Tag Archives: writing

Two lessons I’ve learned about writing a dissertation

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.

By Marco Verch (Notizblock mit Stiften) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Touch the work every day

A week ago I came down with a horrible respiratory infection that left me bedridden for several days and caused me to miss nearly an entire week of TA duty.  It also left me unable to make much progress on my dissertation research.  The problem wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t accomplish as much as I’d planned; the problem was that days passed without me doing anything to move my project along.

By Tom Stefanac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tom Stefanac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of my mom’s friends who are involved in creative writing used to say, “You’ve got to touch it every day.”  I didn’t know how right they were before I started in on my dissertation in earnest.  If you’re working on a substantial project, don’t let a twenty-four-hour period pass without doing something—no matter how small—to keep it moving along.  It’s not so much a time issue as a quality-of-work issue.  I find that if I let a day pass without engaging the project, I end up losing more than just the hours.  I lose my bearings and my momentum, too.  When I get back to it, it’s like walking into a room that’s been sealed off for weeks; the air is stale, the furnishings are unfamiliar, and there’s a fine layer of dust everywhere.  You’ve got to keep everything in motion or a kind of general funk settles in, and you won’t be at your best until it dissipates.

I should add that you don’t necessarily have to be writing every day.  The resolution to do a little something every day doesn’t necessarily mean you should always be churning out prose.  (Most of what I’m doing at this point doesn’t involve putting words together.)  But you should be getting your hands dirty somehow, whether that means locating and poring over sources, reading through notes, juggling bibliographic entries, or knocking out grant proposals.  Even if you’re just putting in twenty or thirty minutes a day, do it.  The point isn’t those twenty or thirty minutes, but making sure you’ve engaged with your project before hitting the hay.

The only exception to this rule comes when you’ve completed a draft, at which point it’s best to let it sit for a while before you start revising.  But if you’re still in the research or rough draft phase, a day off will ultimately do more harm than good.

And on that note, I’ve lost too many days to recovery already.  Time to pop a cough drop and get back at it.

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American writers on the road in Appalachia

Atlas Obscura has a really neat feature up that’s well worth your perusal.  It’s an interactive map of famous American literary road trips from the late 1800s to today.  The map traces the journeys of twelve author-travelers across the U.S., with pinpoints for the locations identified in their books.  Click on a point, and you’ll get the writer’s description of that place.

I decided to see what these folks had to say about my own neck of the woods.  William Least Heat-Moon, author of Blue Highways, almost spent the night in my hometown on his way east from Oak Ridge:

I should have stopped at Tazewell before the light went entirely, but no. It was as if the mountains had me.

On his way to Clinch Mountain he would’ve driven right past the Frostee Freeze, a venerable drive-in that’s been serving burgers and milkshakes for almost sixty years.

Least Heat-Moon’s description of Morristown sounds less like the town I know and more like the setting for Dickens’s Hard Times:

Across the Holston River, wide and black as the Styx, and into the besooted factory city of Morristown, where, they say, the smoke runs up to the sky.

He took in some regional history while visiting Tennessee’s oldest town:

The fourteenth state in the Union, the first formed after the original thirteen, was Franklin and its capital Jonesboro. The state had a governor, legislature, courts, and militia. In 1784, after North Carolina ceded to the federal government its land in the west, thereby leaving the area without an administrative body, citizens held a constitutional convention to form a sovereign state. But history is a fickle thing, and now Jonesboro, two centuries old, is only the seat of Washington County, which also was once something else—the entire state of Tennessee. It’s all for the best. Chattanooga, Franklin, just doesn’t come off the tongue right.

And speaking of eighteenth-century history, Blue Highways also has an account of Least Heat-Moon’s tour of Ninety Six, site of a Rev War siege in the South Carolina backcountry.  No passages from that visit on the Atlas Obscura map, though.

Peter Jenkins on the Volunteer State and those of us who live here:

We were grateful to be in green, clean Tennessee. A lot of the natives were shaped just like their state, long and lean.

Thanks, I guess?

Bill Bryson, of whom I’ve never been a big fan, on southwestern Virginia:

I drove through a landscape of gumdrop hills, rolling roads, neat farms. The sky was full of those big fluffy clouds you always see in nautical paintings, adn [sic] the towns had curious and interesting names: Snowflake, Fancy Gap, Horse Pasture, Meadows of Dan, Charity. Virginia went on and on. It never seemed to end.

John Steinbeck and his dog passed through Abingdon, where William Campbell’s Virginians mustered before heading to Sycamore Shoals and the march that led to King’s Mountain.  By that point, Steinbeck was evidently ready to get home:

My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned. I know exactly where and when it was over. Near Abingdon, in the dog-leg of Virginia , at four o’clock of a windy afternoon, without warning or good-by or kiss my foot, my journey went away and left me stranded far from home. I tried to call it back, to catch it up—a foolish and hopeless matter, because it was definitely and permanently over and finished.

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Can academic historians get writer’s block?

Not long ago I finished reading Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing for one of my classes.  Silvia is a psychologist, and some of the book is aimed specifically at people working in that discipline, but I’d recommend it to anybody who has trouble cranking out the theses, dissertations, journal articles, and books on which our livelihood supposedly depends.

There is, however, one passage of the book with which I take issue.  It’s the part about writer’s block.  Silvia doesn’t believe in it, at least as far as academic writers are concerned (p. 45):

Academic writers cannot get writer’s block.  Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the fine arts department.  You’re not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart.  The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might.  People will not photocopy your reference list and pass it out to friends whom they wish to inspire.  Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.

Writer’s block, he says, just means you’re not writing.  All you need to do is start.  It sounds pretty straightforward.  In my experience, alas, that’s not how it works.  I think we’ve all had those occasions where we’re sitting in front of the computer, ready and willing, but the words and ideas just wouldn’t come.

Academic writers have to figure out how to articulate complex ideas and abstract concepts, tie them together, organize them, and present them persuasively.  We write to solve problems and to explain to others how we’ve arrived at our solutions.  You can’t do that without a little inspiration.  You can’t even come up with the problems themselves without inspiration, without a certain spark of creativity and insight that isn’t always forthcoming.

We might not be artists, but successful writers of any sort need something to say, and they need to know how to say it.  That sort of thing isn’t always on tap, even when you’ve got the discipline to sit down at a keyboard.

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