THE ALL-BUT-DISSERTATION SURVIVAL GUIDE™
The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide™ focuses on ways to help its readers more readily overcome the roadblocks that often seem to stand in the way of completing the dissertation. It is read throughout the world.
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INSIDE THIS ISSUE - May 23, 2007
May 23, 2007
A Note from the Editor
Tracy Steen, Ph.D.
My mentor in graduate school once told me that one of the biggest predictors of success in academia is the ability to "get it out the door." I've come to understand that getting it out the door means putting ideas on paper and then turning them over to a colleague, mentor, or--gulp--journal editor for feedback.
This week's feature article by Dr. Victoria McGovern provides useful strategies for anyone interested in speeding up the writing process (and getting a chapter out the door). Believe it or not, Dr. McGovern finished her own dissertation in two weeks. She is now a Senior Program Officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (http://www.bwfund.org). Read on and be inspired!
Relax and do it! You cannot overcome the fear without
doing the thing you are afraid of and finding out that it is not as dangerous
as you imagined.
--Howard Becker (from Writing for Social Scientists)
The Three Day Novel, the Two Week Dissertation, and
the Un-numbered Days of Life
By Victoria McGovern, Ph.D.
You're probably scoffing: surely, you can't write a novel in three days. But it's possible--anyone can do it. And if you're reading this today, maybe you will. I used to think writing a novel was a big deal--deep thoughts, long hours, agonizing years at the typewriter. I'd built it up in my mind. A novel seemed so huge.
When I was a graduate student, I was in a long-running fiction critique group. One day we were kidding around while waiting to get started and someone said, "Here's a great contest." Now, that contest was hard: it required you write the shortest short story you could. You might think that's easy, but no. It's really very hard to write without using too many words. I was too busy with my research to take the time to be that brief.
Someone else brought up the three day novel contest, which has been run by a small press in Canada every Labor Day weekend since 1977. I didn't have time to write short, but I thought the idea of a three day novel was funny and I was willing to give it a try. To my friends' surprise and mine, a few weeks later I wrote a novel in three days.
I didn't win, but that's not the point. Like climbing Everest or playing with a Slinky, one enters the three day novel contest just because it's there. But it's daunting, isn't it? How do you even start a novel, much less approach writing so much in such a short time?
Novels start with plots. You can't tell a story--especially one as long as a novel--if you don't know where you're going. But as anyone who's moved from wanting to be a writer to actually writing a lot of words every day can tell you, coming up with a plot is a little terrifying all by itself. How in the world do you come up with a plot?
First, you have to stop being scared. You do know how to make a plot. Everyone beyond age 3 knows the basic bones of a story. Once upon a time, this thing happened. And this thing changed everything. And then after that, life went on, or didn't. The heroes lived happily ever after or everybody died. The End.
You make your characters and you tell a story, but you don't have to do it all at once. It's not a timed test. You can let it stew in the back of your head for a long time. For the three day novel contest, you can plot as long as you like. It's only the putting words on paper that's constrained to those three days.
Think about it as you brush your teeth, on the jogging path, in the shower, as you walk your dog, and during the endless red light right before your turn off--the one that exists solely to make you late. Think about it in the morning, think about it at night, and think about it when you really ought to be thinking about something else. Over time, the parts become real, and then they knock each other into place.
Once you've had a book sitting in your head for a while, sitting there whole after weeks or months of thinking, it is not a hard thing to sit down and write, fairly continuously, for three days. These people and their problem and its solution will have been living with you too long. They can find your way out, and you can make your way to the last page. You can tell a story. You can create life out of nothing. It's worth giving up a weekend.
The Two Week Dissertation
Now, think about your dissertation. Haven't you, for years now, thought about your work, and how it fits into other work, and where the unsanded bits are that don't yet make sense? Writing a dissertation is much easier than writing a novel. For one thing, you're not making up a world from nothing. You're describing reality as your research has shown it to be, even if reality is only defined in your field of study in relationship to some other set of ideas.
When my thesis committee said, "Write up and defend," I took them very seriously. I had been in graduate school long enough. Within two weeks I wrote my dissertation; and once it was distributed to my committee, I scheduled the defense as soon as was allowed, a couple of weeks later.
I've always been a confident writer, but writing a three day novel had boosted my confidence even further. I had been thinking about the introduction and discussion sections of my dissertation for years; and even before I prepared for that happy committee meeting, I was nearly ready to write them.
After the committee meeting, I walked home the long way. I sat on the porch swing and listened to birds singing. I thought about getting my housemates together for a dinner but decided it wasn't time for celebrations yet.
I went inside and cleaned off my door-on-filing-cabinets desk completely, sharpened a whole box of #2 pencils, and sat down with about fifty sheets from a ream of copy paper in front of me. Then I started drawing "mind maps"--synaptic clustering diagrams in which one lays out a big idea and its connection to other ideas big and small.
I am a biochemist. My dissertation focused on one protein, but also depended on other related proteins that played similar or different roles. I enjoyed reading dissertations during graduate school and had come to see them as three act plays. First, the reader is introduced to the characters, our starring protein and the others, and shown how they are related and why there is an interesting biological story to tell here.
Having established the characters and given the reader a précis of
the crisis at hand--the problem these proteins work together to solve--one
can fill the middle with action, using the scientific papers already published
or planned for submission, which serve up each bit of the story as its own
We learn thing one, thing two, thing three and more. A resolution to the problem is proposed and broken. A new model advances, reality tests it, and it stands firm. The conclusion pulls these details together into a whole.
Hope is raised that the new model will hold; challenges are proposed and dealt with; new and bigger challenges are postulated, defined, and left for a sequel. The curtain falls and one turns to find a new doctor has emerged, triumphant.
Ta-da! The crowd goes wild. You thank your mother, your father, your agent, and the academy. The dissertation is a success.
Once you understand the shape of the story your dissertation will tell, you can think about how to write it. The conclusion is the answer to all of the questions raised by the introduction and the midsection. It makes sense to write it first so that you know where you're going.
The introduction presents the real drama of the story your research is telling.
"Here is something that matters," you're saying to the reader. "Listen
closely." It makes sense to write it next, while the words and rhythms
you used to make the dissertation's grand "ta-da!" are still fresh
in your mind.
For dissertations where the center is in the form of papers, those may need to be written separately, since you may tell each of those stories-within-a-dissertation in a different style or with a different focus, depending on the journals where you have published or hope to publish.
I spent two full days--morning, noon, and night--working on the mind map
diagrams of my work. A few hours at the start were spent writing down just
about every fact and model I knew and the connections between them, then much
more time was spent weeding and pruning and straightening out causal arrows.
I could not have done this if I were not so sure of my grasp of the literature
and of my own results. I cannot recommend a better use of your intellectual
free time today, tomorrow, and always than making sure you know your topic
This prep work was as important for writing a dissertation in two weeks as
thorough plotting had been for the three day novel. In graduate school, you
learn many facts and do many lovely experiments and make many observations
of which you may be rightly proud. But not all of them will help the story
that your dissertation is telling. It's better to lay out the pieces and set
aside those that don't help.
Like the three day novel, once I understood the structure of my dissertation
and how the parts fit together, sitting down and writing was straightforward.
I went to my office early one morning and started writing. Every few hours
I'd print what I had written, re-fill my trough of caffeine, and head to the
inexplicable and mostly deserted patio on the roof of a nearby research building.
There I'd commandeer a pool chair, apply a responsible sun block, and read
what I'd written aloud.
People often think I'm kidding when I tell them to read aloud. A dissertation
is a story and an argument. When you hear the words, the gaps in your thinking
are apparent and lazy, fuzzy writing stands out. "Ah, wait
doesn't work--what do I really mean?" I'd think, and then I would pencil
in a new line or move a phrase around to solidify a statement. Then I would
read the passage aloud again.
Sometimes I'd take out whole pages, muttering "pretentious, pretentious,
pretentious." Then I'd go back to the office, make changes to the emerging
draft, break for lunch, and then come back and start writing again.
Two good friends worked close by, and the day I assembled my first draft,
they both got a copy and reviewed it very fast. While they were reading, I
read it aloud again. I reviewed their comments, slept on it, then got up and
did a revision. A couple of days later, I had a much improved second draft,
which they both re-read and offered comments on. I made changes again and
read it aloud, cover to cover, again.
It was almost ready. I gave a copy to my advisor and had another good friend--an
assistant professor in a related field--read it. My friend gave me a fast
and well thought out critique.
My advisor did what advisors do with dissertation drafts: set it aside. I badgered my advisor until he provided some commentary, made one last round of changes, then distributed the dissertation to my committee. A couple of weeks later I defended. And then I lived happily ever after.
The Un-numbered Days of Life
In most fields, people who go to graduate school are not bad at writing.
We've spent our scholastic lives doing well on essay tests and short answers
and developing the skills that allow us to be glib and facile when we need
to be. Often, we're great readers, and that helps.
Novels, dissertations, and eulogies are notoriously hard to write. It's not
so much because the forms themselves are so challenging but because we have
so much to say. It's hard to pick an opening, and there are so many possible
stories to tell, and then closing seems so final.
Sitting down to write feels productive, but it's easy to spend time writing
and get nothing that is of use at all. On the other hand, not sitting
down to write is easy, too. There's always another experiment to do, book
to read, or critic to critique. "Real life" will always call, loved
ones are a font of good excuses, and if one has no loved ones to rely on,
there is always the weather, or fate, or malevolent computers to blame.
But in the end, fiction and scholarship and eulogies are all about a single
thing: making the world understandable. There isn't much time to waste, and
it's a very big, very perplexing world. Time spent thinking hard is rarely
Very short stories, haiku and limericks provide opportunities to focus on and savor and develop the masonry skills required to build things out of words. The language of a dissertation or a novel can likewise be polished to a brilliant luster. But save the polishing for later. First, understand your ideas and how they fit together, then put them down on paper, then decide whether it's more polishing or stepping away from the writing and taking on another task that will bring you greater joy.