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Dissertation Mania! Thoughts on Writing Strategies

July 27, 2012

Look hard enough around most history graduate programs , or the various enrichment programs that being enrolled in a PhD qualifies you for, these days, and it often seems that there’s no shortage of things to learn, skills to gain, and places to go. In the last few weeks in Dushanbe, I have met graduate students – some of them still only at the MA stage! – who speak multiple difficult languages with great skill, who have traveled widely to conferences in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, and who, for the most part, are writing dissertations and projects that make sense to me.

As I’ve noted, the work of some young graduate students at some of conferences I’ve attended recently dazzles. I’ve seen people who comb through Iraqi exile archives, who have interviewed Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger, and who can tell you more than you ever thought one could know about how the texture of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border changes every ten miles. Even though I’m quite happy with how my own work for the moment – running around to interview Tajik Orientalists who served as translators during the Soviet war in Afghanistan – is going, sometimes it’s easy to be intimidated.

Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), Italian cardinal, famed hyperpolyglot, and the envy of historians centuries later

Yet sometimes these conversations belie an anxiety that reflects one thing that graduate programs could perhaps doing better. Particularly older graduate students (by which I mean people in their late 20s, or early or even mid-30s) often seem stressed out that their programs, or advisers, don’t give them enough of a framework, whether in terms of precise demands or how to think about the PhD in general, for completing their dissertation before they’re 30, or 35, or 40. It’s easy, they note, for established scholars who put in five or six hours a day at the office before retreating home to call their grown children to tell graduate students that there’s nothing, nothing to worry about if it takes them eight years to complete a PhD. But the inner voice, particularly of young female scholars, says otherwise.

Even for those of us on the fairer side of the 30-year-old gap, there are similar concerns. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who *did* know all of the languages, had mastered all of the bibliographies, had fantastic teaching experience, and so on – but there they were, still, a thirty-five year old graduate student still working on, well, something, but never, it seems, actually submitting any completed work. The Oxford system (insofar as it can be called a system) has the advantage of trying to spit you out as quickly as possible after three years as possible, but students in American PhD programs, even those who enter as relative tenderlings at 24 or 25, can quickly find themselves approaching thirty with considerable amounts of writing to complete. What to do?

It strikes me that there’s an important conversation to be had not just among  graduate students, but also between them and older faculty, not about intellectual ambitions (i.e. why Soviet history is more interesting than the reception of British legal thought in American academia, or some other topic), but about specific strategies and tactics that we use to get out work done. I’ve recently seen some encouraging projects coming out of Oxford on this very topic: Natalia Nowakowksa, a historian of late medieval Poland at Somerville College, Oxford, recently started a blog describing her process of putting together a scholarly monograph, as part of a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship that she received.

That seems like a great idea. But I’m less aware of conversations, or blogs, or podcasts that younger scholars, specifically graduate students, are curating on how to manage this kind of 2-3 year long project that all of us live with. So, with the aim of starting a broader conversation – and just as much highlighting the stupid as the clever things I’ve done in structuring my own work – I thought I might post on some of my tactics for getting shit done. Hopefully, this might come to amount to a small series of posts, part of a larger project of countering the utterly unproductive, depressive, and nihilistic approach to graduate school that other blogs promote some times, and which I’ve written against.

One thing which I’ve started doing consistently since this fall has been maintaining a little spreadsheet with the state (expressed very crudely in terms of word count and colors) for the various chapters of my dissertation – you can see a little graphic below. At Oxford, the maximum word length for D.Phil. dissertations is 100,000 words, so I knew that when I was aiming for a first draft I wanted the total word count (good words, of course) to be somewhere around there. If it was slightly more, that was no problem – in my experience, good editing should be able to cut most stuff I’ve written by about a third, and make it better. And it was even OK if what I ended up writing was much longer (as it is now) – but only so long as I accepted that the D.Phil. would only be an intermediate step towards completing a monograph in the long run. The more I looked at my materials, the more it seemed like ten chapters (with Chapter 9, on the GDR in occupied Afghanistan, probably the most tangential / most cuttable) was probably the right number, hence the organization.

Part of my spreadsheet mania. Green chapters indicate that I’m pretty happy with them, while other colors reflect varying moods on the state of completion of that chapter.

With this organization, almost every day – this fall and spring, I tried to find a space of two hours, one hour, or even twenty minutes if I knew I had something focused I wanted to write, and tried to add something with the research I had done to that point. It’s true that I had the benefit that not all graduate students have of having split up my research trips, so that there was always some reserve of stuff I had read in Berlin, or Koblenz, or Omaha, or Ithaca, that had to be made better, condensed, explained more cogently, or clarified. That meant that there almost always something to add – a benefit I’m increasingly treasuring as I run more and more against the fact that the last stuff I really need is in Moscow, and I won’t be there for another two months.

But that misses the most important point. Every day I tried to write something. Even the clumsy brutality of a word count spreadsheet helped keep me discipline, and gave me some objective measure by which to define myself. I was a graduate student, sure. But more than that, I knew that every day I wanted to be a writer. And writers don’t just be (well, some do, if you go to Berlin or Brooklyn), but I wanted to be a writer who wrote. Cooks aren’t just people who eat food or talk about it, and plumbers aren’t just people who talk about how to repair pipes. By constantly sitting down, and saying to myself, ‘I have to write 500 words, or 1000 words today’, I wasn’t just chipping away at the larger sculpture of my dissertation. I was helping to endow myself with some sense of ‘what, precisely, am I doing here?’ that I think many graduate students struggle with.

Perhaps I will reveal my lack of genteelness in saying so, but one inspiration for me in this regard has been the hyper-industrious novelist Stephen King. In his memoir On Writing, King notes that he tries to write at least 2,000 words a day (for first drafts – more on that in a minute); he’s been quoted as saying that it’s naïve to expect to become a talented writer without reading and/or writing for four to six hours a day. That sounds about right to me, and comes close to what my ideal work schedule would be like: wake up early, exercise, write behind closed doors, and then emerge into the light (or not – I’m a graduate student in dreary England, after all) for an afternoon spent with friends, family, or life beyond a world of letters.

Exactly how I feel after cranking out a couple hundred solid words of dissertation writing

True, I’m the first to admit that my current situation is awfully privileged. For many other graduate students, life – relationships, the failing health of parents, children – intervene along the way. Writing a good dissertation – hell, writing period – may not be all that there is. But for every one of said graduate students with serious, real obligations that keep them from living up to the high-fiber low-bullshit King diet, I run across many who have some series of excuses: they don’t know what they want to write about. It’s too hard. There’s some other university-related obligation that prevents them from getting down to business. That might be the case, but then that’s like not eating less and not going to the gym and wondering why one isn’t losing any weight.

None of this gets to the question of how, once you’ve spilled out 2,000 words a day for days straight, or pumped out your quota of whatever your word limit for your major project is, how to actually turn that first draft from gruesome to presentable. I have my own take on that – the topic of one of my next couple of posts.

3 Comments
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