Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Feedback loops: book excerpt

I had an opportunity to post an excerpt of my book on the Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (http://blog.taaonline.net), and I'm reposting it here because I can (formatting altered).

A good writing practice is the foundation of good writing. A good practice is built on regular action, and depends on the ideas or perspectives that lead to effective action. When faced with a large writing project, it is important to look at the relationship between your work practice and your emotions. Today’s actions influence tomorrow’s approach to the project, and work today can make it easier to work tomorrow.

The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research:
The Downward Spiral and the Upward Spiral

The projects upon which we work have emotional impact: when things go well, we feel good; when things go poorly, we feel bad. In working on an extended project, this emotional dynamic can be crucial, especially with respect to self-reinforcing patterns of feedback.

It’s pretty easy to get stuck in a downward emotional spiral. If something goes wrong and we miss a goal, then we feel bad. And, feeling bad, it can be hard to get started on work, which impedes progress. Each day that passes without making good progress contributes to the sense that we are stuck and to doubts as to whether have what it takes to finish. Further, each day that we don’t make progress is another day that we return to the same ideas—and so instead of facing fresh ideas and fresh problems, we keep coming back to the same thing, which contributes to a sense of drudgery and frustration. And with each passing day of frustration, the emotional distress and sense of difficulty can increase.

On the other hand, it’s possible to initiate an upward spiral. If we get a piece of work done, we often feel good at having made progress, and this progress boosts our confidence to take the next step, which makes that next step easier, thus boosting our progress further, thereby reinforcing our confidence. The more momentum we have on an upward spiral, the easier it is to keep moving past some non-research interruption, or past some research-related difficulty. And, the more progress we make, the more we are working with fresh ideas. If we have been making progress and feeling good about it, and if our interest is high because we are engaged with fresh ideas, then we are more likely to want to get back to work after being interrupted. And if we’ve been working regularly and making progress, when we discover some error in our previous work, it feels less important, because of our general experience of making progress.

It’s easy to get into the downward spiral—after all, it doesn’t take much energy to do no work. There are, however, costs to not making progress. The most immediate cost is the emotional burden of not making progress. But in the long run, financial costs and interpersonal costs also become significant. Financially there are fees to paid, as well as loss of potential income. Interpersonally, lack of progress can strain relationships with professors, colleagues, family, and friends. The downward spiral is easy to start, but the long-term costs are high. The upward spiral is harder to start and keep going. It requires constant effort to keep making progress. But progress has its rewards, so although the upward spiral has a high cost of entry, the return on the investment is high enough that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Aim for Brevity

I had an opportunity to post an excerpt of my book on the Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (http://blog.taaonline.net), and I'm reposting it here because I can (formatting slightly altered).
A good writing practice is the foundation of good writing. A good practice is built on regular action, and depends on the ideas or perspectives that lead to effective action. When planning a writing project, one effective idea is to aim for brevity: keep your work short.

The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research:

Aim for Brevity

Pragmatically speaking, it’s usually less work to write a shorter draft. I suggest aiming your drafts—especially early drafts—at a fraction of the expected total. There are five additional reasons to keep your draft targets short:
  1. If you write a short draft and it’s accepted, then you have moved more quickly toward completion.
  2. It’s typically much easier to add material to a short draft than it is to remove material from a draft that is too long. When adding, what is needed is to find a place to insert the material, which can often be done without significant revisions to the rest of the draft. When removing material, however, it may be necessary to rewrite large portions of the work in order to remove material that is intertwined with the larger body of the work.
  3. In my experience, it is much more common to over-shoot a length target than it is to come in under it.
  4. There is greater psychological ease in aiming for a shorter target: it is both easier and less intimidating to work on a shorter paper.
  5. It’s better to be brief and leave your reader wanting more than to overwhelm your reader with material. If nothing else, a short work gives your reader fewer opportunities to find that you have made a mistake. In general, the absence of some specific issue from a well focused work is less likely to cause a reader to doubt your abilities than an overabundance of material that is only tangentially significant.
More could be said, but an argument in favor of brevity should be short!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

If You're Stuck, Write About It

I had an opportunity to post an excerpt of my book on the Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (http://blog.taaonline.net), and I'm reposting it here because I can (formatting slightly altered).
A good writing practice is the foundation of good writing. A good practice is built on regular action, and depends on the ideas or perspectives that lead to effective action. When faced with a large writing project, it is important to keep working and to keep writing when stuck. The more regular the practice, the more effective it will be. One way to keep writing is to have something to write about when you’re stuck. The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research:

If you’re stuck, write about it

If you’re ever wondering what to do next, and this uncertainty is keeping you from making progress, write about it. Write down what you’re thinking about. Write down the problems you face. Write down things that you could do. Write about what you do want to do, and why. Write about what you don’t want to do, and why. If you’re having conceptual difficulties in your work, practice writing them down.

Some of the questions you could address:

  • What are you stuck on?
  • What is the main issue?
  • What is one specific problem you’re faced with?
  • What are possible approaches to that problem?

These questions can be applied in almost any situation. Can’t decide which book or article to read? Write about the works that you’re considering—what’s good about them? What’s bad? What parts of it agree with the work you’ve already done? If you do this, you’ll have a written record of the book that you may be able to use later, but more importantly it will help you focus your attention on possible next steps with respect to that work.

When you’re stuck, writing about your “stuckness” is a warmup practice: it helps you find ideas and get moving without any of the pressure to get things right. The point is not to create something that you share with others, so don’t worry about its quality or what others would think of it. Use it to tease out different possibilities and find useful steps that could move your dissertation forward. Such writing has the added benefit of practicing writing and helping you develop your writing skill.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sweet New Reviews of My Book

To my great satisfaction, my book (Getting the Best of Your Dissertation) was read and appreciated by a professor who liked it so much she wrote me a review both on goodreads and on amazon.

I'm putting the two texts here, because I like seeing them together, and realistically, after working as hard and as long as I did on this book, it's really pleasing to read a few compliments on my efforts.

Here's one:
As an advisor to many doctoral students past and present, I am delighted that Dave Harris wrote this invaluable book! It provided immensely helpful strategies for thinking well about one's dissertation, and living well during the process of researching and writing it.

And here's the other:
As a professor at a research university, I'm always on the lookout for books that could help the graduate students I mentor-- and this one is uniquely helpful. The philosophical, psychological, and project-strategy aspects of dissertation-writing on which this book centers are essential, but are rarely addressed in other guides to dissertation-writing. I hope all the masters and doctoral students I mentor will read this book because doing so will not only greatly improve their theses/dissertations, but will also save me many hours of advising. *Getting the Best of Your Dissertation* will be immensely helpful for graduate students in every discipline and field of study! After reading the book, I was delighted to learn that Dave Harris also offers dissertation coaching and editing services. See thoughtclearing (dot) com

I couldn't ask for better than that. I mean there's even a plug for my business and mention of my website. Thank you, Professor Foot! And here's a link to my book: Getting the Best of Your Dissertation

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.