Friday, April 25, 2008

Dissertation Update

Well, I still have one. And it is still not done. There are two problems with the "chip away at it a little every day" method to dissertation writing:
  1. it feels like you are making no progress at all, because it is incremental progress, which contributes to the feeling of rolling a rock up a hill every day
  2. it is easy to slip from the "even a little work every day" into not working on it at all for several days, which combines the worst of the incremental method (see point 1) with the worst of the binge-and-rest writing method. Writing in binges is not so great for large projects (at least according to scholars of productivity like Boice) but when you pull an all-nighter of writing, you usually have some pages of material afterwards. Slipping off the incremental method means you're working on the rest-and-rest method, which is quite pleasant unless you think about the fact that you are making absolutely no progress at all.
I'm not in quite that dire of a situation, although I have gotten that way in the past. I have been working at the chapter off and on this week, although there were some weeks before that where I was hardly working on it at all, unless you count worrying and dreaming of when I will be done as work.

(I do that with diets too ---- or at least I did until I figured this pattern out: I will think so hard about dieting that first day that I will feel all tired and worn out and reward myself for what feels like years of not eating by having some sort of fattening special treat. Yes, I can gain wait on diets. My solution, once I found this self-sabotaging pattern of mine, has been to give up on diets and just not care anymore. So far it's working.)

But I'm not giving up on the dissertation, of course, which means I can't count imaginary progress as progress (I'm so smart for having figured that out finally). So I have to keep reminding myself that I need to write first --- first thing in the day as my brain is luxuriating in the coffee, before I have procrastinated the entire day away, before reading blogs or wearing myself out with students. Write first. Write! (note to self, there. Readers are in no way obligated to stop reading and start writing now. Carry on!)

I've also tried something new with this chapter: working up an extensive outline first. I have, probably, about 6 or 7 pages of an outline right now --- although some of those spots look pretty fleshed out and others I dumped some quotes in, so it's not at all 7 pages of bullets.

I'm not sure this method works for me --- I am figuring out some ideas, and I hope that this will help me carry themes across larger chunks of the chapter, rather than try to splice two chapter chunks together near the end and discover that they are not facing the right direction --- but the outlining is making that feeling of no progress feel even worse this time around, and I also have a hard time figuring out when I can stop. In places, it has basically become a draft of at least a few paragraphs long, whereas in others it is a very colloquial series of bullets and questions for myself. I'm back to my problem of not being able to cross my diss work off my to do list, because I can't tell if I'm "done" with my item. Meh.

Even worse, I write to discover things, I think, and so the first "puke everything onto the page" step of drafting is fastest and probably the most fun for me. Revision is slow, partly because it's slow, and partly because I've already figured out the fun stuff I want to say and don't want to bother tying up the loose ends and boring details. I'm having troubles actually transferring from the outline to a draft because I've figured out what my points are and how these themes will carry across the chapter. I'm so screwed. If I ever actually force myself to finish this thing (hmm --- would my committee sign off on an outline? Intriguing...) I don't think I'll use this method again.

So, there you have it: I'm somewhere between an outline and a draft, and am not sure how long it will take me to get from the one point to the other. Of course, I have a little more than a month to get my chapters to my whole committee per our earlier agreement, so that's the amount of time it's gonna get, regardless of how long it wants to take. Too bad that I have two sets of papers coming due in that time, a conference paper to write and give, and my departmental-favor commitments I wrote about a while ago are coming back around as well.

And now I'm going to go have some chocolate. Or maybe ice cream. All that hard work of thinking, you know: I need some sort of reward.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I hear you on both the outline/draft/incremental progress thing and the diet thing. And you probably didn't want to hear that mid-career scholars still don't have any magic solutions to writing problems. Good luck, though.

k8 said...

I'm going through this same thing. I'm in comp/rhet so you'd think that I'd be able to diagnose and treat myself out of this dissertation, but it ain't happening.

I write to discover things, too, so the chapter plans work and don't work for me. I wish I had a solution!

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I remember one of the things someone suggested to me to help incremental progress feel a bit more impressive was to put whatever I did into a binder where I thought it would go in the dissertation. What you see can be a little slow, but eventually you start to watch this thing build up, and that for me was a pretty good feeling.

One version of it suggested putting in blank pages initially based on how long you thought it would be, replacing them as you went.

Beyond that, I've got nothing - I'm still struggling with my book, though it's been largely about my inability to get any long chunk of time where I wasn't exhausted set aside.

Matt said...

Have you considered engaging a "dissertation coach" to help you manage your daily progress and provide the feedback you wish your advisor would? Check out and email to info@ if you would like to discuss.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, I write in a way that's similar to what you describe, so my best advice for you at your current point is to choose a section of the outline (whichever seems most interesting) and to write that section. When you write this way, you can't necessarily write from beginning to end straight through. You need to think of it in chunks. And so you might write the introduction first (I always have to), but then you might skip to the next most fleshed out part. As you start finishing chunks, you get more motivated because you see yourself accomplishing chunks. And then, when you've got a whole thing, you go back through and you can play with the organization and phrasing and things, which is interesting because it's about making it "sound good" and not about connecting the ideas together. That part uses a different part of your brain.

Also, if you'd like a set of eyes that isn't your committee on a draft (however rough it is) I'd be happy to use my eyes in that capacity. (Though you may want to ask Maude if doing that helped her - I can be a tough commenter, but I'm happy to do it if you think that it would be an intermediate motivating step.)

Maude said...

sis, once again, i feel like this is totally a post i could have written. it is nearly dead on what i'm feeling right now with the diss and part of the reason i've just kind of been freaking out about it. i, too, consider "thinking about the diss" as progress and can totally trick myself into believing i've done much more work on it than i have.

that said, crazy's advice is really helpful! on this last chapter (and probably what i should do for the revisions) i thought about it in chunks and worked on one chunk at a time. when that chunk was done, i was done for the day. it totally helped and got me writing. and i recommend sending work to her. she is tough, but immensely helpful. i wish she were my chair!

Belle said...

I like Crazy's approach too. I do the mind dump, then get out my scissors and tape and play, which usually prompts more bits. It's a messy process, but I feel great producing, which turns into a dynamic of its own.

You can do this! You too Maude!