February 25, 2005
Writing Tips for Dissertations and Books?
It's that season of the year for me when graduate students are submitting drafts of their theses and dissertation. It's also the season when I look at the various writing deadlines I have and realized how far behind I am. I thought it might be useful to pool together our collective rhetorical wisdom on the topic of finishing large writing projects such as dissertations and books. Here are some suggestions I learned a long time ago and have worked well for me: 1. Try to write every day for about 3 hours. 2. Find the time of day at which you're most productive, and organize your schedule accordingly. I work best from about 1-4 in the afternoon, for example. 3. And this is the most important: always stop writing when you know you have more to say. It will be easier to pick up your writing the next day.
Any other tips?
Any other tips?
I'm glad you brought this up, Jim, because I have been struggling lately with getting motivated to write. Even though I have a Master's thesis under my belt, if I have taken a few weeks off from writing, I feel as though I've forgotten completely how to go about doing it. It's a strange mental block that I encounter every so often. I was actually wandering through Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble lately to find some books on tips for better academic writing. I have yet to find anything I think will be useful though...
Since I'm not doing any major writing (no diss. or books yet), I find as though it's useful to write at least 3 to 4 times a week for at least an hour at a time. There's always a paper or draft of something on the horizon for me so I try to put my time towards that. I've also attempted to take what can be an infuriatingly ignorant college campus and make lemons out of lemonade. If I read a story or letter in the school newspaper that gets to me, I try to respond in the form of a letter to the editor. Even if I don't end up sending it, I find it's a nice exercise for regularly writing and also to vent some of the steam that begins to build up every few weeks or so...
Finally, I find that exercise is one of the best opportunities for some good thinking (and I know several other people who feel the same way). Some of my best thinking comes while I'm running...or laying in bed attempting to go to sleep actually...
Those are helpful comments, Denise. One of these days I might actually try exercise--funny how those high school p.e. classes permanently destroyed any desire to do that. . . .
One other suggestion: at some point in any project--dissertation, article, book--the little satanic (in the original sense of "accuser") voice says, "Who the **** is going to read this? Why am I working so hard for so little money?" The best self-help book I ever read was Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. The author proposes that a depressed person is the victim of self-disparaging inner comments. A good way to work on this is to count (I used a golf counter) the number of self-critical comments one makes during the day, and graph them over the period of a week or so, eventually learning to recognize them and then replace them with affirmative statements. Even for those not clinically depressed, it helps to have some affirmations in mind while working on a big project. The one that sustains me is this: I am paid to publish articles and books. It is my job, and thus has an inherent "craft" quality the same as a good carpenter or welder's work does. Writing scholarship is a civilized activity, a way of being human, a way of participating in a conversation that, a la Burke, began before we were born and will continue after we are gone. It is better than getting drunk or torturing Iraqis.
I write best in the early morning, so i try--oh i try--to schedule my teaching and committees and appointments and offic hours and everything else in the afternoon. That, of course, rarely ends up working out. But if at all possible, i get up early and try to write for a while...maybe just an hour, to keep my hand in it. I find that i can't write at school. I don't know why--i wish i could. I can do almost anything else there: i can read, grade papers, prep for classes; i can also write reports and that kind of thing, but not scholarly work.
Oh, and Denise, i agree: when i'm writing and i get stuck, going out for a good run or to the gym typically unsticks me. I can't tell you how many times i've had to jump off a treadmill or whatever to go beg for paper and a pencil in Gold's Gym. :)
When i get stuck, it also helps me to read...to just put MY stuff down and pick up somebody else's really good work--to get into the rhythm of their language, etc... For me, stuckness is often about being in a rhythm rut.
Oh...I fear having to count how many times negative self-talk occurs daily for me! Somewhere along the way it seems to have gotten naturalized into the graduate student-self. For some reason many of us believe that the "I'm not smart enough," "everyone else is so much better than me" thoughts are somehow motivating. I will definitely pick up this book, though, because the more I think about it the more I realize that negative thoughts are nothing but damaging to my productivity.
Perhaps, Jim, it may be useful to think about exercising in a different way. One of my favorite HBO movies, "Wit," is about a highly respected English professor coping with cancer. In one of the first scenes a doctor is getting her medical/social history and he asks "do you exercise?" She responds affirmatively: "I pace."