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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Read the paper out loud, slowly. Correct any issues of sentence clarity and transitions between paragraphs.
- 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.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
(I got this from the blogger of The Happiness Project, who got it from Voltaire.)
I’ve been finding it really difficult to write this week. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve started thinking about applying for jobs. It’s scary, and fear makes me not want to work.
But by imagining the perfect dissertation / job application, I’ve made the perfect the enemy of the good. Today, I can improve my draft without making it perfect, and that is not only worthwhile, it’s pretty much the only way I’m going to make progress.
After I handed him very messy, fifty-page draft of a chapter that I had “no idea” what to do with, Prof. Cole Hutchison suggested I re-write the draft with no quoting. That way, I would avoid relying too heavily on quotes (a major weakness of the first draft) and would state a unique argument.
I didn’t take that advice at the time, but a few weeks ago, as I began Chapter 2, I set out to write a twenty-page chapter with almost no evidence.
I skipped around, writing wherever inspiration struck. And I wrote in relatively short spurts, simply trying to add a little each day.
One of the longest sections in my 18-page draft is the conclusion. There, I lay out all the main points I covered in the chapter. Of course, they seem a bit flimsy with no evidence to back them up. But unlike my first draft of Chapter 1, Chapter 2 is not a complete mess of tangents. It is compact. It is full of ideas.
The next time I dig through my notes, I will be digging with purpose. I know what I want to say–what I am saying.
Publishing Info: Zerubavel, Eviatar. The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Time Investment: 98 pages of clear prose.
Clockwork Muse begins by encouraging writers to de-romanticize the writing process. Though we associate writing with spontaneity, structure is the key to finishing a large project. Like Joan Bolker, he advises keeping a diary of your effectiveness so that you can craft a realistic schedule that allows you to write for a good length of time, at a good time of day.
Next, Zerubavel suggests that you outline your entire project (even though it will not be complete) and break it into smaller chunks. Then, you should write the entire thing from start to finish before trying to perfect any one chunk. “Once you have completed a first full draft of your manuscript you will almost never fail . . . to complete your project in its entirety.”
While I appreciate that sentiment, my advisors definitely seem to expect me to complete a near-perfect draft of my first chapter. They think it will be easier to write the other chapters after doing so. It seems like you couldn’t make this plan without talking it over with your committee.
The next step in Clockwork Muse is to estimate the number of pages in each section, your pace for each section (the number of pages you will complete per day) and your padded deadline for the section–based on the schedule you made earlier. My major problem with this method is that I fear I would be constantly re-calibrating the schedule, devoting precious time to tinkering with it instead of actually writing the dissertation.
The book announces in the last couple of pages that you need to have self-discipline to write a book, but it offers no help in understanding how to achieve that self-discipline. I feel that the book was helpful in thinking about mechanics and schedules, but did nothing to address the real issue of how to continually self-motivate.
I used to make a draft, have someone edit it, re-write it, and call it done—a word I don’t believe I’ve heard in the three years since I got my master’s degree.
The forty-five pages I just wrote don’t contain a thesis. Their structure is skeletal. I quote huge blocks of text every other page with a vague sense of urgency that’s never fully explained. If one of my students turned in a four-page version of what I’ve written, I would give them a “No grade. We need to talk.”
My hero of dissertation writing, Joan Bolker, author of Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, says to call what I just wrote a “zero draft.” That two months of work equals zero makes me want to smash a calculator. My friend The Future Doctor Anderson calls it “seeds.” That name is downright scary to me—is this monster just a tiny piece of potential about to grow exponentially into a Godzilla-size disaster?
My mother says that before you decide what to name your baby, you’re supposed to yell its potential name out the back door. If you’ve found a good name, it won’t sound stupid. When writing to my advisers, I called these pages my “description of research” draft. It fails my mother’s test—but the awkwardness of the title befits the inelegant thing I produced.
I wish I could’ve written something that seemed to me like a “first draft,” which was my goal for the summer. Still, when I consider my pages in light of their new name, they look a lot less like failure. They are chock-full of descriptions that couldn’t have been written without copious research. It’s true that I can’t imagine the number of pages between me and that beautiful mythical done. But “Description of Research” is still a long way from not-yet-begun.