Dissertation Work, September Update

Last month I didn’t spend a lot of time on research because I was in training for my assistantship this year at the Cohen Career Center. August was still productive though, because I managed to write a (very) preliminary draft of Chapter 1. Today, I’ll talk about that process and what I learned from it.

Writing with my new laptop. Image: photo of a laptop computer with a writing program open.

I’ve shared my writing process here before, but I’ll quickly review. Usually when I write a draft for anything, whether it’s a blog post or an article, I’ll create a thorough outline the day before I intend to write, so that I have a framework to follow. I’ll then write the entire piece in one sitting. I wouldn’t quite call it a stream-of-consciousness style, but it’s definitely breezier than what the final piece ends up being. I’ll then revise it multiple times, starting with one section at a time and eventually building my way up to reading through the entire work in one sitting. My rationale for writing a whole draft in one session is that my thought process remains uninterrupted. Admittedly the writing usually degrades as I get tired, but at least all the ideas are there and ready for massaging.

For this first chapter though, I decided to try something different. I always do my best writing in the morning, but with my assistantship training usually starting between 8 and 9 am, I knew wouldn’t have large blocks of time to work uninterrupted. Rather than let the dissertation sit idle though, I decided to take advantage of my limited time to do short bursts of focused, productive work. I’ve already been doing this thanks to the summaries I write at the end of each research day, but my main inspiration was actually a two-week online writing camp I did a few years ago. Every weekday for two weeks, I wrote uninterrupted for 30 minutes, and was really surprised by how much I was able to get done. Like the daily painting project I did in 2019, taking the time to quantify what I was doing on a daily basis really helped me better appreciate how quickly small amounts of daily work can accumulate into something substantial.

Taking that workshop as a model then, I committed myself to writing at least a page a day, or for 30 minutes, whichever came first. Before I started writing, I spent a week putting together an outline, including all the citations I thought I might need (there always end up being more, but this way I have most of them in one place). I like to exercise before I start working, so most mornings I was at my desk by 7 am after showering and getting dressed, though some days started earlier and others later. On average I worked for about 45 minutes. During the longest sessions I worked for over an hour, while the shortest ones were only 20 minutes. In terms of actual writing, I’d start with the prose first, and then added the references at the end of each session so I wouldn’t have to look them up later. To help guide the next day’s writing, I’d close each session by typing down some prompts to help me remember what I was thinking about.

After finishing the draft, I did a general review of what I had written. I made note of the questions I couldn’t answer or the sections I needed to expand. I then figured out what I needed to do in terms of reading or research to answer those questions, or at least attempt to, and wrote out a schedule for the next month to go about that research. This means that I’ve already got a working plan in place for the beginning of the semester, which will be important since I’ll also be busy preparing conference papers, continuing my work with the Barry Art Museum, and getting used to the routine of a new assistantship.

So how did this process work out for me? Actually it worked out quite well. After three weeks of daily writing, I had a 43-page chapter with full citations. Mind you, this writing isn’t actually good, not yet. There are sections that just say “expand this” for instance, and plenty of passages where I’m very informal, as though I’m talking to myself. It will go through multiple rewrites and revisions, and very little, if any, of what’s currently there will still be in place. But for me, that’s the point: it’s a draft, and drafts do different kinds of work from finished essays. I know that I’m not going to get it right on the first attempt. Rather, the point of the draft is to have something to work with, to rearrange and rewrite until it sounds coherent. It may be bad prose, but for me that’s far better than the blank page. At least my thoughts have been written down in some form; now I can expand and refine them.

Overall, I’m really pleased with how this went. Breaking down my writing into shorter periods made the draft feel much less intimidating because I knew I only needed to work on it for short periods of time (getting a new laptop that didn’t take 10 minutes to fully activate has also been really helpful). My assistantship training also helped me focus because I knew I’d have to be out of the house by a certain time to catch the right bus. Between those two factors, I was able to tune out other distractions and focus on the writing I needed to do.

That said, I don’t see myself changing my entire writing process in the future. These short bursts work really well for getting ideas down, but I don’t see it working so effectively for editing, as that’s where I really tend to take my time in terms of word choice and sentence formation. Still, this was a great way to great a first draft down, and now I’ve got something I can work with in terms of revision.

Not a bad way to end the summer.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *