In the past few days I’ve learned two things about writing a dissertation. The first lesson is something I had to stumble across on my own; the second I got from somebody else.
I always had this notion that research and writing were two distinct stages in any project like this, with the writing coming after most of the research was finished. I’d spend a long time accumulating evidence, and then I’d sit down, sort it all out, and turn it into finished prose. I’d still have some material to consult while working on early drafts, of course, but I thought I’d have the bulk of it done by the time I started stringing words together.
It hasn’t played out that way. Writing itself—at least when you’re dealing with a project of this sort—is a process of discovery. You can’t finish your research before starting to write, because your sense of what material you need will develop as you write.
Right now, for instance, I’m writing a foundational chapter on the meanings of eighteenth-century manhood, both in the English colonies in general and on the Appalachian frontier in particular. Manhood was closely bound up with ownership of land. I knew this when I started writing, and I’d acquired some good material on the links between land and manliness. But once the writing commenced, it became apparent that I needed to explore these ties in more depth, and to do more digging into the historiography of land ownership.
Being OCD, I don’t like the idea of trying to compose text around ideas I haven’t fully fleshed out yet. It feels a bit like trying to put a puzzle together while looking through a keyhole. But finding out that I have no choice in the matter—that I can’t have the ideas fully fleshed out until I start assembling them—has been liberating. It’s eased some of my anxieties about doing historical research and writing. Since I can’t plan out the whole route ahead of time, I might as well go ahead and start putting one foot in front of the other.
The other lesson is something Christina Snyder told a group of us grad students yesterday during her visit to campus: “A page a day is a dissertation in a year.” That came as a revelation. Another assumption I had about a substantial writing project is that you should do it in big chunks. When I sit down at the keyboard and can’t produce anything more than a couple hundred words, it’s discouraging. But sometimes productivity means something less like an avalanche and more like the steady drip-drip-drip of mineral-rich water that creates stalagmites.
One step at a time, and if you can’t see the whole route, you can at least see where to plant your foot next. That’s what it boils down to.