Writing a dissertation is hard. Actually, I guess writing anything well is hard. It’s even harder when you end up having to take a month or so off from writing, and even harder when you still don’t exactly know what you’re supposed to be writing specifically. I feel as though I’m just getting back in the swing of things (even though this “swing” is still sad more frequently than I care to admit), but it has been incredibly difficult finding my way with dissertation writing these days.

A big, fat mess of stuff

A big, fat mess of stuff

I’ve been paralyzed by the General Mess that is all the stuff I’ve already written. I was really encouraged when I decided to go through what I’ve written thus far because there was quite a bit of it. And that encouragement lasted for like a second, because then I realized how much work it will be to make ANY of those many pages make any sense. I worked on eight pages last night, so I guess that’s a start, but it looks like I’m back to eating elephants.

Writing a dissertation is harder than it sounds

I’ve mentioned how strange it is that I don’t have any travel scheduled in the immediate future, but also how this means that I have a rather large task ahead of me. After being in grad school (PhD version) nearly six years, there’s only One Big (school) Thing left for me to do: Write a Dissertation (granted, this One Big Things involves a bunch of Little Things along the way). I wrote the prospectus; collected more data than I ever imagined I could; and I’ve free-written about twenty pages on varying and vast topics related to Bloodshot Records.

I met with Advisor recently, and to the surprise of no one, she demanded we decided that I would write a draft of a chapter by the end of May. This is wholly reasonable and completely do-able. However, this Writing a Chapter thing means I’m officially tackling the Writing the Dissertation thing. However, I know I can’t think of it in quite that way… because the procrastinator in me says, “Hey, that’s a huge project. There’s no way you can do that today. You have plenty of time to do that later. You should go shopping instead.” Really. True story.

Athens, GA has plenty of lovely locations appropriate for writing time...

Athens, GA has plenty of lovely locations appropriate for writing time…

So to try and combat this, I’m blogging about it I’ve set aside three regular writing blocks in my week outside of my home (and yes, I know, I should be writing daily, but baby steps, OK?). The goal is to really treat these times as sacrosanct, and even if I’m not terribly productive during these times, at least I’ll know I’m thinking about my project on a regular basis. And also, I (hopefully) won’t feel (too) guilty all the rest of the time if/when I’m not writing/thinking about the project.

To date, my first few writing-a-chapter-writing-sessions have been less than productive, as I’ve spent a great deal of time waffling about which chapter and what content to tackle first (recall I made up some chapter projections in the prospectus). This is, of course, necessary work, but now it’s time to just write. Something. Anything. And then go from there.

We’ll see how this goes. I have a feeling there will be many posts here of me saying the same thing; that writing the dissertation or writing a chapter is hard. But even so, hopefully there will also be progress.

Deadlines and Procrastinating

One of the principles that we emphasize in the writing program that I work for is the importance of the writing process. Most inexperienced writers (often undergraduate students) are either ignorant of this process or lack the motivation to engage this process, cf. “writing a paper” at 2:00 a.m. the night before it’s due.

One way that we try to get around this happening in our writing classes is to mandate drafts. That is, we require students to turn in at least one draft prior to the final paper is due. That way, if the 2:00 a.m. thing is the first attempt, they’ll get some constructive feedback from their TA, and the student (hopefully) re-considers and seriously revises the 2:00 a.m. thing (at least) one more time before the final paper is due.

As a professional procrastinator, I have written many, many “papers” at this hour and even later. Thankfully, through luck and happenstance, this has worked out fairly well for me, though I cringe at the thought of the majority of writing I’ve turned in. Even at this professional level, I still need requirements and deadlines to encourage my engagement with the writing process… like right now. I’m presenting at a conference next weekend. It’s a (serious) revision of a paper I’ve presented previously, so a percentage of the work has already been done… but there’s still quite a bit to do.

And so, I’d like to take this time to thank the panel moderator for requesting a copy of the paper in advance. Even though the moderator asked to have the paper earlier this week, at least they’ll have it more than a week in advance, and now I won’t be spending time on the plane trying to make serious revisions to the paper.*

*However, it’s highly likely I will be obsessively tweaking the paper the entire time leading up to the presentation.

One Sentence Conquered!

It was down to One Sentence. And after waiting, and waiting, and busying myself with all kinds of Other Academic Tasks that are not necessarily related to obtaining a degree, I mastered that sentence. Or at least came up with a sentence that Advisor approved. Now, the Prospectus is en route to the Grad School (by way of the Grad Coordinator Assistant in the School of Music)!

Just in case my last post on this whole process didn’t convince you, I revised the Prospectus. A lot. Here’s a small sample of some (but not all) of the different versions of the prospectus:

As the Prospectus is in transit, apparently, I, too, am moving… into the “writing” stage. To be clear, I have no idea about all that and what it really means. But for now, I shall be glad that one more item is checked off the Trying to Get a PhD list. Rejoice amain!

Happy Friday, y’all!

Remember when…

Remember that one time I wrote my prosectus? Yeah, me too! Didn’t it seem like it took forever?!? I know, right? And I’m so glad is ov… but, er, well, I’m still not quite finished with that.

Last night I sent what *could* be the final draft of the prospectus to Advisor. It was down to One Sentence, and I’m hoping that One Sentence will do its job. This is, of course, a process that has lasted at least six months, and that’s only counting the part when I was attempting to type words into a word processing software.

This process is often hidden. While everyone knows writing a book (or book length project) takes time, few realize the process of such a project. Part of my assistantship is to go through all of the course evaluations completed by undergraduate students who have taken our writing courses. Overall, our numbers are overwhelmingly positive, and students greatly appreciate help with their writing.  But there are always a few that are negative, idiotic, or even shockingly hostile. I’ve done this for three semesters now, and my absolute favorite comments (from a second or third year undergrad, mind you) go something like this: “I already know how to write, so this class was a waste of my time,” or “I’m a pretty good writer and I don’t think [TA’s] feedback was helpful.” Really? Isn’t that precious?

To such comments, I reply:

Once upon a time, I struggled to start writing a prospectus. And then, I wrote a version of it, and revised it. And added to that and came up with a complete draft. And revised some more. And even more. And, well, you get the idea. Then, I sent it to my committee. And then, I even Defended the Prospectus! Hooray!!!

Oh, but wait. I then revised three sections again. And revised them again. And then revised two of them. And again. And then one of them yet again. And again. And then it came down to the One Sentence.

So, bless your heart, dear student, bless your heart. It’s possible you Really Do Know How to Write. I used to think that, too. But I have a feeling that we’re all just beginning to get the idea of Knowing How to Write.

What I know is that this six-month writing process has been Really Really Hard. And once I’m assured that One Sentence is serviceable, I will reflect on how this process has been so rewarding and satisfying, etc.

But until then, I think it is wise to not hold my breath.

A blog post to accompany an updated prospectus

Writing direct and clear academic prose can be quite difficult sometimes, ok, most of the time. I’ve had a terrible time adding changes to the prospectus. New content that I’ve tried to add only adds more confusion, rather than the intended (and required) clarity.

Advisor suggested I start with the chapter projections for major changes and updates, and I did. And it was challenging, to say the least. As I transition to thinking of this as a series of research essays that I will write rather than an abstract set of ideas, I’ve had to begin thinking of each chapter as at least somewhat thesis driven. This is, of course, something I should know about. Of course, the next step was to chunk the research questions, which affected the methodology, which… well, you get the idea.

I just sent Advisor the updated draft, and it took much longer than I expected or desired to get it to a “send-able” state. Despite what inexperienced academic writers (sometimes known as undergrads, but not always) would have you believe, churning out a “paper” at 2 a.m. the evening/morning before it’s due is not, in fact, writing (really, I should know, I mastered this practice in the earlier parts of my academic career). Instead, writing is a process, at times grueling and painful, and at times highly rewarding and satisfying. These things are not mutually exclusive.

But it’s always messy at some point. Drafting/revising/drafting/revising is not neat, and often needs to be a mess before anything meaningful can come of it. It would be hyperbole to say that this most recent part of the process was “grueling,” but it was incredibly messy.

Now, we wait and see what happens in the phone date tomorrow!