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: The Humanities Are Harder

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 our most controversial post of all time on why writing a dissertation in the humanities is so fudging hard. We got a lot of messages about this one and we’re looking forward to a lot more. Enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

Our goal for this month was to make dissertating feel exciting rather than terrifying.

There is, however, a fundamental truth of dissertating which we may have mentioned before: It is hard.

Even if you love your project, even if you have the world’s best committee, even if you have a generous funding package–writing a dissertation is difficult.

As it should be.

The old adage about getting a PhD remains true: it’s 10% intelligence and 90% perseverance.

What I’m about to say next is a little controversial, but I believe it completely:

Humanities dissertations are harder than other dissertations.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is.

In general, humanities dissertations are longer than dissertations in other disciplines. A friend of mine in the social sciences had a ten-page chapter. Ten (10) pages. Another person I know had a four-page chapter. Four (4) pages. In fact, that four-page chapter was for a person in STEM where the dissertation was not new, original research but four published articles bound together with an introduction and conclusion. Those articles? They weren’t solo pieces. They had several co-authors and, of course, the reputation of the lab of which the person is part can play a significant role in their ability to get published in the first place.

Is this the standard in all STEM programs? Probably not.

Is it difficult to write a dissertation, even one with a four-page chapter? Of course it is. I’m sure my STEM friends would want me to point out that a lot of work went into that four-page chapter. It can summarize hundreds of hours in a lab and dozens of hours of research. I’m not trying to say that STEM dissertations are easy in any way.

What I am saying is that humanities dissertations are harder.

Aside from the general length of the thing, though, the formatting can be more difficult. At the beginning of this month, I encouraged you to read a couple of dissertations related to your field to get a sense of the genre (and, importantly, remind yourself that you are definitely good enough to do this thing). We also noted that you can find a dissertation you admire and use it as a model for your own dissertation. One of the reasons you might want, or need, to do this is because there’s no formula for a humanities dissertation.

In most social science and STEM programs the structure of the dissertation is quite rigid. Many of them follow some version of this outline: introduction (chapter 1), literature review (chapter 2), methods (chapter 3), results (chapter 4), conclusion (chapter 5).

Using my own dissertation as contrast, I went through that process above (intro, lit review, methods/documents, results/argument, conclusion) in each of my chapters while trying to weave the broader connections between my arguments together so that the overall dissertation followed that same pattern in a wider arc.

Again, I’m not saying other dissertations are easy. I’m saying humanities dissertations are harder.

Finally, humanities dissertations are harder because of the types of questions we deal with. The types of questions you are asking in a humanities dissertation don’t have easy answers. They are questions of ontology and epistemology that have been argued and fought over for as long as humans have been around.

As someone who has worked in both STEM and the humanities I find it incredibly disappointing how often my STEM colleagues forget that many of their heroes did not perceive a rigid division between science and metaphysics. Descartes was both a mathematician and a philosopher whose work on intersecting planes is part of introductory study in both fields today. Newton was an alchemist, and not a proto-chemist-alchemist, but a turn-lead-into-gold-and-find-the-secret-to-immortality-alchemist. Sure, he wrote the Principia which is a great achievement but it was also part and parcel of his questions about how to understand human life.

What I’m saying here is that many of the great minds in both the sciences and the humanities did not percieve a difference between the sciences and humanities. Moreover, while they contributed greatly to our scientific knowledge they didn’t come up with a lot of concrete answers to the humanities part so don’t feel bad if you don’t either. Those questions are just harder, at least in part because people and societies have the alarming tendency to change much more quickly than the physical properties of the universe.

Writing a dissertation shouldn’t feel scary but it is hard and humanities dissertations are harder.

Don’t make the process harder than it has to be by being hard on yourself. The work is hard enough; treat yourself with kindness and, if appropriate, half-off Halloween candy ❤

 

 

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.

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!

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.

 

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.