WTF: Executive Function

Executive function is the set of cognitive functions that enables you to do things.

In broad terms, executive function covers three areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). Together, these three areas make up a lot of what we do. If you haven’t heard the term “executive function” before you might have heard of some of it’s most popular side effects like:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Starting tasks
  • Staying focused on tasks until they’re done
  • Keeping track of what you’re doing

We know that ADHD, OCD, ASD, Anxiety, and Bipolar are all entangled with decreases in executive function.

Many of the most talented academics I know are plagued by executive dysfunction either on its own or as a symptom of one of the above. As a result, we spend a lot of time yelling at our brains to

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In fact, problems with executive function are why I spent ten (10) minutes looking for the *perfect* gif for this piece when a search instantly revealed half a dozen gifs that would be just fine.

While problems with executive function might be part of neurodiversity on your part I’ve long thought that the current structure of PhD programs in the humanities breeds executive dysfunction. After all, part of executive function is being able to prioritize tasks but every humanities PhD student I know feels torn between prioritizing their teaching, research, writing, activism, and self-care. So many of us are doing too much with too little it’s not at all surprising that deciding what to focus on for the hour or the day or the week can seem so challenging.

That is why we are so excited to debut our two-part series for December!

The first part of the series will take place here on the website, with articles about how executive function might be impacting your progress towards your PhD.

The second half of our series will take place on Instagram (search abd2phd) where we are having a Productivity Advent. Every day we will post one small, easily doable goal designed to move you towards measurable progress on your dissertation by Christmas.

Join us!

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

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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.

Teaching is a TARDIS

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Who’s home/time traveling device/constant companion then the idea that teaching is a TARDIS may not make sense to you but it’s not hard to get.

A TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside. Similarly, teaching takes up much more of your actual time than it looks like it will from the outside. At both my MA and PhD institutions a full-time teaching appointment was a .5 FTE, otherwise known as 50% Full Time Employment. We all signed contracts with the university stating that we were getting paid on the assumption that we were working on teaching tasks 20 hours a week.

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This is almost never true.

It’s particularly not true if you have a class you’ve never taught before, also known as a new prep.

Teaching expands to fill the space you give it and you will never feel that you’re doing enough.

For October, we’re focusing on streamlining your teaching without shortchanging your students so that you have more time to research and write your dissertation.

No one is writing syllabi in October so why would we put this series here?

For those of you in the semester system you’re approaching midterms. For those of you on the quarter system you’re likely approaching your first evaluative metric. In other words, the timing of the semester is about to provide you with some poignant lessons on what you want to do differently the next time you teach this, or any, class.

Maybe you realized that you gave yourself too much grading or that you need to give your students more background information to contextualize what they’re learning. Maybe you’re realizing that the readings you assigned were too simple or complex. Whatever it is, right about now, you’re probably thinking about some things you want to change about your class.

Well, we are here to help.

We’re putting this series here so that, as you realize you want to make changes we can provide some guidance on the how. We’re also putting this series here so that, in December, when you’re making your next syllabus, you have a full series to come back and read through.

We got your back.

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Topics we’ll cover this month include:

  • Why you should do less work
  • How doing less work will serve your students better
  • Letting go of professorial myths
  • Saving your time

We look forward to covering all of these topics in detail. If there are others you want to see covered just drop us a line in the comments!

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 through 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 as 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.

 

Editing A Draft: A Seven Part System

Congratulations!

You’ve completed your first chapter draft and are feeling that peculiar mix of excitement and nausea that settles in before sending something to your advisor and/or committee for feedback.

Before now and then, however, you want to make sure that everything is as perfect as it can be to reduce the nausea part.

We’ve already talked about editing twice this week. We’ve talked about why writing and editing need to be separate processes and how to use simple editing to jumpstart your writing process.

Simple editing, for our purposes, is the process of reading through a text and annotating it with your thoughts. This process is similar to what you do when you read an article or grade a student’s paper. It is, fundamentally, a critical process and though criticism is not always bad it can be difficult to criticize the things we love which can make it difficult to criticize our dissertations.

Today, I want to share with you the seven-part editing process I cobbled together, largely from the good advice of other people, that I used to edit every chapter and the dissertation as a whole.

These first three steps I learned in a Facebook Live video from Kellee Weinhold at The Professor Is In. I tried to find a link to this system but failed. However, TPII and Kelle Weinhold have great advice on productivity and I would definitely recommend checking them out.

  1. Read it.

That’s it. Just read it. Don’t make notes. Don’t even hold a pen. Just read it. Then take a break–do something else. For whatever reason, I always liked to do this part while walking up and down the long hallway outside my office. I felt like I had better editing skills when I was walking. I probably looked a bit odd but, hey, it got some movement in my day.

2. Read it again. Put checkmarks next to changes.

Just like it sounds. Read it again but instead of writing out full comments put checkmarks next to everything you want to change from punctuation to restructuring paragraphs. That’s it. Then take another break.

3. Read it again. Write comments.

This is the phase where you write in all those comments that have been brewing during the previous two reads. Change the punctuation, correct spelling, make a note to include that source you can’t believe you didn’t include and so on.

Weinhold argues that this three-part process build critical distance between you and your work. In my experience, that’s true. With each read through I picked up more nuance and was able to read the work as if I was providing helpful comments on a friend’s piece rather than criticising my own (intellectual) baby.

4. Start with the easy ones.

Once you’ve written in all your comments prop your notes up on one of these things (seriously, it will save you SO many neck problems) and start with the easy edits. Go through and put in, or take out, all the commas, fix all the typos, use a thesaurus to find a synonym for any words you noticed you were over using and so on.

PRO TIP: Every time you make a change, even a simple one, highlight it on the document. This seems like such an easy thing but it is a huge timesaver when you inevitably get interrupted while editing. Instead of reading back through the document and comparing it to the previous draft to figure out what the last thing you edited was you can just find the last highlighted portion and start right back up.

5. Repeat for the harder changes.

This is where you tackle adding sources, refining the argument, and all of those more nuanced changes. Be sure to highlight them when you’re done.

6. Listen to your draft.

Okay, this one is a game changer and I owe it all to my advisor who gave me this piece of advice.

Make Word read your draft to you. For Mac users: here. For PC users: here.

Highlight a section or two of text click the button and let the robot voice read to you. This will help you catch all kind of mistakes. It will certainly help you catch spelling mistakes but it will help you catch a variety of other mistakes. For instance, it will help you catch when Word has autocorrected a word you misspelled to another word that makes no sense in your sentence. It will also catch when you’ve fallen into the habit of obnoxiously overusing a particular word without realising it. Finally, hearing whether or not the rhythm of the sentence is off can be a huge help in catching punctuation mistakes.

Seriously. Do this. It is amazing.

Also, just listening to the document gives you a bit of time to do something mindless and relaxing like your nails or playing with playdoh. Personally, I liked to play Spider Solitaire while listening to my dissertation.

7. Celebrate!

You did it. Send that draft in and celebrate yourself.

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.

Writing vs. Editing

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.