Tag Archives: graduate school

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.

Bilan, the balance sheet (or the profane)

Having perused one of the more recent Chronicle articles on stress and productivity, I’ve been reflecting on August being fully underway.  It’s the time of the balance sheet for those of us who kept saying, “Bah! This summer will be a wonderland of academic production!” 

I have by no means achieved herculean levels of labor. Though, I am pleased to report (to myself) that I have made progress that falls under the category of “not too shabby,” rested and brought my work to a new level.

Essentially, this topic is à l’esprit for most of us during this time of the year since we’ve spent most of the teaching part of the year looking forward to our “great summer of working.”  Sighing longingly through the stretching semesters, we dream of the uninterrupted (read: no students) months where we decide our wake-up time as we like, can read leisurely all day if we like, and fold ourselves in front of our favorite computer to tap diligently at the keys, pouring our most profound academic reflections onto the Great White Page.

Similarly, we tend to view the long-weekend and the short holiday breaks as sacred working time. Yet, I will confess, at least, that during these shorter ‘breaks,’ I’m so exhausted from an over-loaded teaching schedule that not a whole lot more than netflix, sleeping, and grading gets accomplished. I also make a pretty convincing argument to myself during these times to justify my avoidance of all things academic.

If we take a look at the ledger, how many of us get all this work done that we day-dreamed about in a grass-is-greener type way during the academic year?  As I said, I know during the short breaks I rarely accomplish anything unstructured without a deadline looming.

This is where (and yes, it’s a cliché, but a damned good one ) Paul Silvia’s book about being a productive little academic worker very much revolutionized my perception of what it is I do (or am supposed to do).  Essentially, it’s a self-help book for academics. But, if you haven’t read this book and are considering reading it, don’t expect a session of care and concern for your well-being.

Instead, Silvia lords his own work record over our heads (because, in the end, no matter what other lies we tell ourselves, we all know that academia is not very different from any other corporate structure these days. Money talks. Competition (healthy and unhealthy) thrives. Colleagues are annoying. But, we do get to set our hours, for the most part – it only took 3 degrees and mountains of money to get there).  He lists all the common (voiced and unvoiced) objections that we cry in dismay, all the ‘plans’ we come up with for ourselves and deftly finds the flaws in the logic as we’d do with our own students. It’s almost like he’s reading our thoughts (tricksy psychologist that he is).

In the end, you can reduce his lesson to the following: stop whining, stop procrastinating and schedule your ‘real’ work like you schedule your classes. Adhere to one as you would the other.   He says,

“As an academic…you’re a professional writer, just as you’re a professional teacher. Treat your scheduled writing time like your scheduled teaching time. Say no to well-intentioned intruders, and explain why you can’t (not won’t, but can’t) break your committed writing time. If you feel bad about saying no, then lie. If you feel bad about lying, then use the obscurantism you learned in grad school: Claim a “recurring intractable obligation.”

His sermon on the Sacred Writing Time is not without its humor and levity but the weight of his point resounds: schedule your work, get it done and stop making excuses: we all know the excuses.  I heartily recommend this for all graduate students — and anyone else who has large projects waiting to be completed. 

Of interest, I found that this program, Omm writer,  allowed me to increase my  amount of words that end up on the page (even just for reflecting on ideas and readings Note: it’s very much an aesthetic program and all sound effects can be muted) as one of his secrets is to not engage the rest of the world when you’re working.  Equally, Scrivener has revolutionized my approach to writing and is advised for large project management (such as the dreaded D-word or books).

The tools are there. I can attest to the efficaciousness; my productivity is up with the trifecta of the book and these two cheap (at least on a Mac) programs.

A renewed outlook (and wrist-slapping by Silvia) didn’t hurt either.

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Edit: I forgot to include a great resource from a fellow academic writing savvy blogger: Dailychicana’s resource page is great.