A Mess of Edits

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

December 19, 2012

Over the past six months I've discovered that editing my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dissertation is very similar to confronting an array of ingredients that you must turn into a meal. Sometimes you create something so great that you can tell almost everyone will like it. During other moments you realize you need to modify your concoction before you present it to others. And every so often you know that you need to throw it all away and start over.

I learned how to bake before I learned how to cook. Recipes for baked goods contain a set of measured ingredients, times, and temperatures. The process of kneading bread or scooping cookie dough onto baking sheets is methodical and repetitive, and bakers can wear oven mitts that protect their hands from hot dishes.

Recipes for cooking, by contrast, are more flexible, yet less reliable. If you follow the directions in a baking recipe, your bread or your cookies should resemble the final product. But a myriad of things can go wrong when you cook. There's a greater likelihood, too, that you will burn your fingers with hot pasta water or spitting bacon grease, or that you won't know how to handle one of the ingredients.

The process of writing my dissertation was very much like following a baking recipe. I started each chapter with a set of ingredients (my primary-source quotes), spent a certain amount of time going over them, and then I arranged them into an outline from which I wrote. I combined my primary-source research together with my secondary-source reading, and corralled it into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters—all of which came out looking fairly similar to one another, though some emerged admittedly worse than others.

I recognize that this approach may not work well for other writers because writing, like baking, assumes a certain degree of pre-existent knowledge: Good bakers know to bring their eggs to room temperature, to alter oven temperatures and cooking times for gas versus electric ovens, and to proof yeast with a dash of sugar to really get it going. Yet I've always found that baking is easy. Although I wouldn't say the writing was a stress-free process, I didn't struggle with it because writing has always felt intuitive to me.

Rather than baking, my editing process has resembled cooking. It's proved to be a much messier affair. Edits require time to see things with fresh eyes, and the willingness to add or take away different components. The whole process has, at various times, tempted me to chuck whole chapters into the garbage.

Instead, I've revised, and my experience with cooking has served me well in this respect. I cooked for my four roommates when I was a senior in college. With the exception of one regrettable incident involving purple chicken, I successfully managed to cook edible food that year and since.

As a result of learning to cook for so many people at once, I still sometimes cook enough food to feed a small army. The other night I made an excessive amount of cauliflower and mushroom curry. I wanted something a bit lighter because it was cold outside, and I could foresee a good amount of hearty food in my future. More important, I've entered the home stretch of dissertation editing. Now that I've gotten all of my committee members to settle on a defense date in January, I can't spend each evening cooking because I'm busy editing.

That night, I had decided to try a new recipe. It came out fine. It was reasonably healthy. But by the time I'd finished eating it, I was bored. At the end of the meal I walked back into the kitchen, glanced at the gigantic pile of veggies in my giant frying pan, dumped the whole mess into a plastic container, and planned to deal with it at another time.

A few nights later I tackled the leftovers. I poured the curried vegetables into a bowl, partially mashed them with a potato masher, and threw in some extra garlic, an egg, and a bit of flour. Then I heated my trusty frying pan, and lightly browned my cauliflower and mushroom fritters on each side. I knew I was on to something with the fritters when I nibbled a broken piece of one (a victim of overzealous fritter-flipping), and felt compelled to "accidentally" break off another nugget.

Likewise, I knew my dissertation draft was a mess when I turned it in to my advisers for a preliminary review. I knew I had written too many words that filled up space without doing anything in the way of analytical work. After metaphorically sticking the dissertation draft in the fridge for a bit, I felt ready to look at it again. Just like with the fritters, as I typed up the editing changes I had made on my legal pad and chapter printouts, I found myself nodding along.

Sometimes there's no way to predict when something will taste good—or will read well—but when you reach that point, you just know.

Editing my dissertation has become, in part, an exercise in modification. As with my leftovers, some of the material still eludes my grasp, captures my attention, and makes me want to keep at it until I get it right. In many instances, however, I'm sick of my own prose, my own chapters, and my own arguments. Thus in trying to gain enough distance to edit the thing, I've resorted to comparing it to the food I so love to transform.

I realize that little of this will render itself to other graduate students as transferrable advice. Part of the problem is that editing, like cooking and unlike baking, is not an exact science. Editing presents you with options, and thus, more opportunities to screw it all up. When I cook, I taste as I go, but one wrong ingredient can make the dish irrevocably bad. Anyone who's ever put far too much salt into soup, or overcaramelized onions, knows that some mistakes are not fixable.

Still, I think I've come up with a few rules that have helped me with my editing process.

It's messy. First and foremost, it helps to acknowledge from the start that editing something dear to you is an untidy process that takes more time than you anticipate. My chapter drafts come back to me with my adviser's comments on them. Then I go at them again with my own pen, noting paragraphs that I want to move, adding in footnotes, and reworking sentences. Once I've done all of that on paper, I sit with the hard copy in front of me and transfer the edits to a new computer draft.

Some cooks swear by mise en place, or a set of chopped, diced, and otherwise-prepped ingredients ready to be added one by one. Preparing ingredients ahead of time helps to minimize the chance that you'll let something burn while reaching for the garlic at the last minute. Likewise, I edit with a set list of ingredients as a way of making myself less distractible. I write with a ballpoint pen that won't make my bad handwriting completely indecipherable, and I use a yellow legal pad for additional notes. I turn off my computer and retreat to the couch with my printed draft, where I'm forced to give it a closer read than I otherwise would. I keep my phone with me so that I can do quick fact-checks if necessary, but the small browser window discourages extensive procrastination.

Once I'm at the point where I'm ready to add in edits onscreen, I try to minimize Internet diversions like Twitter and Gchat. And finally, although I wrote my chapters out of order, I've tried to edit them sequentially so that I can draw clearer connections between them.

Some things can't be fixed. I have to admit that some paragraphs defeated me. When you unwittingly decide to marinate chicken in red wine and the whole cutlet turns purple, the dish is beyond salvageable—even if you try to save the situation by smothering everything with a pink cream sauce. Your roommates will bravely eat it the first night, but the next night, people will push to order pizza.

Similarly, some paragraphs of my dissertation were beyond repair, and deserved to be axed. It wasn't their fault that they didn't work—indeed, the fault was mine—but I decided that I didn't have to deal with them if no one else would want to read them.

As I near the finish line, I've realized that in some ways, completing a dissertation is very much like deciding to stop eating like a graduate student. A thrifty graduate student saves all of her leftovers, and forces herself to keep them in the fridge until she has eaten every last piece of that enormous casserole of spinach-and-mushroom bread pudding.

An almost-Ph.D., however, knows that it's OK to pitch a paragraph or five, and to concede that the dissertation is, at its heart, the appetizer to a multicourse meal.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin and a predoctoral fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University.