Monday, June 22, 2009

An open letter to my dissertators

Dear dissertation-writer,

Congratulations on having passed your exams. Now let's talk about the next stage. In it, three huge monsters await you, and I want you to know about them in advance so that you can recognize (and avoid) them when they rear their ugly heads. These are the monsters of inspiration, extended uninterrupted time, and additional reading.

Don't wait for inspiration or for huge blocks of time; set aside time (however brief) for writing every day, and during that time, write. Write even if it sounds stupid or off the mark as you write. Don't spend that time reading, checking your email, or making a fresh cup of tea.

And don't tell yourself that you can't write until you've read some more. Instead, write provisionally. Set aside reading time, too, and as you read, you can expand or correct what you've already written. But never read at the expense of writing. "I have to read some more first" is the oldest I'm-scared-to-write dodge in the academic universe.

Now let's get down to what you're actually writing. You and I both want your dissertation to be highly cohesive and gracefully written. The more important of these, though, is cohesion. Hence as you draft, cohesion is the thing you should attend to first. Worry about grace as you revise. And if you have to sacrifice one or the other, put the knife to grace and keep the cohesion.

To achieve cohesion,
  1. Your introduction should overview the argument of the entire dissertation and do so concisely;
  2. The introduction should not only summarize each chapter but should make wildly clear how that chapter contributes to the overall argument;
  3. The beginning of each chapter should be explicit about what the chapter will do;
  4. The beginning of each chapter should make clear how the chapter contributes to the overall argument of the dissertation;
  5. The beginning of each chapter should be explicit about how this chapter connects back to the one before it;
  6. Throughout the body of each chapter, readers should have no chance of losing sight of what the argument is and how what they're reading contributes to that argument;
  7. The conclusion to each chapter should point to the next, so that one chapter flows logically into another.
If doing this makes your prose sound clumsy as you do it, go ahead and do it anyway. As you revise, we'll talk about how to smooth it out. It's also possible that you're thinking this is heinously formulaic, bound to squeeze all the life out of your prose. Trust me: you can be creative and still make life easy on your readers. This is a dissertation, not a mystery novel.

And if you're wondering how to do this cohesion thang when you're not actually sure how the next chapter will actually unfold: For cat's sake, write an abstract of your whole dissertation and one for each chapter. Write 300 words for the whole diss and 150 words for each chapter. Print them out and pin them to your wall. Don't let yourself spend more than 3 hours total on the first draft of these abstracts. It's just a draft. Then every time your ideas move forward a little, revise them. Always have an up-to-date draft of your dissertation and chapter abstracts; these are the axle grease of the drafting vehicle.

Another thing to note: A dissertation is an argument; it is not a transparent reporting of data. Your argument should be with scholars to whom you accord respect, even as you expand their work, point to new directions, or disagree with them.

And finally: When you send me drafts, make sure I have a list of the works you're citing. Maybe it would be useful to keep your working bibliography on Google Docs (despite all the formatting glitches) and give me permission to see the document. If I don't know who the "Miller" is that you're citing in Chapter 79 (heh heh), I'm going to have a hard time helping you develop your ideas.


Your Beloved Director, she who knows that finally what you write will be quite brilliant. But brilliance comes from steady, focused work, and the faith to allow yourself to produce first- or even second-draft dross.


Collin said...

If I had to pick a #4, it would be about formatting. More and more, I'm inclined to ask for page-numbered pdfs that have been formatted (font, margins, et al) according to grad school regs.

The only exception to this is if I'm doing a track changes response. If I'm printing it out, and typing comments, it's vital to have shared page references that don't depend on particular font size or software quirks.


Tamika said...

Thank you for this, and thank you for coming back to the blogosphere. You've been missed.

ChrisG said...

Although I am not one of your dissertators, this is great advice. I especially salute that part about not waiting for those blocks of time. I'm finally realizing that those blocks are never going to come again. I like Collin's idea too. It's easier to be formatted from the beginning than to try to re-format later.