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I’ve interviewed five current graduate students, each at different points in their respective programs, in order to offer a comparative view of what writing, drafting, editing, revising and submitting looks like. "GradHacker" offers a variety of writing advice articles, but few offer a broad view of how different graduate students actually work. These interviews provide insight and potential models for any upcoming graduate students who wonder how the work gets done. Read part I of this article here.

What Does the Actual Writing Process Look Like?

The process of moving a piece from a blank page to the final product looks different for everyone. Thakshala simplifies her writing process and lets the material guide her: “I start by jotting down ideas, then read as much as I can, revisit the primary documents and make extensive notes, then see what patterns are visible, write, organize and write down a structure, then write and rewrite.”

Shannon prefers an interactive approach: “I need to write things out by hand first … I like being able to mess with the page -- cross things out, draw arrows, etc. Once I’ve written something out by hand -- usually a section of a paper or article, or maybe the entire thing -- then I’ll move into a Word doc, where I’ll transcribe it.” She considers this movement from paper to document as the move from a first to second draft. “I continue making revisions and edits” but “I’ll move back to paper if I’m really having trouble.”

John enjoys starting at the beginning and says, “Having a good title alters how I feel about the whole process … when I feel I have a good one, I look forward to opening the document or sharing it with other people, rather than dreading it.” He also keeps “a written or mental list of things to write up” before he begins writing. However, he also notes that moving around in a draft can be helpful: “It’s cyclical. I go back to the texts. I will outline again in the middle of writing a draft, so I can see what I’m doing at a macro level. I will go back and revise a paragraph here or there when I’m stuck.”

Sean says, “I can’t really imagine a fresh document. All of my writing seems to build on something I’ve already written, whether it’s notes, a section from a conference paper or something I began to sketch based on something I read or was thinking.” Still, he starts with “keyword searches and following citations in the books I love and am familiar with.” Then he outlines and fills in the piece from there. “I imagine the broad contours of a piece (how many sections, paragraphs, etc.) and then I begin filling in the sections with sources, citations and readings.” As he writes, he keeps “a section at the end of the document called ‘Chaff’ (as in separating the wheat from the chaff)” that he uses to hold ideas, unedited writing or even parts he’s considering cutting from the final piece.

Jeremy forgoes the outlining process altogether, instead using multiple drafts to develop and edit ideas. “I write for as long as I need to with as little of an outline as possible … I get everything on the page. Then I cut aggressively. Usually, this is with a post-draft outline: I map out everything and look at it on one sheet of paper. Then I can easily see things, like, ‘paragraph 17 and paragraph 22 are redundant.’ Then, I fill in any conceptual holes on another draft and remaining drafts are usually for smaller, paragraph- or sentence-level edits.”

My own process is much like Jeremy’s. I freewrite all of my ideas onto a document and clean up and edit as I go, moving sections around and forming more complete sentences. As I clean up my writing, I keep my unedited, rough ideas at the bottom of the document for reference, much like Sean’s "chaff" section.

When Do Others See My Work?

Most of us agree that writing is usually a solitary practice, though Sean sometimes “gather[s] with others to co-work” and Thakshala maintains “a regular weekly writing group.”

These groups are mostly “for accountability,” though. When it comes to peer review, as John says, “I don’t send really messy stuff, because I usually don’t know what I want to say until I write it, so the drafts I send look polished.”

Thakshala similarly notes a piece doesn’t get looked at by her adviser until “at least after the second revision.”

Like many of us, Shannon says, “I need to get better at sharing my work with others when it’s in its earlier stages,” noting that she “only share[s] work once it’s nearing a solid draft.” However, she also notes how important it is to send drafts to an adviser if she gets stuck -- “once I’m not sure what revisions should be made, or I’m noticing problems but am having trouble thinking of concrete ways to resolve them.”

Like Shannon, I’ve met with many graduate students who want to engage in more regular and early-process peer review, but often struggle to create these writing groups, relying instead on department-sponsored dissertation groups and writing retreats.

Any Tips and Tricks?

Jeremy says, “I use the time-honored productivity practice called eating the frog, which means doing the thing in your life that requires the most work as early as possible in your day. This way, it’s not hanging over your head the rest of the day.” He also says that he’s “very concerned about friction -- the idea that too many requirements to do something makes it less likely that I’ll do it.” As a result, he advocates for starting first thing in the morning without a complicated process or writing space.

John argues that perspective is important. “I strive not to be too precious about the writing,” he says. “I remind myself that the writing is not incontrovertible evidence of ability or intelligence.” As he says, “a dissertation is an attempt to put one flawed, partial question into the world,” so “I won’t treat it as this ultimate practice of self-actualization. I think no writing is good enough to carry that kind of weight.”

Sean emphasizes the importance of support structures and working alongside others, keeping “informal groups” of other writers, “friends and colleagues who share their writing and with whom I share almost everything I write.” These groups are “for accountability as much as peer review” and he notes that “daily/weekly/monthly writing goals” with accountability check-ins help lend structure to work flow.

While writing is a deeply personal process, we can find the habits that suit us best by looking to the practices of others and seeking guidance from existing examples.

What writing practices have you found most helpful?

Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature and American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can follow her on twitter @lesliemleo. Follow this article’s contributors online: Jeremy Levine, Sean Gordon, Thakshala Tissera, Shannon Mooney, John Yargo.

Photo by user Life of Pix and used under Creative Commons Licensing

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