering the former.

Part of why we started with letting go of perfection is because you will find that, when you let go of being perfect, you gain a lot of time.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking advice. A lot of authors more famous than me have said the same thing. There’s the Jane Smiley quote, “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.” There’s also Shannon Hale’s quote, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

I could pull up a dozen more quotes but the point is always the same: let go of perfection in your work, especially your first drafts. This is necessary for writers to function generally but particularly necessary for academic writers. You have a committee whose job it is to assess the quality of your work. Your job is to do the work. Let them do theirs and you do yours.

Is it more complicated than that? Sure, there are nuances, but if you want to make any kind of progress you have to give yourself the freedom to fail.