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 Once I was there I had a choice between collecting data through interviews or analyzing historical documents.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.

 

A Dissertation is a Thousand Cranes

Being from a working-class background, I grew up identifying “work” as something with visible, tangible results. My stepdad poured concrete. His work was a series of discrete tasks. That is not to say it didn’t take skill–it absolutely did–but at the end of the day, when his work was done, there was concrete where there had been no concrete. My grandfather was a machinist. When his work was done there was a thing where there had been no thing. My mom was a secretary and a large part of her job was archiving documents. She started the day with a pile of documents to archive and at the end of the day they were archived. That’s how you knew that work was done.

Academic work is not like that.

Writing, in general, is not like that.

You sit down at your computer and you start to write. Then you start to edit. You might end the day with more words than you started with. You might end the day with fewer words than you started with. If you track your word count over time you will see a steady increase, but even then there often isn’t a tangible product at the end of the day to show that you did something other than sit at a desk all day. And that’s on the good days! The days when you actually get to write. There are other days where you go down research trails that may or may not lead somewhere. (Well, they all lead somewhere, but they often don’t lead where you expect them to.) There are days where you are mired in meetings or days when teaching takes all of your energy and you feel like you didn’t make any dissertation progress.

Without concrete proof that you are moving forward, the ebb and flow of writing can feel discouraging and self-defeating.

To help myself fight this discouragement I made a seemingly small decision on a completely ordinary day. At the time, I was using this little post-it sized to-do lists I’d gotten at Target. I had enough space to write about five tasks on each one and, because they were square, they were perfect for origami. I decided that, when I completed all five items on my to-do list, I would fold it into a paper crane.

I had no idea how to make paper cranes.

I finished the to-do list and looked up a YouTube paper crane tutorial.

I made a crane.

There it was, sitting on my desk, a little reminder that I had completed the tasks I had set for myself.

The next day, I decided to try the same thing. I made a small to-do list. I completed it. I made another paper crane.

Now I had two cranes and two tangible reminders that I had completed all my tasks for the day. When I started there was no crane. When I finished a crane existed. This was a form of work that made sense to me.

I found that this method helped keep me focused on my progress rather than what I didn’t get done.

About a week into this I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to make 1000 cranes and turn them into streamers for my dissertation defense?” It’s said that, if you make 1000 cranes you get a wish. Maybe I could use them to wish to become a doctor.

Reader, I did it.

I made 1000 cranes.

They weren’t all to-do lists. I also used the hard copy drafts of my dissertation that I printed out to edit. (You can get about 4 cranes out of an 8.5×11 piece of paper, btw.)

Was it great to have my crane streamers in the room when I defended my dissertation? Absolutley.

Do I still have them? Of course.

Here’s what making 1000 cranes taught me.

  1. You will get bad advice. You will recover. Remember when I told you that I didn’t know anything about making paper cranes and searched a YouTube video to learn how? Well, the first video I found was not a good tutorial. I don’t think the maker of that video new how to make a crane either. As a result, my first dozen “cranes” aren’t, technically, cranes. They kind of look like cranes, if you squint. When I realized that these first cranes didn’t look right I found another tutorial which I followed religiously until I could make a crane with my eyes closed.
  2. You will feel crazy. Here’s the thing about making 1000 of anything. At first, it will be fun and cute. People will comment on it saying, “What a neat idea!” or “How fun!” Once you get about 30 of them and they are strewn across your desk people will stop commenting. They are no longer cute. They are messy and a little weird. When you have to get a box to store your first 100 cranes in you will start to wonder if you are crazy. Once you reach 500 it will feel like there’s no point in stopping. Once you reach 925 you will wonder if you *really* have to make it to 1000. Once you hit 1000 you will be so incredibly proud of yourself.
  3. It’s not about one crane. Remember back in step one when I said that my first dozen cranes were made incorrectly? Well, they weren’t the only ones. Even after I learned to make cranes there were still days when I made bad ones. The paper wasn’t perfectly square or my fold was off. The thing is, though, when you make 1000 of anything what each individual one looks like isn’t as important as what they look like together. Let me tell you, friends, those 1000 cranes together are a beautiful sight to behold.
  4. Ask for help. It may sound odd given everything I’ve said up to this point but making 1000 cranes was actually the easy part. I severely underestimated the difficulty of making streamers out of 1000 paper cranes. I’m also not what you would call a “crafty” person. This meant that I was about a week out from my dissertation defense and had no streamers and felt frustrated and overwhelmed. I reached out to see if any of my friends wanted to come over, watch movies, and make streamers. I will be eternally grateful to the people who came over and engaged in that ridiculous activity to make this dream come true.
  5. Celebrate. You did something difficult. Show it off! Be proud of it! Tell people about it! Do your favorite thing! You earned it.

A dissertation, it turns out, is remarkably similar to making 1000 cranes.

  1. You will get bad advice from faculty who think grad school hasn’t changed since they were in it, from abusive advisors, from bitter grad students. You will recover. Your ability to course-correct is unlimited.
  2. You will feel crazy. At first it will be exciting (and intimidating), then it will feel boring (and daunting). You will feel crazy. Then you will feel like you might as well keep going since you’ve gotten this far. You will feel crazy. Then you will wonder if you really wanna finish this thing. You will feel crazy. Then you will be done and feel glorious.
  3. It’s not about the individual words or sentences. It’s not that words aren’t important, because they are. It’s just that there’s no reason to get hung up on individual words or sentences that don’t sound “perfect” because it’s about the totality of the thing you are doing. It’s about the book, not the paragraph. Just keep writing. You might come back and find those sentences you agonized over weren’t so bad after all.
  4. Ask for help. Find people you trust. Ask for help. Do this often.
  5. Celebrate. Celebrate fiercely. Celebrate the little wins and the big wins. Celebrate.

 

September, Baby!

Welcome to the Academic New Year!

For myself, and many of the academics I know, September is the most magical month: new planners, new pencils, new pens, new term and, most importantly, new potential.

September feels like a new start and this time, baby, we’re gonna get it right!

We often go into a new semester with the highest of hopes. We learned from what went wrong last semester, we’ve crafted a plan, and we’re ready!

Then life happens.

Stuff gets in the way.

Other people don’t cooperate with our perfect plan.

Somehow or another we find ourselves falling short of our high expectations.

What happens next?

Once our perfect plan fails it can be hard to get back on track.

I’m a September baby which means my astrological sign is Virgo. Virgos are said to be perfectionists, and I am, although I that may be more of an academic thing than an astrological one. Most academics I know tend towards perfectionism.

In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of procrastination: as long as something exists in your head it exists perfectly. Our attempts to bring our ideas into the real world mean that they no longer get to be perfect ideas but messy realities.

What we’re going to focus on in this month’s series is letting go of perfection and getting sh*t done.

Our series will have three main components. First, why we need to let go of our white-knuckled grip on perfection. Second, how to set achievable goals and, finally, how to keep moving forward when things go wrong.

Stay tuned for more!

Manage Out

One of the wisest pieces of advice I got while I was writing my dissertation was from a senior faculty member who observed that, “Sometimes, through no fault of their own, advisors and advisees get stuck in a loop rehashing the same issues in the text.”

Again, in it’s own way, this can be a bizarre sort of academic compliment. It can mean that your advisor sees potential in your work and wants it to be the best it can be. It can mean that your advisor is trying to prepare you for questions you’ll face from journal editors and hiring committees. It can be a lot of things, but whatever else it is, it is also damn annoying. No document is ever perfect. Dissertations, in particular, are a deeply weird genre, in which perfection should not be the goal.

When this happens, the best thing you can do is manage out.

(Note: I have no idea if this is a real term. I just made it up to parallel our last post about managing up, which is a real term.)

The entire point behind having academic committees is to make sure that the whims of one person don’t control your whole dissertation. Even so, I’ve met dozens of dissertating students who don’t use their committee. Hell, I was one until the very end of the process when a molten core of anxiety and rage formed something approximating motivation that was strong enough to overcome my imposter syndrome.

That is how I know that if you feel stuck in a feedback loop with your advisor one of the best things you can do is to show your work in progress to another member of your committee and get their feedback on it. Perhaps they’ll be able to frame your advisor’s comments in a different way that makes more sense to you. Perhaps they’ll be able to advocate for you with your advisor by mentioning how well that chapter is coming along the next time they see each other.

There are some cases where you genuinely can’t go to the rest of your committee for help for various reasons. For instance, two of your committee members could be out of the country and one could be on sabbatical. Alternately, you could have senior committee members who have explicitly told you they’ll defer to the advisor’s judgement (thus nullifying the entire god damn point of committees, but anyway) and a junior member who feels powerless because she is powerless in this context.

If you find yourself in these or other commitee permutations that don’t allow your committee to advocate for you with your advisor then there are two key ways to manage out.

The Long-Game

The preferred method is to cultivate academic relationships. Cultivating connections in your discipline can be a huge help in breaking up advisor (or committee) gridlock. It can also be a good long-term help in your academic career.

When you and your advisor keep circling the same issues with no path to resolution it can be powerful to go into a meeting and say, “Scholar-X, who wrote book Y, very kindly read over this chapter and gave me some feedback. Based on her notes I was thinking of doing A and B in section C of this chapter.”

There’s no bones about it, this is a power move. What you’re essentially saying in the above sentence is: Look, another expert in the field thinks this is fucking fine. I’m going to make these minor changes. Please just drop this shit and let us all move on, ok? It’s a subtle reminder to your advisor that they aren’t the only expert in the field and that other experts have looked at your work and deemed it good enough (which is all our work can ever really be, tbh).

The thing about this strategy is that it takes *a lot* of investment to get to this place. You have to cultivate a relationship with a senior scholar in your field. Everyone says the best place to do this is conferences and that might be true? IDK, it’s never really worked for me. Everyone at conferences is some bizarre mix of tired and amped, bored and exhausted, trying to network and trying to turn this trip into a vacation. I’ve rarely made good academic connections at conferences and when I have it’s because I’ve been the slightly senior academic, but that’s a whole other post.

If you want to employ this strategy you can’t just email a senior scholar in your field and say, “Will you read my chapter?” (I mean, you could, but it’s not respectful of their time and if they send a response it likely won’t be in your favor.) Instead, you have to reach out to them ahead of time. I recommend reaching out with a genuine compliment like, “I saw your op-ed and really enjoyed it” or “Your book has been so influential in my thinking about X.” Everybody likes to be complimented, academics more than most.

If the academic in question responds positively to this then follow-up the next time you see a pop culture thing that makes you think of them like a Twitter thread or a television show related to their work. (I specifically advocate doing this with a pop culture thing related to their work because academia is a very small world when you get into people’s specialties. Sure, you could send them that new journal article in their area of research but there’s a decent chance that they were asked to be a reviewer for it or have already heard of it.)

When the next major conference rolls around then you email them and ask if they’d like to serve as the chair of a panel you’re putting together for the major conference. The important thing here is that you, as the junior scholar, are offering to do all the time-consuming leg work. If they agree then you now have a professional connection. Hooray!

After the conference it will be appropriate to ask them to read over your chapter.

Like I said, it’s a very time-consuming process.

The Quick Fix

If you need help sooner than that timeline would allow there are a lot of services out there to help you. You know, like this one.

You can work with abd2phd, or a service like us, where someone who knows the process can look at your work along with your advisor’s comments and help you figure out how to move forward. If you feel truly stuck this is a great option. In fact, I did this when I was near giving up on my dissertation and it was immensely helpful to have someone who didn’t have a lot of power over my work/life give me honest feedback about what was good and what was missing.

[Shameless Self-Promo: abd2phd is currently accepting clients FOR FREE. As in, we will work with you at no cost. If you’d like to work with abd2phd to jumpstart your dissertation progress then drop us a line via our Contact page. We’ll schedule a 30 minute consultation so you can decide if we’re right for you. If we’re not what you need then we’re more than happy to recommend some other folks.]

One last note here, managing out is not the same thing as having a support network. During the exact same time that I was working with the wonderful Avigail Oren on revising my dissertation I also had weekly meetings with a close friend to whom I could complain and rant and rage. My friend did an excellent job of supporting me which was her job in that moment. It was the emotional component I needed but it’s not what you want someone you hire to do for you. While it’s certainly alright to get on well with a paid editor (you should!) their job isn’t to take your side like a friend would but to help you make progress even if that means telling you something you don’t want to hear.

Sometimes, though, sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

Sometimes, you have to leave.

There are a lot of reasons to stick with an advisor you don’t particularly like. Sometimes they may be the best person for your topic. Sometimes they are the only person at your institution to work with for whatever reasons. Sometimes things go bad when you are very close to done with the project and it’s easier just to finish.

Our next post in the ongoing advising series will be on what to do when your advisor is deliberately sabotaging you.

 

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.

WTF: Dissertating

The dissertation.

If you want to go from ABD to PhD, or abd2phd, then you have to write a dissertation.

You can do all the other things we’ve discussed from prelims to teaching to service work and if you don’t write the damn dissertation then you don’t get the damn PhD.

As my partner and I transition out of academics into other types of jobs I’ve become acutely aware of the fact that academics often refer to umbrella categories rather than specific job duties.

Take our September topic of teaching as an example. Teaching can include but is not limited to: project management, training, presentations, content creation (Blackboard or Moodle or other), curating content (putting together a course pack), and procedure writing (creating syllabus policies). Yet, we refer to it all simply as teaching.

Similarly, what we normally refer to as “dissertating” involves research (which may itself involve grant writing, travel planning, and so on), writing, editing, revising, and, ultimately, defending.

For our October series on dissertating we will specifically be focusing on how to write a first draft of your dissertation. This assumes that you have completed enough research to start writing.

Topics we will address are what enough even means in the context of researching and writing a dissertation draft, how to deal with the anxiety inherent in the process, and what to do when the words won’t go.

We will also address how to break down the overwhelming imperative of “Write an original book” into doable steps and share all the best practices and things we wish we’d done sooner in writing our own dissertations.

If you have a particular dissertating topic you want covered and don’t see it listed here then leave a comment or use the Contact page to send us a message!