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Thoughts on Tactical Writing and Dissertating, Part II

August 1, 2012

Everybody has books they enjoyed as a teenager, but one of the most painful things you can do as a reader is to go back to those works of teen fiction and discover, excruciatingly, that they actually sucked. I can recall the days of 5th and 6th grade, when I relished in books like Hatchet or (my personal favorite) On My Honor. Many Americans of my age have read the former – a story of how a teenage boy survives in the woods after a Cessna crashes in rural Canada – but the latter stuck with me for some time. Like Hatchet, in which there’s a terrifying episode where the hero sees the corpse of the dead Cessna pilot, On My Honor also touches on teens’ encounters with death: the whole story revolves around a teenage boy in Anytown, USA, whose best friend drowns in a river on a weekend outing, and he’s the only one who knows about it. He tries to hide the fact at first, and much of the hundred-and-something pages that ensue revolve around his dilemma of how to explain what happened, whether he’s at fault, and whether he could have done anything to save the friend.

Sounds great, right? If you’re hesitating, that’s often the sensation that I get upon coming back to second, third, or nth drafts of my own academic work. We leave dissertation chapters, essays, or book drafts as metaphorical teenage readers, thinking that we’ve just written something glorious. But with more maturity, more reading of secondary literature, and just more time away from what’s probably actually mediocre writing, we then come back to those works, and often we discover that they’re actually … pretty mediocre. So what to do?

The stuff of legendary 5th grade reading lists

In what follows, I though I would write an addendum to a mini-series I started last week, with some thoughts on tactical writing and editing. Again, I’m writing these as much to learn from others’ successes and mistakes as I am to highlight stuff that I’ve done that’s worked for me. Unlike some, I tend to be a volume writer who then comes back and polishes and shortens stuff, which affects my outlook; some fantastic writers I have known are far more meticulous, critical, and, well, slow, on writing first drafts – a pace and style that affects the writing process. This all said, I think there are a couple of lessons I’ve learned.

One is what I call the Rule of Seventeen. I remember the days when I was a naïve high school student or college student and thought that simply having something, *anything* done by the due date was enough. I fortunately moved past that mode of procrastination pretty quickly, but by my college years I was still pretty firmly in the habit of thinking that 2-3 drafts of something was usually enough to get it to where I wanted it. It was only until I began writing the Introduction to Writings on War that I struggled repeatedly with writing something long and analytical. It took me about seven drafts (drafts here defined as me sitting down over the course of an afternoon, usual with multiple cups of coffee or pots of tea and marking stuff up by hand) to get it to the point where I felt comfortable sharing it with readers who knew what they were talking about. But by the time my editors from Polity had looked over it, assigned it to an in-house copy editor, and she and I had had numerous back-and-forths, we ended up on a seventeenth draft before we had our final version.

Had I known that it would take seventeen versions to get to where the prose needed to be for something semi-decent, I probably would have run away from the project at the beginning. But having gone through it al, seventeen seems less like an albatross than an opportunity, and a reminder. If it took me seventeen tries to get close to totally satisfied with something on the scale of the Schmitt introduction, what are my standards going to be for, say, a dissertation? Seventeen feels less like prison than like freedom when you’re starting to get satisfied with something – but it’s only a third draft. It’s scary that there’s a lot of work left to go. But hopefully you got into this business of writing in the first place because you thought that the days of squinting at text in coffee shops, going on walks in parks and meadows to think over your structure, and wanting to jump out of the bathtub when the thought of, yes, how the French Baroque *does* relate to Foucault, springs into your mind and demands being written down.

James Joyce remains diffidently unimpressed by your thirteenth draft.

Two is the vintage principle, which gets back to what I noted about those bad teen novels. Just as, I think, we read teen fiction in order to prime ourselves for the good stuff – the Vanity Fairs and Ulysses of the world – I think that we often need to write poorly in order to write well later. I put a lot of effort into writing drafts of dissertation chapters for example, and often try to impose tyrannical deadlines on myself for having a chapter, or a certain pair of chapters, ‘done’ (i.e. Draft #2 or 3) by, say August 1st. Of course, there’s no real external demand on me from anyone that my thoughts on Afghans and the GDR be done by August 1st. In a sense, nothing is ever really due until the final deadline (which for me is effectively March to June of next year, 2013). But by having those semi-crappy chapter drafts done by August 1st, I can then turn to other stuff for all of August, and preferably all of August and September. I’ll graduate, speaking metaphorically, from Hatchet to Lord of the Flies. And hopefully by the time I return to those chapters, on September 1st or October 1st, I’ll have fresh eyes with which to examine them.

There are only two problems with this strategy. One, obviously, is that it requires discipline. I write this blog post on July 31, otherwise a banal Tuesday in Dushanbe, but a day that signifies a marker for me since I know that I have two drafts of two chapters done on my desk at my office. Will I do some marking-up over the course of next week or the week after? Sure. But I know that after doing that updating, it’s important for me to leave them be for a while, to mature and for my own vision to change, too. But of course, if those drafts don’t exist, then there’s no point.

The other problem, and the more interesting one in my view, is that sometimes your work doesn’t allow for this approach. As it happens, the two chapters I’ve finished bad drafts of by this date lend themselves pretty well to the vintage principle. One, a chapter on the GDR and Afghanistan in the 1980s, is based almost entirely on notes I collected in Berlin in the summer of 2011. Almost everything I need to write the chapter (even in its final, actually good, seventeenth-draft form) is there. It’s just a matter of returning to it again and again. The other chapter, one on Soviet advisors in Jalalabad and the valleys of Eastern Afghanistan in the 1980s, will have to be completely restructured when I go back to Moscow this fall, but a lot of it is bound to be based on archival reports I collected from Moscow in the autumn of 2010. Again, that stuff is all there, on my hard drive and online. There’s no excuse, other than lack of inspiration or perspiration, not to work on it. Particularly during those Dushanbe days when interviews fall through, or (more generally) if you find yourself away from a library but with access to wi-fi, a power outlet, and sufficient tea or coffee for a couple of days.

Granted, this writing approach might be more difficult for our anthropologist and ethnographer friends. What’s your excuse?

Clearly, there’s kinds of work where this luxury doesn’t present itself. I’m partly in awe of anthropologists at the same time that I’m glad that I’m not one; often, they have strict methodological objections to writing any draft of anything while in the field. There’s a strict separation of field notes from actual writing that historians, who primarily deal with the past and who, in theory, are not as much an active participant in their writing, don’t face. Other times, historians show up somewhere and there’s so much archival stuff to sift through that the priority becomes collection rather than analysis and synthesis; that’s part of what I will deal with in Moscow this October, November, and December, I reckon.

Still, I think it’s important to ask yourself: how much of my ability (or inability) to draft, or re-draft, this chapter or this piece of writing, is actually dependent on those materials I haven’t seen yet. There are probably plenty of cases where it is. But in those where it’s not, it also makes for a good excuse, too. Which one is it in your case?

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One Comment
  1. That was another excellent post today. You make it look so easy. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed reading it very much. Have a wonderful day!

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