Category Archives: Dissertation Drafts

The How and When of Advisor Communication

When you’re giving the advisor something new, give yourself some good P.R! I constantly edit out of my e-mails questions like, “do you think the organization is okay?” I want my advisor to notice problems on his or her own, I don’t want them to be looking for the bad stuff I pointed out. I mean, as a teacher, how could you not find something wrong with a student’s organization if they said, “I keep trying and trying to make the organization work, but I’m still not happy with it.” Of course you would think of ways the student could improve, even if you followed the paper’s argument easily.Try to say something positive, even if it’s just “I’m looking forward to talking with you about this draft.” Give them a good feeling going in, not a feeling of trepidation.

Now, it IS important to explain where you’re at with your draft. Be clear: “this is a first draft,” or, “this is Chapter 4, minus the concluding two sections.” Even better, tell them what you want to focus on: “I don’t want you to copy edit yet, I’m still working on the big picture.”

It seems to me that the time for expressing doubts–saying, “I think the chapter might suck in this way, but I don’t know what to do,” or, “I really wanted to say that Godzilla was the postmodern equivalent of Zeus, but I’m worried that my point is not clear”–is just after your advisor has given you comments on something. You can respond to the comments they’ve given in a “yes and” kind of way. I see what you’re saying about the thesis not being clear, and I’m wondering if I should delete section three altogether, or if it should just be connected better to the concerns of section 2. The “yes and” concept is great because by agreeing with your advisor, you tell them you value their opinion and want to take their advice. You’re relating your own concerns to theirs, and that helps them feel understood by you (always a nice feeling when trying to help someone). At the same time, your self-criticism has a context for them–you’re not just badmouthing your work before they’ve seen it. Rather, seeing your doubts and their criticism as two approaches to the same problem might help both of you to articulate the potential solutions more precisely.

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Research & Revision

I just got out of a DSG meeting with the Future Doctor Anderson. We were discussing how we both dread doing research on a chapter now that we’re in the dissertation-revision stage. It’s discouraging to “go back” to reading after one’s been writing a lot.

Looking back on my most recent chapter revision, though, I had to admit that I did almost no unnecessary research for that draft. Unlike the first draft, where there are understandably a lot of dead ends, and one spends time writing many pages that are later cut–in a late revision, one spots relevant material almost immediately.  Research is so much easier once there’s a draft or two already completed.

I enjoyed researching for my chapters, but the process took a long time. The research I have to do to revise my next chapter is touch-up research: just a few little spots need filling in. I don’t have to scrape off all the old paint and start over with primer.

Public Commitments

I just watched Julie & Julia, which I loved–and it reminded me of the light-hearted and funny book by Julie Powell.  I decided to try something from the blog/book/movie and make a public commitment. It’s not quite as dramatic as cooking through the recipes of Julia Child’s cookbook, but still. As Marcee pointed out in her comments to my freewriting post, sometimes a public audience makes all the difference.

I’ve accomplished a lot this summer–wrote a new and dramatically improved introduction, traveled over 5,000 miles by car and visited over 50 loved ones, started a new business with my husband, helped my parents find a house to rent in Austin for the winter–and I like the variety of those accomplishments. But now I’m craving normalcy and dissertation progress.

So here’s my commitment: to write 21 days in the next month (by Friday, September 11) and to exercise 21 days in the next month. Why 21 days? Well, as Joan Bolker points out “writing every day” can mean different things to different people. My “every day” excludes weekends and national holidays (in this case, Labor Day).

Joan Bolker advises a pages-per-day method (you’re done when you’ve written a certain number of pages) but in my revising phase I’m having trouble knowing what can happen in one day. I’m re-writing parts of Chapter 1 from scratch, which sometimes involves stopping writing to research. Other parts of the chapter need mainly stylistic revisions. So I’m going with the butt-in-the-chair method: 2 hours per day to work on revisions specifically (in other words, no e-mailing dissertation support group or advisors, no meetings, no background reading, no blog posts).

As for exercise, I’m committing to 20 minutes per day. And yes, the exercise part of the plan is completely related to making progress on my dissertation. The health of body and mind is something I’m convinced that anyone concerned about productivity should be paying attention to.

Don’t worry–every post this month is not going to be related to this commitment. But I will  monitor my progress in my posts this month like this:

Writing–0 days     Exercise–0 days

Radical Revision

My friend, the Dr. Somers-Willett, very recently published the book that grew out of her dissertation. We were discussing my work, and she told me, “don’t be afraid of radical revision.”

The way I have been revising–the way many people revise–is by attempting to shove my responses to advisor and writing group feedback into my previous draft. But Dr. S-W suggested a way that was indeed more radical and much more frightening.

She suggested I write the whole chapter from scratch, pasting in sections from my old draft as needed.

When she said it, I felt a flash of recognition–yes, this was a good idea; yes, this would work better; yes, this would be more efficient in the long run. Then came the FEAR. (Oh, *&^%,  not again!)

As a teacher, I never got one revision that was written over from scratch. If I had, I would have jumped for joy. Most of them tried to address my comments but never did so in anything more than a superficial way.

Recently, I re-wrote my introduction from scratch. Not one sentence was kept in the original. When I went back to look at the old intro (hoping to salvage some of it), I didn’t see a single thing worth keeping. By starting over, I freed myself to improve much more dramatically.

But now I’m facing re-writing Chapter 1 and it’s seriously freaking me out. I want so badly to finish that it can be hard to trust in a method that feels like more work, even with my own experience and trusted advice contradicting telling me that this method is going to work.

Pressing Reset

It’s been a slow few weeks in dissertation land for the future Doctor Jones. I have been working well for so long now that when I didn’t work for a few days I wasn’t too worried. I traveled to Arizona and New York in April, and a family friend visited. There was lots of grading and course planning to do.

But after a full week at home and making no progress, I had to face my failure to work. A very short examination of my feelings was enough to help me understand the problem. The FEAR was in full effect. I’d gotten some good, tough feedback on a chapter, and I was afraid–afraid that if I went down the rabbit hole of revision, I would never find my way out.

I’ve been mulling over something my friend J. said to me about how she’s been trying to make decisions to further her happiness. For example, the decision to exercise, not smoke a cigarette, or go to bed early may not be enticing just beforehand, but afterward, they make her feel good and  feel good about herself for making the good decision.

Yesterday, I did not make many good decisions. I didn’t do any work, didn’t change my fish Pig Pen’s water, and didn’t wash my dishes. I watched television when I should have been working. However, after a run with J., my body felt the full effect of my last several decisions to run. J. and I both found our run considerably easier than it has been the last few weeks. We felt the endorphins flowing. And in the glow of that good decision, I formulated a plan for today:

1) Read over the Future Doctor Anderson’s comments on my draft.

2) Make a plan for revision.

It was an unambitious plan. But it set me up to easily make a good decision today. I finished my tasks in less than an hour. I could have done more, you might be saying. But after the FEAR takes over, the immediate goal has to be to diminish the FEAR. I made a small goal for today. I set another small goal for tomorrow. And I know the more I work, the less the FEAR will bother me, and the more I’ll be able to accomplish.

The no-work period is over. And as long as I’m working, I’m getting closer to becoming Doctor Jones.

Research Question

I’m reading a great book called The Craft of Research. Look for a complete review in the coming weeks. But for now, I simply have to share a crucial vocabulary word for any doctoral student.

I was told that I do not have a research question in my dissertation. I made several attempts to improve the situation, but I have continued to struggle with it.  Finally, this book showed me what I was doing wrong.

A practical question has a problem, which is in some way related to unhappiness. (A small business is losing money). The solution to the practical problem is an action (laying off 2 people).

In a research question, the problem is always a lack of knowledge. Therefore, in a dissertation, we wouldn’t frame the problem as something sad (losing money) but something unknown: how can this business lower its operation costs? The solution is always increased understanding–not an action. Presumably, after research, one would arrive a fairly complicated answer to the question about the business.

And our research might not lead 100% directly to the practical solution. Maybe the owner would still be unwilling to consider layoffs even after seeing that it would be effective–maybe her employees are her nephews or something. But often, a research question is at least related to a practical problem.

At this phase in my dissertation, when I’ve finished a draft of the entire thing, I worked backwards, asking myself “what do I have a better understanding of now that when I started?” This worked better than asking myself “what should people do who have read my dissertation?”

Introduction & Conclusion

In many ways, the introduction and conclusion are the hardest things to write in the dissertation. Not only do you have to be clear about your main points, but you also want to interest your readers and compell them to keep reading (in the case of the introduction) and make them feel a sense of accomplishment and increased knowledge (in the case of the conclusion).

As they say, no pressure.

I found it very helpful to read some of the introductions to my favorite scholarly books before starting my introduction draft. I didn’t do that before I wrote the conclusion.

My last three pages of the conclusion are, at the moment, truly lame. I felt like I was trying to get out of an awkward conversation at a party as I was writing it . . . I babbled on and then ducked away suddenly. The last pages string together some vague platitudes and maybe even a little motivational speaker-ese. Yuck.

I’m going to read the ends of a bunch of good books today. I think it will help.

The Archival Wheel

As I was revising Chapter One yesterday, I stumbled up some notes I had made during a Dissertation Support Group meeting. The (then Future) Doctor Gale told me about a process for figuring out a thesis that she heard about at a conference. The process was called the Archival Wheel.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the exact author of this concept. I’d be happy to cite it if anybody out there knows who made it up.

You can create your own archival wheel by clearing out some floor space. Then, stand in the middle of your space, at the hub of the wheel, and pile your different kinds of evidence in “spokes” around you. (You can also draw this on paper, which is how I did it.)

Then stand in the middle of your wheel and ask “What is all this evidence about?”

The Archival Wheel is a good start to a free-write and a good exercise for times when you have some really interesting stuff to work with, but you’re not sure what your project is ultimately about. It’s also allows you to think in a more tactile way, which can spark ideas if you’ve been in front of a computer screen too long.

How to Be a Good Reviewer

A few weeks ago, I was in a rut. With graduation approaching in a few months, I started to feel very fearful. Those fears also led to a bit of existential drama. Mostly this involved trashing my project (and my career in general) as meaningless.

Some good talks with my Dissertation Support Group, classmates, and advisors cheered me up and re-engaged me in my work. It got me to thinking about how one can offer useful advice on other people’s writing.

  • Instead of simply making marginal notes, write a letter to the writer explaining your thoughts about their work.
  • Even if you have fifty separate suggestions for improving the draft, prioritize them and break them down into three or four clear, digestible points. For example, say “the most important thing you need to do next is cut unnecessary information.” I prefer to relate these points to one of the four cycles of revision–thesis, organization, evidence, and clarity. Break down for the writer what types of problems they should focus on.
  • Give very specific examples of the type of problems you note. Saying “I really don’t get your point” is colossally unhelpful and potentially debilitating. Re-read the draft and point out sentences that made you feel like you might be getting it, and paragraphs where you felt the most lost. Or, in the above example of the writer needing to trim the draft, underline evidence that you feel could be cut.
  • Summarize what you think the writer did well, and praise them for any progress made since previous drafts.
  • Give your feedback both in written form and face-to-face. It can be hard to remember what someone said in a conversation (and I know my own notes from those meetings are often puzzling when I revisit them). At the same time, written comments may be misunderstood and sometimes don’t pack as much punch as face-to-face feedback.

Cycles of Revision

I read about the cycles of revision when I was trying to teach my students how to improve their work. I think they were in a Penguin handbook back in the day–I tend to purge writing handbooks regularly so I can’t cite them exactly.

  1. After reading your draft, clarify your thesis. As any good writing teacher will tell you, you often won’t know what you want to say until you’ve said it. Even if you start out with a thesis, it may need to be modified. Also, during the thesis stage, eliminate all writing that is not relevant to your thesis.
  2. Next, work on paragraph organization. I like to write a one-word summary next to each paragraph, which often helps me see where I need to rearrange. Also, if a paragraph can’t be easily summed up in a word or two, it may have more than one main idea in it and need to be divided.
  3. Now that you know your thesis and you have the structure of your paper figured out, look for places to add evidence. Some of the quotes you cut, for example, may need to be replaced with more appropriate citations.
  4. Read the paper out loud, slowly. Correct any issues of sentence clarity and transitions between paragraphs.
  5. Give your writing to someone else to review. If you want to communicate well, audience feedback is essential.

I find that focusing on different types of problems helps me do a more thorough job of revision. (It is always very difficult for me to avoid the temptation of stopping working once I have a first draft. At the same time, if you’re an endless tinkerer maybe having clear steps to follow would speed you up a bit.)

If you try to correct sentence clarity first, you end up wasting time (re-writing sentences that may not relate to your thesis) or, much worse–never get around to addressing major issues. It’s easy to not see the forest for the trees in revision. Reading with an eye for discovering your thesis–and only discovering your thesis–does more to improve your project than perfect grammar could ever do.