Writing a dissertation is well-known to be one of the hardest parts of graduate school. Not only is it something you’ve never done before, it’s a huge project, it’s lonely, and it’s supposed to be your entry into the field.In many ways, it’s your academic debutante ball.
No pressure or anything.
When I was in the middle of writing, my fabulous director collected all of her graduate students and made us read a slim but incredibly useful little book, Eviatar Zaruvabel’s The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books (affiliate link).
Zeruvabel is writing from the perspective of someone who had, at the time of this book’s writing, written some two dozen books. As you might imagine, he had a lot of useful advice for breaking down large, amorphous projects into doable sets of tasks. Two things, in particular, were especially helpful for me.
Kinds of time
Zeruvabel suggests that we all have A, B, and C time.
A time is our best writing and thinking time, the time when we’re freshest, most brilliant, and most able to engage difficult and undetermined tasks. B time is still productive, but it’s not your best time. Maybe you’re a little tired and worn out, maybe you’re distracted. C time is nearly, but not quite useless, the kind of time that can only accomplish well-defined, routine tasks.
Writing tasks, too, fit into the A, B, and C mold. A tasks require synthesis, original thought, and creativity. This may involve brainstorming, writing a guiding outline, or drafting new prose. B tasks still require brainpower, but not as much brilliance or creativity — think reading through the research. C tasks are things like making sure all your sources are right — there’s a right and a wrong answer, and you’re just going through and matching stuff up. It’s boring, but it has to be done.
Zeruvabel’s brilliant suggestion is to first define what time is your A, B, and C time, and then match that time up with A, B, and C tasks. In other words, don’t plan to write new prose when you’re likely to be exhausted, and don’t waste creative thinking time doing low-level, repetitive, boring tasks.
Obvious, once you think about it, but incredibly powerful.
3 pages. And another 3.
The “clockwork” in the title refers to Zeruvabel’s assertion that, in order to write book-length manuscripts, you’ve got to lay down the expectation of divine inspiration and instead rely on regularity.
Now, that’s not to say that inspiration won’t ever hit — but it is to say that keeping on even when it isn’t appearing is the key to getting these kinds of projects accomplished.
Zeruvabel’s strategy for moving forward is simple: Break everything into what amounts to approximately 3-page sections. So, you’d map out Chapter 2 and realize you need to make 3 points. You’d then break each of those 3 points down into smaller and smaller argumentative sections until each bit is likely to be about three pages.
Every time you sit down to write, you take one three-page section and write it without worrying about transitions, beautiful prose, or perfect coherence. All of those things will come — because revising is a sight easier for most of us than getting things on the page to start with. When you’re done, you print it out and add it to the stack on your desk, on the theory that accumulated pages is motivational. (Full disclosure — I didn’t do this part, but your mileage will almost certainly vary.)
His point is that, by the time you’re writing a dissertation, three pages is likely nothing. You’ve been writing response papers and seminar papers and conference papers and who knows what else — all of them significantly longer than three pages. Because of that, it’s just much less daunting to sit down to write three pages than it is to sit down to write a dissertation or even a chapter.
Brilliant, but not a magic elixir.
I honestly think this book is brilliant, but it’s also not going to fix any and every dissertation-writing problem out there. It’s primarily a book to help people who are having trouble getting their hands around a huge and complicated project when they’ve never done a huge and complicated project like this.
It’s not going to help you figure out your topic or your field, and it’s not likely going to help you sidestep things like self-doubt, harsh internal critics, or unhelpful mentors.
But if what’s standing between you and the defense is a crisis of time- or project-management, give this book a whirl — and let me know what you think.