Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Calling all (current and former) dissertators

Today I officially start writing my first chapter. Okay, it will actually end up being Chapter Six in the dissertation itself, but I apparently feel the need to write this thing in reverse order. (Except for the fact that the introduction is all but written, in pieces here and there.) But it's the first chapter that I'm attempting to write.

And I've been trying to figure out my plan of attack. When I wrote my MA thesis, I treated each chapter as if I was writing a 25-30 page essay, although since the whole thing was fewer than 100 pages long (with a considerably smaller body of source material), I could keep track of it all as if it was also one work. This time, it's overwhelming me a little. I have so much research material, and it's not all carefully separated according to chapter, and I've been collecting this stuff for more than a year now. I guess it's also a little overwhelming because most of the research is on my computer, which is new for me. I'm used to having a little stack of books beside me, with little bookmarks in them, and having few enough sources that in my head I can keep track of who said what. That's not possible now (and wasn't really possible when I was writing my MA thesis, meaning that I spent hours upon hours searching books trying to track down and vaguely-remembered-and-noted quotation; this is why I now have my OneNote system.)

So, I'm feeling a little intimidated by it all. What do/did you do? What worked/s for you? How do I break this down into manageable pieces without losing sight of the work as a whole?

(I mostly know how to handle the other anxieties and guilt feelings, especially the infamous "You're in the second semester of your fifth year, and you're JUST starting to write a chapter now, and your friends are getting through this faster, and no one is ever going to want to hire you" self-sabotaging thoughts.)


Janice said...

What worked for me was to start in the middle of things. I was at the Huntington Library on a Dissertation Fellowship so feeling the pressure to produce something. I started with one text I was examining and wanted to explicate. From that point on, mornings were for dissertation writing and afternoons for tracking down material or transcribing sources for later dissertating.

You're right that things aren't set in stone in a dissertation that you'll use them only in one place. On the other hand, think how blessed we are compared to my father's generation when the dissertations were hand-drafted, literally cut-and-pasted before finally being typed out!

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Thanks for that advice, Janice! I like the idea of splitting the day between time for writing and time for dealing with the sources.

And I'm so thankful for computers. I've heard stories about my uncle working on his MA thesis in the 1970s, and how my aunt would have to re-type everything every time his supervisor would suggest any revisions. So thankful for figurative cut-and-paste!

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I Janice's idea for time allocation during the day is a good thing. Make sure you take a decent break in the middle, get out of the house etc.. then do some time in the afternoon.

Since I'm (knock on wood) almost done, I'll give you a few ideas that might have helped me..

-- Starting with one chapter, especially an end (or middle) chapter is probably a good idea. I did this, and it helped me see where the thing was going.

-- Keep a working version of your outline handy. It may be incomplete, it may change, but keep it handy.

-- As you go, use the margin comments function in Word to make notes about the chapter you are working on AND how it may relate to other chapters. Also, don't be afraid of writing comments like "deal with __ later". Some things you need more perspective to decide.

-- Know that at the end you'll have a couple of rounds (at least) of reading the whole thing and making it seem more unified than 6 separate papers all in a pile.

I have a relatively low number of sources -- because I'm in philosophy and, according to hubby, we "just make it up" -- but, it seems like you could have some kind of notecard system to keep track of the stuff you include. If you make a card with minimal reference info -- and when you are done with a chapter, summarize how you used that source, you won't have to dig back into chapters to figure it out. Instead, you can look at your pile of note cards.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

ItPF: That margin comments idea is brilliant. I've been trying to find some way to keep track of those sorts of asides, since I make them a lot and sometimes fear I'll lose track of them if I just put them in square brackets or highlight them.

And the funny thing is that OneNote is doing the virtual version of the stack of note cards. I just went through my sources and I'm feeling less worried about that now. I was able to search through OneNote, finding stuff related to my chapter, quite easily.

Keri said...

What worked for me was to work on all the chapters at once. Seriously. I had a document for each chapter and most days I had them all open at once (just minimized on my computer screen).

As I read something important I wanted to reference I'd go to that chapter and put a little note in -- often something like: "Smith makes a good point about why cats look funny in hats in his book, Cats in Hats, see esp. p.3"

I'd do the same with brainstorming -- you know when you get a great idea at 2am?? So, I'd go to the relevant chapter and type out something like "oooh...I think maybe there is a correlation between people dressing up their cats and the weather. Expand on this."

Basically, for quite a while my chapter documents were a mish mash of important points in books, half-baked ideas and things to follow up on. I'd then slowly pick away at those things. It really wasn't that intimidating as I didn't often see the big picture, just lots of little details to expand on.

I'd highlight stuff I had to come back to, and let me tell you, for months my document was almost exclusively multi-coloured. As I finished each task I'd take the highlighting off. I'll never forget the day I finished my first full draft. I hadn't planned to. I just realized that I'd run out of highlighted patches. I called my advisor in shock to tell her I had a draft.

This method may sound chaotic, but it worked very well for me.

Good luck!!

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Keri: At first my eyes got really wide. "ALL the chapters at once!?" But your method makes sense to me; I've been doing a lot of this already, in my OneNote notes on the chapters (and, oddly enough, in a real notebook where I do all my brainstorming when I get stuck and can't look at a computer screen anymore). I think I'll start a Word document for each chapter right away.

But, at the same time, I think right now I have to place my primary focus on a single chapter at a time, because I've been getting overwhelmed with the big picture. I think I need to focus on the small for a while, and then move back to the big.

Such good ideas!

Anonymous said...


Please tell me about this OneNote thing!!! I'm not doing a dissertation, but I AM in the early part of the writing stage of my master's thesis1 I'd ask you tomorrow at the first meeting of the Grad Christian study, but now I can't come!

One of the profs in music here has often said "write in the morning, research and read in the afternoon and evening." This is really similar to Janice's advice — something that I'm desperately trying to do. Unsuccessfully. Writing has always happened in the evenings for me, even though I hate that!

Glad I found your blog,

Ky's bus friend

Queen of West Procrastination said...

eventhere: Ky's bus friend! I didn't know you had a blog! I'll be bookmarking it right away. That's too bad you can't make it tomorrow. (I hope you can come other weeks?)

Microsoft OneNote came with my version of Office 2007. (My MA supervisor had actually recommended the program before, and then I happened to get it with my new version of Office. It organizes your work and personal notes and things into notebooks, then folders, then pages and subpages, which you can easily navigate between, and then makes your notes searchable. (It also has some half-way-decent text recognition, and so I insert picture documents into the pages as well.)

I think Linked Notes is a similar free version, but it doesn't have all the functionality of OneNote.

The History Enthusiast said...

It's super late here, but this is what I thought might be useful to you:

1) NEVER compare yourself or your writing habits to anyone else, because that invariably will make you feel inferior or whatever. I rarely succeed at following my own advice, but I promise this will make your life easier.

2) Start with whichever chapter makes you comfortable, so if that's a later chapter, go for it. Come up with a very, very detailed outline. I list each point and then all the sources that can support it, even if I won't use them all. For instance, under A.2.a. "slave ownership as a sign of wealth" I will put Cohen p. 2, NYT article 1/12/1859, or whatever shorthand I have for each source. This means that outlining takes frickin' forever, but then I don't have to worry about keeping track of so many things during the actual drafting process. It can take me crap loads of time to outline, but that doesn't *feel* like writing so I don't mind as much.

3) Related to #2: I pull out all my sources (usually typed notes from books and photocopies) and put them into those expandable folders with the accordion bottoms, color coded by type. So, all the newspaper articles are in the blue folder, the probate records in the green, etc. That way when I see a shorthand notation on my outline I know which folder to sift through to find that source. When I no longer need a source, I put it in a pile of materials "to be filed" and my accordion folders gradually get less full as I make more and more progress on that chapter. This may be a convoluted and unhelpful explanation, but take it and use it if you think it might serve you well.

4) Before I really knew where I was going, and before I felt ready to do "real" writing, I just opened Word files with topical names. So, I'd name a file "Sections on Emigration" or whatever, and then I'd just write a bit about emigration that would end up in the dissertation at some point, though I didn't know where. Then, when I started composing real chapters and picked up steam, I could just go to one of those topical files and pull the examples I'd already found (and of course, those already had the footnotes too).

5) If you can organize your dissertation as a series of topical essays, that is a great way to keep from being overwhelmed. Mine is more of a traditional narrative where I progress from the 1820s to the 1860s, but I really wish I had done something more topical. That said, even in my own work, seeing each chapter as a separate entity has helped me avoid some anxiety.

It is almost 3am here and so if this is rambling, I apologize! Best of luck with it!

The History Enthusiast said...

P.S. Whether you use the comment feature or just bracket stuff, both of those are great options for leaving notes. It is really important to keep track of anything that pops into your head, so you could even consider keeping a special diss journal. That's where I put random notes to myself that don't fit anywhere in the actual text but that are super important. I also whine to myself in my journal, so the navel gazing aspect is useful too.

P.P.S. QoWP, you should stick with the system you already know, but I would like to mention to your friend that Zotero is free and super duper easy to use. It is an add on for Firefox that can keep your bibliographic information neatly organized.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

History Enthusiast: Thanks for all those suggestions! I have Zotero as well, although I'm finding myself incompetent with it and constantly tempted to keep with manual footnotes. I think I need to sit down with my friend from my department who is nearly finished (and used Zotero), and get a lessons on how to use it properly.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I'm liking all this advice!
I'm super old school right now... which is funny 'cause I'm so early in my research life!

I have the colour accordion bottomed folders - they helped me organize my comp exams. For my thesis I'm instead keeping everything in binders. All my primary sources by Wagner are in one, and then all my secondary sources are being filed alphabetically (those lovely alphabet dividers) by author. This binder includes articles, photocopied book chapters, and hand written notes from books. (I can't seem to shake my need to hand write these notes and I really can't figure out/decide if it's necessary to keep digital (and search-able) notes.

I know my thesis is shorter, but I've decided to do the OPPOSITE as most of these people are suggesting... I'm working on the chapter that I'm least comfortable with first. I spent one weekend just writing in a "puke on the paper" style (as my friend so eloquently puts it). It's bad... but now I can edit and change and such. I'm saving my "favourite" chapters for last...

Please do read and comment at my blog. I'll warn you - it is sporadic both in content and frequency of posts! (Also, I'm now teaching at that time weekly, so I can only do the social events.)