Category Archives: Dissertation Drafts

Having trouble writing?

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.

Finding Your Argument

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.

Self-Help for Graduate Students Part 7: The Clockwork Muse

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.

The Importance of Naming

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.