Part I: Learning to write…

…and writing to learn.

I think I’ve learned more about writing in the past 40 pages than I have in the past 12 years and 3 degrees. As many know, writing a dissertation can be both awful and amazing. I’d like to cover a few things in this blog post that have made me a better and faster writer. By developing a writing process that involves a clunky list, discrete tasks, and exploratory or free-writing, I’ve unlocked a way to generate text quickly and make steady, continuous progress towards a finished dissertation.

The benefit of this type of writing process is that it works if you only have 15 minutes a day to work on your dissertation or 5 hours.


Process writing

As an undergrad, I was trained with a wonky version of writing as a process. The school had the right idea, I think, but the execution didn’t generally achieve what they were looking for. Working with a coach has taught me to develop a better system of process writing. The general steps to process writing that most people recognize are brainstorming/pre-writing, various rough drafts, peer editing, revisions etc.

I’ve found success in breaking down a chapter into various (overlapping and sometimes concurrent steps). I’m in the humanities, and so the type of writing and chapter construction I do reflects that. 

The Chapter List

This has served as my ingredient list for the future recipe. It’s not highly detailed, but it lists the elements that I think are necessary for the chapter. This ranges from broad topics, to mentions of specific works of literature, theories, theorists, research that needs to be done, research that needs to be reviewed etc. It’s meant to be the first step toward a clearer plan. Here’s an example (generic names and such):

  • Review Smith’s poems
  • Write about Example Period
  • Review scholarship on Example Period
  • Write about several of Smith’s poems
  • Review scholarship on Smith and Johnson
  • Review scholarship on Major Theory
  • Review scholarship on Major Theme
  • Discuss Major Theme
  • Review Johnson’s poems
  • Write about several of Johnson’s poems
  • Discuss Major Theme in Smith and Johnson

Working Tasks

on having a plan

The tasks above are all HUGE. Approaching them is frustrating and feels like a mountain. This is the stage where the clunkier items from the Chapter List get broken down into discrete tasks for manageable working sessions. I’ve also learned the need to balance the working time between different types of intellectual activities. I prefer to always have my first activities of a day be writing tasks, before the clutter of life gets in the way. After writing tasks I’ll balance with reading tasks, or something even simpler if I’m stressed, like editing or updating the bibliography.

So, let’s assume you have only 2 hours a day you can devote to writing (if that! Some folks have family and work commitments that leave them with less working time). A lot can happen in two hours if you have a plan. The old way I used to write would often leave me staring at a blinking cursor for a loooong time or struggling through re-reading the same paragraph for an hour. That long time of nothing left my mind screaming for release from that torture. Facebook or Netflix were always standing by to save me. The new way I write always has a plan with movable pieces to account for high-stress days.

My new method is to plan out an entire week of working with small tasks. The key here is to remember to balance the tasks between different types and to make them specific enough that I know exactly what I have to do. No guesswork.

Going back up to grab things from my Chapter List, let’s say there were 4 items that I want to plan for:

A) Write about Example Period of poetry
B) Write about Smith’s poems,
C) Review three sources on Smith
D) Find more sources about Johnson.

These tasks are too big. So they need to be broken down into smaller chunks that fit into a working plan. Write about Smith’s poems. For this, I can break that into 1) review volume (or volumes) of Smith’s poetry to select the ones I want. 2) Write about poem X (etc).  Reading academic work is time-consuming. It’s rarely fun, often boring, sometimes stimulating, and sometimes painful. Unlike reading for pleasure, this is work. I could take large task B and break that down as well. If I’m reading a 25-30 page chapter or article, I should build enough time in for that to cover multiple sessions.

I’m a fan of the Pomodoro technique wherein you work for 25 minutes, break for 5. Work for another 25 minutes, break for 5 (or longer), and so forth. This keeps me focused, and I know that there’s a stopping point if I’m struggling. I use an actual timer (the internet is full of virtual ones, and you can download apps for phones). It’s also important that during the break periods that I actually break. Stretch, walk around, get a cup of coffee. Something that’s not the task.

Here’s a sample working plan with the elements above:

Day 1
Freewrite about Example Period (25 minutes)
Freewrite about Example Period (25 minutes)
Longer break
Review volume of Smith’s poetry for examples (25 minutes)
Review volume of Smith’s poetry for examples (25 minutes)

Day 2

Freewrite about Smith’s poem X (25 minutes)
Freewrite about Smith’s poem X (25 minutes)
Longer Break
Review chapter on Smith pp x-y (25 minutes)
Review chapter on Smith pp x-y (25 minutes)

When I sit down to my computer to work, I know exactly what I have to do. There’s no guesswork involved. Let’s say on day 2, there’s a lot going on in life. I’m super stressed and when it comes to reading, I just can’t seem to focus. But, I really want to get things done and make progress. Netflix is already calling to me. Instead of forcing myself to read the same paragraph over and over again, I can contribute to my dissertation in another way. I can update my bibliography for newer sources that I’ve found, I could go back and copy edit pages for mundane mechanical problems etc. Most importantly, though, if I can’t manage that, it’s ok to walk away. Forcing the work when I’m incapable of it will only leave me resentful the next day and contribute to negative feelings about working on my dissertation. I only walk away as a last resort, but it’s more important to make small progress than no progress.

I’m forming a writing habit. It’s super important to show up to my writing time. Even if only part of it can get done. Showing up for it builds reinforcement (pretty much like going to a gym). It’s important to try and persist, but it’s most important to show up for the work every writing day. If I’m consistently not meeting my daily goals, it’s time to adjust the working plans and make them realistic. If I can only get an hour and a half done, only schedule an hour and a half. Anything beyond that is overachiever bonus points for me. And who doesn’t love crossing off their completed tasks and saying “Oh wow, I did 30 extra minutes of work today. Way to go me.”

The Importance of Free-Writing

I loathed free-writing. I looked at it as a torturous waste of time. If all roads didn’t lead directly to the promised land of a finished dissertation in the most efficient way possible, I wasn’t on them. I viewed free-writing as time spent producing text that wasn’t useful. I was thinking like an undergrad. Write the paper from start to finish crafting each line as I go. I wasted more time staring at the cursor this way than I did producing “perfected” text.

I free-write to get ideas out that may not be clear in my mind, but also to get myself thinking. There’s enough research and methodology about writing out there to support that writing is thinking. Unfettered writing is a great way to think. By unfettered I mean no books, no notes, no spell check, no grammar revision, no insistence on complete sentences, punctuation or any of the restrictive and prescriptive editorial rules we use in formal writing. This serves several purposes, two of which I’ve found the most important to generating work. 1) Go full stream of consciousness and write freely to expose thoughts you may not have had otherwise. Free-writing often reveals lightning fast connections and thoughts 2) Write freely to learn what you think without critical support. In a dissertation, where we’re expected to finally think for ourselves within a framework of our own construction, it’s crucial to know what you think vs. what the other experts think. Only read fellow scholars after you know what you think. It will make the differences and similarities much easier to represent.

Not every word I write makes it into my chapter. This would be the same even if I worked line-by-line without free-writing. But with this type of exploratory writing, the fodder is already present. And when I am ready to integrate scholarship and my own writing together, I already know what I need to say–and there is zero guesswork.

It took me a awhile to appreciate doing exploratory writing as a first step. But now, I find I crave that first worry-free step into engaging a text because I know that when I’ve done it, pages start appearing.

The dissertation coach and writing mastery

I think most of us can relate to the utter panic that sometimes seizes us when we sit down at the computer to write. It might be one of those ultimate schadenfreude experiences; when the words are flowing and the document is scrolling ever upward, it’s a crazy rush of success, and yet when the cursor blinks and nothing is moving the experience is excruciating.

coaching I may have finally found a stride with my writing. But it has taken several years of denial, avoidance, regret, and over-scheduling myself professionally to find a way to make it happen. Not to mention lessons in project-management and a dissertation coach.

That’s right. I said it. Dissertation coach. I still feel my shoulders slump a little when I type it, I may have even felt an urge to look over my shoulder. I hired a dissertation coach. Do I have a bad advisor? Nope. But he certainly is busy with his own things. Have I forgotten how to write a paper? Nope. But I still wasn’t making progress in a way that I found satisfactory.

I view having a dissertation coach the same way I view having a physical trainer at a gym.

I view having a dissertation coach the same way I view having a physical trainer at a gym or having a cognitive-behavioral therapist (psychology folks, I’m winging it with that term). The trainer or therapist does not lift the weights or make the changes in your life that are necessary, but they teach you how to do it safely, responsibly, and in that act empower you.  Once upon a time, when I was a youthful masters student gallivanting around New Orleans, I hired (at a profoundly reduced rate) a personal trainer to help me become more fit. Why? I had never lifted weights before, and I was smart enough to know that I could seriously injure myself.

My experience with a dissertation coach is no different. I have found (sadly, and ironically) that my mentors are extremely bad at providing writing advice (not editorial feedback, but mentorly advice). What a dissertation coach has helped me find is the smartest way to go about writing a dissertation (which, unless you’re part of a very small amount of scholars who hold multiple doctorates, we only do once).

You have developed a very good writing habit. If you didn’t have a writing habit before, you certainly do now.

The other day, after nearly a month of coaching she said to me, “You have developed a very good writing habit now. If you didn’t have a writing habit before, you certainly do now.” Those of us who have looked into the self-help literature on dissertation writing know that they all preach the same thing: habit. The more frequently we do it, the better we are at it, the more measurable progress we make. The path to progress has come through a series of project-managing techniques that are so simple, it’s almost embarrassing. I’ll share them here.**

  1. Inventory your chapter and identify a portion that is either the most executable to you right away or that you’re enthusiastic about
  2. Break down each element or task into a manageable task. (i.e. not “write section on XYZ” but rather, “draft on this restricted topic for XYZ for 25 minutes,” / “read article on ABC for topic XYZ for 25 minutes”)
  3. Have a daily writing/researching plan for every day, both aspects are important. The plan should be laid out in advance of working. If you push to exhaustion, you will be less likely to work or make good progress the next day.
  4. Have dedicated time off from writing.
  5. Recognize that writing at the doctoral level cannot and should not be done like other writing you’ve done (undergraduate, graduate seminar papers etc.) You cannot sit down and write it line by line and expect good work. The stakes are higher and the approach should be different. Exploratory and draft writing is crucial to producing subsequent versions that are readable and sound.

Some of you might have gotten to this point faster, and that’s great. What has certainly helped me the most is having a feedback mechanism. Our faculty are often far too busy to manage us the way we wish they would. The coach assists me in developing daily plans for an entire week each week, and comments on my plan daily as I make progress, delivering feedback and advice about approaching tasks.

The take-away? I’m developing project-management skills that can apply to both professional and personal goals. There is no pressure from the organization I work with to continue services. When I feel I’ve grown beyond them, they’re thrilled for that development.

What does your writing habit look like? I’d love to know.

** I’m a great fan of using the Pomodoro technique.

On knowing, a new pillory

John_Waller_in_pillorySomeone has reinterpreted the pillory–it was only a matter of time, really. Right? It might make me an awful person, insensitive to a whole range of questions (I hear your future rants, ranters), but I am experiencing a certain schadenfreude in the very concept of this blog, Public Shaming, where certain types of social media detritus are exposed.

In all seriousness, I have become very interested in social media (like the rest of academia) and its role in the creation of knowledge. Because, clearly, this type of trending seems self-perpetuated where the volume of believers outweighs the ‘facts.’ (Not that this is new, cf belief)

I know because they know instead of I know because I checked.   This isn’t a new by any stretch of the imagination. But with the instantaneous proliferation of ‘knowing,’ is common knowledge even knowledge anymore?

Knowing is hard.

What he learned from gay sex and Eve Ensler

I’m not the biggest fan of recycling other people’s writing, but I do like to pass along things I find thought-provoking and important.  I came across this Huffington Post article by Simon Mortiz, I was absolutely floored by its scope.


image credit:

As a gay man, I find it thought-provoking and entirely relevant to the world we live in. But, I hope there is a lesson we can all learn from Moritz’s argument about gender and the role it plays (and how it dictates) all our lives.

I’m not interested in rehashing the last 25 years of progressive gender theory here (though who doesn’t love a good Butler read), though I am going to include this link as well, to a Ted Talk by Eve Ensler that one reader attached to the Huff Post article.

Literature hacked to death at *-Mart

I’m going to spare the rant about the quality of the book – most people have already expressed it.  I came across a great blog post this morning (as I am avoiding doing any type of grading or producing). The writer raises a fear that I’ve had for a while now. In the post  Assault on Literature through 50 Shades of Yuck, the writer laments the current phenomenon of inserting into already existing stories.

The prime example here is the phenomenon that swept the world by storm, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Yeah yeah, I can hear the post-modern protests already. But But But. It’s funny. But but but, it’s not hurting anyone. But but but lighten up.

book knifeI’d be less worried if I knew that everyone’s spawn actually knew works of literature. I’m disheartened on a regular basis that they do not, in fact, know much about literature at all (or care, or want to care). I fear the parody of these works (and the thriller/comedy/sex ification of them) is replacing the works themselves (insert rant on education/values/art/entertainment).

Hey, I think spoofs are funny. I think they’re only a good idea, however, when we know what they’re making fun of and why.

The decade of the reboot and the remake (not that these haven’t existed before) in such proliferation and zeal has annoyed me. I’ve enjoyed some, loathed others. But I knew the originals. Sure, some are going to argue that the reboot or remake may inspire seeing the originals. Ok, but that’s giving people a lot of credit. Yet, I’ll readily believe that people will see the original movie before they read the original book.

Flaubert spent 5 years writing Madame Bovary. Not due to laziness, but rather to an obsessive attention to words, sentences, and sounds.

I wonder how long the mommy porn author took to copy Sade’s homework before class.



Cheating on Academic Sins with an alter ego.




Make it so.

Or so we all heard for a good 7 years in the late 80s and early 90s. More of an imperative than an performative utterance, it gets us a little closer to the bull’s eye. Recently, a judge in France ruled the auction of Hopi masks legal, as the previous owner had obtained them legally.  That seems logical.


Art Et Communication / Ho / EPA
An undated handout picture provided by Art et Communication press office in Paris, France on April 11, 2013 shows a mask entitled ‘Angwusnasomtaqa’ or ‘Tumas Crow Mother’ as part of the ‘Katsinam Masks’ auction sale at Drouot-Richelieu. care of

Yet, the complication is in the role the masks play for the Hopi, who view them as living things, sacred beings. Naturally, money and collecting are involved (un passe-temps du 19e siècle), so the dispute over the masks’–scratch that. The dispute over the legality of the sale was hauled before a judge, who subsequently ruled that since the current owner had obtained them legally, years before, the masks could be legally auctioned.

The most frightening part, I think is the power that the law wielded here and invested in others:

Before starting, the auctioneer, Gilles Néret-Minet, told the crowd that the sale had been found by a judge to be perfectly legal, and that the objects were no longer sacred but had become  “important works of art.”

The ability of language to perform is powerful indeed. Big magic. In one deft tongue maneuver, Néret-Minet changed the status of the masks from sacred beings to important objects all because of another performative utterance, the legal ruling.

The irony, perhaps, is in this line:

[Néret-Minet] added, “In France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his.”

Whew, well I sure feel better now.

Suddenly, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick surge out of the dry pages of theory and into the consequence-filled world of practice.


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