I’m going to get this out of the way right now. If you’re struggling with your dissertation‑and even if you’re not‑I recommend getting a hold of a copy of Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as Bolker recommends that you write for AT LEAST fifteen minutes every day, especially on days when you’re having trouble. I’ve only just started it, and I’m already feeling tons better about my writing process, though I was literally shaking when I began reading it, because I felt as though I had been going about my dissertation all wrong. But that sensation passed as I confronted and worked through that feeling and decided to rethink my approach from here on out rather than feel badly about my approach up to that point.
My job isn’t to plug books I’m reading, so I’m not going to give an in‑depth recap of the lessons that Bolker provides her readers. But I do want to spend some time discussing how my process has changed‑for the better, I think‑over the last several days. I’ve had quite a few issues with my writing. Most if not all of these issues are pretty typical ones. They’re the same fears that everyone I know who has gone through this process has had: fear that I am going to write a boring or unreadable dissertation; fear that I am not going to contribute to the body of knowledge about my topic (and it turns out the body of knowledge already out there is small, though it is not completely non‑existent); fear that I’m not going to finish in time (I have until December 2012, but I want to finish by June); fear that I don’t know what I’m writing about; and on and on. In short, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I know that I’ve been doing this‑I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends in my department and with my dissertation advisor about it‑, but I hadn’t directly confronted my fears myself, and I think what I needed to do was put them into writing, put them into my own words rather than simply listen to what everyone else was telling me, though that was an important step. I hadn’t asked myself why I had all these irrational fears and whether or not there was something about my process that was causing me to feel this way. And I believe my process was holding me back to an extent.
I think we all eventually figure out some tricks to forming dissertation writing habits. Some of these are picking a certain time of day to write (mornings work best for me); picking a good space or spaces in which to write (e.g., a coffee shop); deciding on realistic writing goals for each day, and so on. I had tried all of these things, but I was still writing very slowly, if I was able to write at all. Many days I would stare at the words on the screen with disgust, shame, guilt that I hadn’t written more, and so on. Even if I stopped to ‘organize’ my thoughts and write without censoring myself, the problem would quickly return once I tried to go back to the way I had been writing. Part of the problem was that, even if I took a break from my normal routine, I had established a pattern of thinking about my writing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Another stumbling block was that I had set myself a specific amount of words to write each day. This isn’t a horrible way to set up a writing goal, per se, but I had noticed that it took me quite a few more words per page than what is considered average. Each page felt like a struggle because I was focused on how many more words I had to write than what is average.
I’ve done a few things to correct these problems already. For instance, I’ve shifted from word count to page count as my writing goal each day. I’ve also started writing about my process each day in addition to my dissertation writing goal. This obviously means I need to write MORE each day than I had been, but I’ve also begun forming a new habit of not censoring myself at all whenever I sit down to write dissertation pages. This is a very new approach for me in terms of academic writing (I’ve done it with creative writing), as I’ve long been what a former professor of mine has called an eeker. I would eek out a page a day, sometimes less, and rarely more, but these pages would already be in pretty good shape and not require much revision. I’ve written this way for years, mostly with success. But it hasn’t been working with my dissertation, so I’ve decided I’m going to be what that same professor called a gusher. This type of writer gushes onto the page and doesn’t worry about style, format, spelling or anything that gets in the way of productive thought. I’ve always felt this kind of writing was counter intuitive or inefficient. And perhaps it is counter intuitive. But I’m not sure anymore that it is inefficient. For one thing, it allows me to directly engage my thoughts rather than worry about writing in a linear fashion, which is also one of the eeker’s habits (or at least it’s one of mine). And in many ways it is a much more creative approach to writing, because it allows me to slap down ideas and make connections that I might not have otherwise noticed. Writing that incorporates a creative element very much appeals to me, so much so that, even though I’ve only been writing this way for a short time, I’m not sure how I ever got by writing differently. And the best part is that this kind of writing is stress free. I’m breaking my writing up into manageable blocks: a few pages on process when I wake up; a short break; then a few pages on the dissertation. I’m adding writing a blog entry in the early evening to this routine. I’ll reward myself with the evening off once I finish said entry.
Another really important lesson I’ve learned in a very short time is to begin owning my dissertation. I’ve always known this dissertation is mine, but I haven’t treated it as though it is mine. Without realizing I had been doing so, I had been treating it as something to be turned in to my committee, chapter by chapter (and I haven’t yet turned a single full chapter in, though I am becoming much more confident that I can do so soon) and then a final draft to be judged, assessed, and so on. I think this view of my dissertation, as something to be turned in rather than as mine, is why I have been thinking that my dissertation is boring, not up to par (and, incidentally, the feedback I have received from my advisor so far has been positive), and all of those negative thoughts. For instance, it could turn out that MY dissertation is very straight forward. But why does that have to be a problem? Why does it have to be a weakness? Why can’t it be a strength? I think asking even simple questions like this says a great deal about what my mindset has been and what I need to do to change that. I don’t necessarily think overcoming that negative mindset will be easy, but I think taking ownership of whatever my dissertation turns out to be is a critical step, perhaps the most critical step, that I need to take. As cheesy at it may sound in writing, telling myself that this dissertation is my dissertation and that nobody can take it away from me is something I want to do and remind myself of on those days when, unlike today, I am not able to write so effortlessly. Owning it will also allow me to step back and look at the stumbling block(s) I encounter on a particular day, whether it is guilt or shame; worrying about things in my personal life and letting that get in the way of writing; wrestling with a particular issue or question (which perhaps can be approached a different way or put aside for a while).
I don’t think I’ve written anything particularly earth shattering in this entry. That was not my goal. Rather, my objective was to put down in words what I’ve been going through, to acknowledge it on the page, and to put it in the public sphere. In many ways, deciding to own my dissertation is about accountability. But even more importantly, I think owning my dissertation is about not having to apologize to myself or anyone else about what my dissertation is or turns out to be.