Friday, March 4, 2016

Practice

There is a famous joke about Carnegie Hall:
A tourist, seeing a man carrying a violin case, asks "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The musician answers "Practice, practice."

In the case of Carnegie Hall, of course, there is a double meaning of "how do you get to…", because Carnegie Hall is both a literal location and a figurative goal.  With a book, dissertation, or other writing project, there is no concrete location at which you need to arrive, so no one would ask "how do you get to your book?"  But if the question is about the figurative goal--"how do you get your book to completion"--then the answer is the same: "Practice."

On on the Goodreads site, there are some standard questions that they ask of authors who are creating an author page; the questions are to help authors promote themselves.  One of them is "How do you deal with writer's block?" Another is "What's your advice for aspiring writers?"  My answer to both questions is: "Practice."  And there's a third question--"How do you get inspired to write?"--for which a partial answer is practice.

Practice isn't an answer for everything, but it's an answer for a lot of things that ail the writer.

Practice--the right kind of practice--is my best answer for how to deal with writing block (though "writing block" is a terribly general description of a wide range of problems that all manifest with the same basic symptom--not writing, and not being able to write).  The right kind of practices can help a writer become more comfortable in the writing process, which can alleviate many of the anxieties that can interfere with writing.  And, as I suggested above, practice can help in finding inspiration, which is another cause of not writing/experiencing writing block.

Practice can help me find inspiration. Or at least it can help me manifest inspiration.  For me, there is no lack of material to write about--I may lack confidence in what I can say about that material, but I have plenty to say.  Many writers with whom I have worked have struggled with having too much to say: what they perceive as not having anything to write about often turns out to be related to having so many different things to say that they're blocked trying to choose among the many ideas. As I write this, I realize that I have a lot to say about what "inspiration" means--is it finding an idea? Or is it finding motivation? Or both? Or are both intertwined? One serendipitous outcome of my practice of writing this blog post is that I realize I have material and purpose--inspiration, if you will--to write a blog post about inspiration.

Given that I find practice useful both for finding inspiration and for dealing with writing block, it should hardly be surprising that "practice" would be the main recommendation that I would give aspiring writers.  Which winds back to the musician and Carnegie Hall: the accomplished musician knows that the way to become an accomplished musician is to practice. And, to the extent that I am an accomplished writer, I know that the best way to become an accomplished writer is to practice.

NB: Some people have more talent than others, or at least, some people reach a given level of accomplishment more quickly and easily than others. And it can be really frustrating for a struggling writer to see someone else's success. But if you feel like you have a good reason for a writing project, you shouldn't give up on it because someone else learns writing more easily. The fact that you're struggling now, doesn't mean that you'll never improve (though writing is always challenging!). You get better with practice, and some ability as a writer may not manifest immediately.  Anecdotal evidence of what I speak: my sister was, in school--through high school and likely college--much the better writer. She may still be a better writer in her own way, but I'm the one who has written and published a book, and co-written another published book. I may have needed more practice than she did, and she may well have had more talent than I, but that doesn't mean that my accomplishments can't stand on their own. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

One of my former clients became a dissertation coach

As part of promotion of his/her own work, he/she wrote about hiring a dissertation coach, and he/she said some lovely things about me, that I want to repeat, for my own sake.

Finally, I found the right coach. From the outset, I told him “I just want to get this done.” He was compassionate and understood my position, but also said that he would only agree to work with me if the focus was on quality, not only getting it done. I knew I had found my coach. Our work together was brilliant. He truly listened to every word I said and respected my ideas and me as a person. Quickly, I found my heart stop racing every time I heard the clicking of my laptop when I unlocked it to work. The goals that he helped me to identify during our meetings were realistic and obtainable. I did not feel ridiculous or off track in my thoughts. His work with me not only helped me to feel unstuck, it helped me to feel focused, confident, and assured that if I continued to be persistent, I would make it through this process to graduation. His coaching not only helped me with my Dissertation, but it has helped me as a scholar to be confident in my research and work which has contributed greatly to my success. The money I paid for his assistance was worth its weight in Gold.

As a rule I maintain confidentiality for clients--not everyone who has a dissertation coach wants to talk about it--and I requested but didn't get permission to link to my former client's website or use his/her name.
There's a slight irony, I think, in that I would be happy to promote my former client.  What I do and what he/she does are not identical.  There are definitely areas where my former client is probably a better resource. I'm inclined to believe that there are also areas where I'm a better resource. In any event, I didn't want to forget that these nice things were said about me, so I'm posting this here, in addition to keeping a file on my computer.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Working at the limit of your ability

If you work too hard, or try too hard, you can hurt yourself, so it's important to keep effort in balance. But sometimes--when you're working near the limits of your ability--effort can feel like fruitless and frustrating struggle even if you're actually making progress.

Sometimes struggle is a sign of a problem, but sometimes it's a sign of progress.

If you push yourself to the limits of your competence and ability, don't be surprised if it is then difficult. The struggle is not necessarily a sign that you're doing things wrong.

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a scholar who said "I'm struggling." There are, of course, all sorts of different struggles.

There are the struggles that come from working on a project when there isn't enough time in a day. There are struggles that come from physical or emotional ailments. There are struggles with opponents and their critiques and negative feedback. All sorts of struggles can develop that are not, strictly speaking, part of the project--they may be the context in which the project is necessarily carried out, but they are not the project itself. This post is not about such struggles.

This post is about struggles central to a given project, and the value of struggling.

Struggling itself is not bad. There are bad struggles, but not all struggles are bad. The question of interest in this post is with struggles that are actually good.

Athletics is an area where struggles are often good. The athlete in training struggles to improve performance, and the athlete in competition (with others or with themselves). A runner pushing the limits of his ability may struggle to complete a marathon and benefit both emotionally and physically from that struggle. A rock climber striving to make a more difficult ascent than she has previously accomplished will probably struggle and benefit from the struggle.

Musical performance is another area where struggles can be good. The difficulty in learning to play music is a struggle, but it is a good struggle that can lead to growth and ultimate mastery (assuming you don't injure yourself in the process--one can develop repetitive stress injuries, for example).

Scholarly writing is like this. It has, in fact, two dimensions of struggle: there is the struggle to clarify one's ideas, and there is the struggle to put those ideas into words. There is a strong interplay between these two struggles--struggling to put an idea into words can help clarify that idea--but they are still independent.

Both these struggles can actually be signs of progress: you won't feel the struggle unless you're engaging in the work engaging the ideas and trying to express them.

If the ideas are new and complex, then you will struggle with them or struggle to express them. This is especially true in dealing with theoretical or interpretive concerns. If most of your work is just defining issues defined by some other scholar or in some other work (for example, an empirical study using measures defined in other work), then the theoretical dimension is not in debate, and struggles are limited to defining the scope of the work and putting ideas into words. For material dealing with theoretical or interpretive concerns, however, there is the added struggle of trying to clarify those theoretical issues.

The scholar who said she was struggling is engaged in theoretical and interpretive work. I've seen some of her work--she's analyzing and interpreting historical texts/evidence and trying to make sense of the many dimensions of the material. The language needed for such discussions is elusive and difficult--a slight change in wording or punctuation can often carry significant theoretical difference, adding difficulty to the attempt to find the right words. I would be worried if she wasn't struggling, because that would mean she wasn't engaging.

Ideally we make progress even as we struggle. Just like the marathon runner, we push to keep going even though there is difficulty. The runner has to be careful not to push too hard, causing a breakdown, and making good judgements like that come from a certain experience in understanding running and his or her own body. The scholarly writer, too, has to be careful not to push too hard. And understanding how to make good judgements also come from a certain experience. One way a writer can push too hard is to blame him- or herself for difficulty that is not his or her fault.

It may seem wrong to struggle to understand or express ideas. This is especially true, I think, for many graduate students who have a history of being able to answer questions easily. If you have been in school for nearly two decades (a dozen years of elementary/secondary education plus four years college plus more years of graduate school), and you have always been able to answer questions easily (which is entirely plausible for most people smart enough to be going to graduate school--and especially people at top universities), then the struggle may be unfamiliar. But the struggle is not necessarily bad: it's often a sign that you're growing and progressing. And it is, I think, a necessary part of the attempt to excel in any field.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book Giveaway

I'm running another book giveaway on Goodreads, starting January 27.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Getting the Best of Your Dissertation by Dave  Harris

Getting the Best of Your Dissertation

by Dave Harris

Giveaway ends February 04, 2016.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Friday, December 4, 2015

Last Day of My Book Giveaway

I'm running a giveaway to promote my book. Today (December 4) is the last day to sign up!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Getting the Best of Your Dissertation by Dave  Harris

Getting the Best of Your Dissertation

by Dave Harris

Giveaway ends December 04, 2015.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Get a Free Copy of My Book!

To promote my book, I'm running a giveaway on Goodreads.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Getting the Best of Your Dissertation by Dave  Harris

Getting the Best of Your Dissertation

by Dave Harris

Giveaway ends December 04, 2015.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Monday, August 17, 2015

Finally: My New Book!

When I stopped writing this blog with the intention of turning the material into a book, I had no idea that it would take quite so long, but....
Finally, I have finished and published my book on dissertation writing: Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research (or on Amazon: Getting the Best of Your Dissertation)
I suppose it's unnecessary to say that I think it has a novel and useful take on the issues related to dissertation writing, even despite the fact that I think there are lots of good dissertation books out there that have lots of good ideas. And despite the fact that pretty much every dissertation book that I like makes a point that I repeat, which is that to write a dissertation, you want to write every day.
Now that I've written this one book, will I blog more? Who knows? It's not as if there are any regular followers of my blog after being idle for so long.
I've got at least two more books already in the works, and hopefully I'll get them to completion a bit faster than I did this first one.