a straw poll of sorts

13May10

One aspect of the fallout from my six months and counting of hell is that now my writing and research methods have come into question. Not directly, per se, but there is clearly some miscommunication. My advisor thinks I’m at a stage where I should be producing pages of written prose each day. I’m at a stage where I’m doing a lot of reading of the sources so I’m taking tons of notes, some of which are in the form of written paragraphs, others are quotations I’ve pulled out from the documents, chronological lists, statistical data, and brief descriptions of sections I’m skipping for now but can easily find later if they prove relevant. Once I’ve gone through that, I’ll be able to write the chapter pretty quickly but until that happens, I don’t have “written prose” worth turning in.

So my question to my readers is this: how have you balanced the elements of research and writing? Are you producing written prose every day? Are you reading sources for a while and then sitting down to write a chapter? If you had to produce chunks of writing or pieces of chapters (let’s say between 10 and 15 pages) every few weeks, would that help or hinder your work?

I’m a historian so I expect historians may have more to contribute but I’d love to hear from people in other disciplines as well.

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3 Responses to “a straw poll of sorts”

  1. 1 Deborah

    Having finally gotten to the end of the dissertation (defended just over a month ago!), I can honestly say that the advice to “write a little every day” did not work for me. I know it’s good advice for some people, and some would never get anything done without that discipline, but I did not write every day throughout the whole process and was certainly not producing 10-15 page chunks every few weeks. I would read for months at a stretch, take notes, sketch out ideas, and then, when I felt ready, write intensively for a few weeks. I wrote the last 125 pages in a period of about 2 months last fall.

    I don’t know if it matters much that I’m in English rather than history, but I think if my director had forced me to turn in short chunks every few weeks, the quality would have been poorer, and I would have ended up doing a lot more revising than I did. I like to have read enough sources to have a sense of my full argument and the shape and scope of the entire chapter before I start writing it. Once I have that sense, the writing goes very quickly for me — it’s painfully slow if I start prematurely, as I did when I was writing my first chapter and trying to follow the “fifteen minutes a day” advice.

  2. 2 Flavia

    Okay, first of all, people have incredibly different working and writing methods, and any advisor who doesn’t understand that — who thinks that his/her method is the right or only one — is full of shit.

    When I’m writing or revising, I do indeed try to write/revise every day. During my dissertating, it was 3 pages a day. Didn’t have to be good pages, but they had to happen. That was crucial: I’m a hundreds-of-drafts kind of writer, and I obsess over sentences, so I really do have to force myself to just put shit on the page, and not look back until I’ve written 40 pages and have run out of steam. Then I’ll revise, and revise, and revise. It’s usually at least 4-5 drafts before it’s worth showing to anyone.

    But there are still periods when I’m just reading, taking notes, and gathering information. I’m not an amass-all-knowledge-first person, and often I interrupt my writing to go back and spend a few days or weeks just reading, but they aren’t concurrent activities, usually. I’m researching, or I’m writing. Not both at once.

    My ex worked very differently: he DID amass all the information he needed first. He read and read and read, and then thought and thought and thought. He’d spend weeks literally doing nothing but pacing and thinking. And then he’d suddenly sit down and write a 50-page chapter in four days, and it would be pretty damn great. Not perfect, but really lucid and smart and worth showing to anyone. I envied him that, but I think he envied me some of my methods, too.

    The important things are to a) figure out how you work best, and b) do some kind of work every day, or as close to every day as possible. I hope your advisor would be ameanable to some arrangement other than the regular-chunks-of-prose one.

    I’m sorry it sounds like you and your advisor are in such a bad place. I’ve been there. But grad school does end, and at some point this will be just a grim — and then, surprisingly, not so grim — memory. Good luck in the meanwhile.

  3. When I was in grad school, I also had trouble wrapping my head around the “write every day” thing. “But I don’t know anything yet!” I’d spend weeks or months going through the documents and reading articles, without producing so much as a single paragraph.

    I’m not sure how grad-student me would have done otherwise at the beginning, but the disadvantage of this method, in retrospect, is that there will ALWAYS be one more book or article to read, one more set of documents to pore over. You will never know “enough.” At some point, you just have to write; your professors may just be trying to make sure that that point doesn’t get delayed too long. And you probably already know more than you think you do.

    UNSOLICITED ADVICE FOLLOWS: One thing you might try doing is starting the morning (or whenever your creative time is) with a bit of freewriting, based on what you read or researched the day before. Give yourself permission to write absolute crap, full of square-bracketed notes to yourself where you have a gap. (My friend refers to this as the “verbal vomit” stage.) No one will ever see it in this form, but it can turn into the skeleton of something more presentable. In the meantime, you can at least report to your professors that “I roughed out two pages a day last week — really rough right now, though. I’ll be filling them in over the next [X] weeks.” More importantly, you can report progress to yourself.

    (btw, I’m starting a new project where I *really* know little to nothing, so we’ll see how well I follow my own advice…)


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