[I'm reposting this entry from a week or two ago on this new site, now that I've finally settled on what I'd like my online presence to look like for the next few years. The chapter in question is now complete, and in my supervisor's hands. I'll have more thoughts about the writing process, as well as the process of beginning to work on the next chapter, very soon!]
This summer, I’ve started to write my first dissertation chapter (it will actually turn out to be chapter two of the document, or even chapter three). I tried setting a daily writing regimen, which required me to produce 500 words per day. I’ve mostly sustained that pace from mid-May to last week. I think it’s been fairly successful so far—the nascent chapter has grown from an initial, 3,000-word conference paper into, at it’s apex, more than 17,000 words (plus significant footnotes). Now that I’ve gotten many of my thoughts out, I’ve started to trim, revise, and focus in on passages that need more attention. I’ve got a few initial thoughts on writing daily, below.
Note: when I say “daily,” I mean working days. Holidays and weekends don’t count — any work done on those days is simply a bonus. (It’s probably sort of sick that I think that, but welcome to academia).
1. The pace is rigorous, but not unsustainable. I’ve gotten a significant amount done, and I don’t feel too burnt out. 500 words turns into significant progress each day, but it also sets achievable milestones, so I’ve been able to remain enthusiastic that I am, in fact, moving forward, rather than simply going to my office and throwing myself up against an immovable wall a few hours a day.
2. Numerical goals have helped to stop the dissertation from taking over my life. As I said, 500 words is significant — it takes, at minimum, an hour for me to get 500 good words out, and more if I’m also reading, making diagrams, or puzzling through difficult portions. But, having a goal for the day helps me to pack up at night and feel satisfied that I got something substantive done. I don’t feel the need to cram all night like I did while studying for exams, or sit with the laptop fruitlessly open on my lap all evening to make myself feel like I’m getting *something* done, like I did during my master’s degree, before I had really figured out how to work efficiently.
3. That said, words are not necessarily the *best* way to measure progress. My master’s advisor drilled me pretty hard with the idea that length = depth and quality, a lesson which I’ve been working to at least partially unlearn. I also don’t like to distinguish between the process of research and the process of writing—they both happen simultaneously for me. I can’t really set aside a day for reading alone without going crazy. As a colleague of mine says, “If you’re not writing, you’re not thinking.” However, the pressure to produce each day does make my reading necessarily faster and more superficial, and nearly all of my writing sessions are interrupted with return visits to texts I’ve been looking at. This is one aspect of the process I’ll be re-visiting once I turn to the next chapter.
4. Along those same lines, a simple daily word goal doesn’t help to structure the workflow much. Sitting down to add 500 words to a document that’s already 40 or 50 pages can be pretty daunting, and it’s easy to feel disoriented, to flail helplessly, to lavish attention on sections that I enjoy working on, and avoid those that I don’t. For the next chapter, I’ll need a workflow that directs my attention more. I had this problem while studying for generals as well. My best laid plans (i.e., “I’m going to do sonata theory on Monday, Neo-Riemannian theory on Tuesday, modes on Wednesday,” etc.) didn’t work out so well then, as I floated from topic to topic based on whatever I felt like doing. I still haven’t solved that problem, and it seems more problematic to me now that I’m *creating* the content rather than consuming it.
That’s about it for now - more thoughts on writing, as well as new thoughts on revision, soon.