I thought my dissertation would be rigorous because of how much research and writing I would have to do, which is true, but I did not anticipate how challenging it could be to keep in mind the size and scope of the project, which at times can seem overwhelming, while finding ways to move forward one step at a time. I have learned that I could gain perspective on my dissertation by positioning myself in relation to the task differently. Specifically, shifting my views about three words--writer, draft, and finishing--related to my dissertation has helped me be more productive in my work.
If you consider writing part of your identity, you will think differently about the task of writing. I have told that to all of my composition students. I have gotten looks of disbelief when I make that comment and many of my students remain skeptical for at least the beginning of the semester. But I tell them this because I believe it. All of my students are writers; all of us are writers. However, as much as I want my students to think of themselves as writers, I have always struggled with that view of myself. Perhaps because academic writing is not always considered the snazziest of genres, the label “writer” is one I wear uneasily. Yet it is one that I try to embrace because the mindset has helped me be more prolific. It is easier to view all writing as opportunities to work on the craft of writing if I think of myself as a writer. Writers write better all of the time. Yes, they write better dissertations, but they also write better emails, better tweets, and better facebook posts. By focusing on all of my writing and myself as a writer, I have seen changes in my focus and creativity on larger writing projects.
Beyond remembering to think of myself as a writer, I have also learned some other helpful modifications in word choice that change my perception of my writing. I have begun to think of drafting differently, as something that is happening at very early stages of writing, and I have started to own the fact that I am in the process of finishing my dissertation instead of starting, working on, or perhaps, muddling through it.
I realize that “draft” is a very loose term that can be used for a variety of stages of a project, but whenever I have been told that someone has a draft of a dissertation chapter, I immediately imagine that that person has a fully fleshed out and almost ready to go chapter. After reading Joan Bolker’s description of a zero draft in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, I began to see my notes and scraps of writing as more useful than they had initially felt. Bolker describes the zero draft as “the point where it becomes possible to imagine, or discern, a shape to your material.” Thinking about zero drafts as a starting point helps to circumvent the staring at a blank page feeling of so much dissertation writing. There are not a lot of tangibles to working on a dissertation, but having a draft, even a zero draft, is a tangible thing.
The last aspect of word choice that has influenced my dissertation is the prospect of when a project moves from an early stage to an ending stage. Last year, shortly after one of my professors was granted a sabbatical to “finish” a book, one of my other professors asked me how “finishing” my dissertation was going. I laughed and said, “Oh, I am just starting my dissertation.” She told me that once you start a writing project you are in the process of finishing it. This shift from starting, working on, and revising to finishing is a slight one, but it has really altered my mindset. This way of thinking should be applicable for many graduate students who have worked on long-term projects but have not quite worked at the scale of the dissertation before. It is hard to see the end of the dissertation, and the path to its completion might not always be visible, so a little reassurance about the finish line can go a long way.
Just utilizing new language cannot make the work go faster. It is still hard work to write a dissertation, but word choice can adjust a viewpoint and looking at the project from a new angle can make the entire thing less daunting.
What other words have helped change a mindset to make a big project a little easier?
[Image by Flickr user Sebastian Wiertz used under creative commons licensing.]