The Writer’s Diet: Making My Way Through the Dissertation Labyrinth and Thoughts on Writing in Graduate Education

It’s the first of December, which means that your humble narrator has a mere three weeks remaining in Russia before he heads back to warm and sunny California. While the last several weeks of November brought about plenty of excitement – talks at institutes and universities in the capital, several exciting discoveries in the archives, and new friendships – it’s also been full of the more mundane, but equally important business of cutting my D.Phil. chapters down to size, in order to be able to hand off a final draft of the final draft of the dissertation to my advisors by the time I get on the plane to Los Angeles. That’s meant many an afternoon spent  taking full advantages of Russian coffee shops’ two-for-one deals, pondering sentences and paragraphs over espressos and americanos, deciding what and why to cut. After my usual two- to two-and-a-half hour stint, I’m not sure if the jittery feeling I get is from my caffeine stomach craving something to eat, or from the sense that – slowly but surely – I’m marching towards the finish line.

King: Unloved by 'serious critics' in his own time for his fiction, but frank and insightful when it comes to writing and editing

King: Unloved by ‘serious critics’ in his own time for his fiction, but frank and insightful when it comes to writing and editing

Along the way, I’ve made sure to solicit friends and mentors for their advice on the writing and editing process. For it is a process of writing and editing, they emphasize. ‘I know’, wrote one mentor, ‘when someone isn’t serious about writing when they say that they love to write but they hate to edit.’ It’s easy to write hundreds or thousands of words of perfectly passable prose, they emphasize, but the battle is really won when it comes to cutting those sentences down to size, and figuring out what to relegate to footnotes (or the growing folder of stuff that you promise to ship off as articles one day). Another friend and mentor cites Kipling’s advice on the matter:

Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the interspaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go…. I have had tales by me for three or five years that shortened themselves yearly.

That’s well and good for when you’re actually down in the double-spaced trenches dealing with the text itself, but how about when you’re not actually hacking away in the word processor? On this note, I’ve also enjoyed Stephen King’s harsh advice. The battle for good prose, he argues, isn’t just won when you’re actually sitting down and editing. Like someone looking to lose weight or fit into this year’s itsy bitsy bikini, diet and lifestyle is often just as important as what you’re up to in the weight room. Writes King:

When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew. This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one’s own style, but it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. […] Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

King was writing with prospective fiction authors in mind, but I think his advice can be creatively re-appropriated for historians or social scientists, too. We’ve all read more articles or dissertations that we’d prefer to forget that are loaded with derivative Foulcaudian vocabulary – biopolitics, sites of life, that sort of thing – and it’s a fact of life that if we want to understand where our work fits into a bigger historiographical conversation, we need to read plenty of works of secondary literature that may leave us aesthetically underwhelmed. That’s precisely why, I’d argue, why it’s important to maintain a steady diet of fiction, preferably originally written in the language that we’re writing the dissertation in, if only not to forget that it’s OK – and should be encouraged – to delight in the English language (in my case) itself.

Foucault was an excellent writer in his own right, but whenever I read the word 'biopolitics' in a dissertation, I reach for my Browning

Foucault was an excellent writer in his own right, but whenever I read the word ‘biopolitics’ in a dissertation, I reach for my Browning

For example, I’ve been making my way through Anthony Trollope’s wonderful The Way We Live Now over the last few weeks, and while it’s hard to draw a straight line from my experience of reading the novel and sitting down to re-write sentences, there are so many moments of smiles for me in reading Trollope’s prose that it makes it that much harder for me to forget that prose itself should be a joy – yes, even in academic writing. Trollope’s writing is full of great sentences, and I’d suggest that there’s a great gain to be reaped for the historical writer to sit down for a moment, diagram the sentences and words, and ask what makes them strong. Here’s one favorite describing a California scam artist, showing how much mileage one can get out if simple nouns, verbs, and simple syntax:

He had sprung out of some Californian gully, was perhaps ignorant of his own father and mother, and had tumbled up in the world on the strength of his own audacity.

I love the following for its judicious use of commas and syntax – rather than more raucous prose – to achieve humorous effect:

It is often difficult to make things go smooth, – but almost all roughnesses may be smoothed at last with patience and care, and money, and patronage.

That’s my strategy for now: sitting down at cafés and hacking away in two-hour pushes, but also making sure that’s that not all of my life. As the Trollope suggests, we might need to pluck some of our ideas and intuitions about syntax and diction from fiction, while I’d also make the case that post-mortem discussion of how, for example, museum exhibits were structured or framed, can help us re-train ourselves to think about the way we’ve structured a piece of writing.

Still, I wonder: beyond one’s own idiosyncratic tastes – and rapidly declining budget for double espressos – is there any way that graduate programs in history could do a better job to improve writing, or place it more at the center of the curriculum? Speaking with some of my colleagues here in Moscow – particularly those at Moscow – I am struck by how tilted towards copious reading lists, and (especially in America) über-ambitious generals / orals exams, most graduate curricula are. There’s a good reason for this: people need to be familiar with historiographies and historiographical debates before they begin to write articles, dissertations, and books themselves.

The perfect partner for a dissertation writing and editing date

The perfect partner for a dissertation writing and editing date


Yet given that one’s career in academic history departments is overwhelmingly determined by the (perceived) quality of what one writes, it also strikes me as odd that the focus should lie on having people read 500 pages a week, discuss that in seminars, rinse and repeat for two years, and then be told that now they have to write something ambitious. Under this system, you’re grounded in the historiography, true, but you’re also exhausted and haggard. And given the massive diet of (often poorly-written) secondary literature, it’s no surprise that people have little time to read more delightful prose, or that one of the most common complaints about graduate education is that it degrades people’s ability to write good English prose.

What strikes me as particularly odd about this professionalizing approach is that some of our most treasured historians, from Thomas Macaulay to Jacques Barzun, had a wildly different aesthetic and historical education and still basically turned out fine. Macaulay may have been a genius in any event, but it still strikes me as relevant that he was really first a poet and essayist – and a copious reader in multiple languages – before he went on to write the History of England in his 40s. Another Englishman whose prose almost universally delights friends and mentors, Neil Ascherson, also passed through Cambridge with a very amateurish education that didn’t hinder him from going on to write several excellent works. Nor, as my account of the moving memorial event at King’s College, Cambridge this March made clear, did the wonderful Tony Judt. If I’m honest with myself, true, there’s probably a certain amount of autobiographical rationalizing going on here, as I’m an American who has received his graduate education in the more amateurish English system. And there are plenty administrative reasons why American graduate students have a different graduate educational schedule than their British counterparts – the need to staff courses with TAs, for example, or the fact that much of American graduate education derives from a late 19th century seminar-centric German model.

Still, I wonder: all else being equal, would we see less stressed-out graduate students and better dissertations if we encouraged people to read more novels, write more poetry, and – as opposed to the decade-long slog of coursework and reading lists that make Moby Dick look like a minnow – ‘just get on with it’, as the English are fond of saying? It’s all the perfect question for me to ponder as I trudge through the snow to the local coffee shop to crank out another editing session.


One thought on “The Writer’s Diet: Making My Way Through the Dissertation Labyrinth and Thoughts on Writing in Graduate Education

  1. Luke

    It is really amazing that in the years of graduate school required for historians in the US system, the requirement to take a class in creative or literary writing is lacking. This is all the more painful when academic historians whine and complain about how “popular historians” get all the credit, primarily because they can write a text that is interesting to a broad audience, as opposed to simply being required reading for a handful of other specialists.

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