My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation

Brian Taylor

April 08, 2012

I am the proud owner of a nearly finished first draft of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dissertation. When I started writing, I realized that I couldn't aim for perfection because perfection would paralyze me. I don't know that I've been aiming for terrible, but letting go of the idea that my first draft had to be brilliant has helped me put a lot of words on my computer screen.

There's a lot of contradictory writing advice out there. Some people say write every day until you reach a certain word count or until you've written for a set amount of time. Some people say they work best when they write everything all at once, usually looking down the barrel at a looming deadline.

I go back and forth. When I'm working on a chapter, I try to write every day. I also have bits and pieces of my dissertation that I've been adding to in fits of insomnia and post-jogging moments of insight. And I've also taken a week off here and there, when I've done a bit of thinking, but no writing at all.

You learn pretty quickly that people go through graduate school at different rates, and for different reasons. That variability is part of the reason that it's a bad idea to abide by someone else's dictum that you must write 2,000 words a day.

The best lesson I've learned about writing in general is that you need to figure out what works for you—not for other graduate students or even for your adviser—and stick to that schedule. But you also need to regularly re-evaluate what work styles make sense because your writing habits might change drastically over the course of a few months.

As a longtime procrastinator, I've found that my fail-safe method for putting words onscreen is to trick myself into writing with externally imposed deadlines. I take tasks like grant writing and conference-going, and force them to be part of my dissertation, whether they like it or not.

I work backward. I'll submit an abstract to a conference based on a chapter I haven't written, so that if the paper gets accepted, I have a future deadline. Once the proposal gets accepted, I'm forced to write a draft of the chapter, which usually clocks in at an unwieldy number of pages. At that point I'll usually check my calendar and discover that I have a grant application due that requires a writing sample. Suddenly, my chapter must become 25 pages. The writing sample emerges, along with my actual discovery of the argument I was inelegantly articulating. After that, it is a slightly easier task to edit the chapter because I know how it ends.

Once I have a better sense of my argument, it's a fairly simple matter to chop the chapter in half for the conference presentation. Usually, I am in the midst of this process with two or three chapters at once because different conferences and grant proposals require tailored abstracts and writing samples.

Sometimes I must coax myself into writing, but I also try to make it easy to record my ideas when I feel inspired. Perhaps because I was a swimmer in college, and accustomed to thinking with my head underwater, I experience a lot of my big dissertation epiphanies when I'm in the shower or walking in the rain. I haven't found a solution that doesn't involve writing on my bathroom mirror, but I do try to keep little notepads everywhere. I also have a writing application on my smartphone, with different labels for different chapters.

Having informal methods for recording your ideas also makes it less necessary for every thought to take the shape of a coherent, beautiful sentence. When you keep your ideas in many places and then sit down and put them all into one document, you'll be surprised by how much you've said already.

Don't think of the dissertation as a whole. I found that the best way to get around the idea of The Dissertation was to deliberately write it out of order. That strategy worked for me because my dissertation comprises a number of case studies. It relieved a lot of pressure on me to break off a chunk of ideas and think of them on their own terms.

Sometimes, I find that I have to home in on an even smaller area: a paragraph or a page. When I'm writing I keep a separate document open that I call "Drafting Board," and I'll periodically take a paragraph out of my dissertation and isolate it on my Drafting Board. When it's there, I don't have to think about the surrounding text or footnotes, and the activity of mentally putting blinders on myself makes me feel less compelled to reread the surrounding lines. Once I like the way the words look, I'll paste them back into the chapter; it feels nice knowing that there's at least one paragraph in there that I like.

If you can't tell someone how a particular idea or paragraph fits in when they ask, consider removing it to the Drafting Board. The words will still be there in case you decide to resurrect them, but they're not distracting you when you read through the ideas you're working on.

I have Drafting Boards for each of my chapters and think of the boards as graveyards for abandoned paragraphs. I suppose that tendency is rather morbid, but it's possible that those paragraphs will rise again in another life.

Writing out of order was especially pertinent to my introduction. I couldn't start my dissertation by writing the introduction—even the first page of it—because I would have never begun. I have created a document to house the first draft of my introduction, but I usually keep it closed, and add to it every now and then, when a particular sentence doesn't fit into the chapter I'm working on, or when an idea is so big that I just know it needs to come at the beginning.

Of course, there are pitfalls to writing out of order. I'm still thinking about how, exactly, my chapters are connected to each other. Sometimes I spend too much time on a footnote, paragraph, page, or section that doesn't make it into the dissertation in the end. I also had a severely panicked two-hour period where I convinced myself that I needed to learn Dutch.

I've discovered that I'm one of those people who has to put every single thought I've ever had onto my computer screen before I can take some of those thoughts away.

The tendency to overwrite means that editing is really key for my work. During the editing process, I figure out how my chapters flow. I also elaborate on the points I haven't made clear enough and look for things I've overexplained. I may or may not read my prose aloud using different accents so that I can fool myself into thinking that the words belong to someone else. (I have my aunt, uncle, and cousins to thank for my plausible Oklahoman imitation.)

I've learned that I have to chart my progress, so that I can articulate my work for my adviser, for grant committees, and for the not-so-minor purpose of maintaining my sanity. But, and this is important, the way I measure my progress changes depending on what I'm doing.

When I start to write a chapter, I measure my progress by my daily word count. Of course every now and then I'll have a day where I spend hours wrestling with one small but essential footnote, and on that day my chapter barely grows. So I've figured out my average daily word count over the course of a week, I aim for that count each day, and I don't beat myself up if I don't reach it.

When I'm editing, it doesn't make sense to use word count as an evaluation tool. I'm inevitably cutting words as I edit because I'm a wordy writer—a professor once described me as "a comma person." While I edit I evaluate my progress by the somewhat amorphous idea of how well my sentences flow and how awesome my footnotes look. I've had to figure out how to describe my improvement and reward myself for victories on my terms. Ice cream is usually involved.

If you follow any of this advice, you'll produce a lot of bad writing. The next terrifying step is to let people read it. You can present at conferences and give informal presentations, but at some point you need to actually let people see a rough draft. Send your dissertation draft to your adviser, and send each chapter to one or two additional committee members who know a lot about the chapter topic.

Don't wait to hear back from them; just start on the next chapter. Once they do respond, take their advice under serious consideration. Having multiple people respond to a piece can be helpful in really figuring out which ideas stick and which ones need to be reworked.

The downfall of any how-to advice on writing is that it won't necessarily help you write a brilliant dissertation. In fact, I suspect that following my own advice has helped me to write a very ugly dissertation. But you know what? It's a whole first draft.

And it's much easier to edit a terrible dissertation than it is to edit a nonexistent perfect one.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin and a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.