Sunday, March 11, 2007

Writing in Pieces

Kristen's grandfather has requested that she devote at least 15% of her blog to her dissertation, which is not a bad plan.
I am not sure what percentage of this blog is dissertation-related, but I do know that I too have readers who look forward to news on the dissertation. I even have a surprising number of people finding the blog by searching for Toyen, and this is a constituency I suspect I am sorely disappointing given my infrequent remarks about Toyen herself (she was a reticent sort).
Kristen also notes that our advisor suggests that she is obsessing about the wrong things and should give up worrying about Chapter 1 for now in favor of starting somewhere in the middle. Since I personally would not care to spend more than a minimal amount of time thinking about nationalism (a topic which comes up, in a minimal sort of way, in my own dissertation--the topic has, after all, been written almost to death, although it does remain wretchedly relevant), I think this is very sensible.
It all leads me, along with conversations had with other people who are writing or have finished dissertations, to the topic of how one does go about writing such a thing.
On the one hand, I feel certain that there must be many equally good ways of writing dissertations. People have different temperaments and different topics, and the various disciplines and advisors have different preferences. I am not going to ponder the dissertation that is highly schematic and requires in-text citation of sources for every sentence along the lines of "The water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (Smith, 1990; Jones,1991a; Brown, 2000), which renders it ideal for consumption by elderly patients suffering from dementia (Lum and Cho, 2001; Milksop, 2002m; Jack, Jill, Hill, et al., 2004). I will stick to the humanities and amenable social sciences.
Generally speaking, we want to write something that will not only satisfy our committees and allow us to graduate and get jobs, but that will read fairly well and bore neither the author nor subsequent readers. This causes much anxiety, as the dissertation-writer is also wrestling with Saying Something New, Making a Contribution to the Field, and of course is generally still chasing after unruly sources while writing up what scientists and social scientists like to call the Findings. After all, one comes up with some sort of general idea of a thing one would like to research, the advisor and committee hound one until some sort of plan comes into existence and one has written a satisfactory proposal that is, however, understood to be subject to change; and then one plunges into research and, at some point, writing.
People who wrote their dissertations in the pre-laptop era assure me that life is very different now. And indeed it is. People who wrote dissertations on computers before the advent of the laptop (I am not going to get into the agonies of the pre-computer dissertation) lacked most of the benefits of the computer, as they still had to take most of their notes by hand and a good many archives had no photocopiers. A person might write up several thousand notecards' worth of stuff in the course of the research, and was then stuck trying to figure out how to organize it and make sense of it. I would not have done very well with this method, as I have never taken to notecards and would probably have used them to build houses of cards while I sank into a deeper and deeper depression. It is just as well that I waited to begin graduate school until working conditions had improved.
I have written elsewhere about how I use bibliographic software and the digital camera to keep track of what I find. But what of the writing? No matter how well one keeps track of the notes and photos, the thing still has to be written up.
While I didn't enjoy writing my proposal, I admit that it has served me pretty well. I wrote it somewhat along the lines of the book proposal model promulgated by literary agents Larsen and Pomada, since a dissertation is much like a book, although the dissertation proposal can be less polished (the committee has already agreed that you can write on the topic in question, and it is their job to help you along). So, some chapters were more thoroughly conceptualized than others. Nonetheless, the general structure of the dissertation hasn't really needed alteration, which is a relief.
While some people like to "finish" the research before they begin to write, and this may suit them, I would not recommend it for the average person. For one thing, outside of fields that require experiment, the research is never really done. Something new always pops up to throw things out of whack. I think that for most of us, a certain amount of research and other immersion in the topic is needed, and then we need to start synthesizing some of that information. Why? Well, if we don't, most of us will forget a good deal of what we've learned. My memory is much too spotty to rely on to bring back very much of what I've read or seen, and I am sure that many people have the same problem.
Thus, at some point last year I felt that I had better start writing up some of what I was thinking about. I wrote a paragraph here, a page there. I did not worry about their ultimate order, I just wrote and footnoted.
After awhile, it was clear that I had enough stuff that I had better arrange the pieces by the chapters I imagined they might end up in. Before long, I began adding section and subsection titles to the thing so that I could further organize my chunks of text. By now, I have enough of this that I call it a draft.
My committee is strangely impressed that I have anything I could call a draft. I hope they do not imagine it is more coherent than it actually is. While it does have long sections of writing that sound pretty good, it is still full of chunks of stuff that are in something like the right general place but which need further research, further thought, or perhaps are just notes to myself about whatever is supposed to end up there. After all, the computer allows us to cut, paste, insert, transpose, and so forth. I see no reason that the work in progress should attempt to look like some sort of tidy finished product. Instead, it needs to be meticulously sourced so that pieces can be moving without losing their citations. Just because I thought, once upon a time, that I would need a section on surrealist texts published in Czech journals, does not mean that I was right; instead I probably need something on the consequences of the Second Manifesto.
I recently talked with a relative who wrote his dissertation pre-laptop, using the index-card method. In those days, when he did not have much experience writing, his procedure was to start at the beginning and go slowly along until he reached the end. If a paragraph did not please him, he probably did not write the next one until it had been perfected. He examined secondary literature only for the subject immediately at hand, not allowing himself to be distracted by things that might be needed for other chapters.
He now has much more experience writing, and is presently putting scans on his laptop of documents he expects to use for a book. While he admits that the notion of writing anything in a million little pieces and sticking them together fills him with some anxiety, he thinks that this approach may have some advantages lacked by his his old start-to-finish method.
I was surprised to hear him say that he might try to do something more like my jigsaw-puzzle approach, but I will be curious how it goes. I too always used to write things from start to finish. After all, the careful writer wants not only to have the ideas in the best sequence, but for the rhythm of the text to carry the reader easily from one idea to the next (something I am too lazy to accomplish consistently in this blog).
But even when writing from start to finish, one inevitably comes up with things that need to be shoehorned in, which disrupt the flow and cause distress to the meticulous writer. The first time I wrote a long nonfiction project, I was constantly dismayed by the pedestrian quality of the writing, because I was always having to add things into existing text and of course clarity was more important than the precise cadence of the language. But the thing is, one cannot write a long thing like a book or dissertation in the same fashion as one might a term paper (staying up until three to force out some sort of inspired burst of brilliance).
So, over time, I've departed from my old start-to-finish ways, and it looks as though the main danger in writing in bits and pieces is not that I will be unable to integrate them (although this takes more revision than one might expect), but that I have too efficiently accumulated vast quantities of detail and supporting evidence with excessive amounts of citation.
There are certainly worse fates than that.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Amy said...

Viva the patchwork!!!
I remember using a serious index card/patchwork approach when I was doing papers for Grad School Round 1 (Kristen's term), back when I was living on the other planet.

Keeping discrete pages/cards devoted to a particular point I cited in the papers helped in terms of time and reduced confusion. I was really compulsive about writing a code number for the source from which each card item came.

Doing this kind of prep work paid off a lot when I did the old 11th hour paper reshuffle, or Cassarole Night (aw, Moooom, noo!") "let's take these scraps of leftover stuff, add some cream of mushroom soup, and present it as a textbook chapter!".
Great work on your part to have so much pulled together already!

March 12, 2007 4:58 AM  
Blogger Kristen said...

Well, you go, girl! BTW, I didn't forget your questions. In fact, I intend to use them as a springboard for the next 15%.

March 12, 2007 6:25 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

When I see how long this got to be, I'm surprised you guys got to the end!

March 12, 2007 7:17 PM  

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