Monday, December 3, 2007

Start Writing

It's so easy to get stuck in a place of not-writing.
"Oh, I have to research more!"
"Oh, I don't know enough!"
Or even just lose track of the effort and time it takes to write, and simply not write because you have not given yourself the time to write.

I was speaking this morning with a client who had been told to keep reading. Now, of course, it goes without saying that as an academic one must have a reasonable command of the material that is out there, of the work done by researchers, of the theories and data published about the subject that interests you. You must be a scholar, beyond any doubt.

But he was telling me how he kept changing his topic and wasn't sure where to start. As long as you keep reading without writing, that's what is doomed to happen. Each new book or article you read carries its own ideas and own vision of what makes good research, and it's easy to string along behind each, slowly shifting from the ideas of one author to another.

When you start to write, you start to commit to your own voice. When you write, you're forced to do more than just absorb the ideas of others. When you write, you're forced make decisions and evaluations about how each author fits into your own work, rather than trying to imagine your own work in the context of each successive author.

Only when you start to write, does your own voice begin to coalesce.
And as you write, you learn. You learn about the structure of your own arguments and their strengths and weaknesses. You learn about them in a way you do not simply sitting and cogitating. It can be very frustrating, because getting those ideas down in words is not easy. Ideas are elusive and they slip out from under your fingers as you put them into the keyboard.
In the end, however, in order to complete your project--whether a thesis, a dissertation or whatever--you must put something on the page. And it's always pleasant when what's on the page seems like a good representation of your ideas.

There's never any guarantee, however, that what you view to be a good representation of ideas will be read by another in the way you intended. But that's another story.

Only by actually writing will that problem arise. To let fear of misunderstanding stop you from writing, is to forgo any chance of being understood. And surely, to the extent that we believe we have something valuable to offer, we all want to be understood.
So start writing.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


There are so many opportunities in our lives, and so many demands. This is not a complaint: it's a blessing. But it also means that focus is difficult.

We are called upon by family and friends.
We are faced with the mundane requirements of life: paying bills, buying food, cleaning house.
We may have multiple jobs.
We may have hobbies.
And, of course, the entertainment options of the present moment are countless: TV, movies, books, the internet, music, art, sports, travel.

If you don't have good momentum on a project, it can easily get lost in the other demands for attention and for focus.

I don't know that I have an answer here. I know that I am easily enough distracted from my own projects. When the only responsibility is to myself, it is more easy to be distracted.

Oddly enough, something I forget about writing is how enjoyable and rewarding it can be. It's easy to think of writing as work, and then to associate with it the negative connotations that the word "work" carries in the culture of the US. In particular that work, while the "right" thing to do, is not supposed to pleasurable.
But that's not true of writing. Writing is hard work; it requires effort; it can be immensely frustrating. But it can also be rewarding--not just because someone else reads and appreciates what you've written--but because of the very pleasure of the act and the learning and growth related to working through a problem and finding a positive resolution to it.

Learning is pleasurable; mastering a skill is pleasurable. It is a real, experiential pleasure. Writing a sentence that has particular beauty, or crafting a paragraph that resolves an argument in an elegant or clever fashion-these are actions that are pleasurable in the same way that playing a musical instrument is pleasurable, or skillfully mastering an athletic endeavor--though I'm not a golfer, I think it is, perhaps, an apt parallel: the sport's allure is not so much in the gross expression of physical power--as for a runner, for example--as it is in the fine skill and thought. Billiards might be another parallel. Or chess. To a lesser extent any game of intellect; I say "to a lesser extent" because writing, given its difficulty, seems to provide the greatest opportunity to overcome difficulty: that which is too easy to overcome is not rewarding to resolve.

When faced with many distractions--ones of lesser pleasure, more easily achieved--if we can only remember the potential for pleasure is so much greater if we can engage in the work and overcome our difficulties, we will more likely be able to put the distractions behind us.

Friday, September 21, 2007


I was thinking about writing in this blog and realizing that the whole format is something unfamiliar. There's an appropriate informality that I have trouble working with because I am so used to the formalism of academic argument.

It's easy enough, of course, to find those who recommend following formulas and those who eschew them. It seems to me that the path of greatest power as a writer lies somewhere in between.

One does not want to be a slave to formulas, certainly. One does not want formulas to restrict imagination, or to otherwise limit the specificity of the situation.

On the other hand, one does not want to lose sight of what formulas do bring. Formulas are developed because of their practical utility.

Have you ever stared at a blank page wondering what to write? Formulas are good at avoiding that: they give you something to write.

I lose momentum on this blog because I expect myself to follow some formulas of writing that delay the rapid updating of a blog in a time and place where one must be new constantly.

I got a fortune in a fortune cookie that said "your strengths are your weaknesses." It's profound wisdom, with respect to many things, including formulas.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Momentum 3

You have to be relentless.
It's so very easy to lose the momentum you have. Once stopped, the momentum fades quickly and a whole project can grind to a halt. And then you have to start over again.

But if you build momentum, then work will flow more smoothly. It's hard getting started, but sometimes the hardest part is to keep moving once the initial push has been made.
Say, hypothetically, that you start a blog about your work, then you let it drop for a few months. If you come back with one or two, or even three posts, that's a great start and it helps build momentum, but you have to keep with it past that. It's a start, but until you've built that start into a habit, the momentum fades easily.

Keeping the momentum up often means being kind to yourself with respect to the quality of your work. Not all days will be as productive as others. Not all weeks will be as productive.

If you have the habit of working, and you can learn to engage with your writing work in a positive mood, then production will naturally follow.
But if you don't have the habit of working, it's so easy to slip back into a pattern of life where you let other commitments or even your own fears stop you from attempting to move forward. Grapple with the project and strive to engage from a place of enthusiasm.

Writing projects aren't jobs (or at least not usually), and they're certainly not meaningless drudgery. They take effort, but they're not usually forced upon one. It can be helpful to remember this in the struggle to build momentum: it is useful to remember that we made a choice, and even more useful to remember the reasons we made the choice and what we hope to get out of the effort.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Momentum 2

You build momentum by working on your project.
But not all effort is equal.

First of all: you don't want to work in a way that creates negative effects: that's akin to giving yourself negative conditioning with respect to work. If the work is painful then you'll develop an aversion to it, or some defense to manage it. On the other hand, if you work in a way that feels rewarding, work won't seem unpleasant even if it is challenging.

Sometimes you have to remember just to reward yourself for having made the effort--for having thrown down the words on the page to try and capture the thought in a coherent form.

Sometimes all you can think about is what is wrong, but if you can get the problems down in writing, sometimes solutions will start to appear.

But don't worry about starting small--or seeing apparently small gains. Momentum is like that: a lot of effort is needed to gain momentum, but, once you've got momentum the progress to effort ration changes dramatically.

Monday, September 10, 2007


There's physical momentum and there's also psychological momentum.
Habits are a form of psychological momentum; there's so much psychological momentum that a habit is hard to stop.

When we need to get something done, it helps to have momentum on our side. It can keep us moving at a much faster pace than if we have no momentum.

What does this mean in terms of a dissertation or other large writing project?
It means that if you stop and don't work on it for a while, it's hard to get going again.
And it means that if you work on the project consistently and regularly, then it will become easier to make progress.

One thing it means is that you might do well to start slowly: put in the effort, but don't berate yourself for not making a lot of progress. The progress will come one you've built momentum.

To that end, it's often useful to set smaller goals, ones that you can finish easily just to get started.

For example, I left this blog untouched for months, and now it's hard to get back to it. And, truly, part of the reason I was able to leave it for months was because I had built only weak momentum anyway.

But now I'm trying to build some momentum anew. This is a start.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Getting moving again

Have you ever gotten stuck on a project?
Maybe spent a few months where you didn't work on it at all?

And what do you do then? Do you just give up the project? What if that project is your dissertation or thesis? Or your masterpiece? Or even some smaller project that you were enthusiastic about until other issues demanded your attention?

If you're stuck and you want to get moving again, all you have to do is start. And be patient. It can be hard to reorient yourself to the task. And it may seem like the project doesn't move at all as one obstacle after another appears.
But if those obstacles are what stopped you before, then you need to find a way to move past them if you want to finish your project. You don't necessarily need to know exactly how you will accomplish your task, or how those obstacles will be overcome to accomplish something.
Goethe said, "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." So begin. Once you get moving again you can reconsider the obstacles and how to approach them.

But the key is to get moving. Get yourself used to working on the project. Get yourself used to putting in your time. The momentum that you gain by engaging with the problem rather than putting it on the back burner is deceptive: you start off slowly, but once you have built the momentum, it is possible to maintain it with less effort.

Only by starting again, by can you finish the project.

Friday, May 4, 2007

What are you looking at?

A couple of years ago I was at a street fair where I happened to see a martial arts demonstration.
The man running it--the instructor of the studio--was being attacked by a student with a sword.
At each attack, he would deftly step aside and bring the attacker down. But that, of course, could have just been a set up; the student isn't really supposed to hit him.
But he was talking to the onlookers and saying (approximately): If you stare at the sword, and watch it, it is going to hit you. But look: the sword is only this thin width while there's a whole world around where the sword isn't. If you look away from the sword, then you know where to go to avoid the sword. Therefore, he said, do not look at the sword; look instead where you want to be.

That seems easier said than done when someone is swinging a sword at you. But I love the principle as a general principle in life.

It's a particularly good principle in the case of people who have some sort of fear-based writing block: they're so sure they're going to get rejected or get negative feedback that they write nothing (or nothing until it's too late to write something good), and then the response they get is basically the one they fear: their work is not good enough. They spend so much time focusing on the possible negative outcome--the sword they wish to avoid--that they bring the negative outcome on themselves.

Instead, look where you want to go, and reach for it. If you don't get there at first, keep your focus where you want to get, and use all the information available to figure out how to get there.

I started writing this post in May, 2007, and only now am finishing it--I don't know why I left is as an incomplete draft--perhaps I found that it was redundant to something else I had written. I didn't check all of my previous posts to see. I wonder a little at how the post will be dated by blogger--by the day I started it and first saved it as a draft, or by today, the day I last edited it and posted it? I'm sure those are the questions of a novice blogger, but so be it.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Emotional distance and your work

One of my clients wrote to me last night:
You said to keep writing, so I have.... I feel like these last two chapters are not as tight as they should be, but I want to get through them so we can decide where they need to be revised, groomed and strengthened. Is that the best approach? I am used to much more brooding and critical reflection during the writing process. The way I am working now, though, I do not have as much emotional attachment to the I think it will be easier to be more critical in the revision process. What do you think?

First of all, what I think is that brooding is not necessarily pleasant, so why would one want to do it? But that's a glib answer.

We have to balance two separate tendencies:
1. the desire--or the need--to share our work with others
2. The desire to make the work as good as possible

The two tendencies fight each other--at least with respect to a writing project, and perhaps with respect to any artistic endeavor--on the one hand we want to continue to work on the project to make it better, and on the other we want to share it as soon as possible.
Balance is crucial. We all know people who seem to lack the ability to worry about their own work, and put out whatever they're thinking. But such people are not likely to have problems with emotional distance with their work.

But someone who keeps working to improve their project? These are the people who get stuck--forever improving, never sharing. Ok, that's an exaggeration. But people get caught in emotional connection with their work, which makes it difficult to move forward.
Emotional connection with your work makes it difficult to make changes--especially if your project can, as a whole, be improved by removing something you think well done.
It's hard to make radical changes in a work if you have invested a lot of energy in it.
It's hard to accept criticism of work if you are emotionally connected with it.
If you can share work, if you can hear what others have to say about it, and if you can be open to criticism, then you can benefit from the ideas and expertise of others. This is not to say that you must sacrifice yourself to opinions of others, but that you should try to learn from what they have to say.

You are not your work. Your work is an attempt to accomplish things, to express yourself, to express ideas. But it is not the measure of your worth. And, oddly enough, the more we can let go of the self-critical urge and the emotional connection, the better we are able to produce good work.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Check details for filing

As filing dates for spring dissertations and these near, it's important to check on the details required for filing.

Check the details with your school; usually schools have an administrator or group of administrators who will check documents for conformity with school guidelines.
There is almost always a school-specific guide or handbook for formatting your dissertation or thesis.

If you hire someone to edit and format your document, make sure to check their work against school guidelines. No editor can provide a guarantee that will make up for missing a filing date.
Don't make a simple mistake that costs you months and hundreds or thousands of dollars in registration fees.

I was looking at websites of others who advertise as dissertation coaches or dissertation editors, and I saw one person who wisely recommended that one should check references, and if possible speak with a former client. After all, the advice is expensive, and someone could lead you astray.

I then found it ironic that on another part of her website I found three distinct points that I had to disagree with as being just plain wrong.
She made two suggestions about the basics of APA style which are clearly refuted in the APA Manual (Fifth edition) and another suggestion--about margin size--which was clearly contradicted by APA style guidelines, but, more importantly, probably did not fit in with the guidelines of any university at which a dissertation might be filed.

Margin size, as stated by the APA should be 1" on all sides of the page.
But, in the case of theses and dissertations, universities, and, perhaps most importantly, ProQuest/UMI Dissertation publishing, all require a 1.5" left margin (the other margins are 1").
Check the UMI guidelines (The Preparing Your Manuscript link)

The real moral of the story is that, whether you hire someone to help you finalize your dissertation or not, check with your university to ensure that you are conforming to their style guidelines. And do it in advance--weeks before you have to file.
The size of a margin is, compared to the conceptual issues of a dissertation, a trivial thing. But if you get your margins wrong, it could mean hours of work to reformat your document, rebuild the table of contents, and reprint the work. Sure, maybe you could do all that quickly--one hour or two--but that's a bad thing to find out if you have a pending deadline.

Check with your school for details on filing.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Another perspective on the project

I ask people about their projects and the answer I get is always (or almost always) the subject of the project.
Sometimes I ask specific questions like "what kind of project? Is it a dissertation? A thesis?"? And still the answer I get is the subject of the project.

But your project is not just about a subject, it has a certain form.
If you can see that form, and understand how that form relates to the work you're trying to accomplish, then the writing process becomes much easier. I've mentioned this in an earlier blog entry.

Of course, form is uncertain in someways--we cannot be certain that what we think will be a good dissertation will be thought a good dissertation by a professor--but it is still useful to have some image of the complete project.
By having some idea of the complete project, we can judge when we need to do more work, and when we can move on to another section/chapter.
If you don't have an idea of the complete work--an outline, an estimate of length--then you can more easily waver--should I add this? should I add that?

Well, there are lots of people who use outlines while writing, and that helps a huge amount. But in general, people, or at least people who are stuck, don't think about the general form of the written project as much as they do about what they're trying to say.

There's another angle that people think of less often. The audience. Understanding your audience is crucial. By understanding the audience, you understand what needs to be said.
When you're writing a dissertation or thesis it can help to think about writing to two audiences. One is real, the other imagined. The real audience is your committee. You want them to sign. The other is the audience that you would hope for the work at a later date.

The general point I'm making here is that there are several perspectives one might take on a work, and by understanding more than one, your writing process can benefit as the additional insight into the project from different perspectives provide guidance towards completion.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Practical details

An important aspect in trying to get a dissertation or thesis filed is making sure of the administrative details and the other practical aspects of getting the filing process complete.

There are a lot of details, often, but none are conceptually difficult.

The most important ones to know are the deadlines and the guidelines.
Deadlines are important for planning purposes. Obviously, you don't want to miss a deadline (though it's sometimes possible to get extensions). So, it's important to know your deadlines. It's also important to use that knowledge to coordinate with your advisor and to plan your activities. UC Berkeley used to (and perhaps still does) recommend that students plan on leaving an entire day for printing a dissertation. Printing technology is better and faster now than in the past, but you never know what may come up in trying to print a large project. Maybe your printer runs out of ink/toner; maybe the copy shop is closed or is having technical difficulties. But that's a small thing compared to making sure you have the necessary signatures.
Your readers are probably all extremely busy as the filing deadline nears. If you want to ensure getting signatures, you need to get the thesis/dissertation to your committee well in advance of the filing date so that they can review it and approve it. This is a practical matter, because of the myriad demands on professors' time, and an emotional/political one: it's much easier to be well-disposed to someone who has planned and tried to ensure that their professors time demands are respected than it is to feel well-disposed to someone who comes in at the last minute with self-centered expectations. A signature that is late can cost thousands of dollars if you miss a deadline and have to enroll for an additional term.

You also want to know the style guidelines of your university. Most university programs rely on a general style model (e.g. the Chicago Manual or the APA Publication manual), but also have their own specific guidelines in addition to the general ones.
It helps to know these guidelines as early as possible. In the long run, you can save a lot of work by learning the guidelines early and using them while you write. Leaving them until the end can mean a significant effort in reformatting.

The heart of an academic work is the ideas that drive it. But beyond that center, there are several practical issues that can seem intimidating due to their bulk or number, but they're not difficult, only time consuming. Don't let practical issues keep you from filing on time.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

PhD Attrition

According to this article, PhD attrition rates are around 50%. The article is undated, but its points are well worth review if you're thinking about grad school, or if you're already there.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Make a decision, now!

Sometimes one needs to make a decision.
Sometimes one reaches a point where any decision is better than no decision.

Is it better to debate over two possible ways to write your paper, or to write it the wrong way and submit it to your professor or committee? Chances are it's better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing.

Is it better to debate which editor to use, or to choose the wrong one? Better to choose the wrong one--then you continue to move forward. (I had to advise someone on this point today.)

If you make a mistake, you can learn from it, profit from it. If you vacillate and choose no course of action, you spend your energy and time without as much potential for gain.

Of course careful consideration of options can lead to discovering the best option. Of course, one can decide precipitously, leading to an improper, impetuous decision. But that is hardly the problem of most academics.

So, if you're vacillating, make a decision, now!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Abstract

I'll just start by saying that writing a good abstract is difficult.
Difficult and frustrating and humbling.

OK, and there you have all the reasons not to write an abstract.
In favor of writing an abstract, or at least trying to, are many factors.
I find that I'm often pushing these factors on those who resist writing the abstract.

First of all, there's the very obvious fact that you need an abstract.
Academic papers have abstracts. If you're writing an academic paper--especially a thesis or a dissertation--you need to have an abstract.

Secondly, the abstract helps the author see the overall structure of the work (the forest) instead of just the details (the trees).

Third, it only takes about an hour to write a draft of an abstract, so it's a good exercise.

Fourth, it's easy to get feedback on an abstract, even detailed feedback, in a way that you can't if you have a fifty page draft.

Fifth, the abstract helps the author see the overall structure. What? I said that already? Of course I did, but it's so important it bears repeating. Authors get lost in the details and lose sight of the general intention of their project, thereby wasting time and effort rather than moving towards the goal of completing the work.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The forest and the trees

It's easy, when you have been studying the same subject for a long time, to get used to how ideas relate and how parts of the subject relate to other parts.

Then you start writing, and you want to look at and discuss all the cool details and neat subtleties of the subject you describe. Each tree is special for its own unique characteristics and for its relationship with the other trees.

And so, you write about each individual tree. And the forest, implicit in your understanding of the project, gets little attention in the writing.

But the reader is not familiar with the forest in the way that you are. And thus may not be able to see the forest for the trees.

As the author of a long academic work (this set of comments is not appropriate for works where one might not want the reader to see the forest--like a mystery novel), you can avoid bewildering your reader by providing occasional sentences and paragraphs that help the reader orient him or herself in the forest. By reminding the reader of the current location in the argument, as well as how that part of the argument relates to the whole, then the reader begins to understand the larger structure of the argument--the reader can see the forest and understand the forest as a whole, not just as the individual trees.

The practice of putting in indications of the location in the argument is particularly useful when making transitions in the document. And a certain degree of redundancy is ok in these indications of place: you're helping the reader orient him/herself, so some reference to a familiar place is appropriate.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What are you afraid of?

This is a good question to ask yourself. Or at least it can be if handled correctly.

One doesn't want to unduly dwell on fears, but by identifying fears one can choose how to respond to them, rather than just reacting.

What do I mean by this?
If you are stuck in a situation and fear is blocking you from taking some course of action that you know you desire, then you need to think through and understand what you face.
While not all fears are unfounded or inflated, more often than not it is possible to see
1. that the outcome we fear is not as bad as we fear
2. that the outcome we fear is less likely than we fear
3. that the fear is warranted given the potential positive outcome--you can't win if you don't play. Some risk is justified.
Recognizing any of these three can help one look at the problem in a different light, and by looking at it right educe or eliminate the anxiety creating the block enough to move forward.

It's no good to dwell on one's fears--it's much better to focus on positive outcomes and how to create them, but by facing one's fears, they can be put in their place. It's not that one should be without fear, only that one should not be needlessly blocked by unnecessary fear.

A person feared that her committee chair would decide not to work with her. This was impeding her ability to do any work and to do more than apologize for her limitations.
But the chair had never given any sign of an inclination to do so. And professors, by and large, would rather have their students finish than not.
Beyond that, however, one can see that entertaining the fear does not help the situation: it prevents exactly the sort of action that would mitigate the situation. To the extent that the fear interferes with concentration, thus hampering research and creativity, it is itself an obstacle.
Instead of dwelling on the fear, one focuses on the courses of action that are most likely to bring about a positive outcome.

Sometimes people's fears are completely unjustified. For example, fear of using or citing the work of a professor with whom you work. I find this one surprising, but I've met more than one person with this fear. I suppose one might fear looking like a flatterer or sycophant?
As a general rule, if you are using work sincerely, because of your interest in it and understanding of it, this can hardly be the case. After all, the professor in question is supposed to be teaching you something, so it makes the greatest sense in the world that you would refer to that person's work as a model or as a foundational authority.

Anyway, while one doesn't want to get lost dwelling on fears, it can be productive to ask: "What are you afraid of?"

It's your life

Writing a dissertation can be a disorienting process. What people lose sight of is that they’re not just writing a dissertation, they’re living a life.
The writing of the dissertation should not just be compartmentalized.
And in a way it cannot.

So one has to ask: “how does this project fit in with my goals for my life?”
By understanding what those larger goals are, one can more easily see the purpose of finishing the dissertation (or other project).

One of the greatest struggles that I see people having is that their dissertation has become disconnected with the rest of their life—they lose desire and interest, they become apathetic because they begin to view the project as nothing more than a meaningless academic exercise.

Once, they started pursuing an idea that they thought was important, but for various reasons got led down some other track, and suddenly find the inertia of months or years of research pushing them and dominating their ideas.

First off, it should be noted that people change—sometimes what seemed important no longer seems important—values change—desires change—one who starts out thinking of a career as a professor may decide that something different would be better. It’s always a realistic question to consider whether one should finish the degree.

If one has a reason for finishing the degree, but no longer cares about the subject, then the project has become an academic exercise in completing a formalism. But if viewed in that light, one can see direction. For instance, one can eschew perfection and seek the most direct and, perhaps crass, route to completion: finding out exactly what the committee desires and making a paper satisfy that. In other words, if you’re completing the project just for the degree, then one should, logically, do the minimum necessary to obtain the degree in the most efficient manner possible. Since many people get stuck trying to make the project good enough, recognizing your goals in this way may help remove some blockages. If you’re writing a dissertation on integrated circuits or on electronic music and you’re planning to go live off the grid and raise sheep, why lose time trying to make your dissertation a great work? Get it done and go do what you want.

But if you really do care about what you’re saying, if you think it’s important and needs to be said right, then refocus on why you think that it is important and begin to build the project with respect to those aims—give the project meaning again.

I worked with someone who had become apathetic about the subject of his/her dissertation. It was a sadly ironic situation, as the topic was “Hope”. But what had happened was that the academic exercise of writing about the topic had become disconnected from the motivations that had given the project its initial drive.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Study sketches

One can see an analogy between writing a dissertation and making a large scale visual art project.

To prepare for making a painting or other large work, artists have drawn studies of their works.

When they draw these studies, they are comprehensive--they shows the whole of the work in a rough form. They allow the artist to explore different relationships of elements, to explore how the work will appear when complete.

If the writer of a dissertation tries to perfect a part of the dissertation, a chapter, for example, without working on the other parts he or she cannot be aware of how the piece relates to the whole. It's like a portrait painter trying to paint the eyes perfectly without painting any of the rest of the face.

Like any analogy, this one is of limited use. But it is not uncommon for writers to get stuck because the chapter they are working on isn't "done."
The point of the process is not to write one chapter, but to finish an entire thesis. Understanding the overall structure--seeking to find or construct that overall structure--greatly facilitates the writing of an academic work.

Draw a study sketch of your work--sure it's rough, sure each piece is poorly defined, but it creates a vision of the overall work that you can't get any other way.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Focus on specifics

Following up on the idea of focusing on strengths, one can also try to focus on specifics.

Rather than try to engage a whole school of thought--pick a specific writer/thinker in that field.
By doing so, you reduce the amount that you have to research and you create a more focused discussion.
A whole school of thought will be characterized by a wider range of ideas than a single author.

Or try to focus on a specific premise instead of a whole school. Rather than focusing, for example, on Marxism, focus on the class dialectic; instead of focusing on Post-Structuralism, focus on the premise that Truth structures are related to political power.

And these are not cheap shortcuts--they are ways to focus and strengthen an argument--rather than dealing with broad strokes and generalizations, you focus on the important specifics that are the central issues.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Focus on your Strengths

There’s a world of knowledge out there and it all intertwines—to study one subject, one begins to touch on the boundaries of others—and then does one study that new subject, too? There’s too much knowledge out there for any one person to know everything there is to know and to read everything that has been written.

At some point you have to stop looking for something new to learn, some new answer and start trying to figure out what answer works for you—the shift from merely accepting the work of others to beginning to explicate your own voice.

If you are trying to write a dissertation or thesis, that time is now.
The faculty do not set you on a dissertation expecting you to read—they expect you to write. The criteria for getting your dissertation accepted is not based on what you’ve read, but on what you have written. Of course they expect you to have done some reading. But the dissertation is about writing—it is about completing a written work.

Think of it this way: which person is more likely to have their dissertation accepted:
person A, who has read everything there is to read on his/her subject, and has written only an incomplete dissertation draft
person B, who has written a complete work that only uses a handful of sources?

The answer is obvious: person A has no chance of having a dissertation accepted, while person B, has a real chance of getting his/her dissertation accepted.
At some point you have to stop reading and researching and start writing—and what you use to write is your strengths—those things that you have studied, and especially those things that you know best.

None of which is to suggest that you don't need to do some research and some reading--there's got to be something to serve as a foundation for your strengths--something beyond personal conviction. But once that foundation is there--try to use it!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Act Confident

Yeah, we all have doubts about our abilities and our worth (ok, maybe not all of us, but most of us).
Yeah, sometimes self-doubt is justified because we haven't read what we should, haven't talked to whom we should, etc.

If you are one of these people who is feeling a lot of doubt about yourself and about your work, this blog entry is for you.
Act with confidence.
You may not be confident, but you can act that way.

This can be crucial in managing an academic committee, like the committee for an oral exam, or just your committee chair.

When you act fearful, people can pick up on that. If you act fearful and focus your conversation on your weak points, people will think about your weaknesses. But you don't have to do that. You can focus elsewhere.

You can focus, for example, on your strong points, on the things you do know, on the things that interest you the most, on the things that you have done recently (rather than the things you haven't).

You may not be able to fully control a conversation, and your interlocutor(s) might guide the conversation to a point of weakness--but why force it to go there before it is necessary?

This is not dishonest; it is not manipulative. But it does help get good results from the people you're dealing.

I've framed this all in a very general sense because this is not something that is limited to the world of academia. Yes, my main focus and my main experience are in the world of academia, and I'm mostly thinking of academics as the audience for this blog, but it is not a limited strategy.

Even if you don't feel it, you can act it and plan it. Confidence sells. And fear inspires others to look for the reason for the fear.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beliefs and Politics

As an editor, it can often be difficult to separate out the different levels of criticism that are appropriate.
I work for people--working on helping them express themselves and their ideas clearly. And it is not my role--as I have chosen to define it--to try to change their ideas. I work for academic clients--the whole point is that they are generating the ideas. This is unlike an editor at a publishing house or a newspaper whose concern is to make sure that all writings meet the editorial standards of the organization.
But sometimes I don't agree with those ideas.

And then a conflict ensues: at what point does a poorly expressed argument become just a poor argument?
I try to separate the premises from the conclusions.
The premises have to pass one of two tests: either 1) I think they're sound and academically defensible on their own merits, or 2) they are supported by some outside authority.
When it's the second, I can have problems.

For example, working with Freudian theories is difficult. It's not that I've ever studied Freud extensively, but ideas like penis envy or the oedipal complex--ideas that are presumed to be true for all people or all of one group of people--such theories strike me as highly problematic--they reduce the complexity and variation of human experience to a single model--and, in Freud's case, these ideas often involve specific important experiences--e.g. the "primal scene", in which a child sees/hears his/her parents making love--that may not happen to everyone.

Nowadays, of course, there are plenty who reject many aspects of Freudian thought--but what about working with those who do accept it?
I think Freud's logic is problematic--he uses inductive logic in an inappropriate fashion--from the cases that he studied, he extrapolates to all humans--or perhaps those who use his theories extrapolate from his case studies to all humans. And that just ain't good logic.
It's not good science. As Karl Popper points out in the Logic of Scientific Discovery, induction cannot be used to prove a point--it can only be used to disprove a point--No matter how many white swans you may see, it does not disprove the possibility of a non-white swan.
This is the principle of falsification that has led to the use of null hypotheses is science annd statistics--once you disprove the null hypothesis, you are free to suggest an alternative hypothesis that has not been rejected.

But how do I break the critique of Freud's logic from a critique of a work that uses Freud as a premise?
Despite my dislike of Freud's logic, I don't want to reject work that accepts his theory--that's not my business. But I do want to keep that work from doing things that might get it rejected by a faculty committee or a peer review board.

It's an especially situation if I attempt to critique the structure of an argument and that is perceived as an attack on the premises or the conclusion of the argument itself.
Sometimes I can't quite be sure if I have been attacking the argument, not the structure of the argument.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Motivation part2 -- stopping yourself

Everything we do is wrapped up together in our lives.
It's impossible to completely separate out the different parts.
Finding positive motivation to move forward with a project is essential--making the project something we believe in, something that seems important--without the sense that what you are doing is important, it's very hard to find motivation when the going gets tough.

Therefore, it is important to recognize the negative motivations that are influencing your actions.
If you think of your Ph.D. as nothing more than bullshit Piled Higher and Deeper, then you're creating a psychological space in which the work you've chosen for yourself is equated with shoveling manure. If that works for you, hey, right on. But most people aren't that excited about shoveling shit.
But you can do something about that: you can try to refocus on the things that you felt were important, the things that got you into the world of academia in the first place.

But even if you believe in your project, you can still kill your own motivation by focusing on your weaknesses.
What? You haven't read all the relevant articles on your subject?
You don't speak a certain language well enough?
You don't think that you can do work as good as the people whose work you want to emulate?

That kind of thinking will kill a project. It takes time and emotional energy and leaves one in a state of doubt.

Motivation grows when you focus on your strengths and on what you believe is important.
So try to recapture the enthusiasm that came at the start of the project: what were the big goals that you hoped for? What were your abilities that made you enter into the project? By looking for your strengths, by focusing our attention on them, you have the dual benefits of developing your project in the path most likely to lead to a fruitful result, and bolstering your emotional state by focusing on things that you can do.

Does a sprinter try to prove his/her prowess by running a marathon?
Sure, versatility is great, but if you want the gold medal, doesn't it make more sense to run a race that you have excelled in in the past?
Use your strengths and work from them.
Don't tell yourself you don't know as much as person X; don't tell yourself that you haven't read the entire material. Instead, focus on what you do know, on what you have read, and look for the ways that you can bring positive motivation to your project.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Sometimes it may not be clear why you're writing a dissertation.
I've had people tell me that they didn't believe in their work, that they weren't sure whether they should try to finish, whether they wanted to finish, whether it would make any difference whether they finished.
Other people have been more clear on their desire to finish, but weren't clear on something about the paper itself—weren't clear what they wanted it to say, or even that they weren't clear why they had chosen the topic and subject that they had chosen.

Such questions of central purpose are crucial in writing a dissertation and benefiting from the experience. If the dissertation is an exercise in overcoming apathy about a project that doesn't matter to you, to create opportunities that you don't want to explore, then why do it?
If you have an answer to that, of course, then you should do it—but then it would also make sense to stop wondering whether you should.

A good place to start is to take a moment—or a few hours, for that matter—to think through the whole project. If you're wondering whether you should, then think about why you think you should, and what else you would do if you didn't.
And then, once you've gone through that exercise—really seriously put your heart and head into thinking about whether you should finish—then if you decide to finish, you can stop wasting time asking yourself whether you should, and you can focus your energy on figuring out what it takes to finish.

Once you've decided to finish, then you have to find a reason for the project.
Even if you've already committed yourself to a specific project, there may be aspects of that project that you can focus on that will make it more appealing and more interesting.

One good way to get there is to find something that you believe in—some point or issue that you think is important, maybe a problem that you see in the world—and to use that as the focus of your work.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Turned upside down

I had been working with a professor at Berkeley on a book project--trying to fix up the transcript of some seminars given 40 years ago by one of his colleagues. We had nearly finished working through all the seminars and doing our best to correct all the errors and clean up all the rough spots.

And then he finds, in a box in his office, the full set of notes made by his colleague for the seminar as well as an annotated copy of the original transcript from which we had been working.

Suddenly, instead of being almost done, we're just at the start all over again--or if not at the start, at least we've got a significant piece of work ahead of us.
But we're both excited about this reversal. Whatever the inconvenience to ourselves, we know that our final result will be much better.

You can't really predict what is going to happen over the course of a long project. And one cannot let the thought of future work deter one from the work that is present now.

Which is easy for me to say--there is nothing big riding on the completion of this book project.

I had an inquiry from a potential client, and I fear that the best thing for her is to rewrite completely. The project would be better, and it might even be the quickest path to completion, but that is a frustrating and difficult thing to accept. And she has deadlines, and academic fees and a degree waiting at the end of the line.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Conflict of interest

As a service provider, it is in my interest to have people hire me for my services.
This is true even if I am not the best service provider qualified.

But, in order to provide the best possible service, I have to be able to recognize how someone will be best served, and I have to provide them with that knowledge.

Recently I told someone they made the right choice in not hiring me.
They wrote back that I shouldn't take it personally.
I want to tell them "really, I didn't take it personally; I believed you made the right choice."
But why?

Sometimes it's easy to pass on a project--even an enjoyable one--for various reasons.
But the conflict of interest is a subtle, insidious thing: in cases that are not clearly defined,
it is easy to rationalize, or to fail to see important aspects of the conflict of interest.
It's easy to say "I'm looking for a win-win situation--we'll both profit from an arrangement."

Of course, every service provider arrangement is founded on a conflict of interest: the provider has two conflicting interests: to provide the best service, including the best price for the service (the interest of the client), and to receive as much compensation as possible (the interest of the provider).

But that would be unfairly limiting this problem to the realm of capitalism--and this isn't a political matter--it is a natural human condition.
The basic problem of whether to have one cookie now or two later is inherently one of a conflict in internal interests: having a cookie now is a good thing; having two later is also a good thing. The two interests conflict.

As a graduate student writing a dissertation and thesis one has conflict interests: finishing quickly and producing the best product.

We do not usually talk of such internal conflicts as conflicts of interest; typically a conflict of interest is discussed where there are multiple parties involved.
When you add additional parties to the equation it only gets more complicated.
Then the interests of the different parties are likely to conflict--even if the different parties are working towards a shared goal.
The extreme example of this is the person who sacrifices his or her life for others: the interest of the individual is at odds with the interest of the group.

We hold up as noble those who choose the interest of the other over the interest for themselves.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Ph.D. graduation rates--less than 50%

A potential client today told me that less than 50% of those enrolling in Ph.D. programs complete their degree, and most of those who do not, fail to do so because they do not finish their dissertation. I don't know what sources she had for her claim, but this seems to be in line with what I can find online--for example, the report on Ph.D. graduation rates by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Office of Institutional Research. (Updated: this article puts rates at between 50% and 66%, depending on field of study.)

And that's a terrible shame for those who have invested their money, time and effort only to fail in the final hurdle.

But those statistics are not predictive: no individual is doomed to this failure simply because so many have gone astray in the past.

Getting help and direct support can be key. And even if hiring someone--an editor or coach--is expensive, it may well be worth it in terms of time saved, increased future earnings and decreased future tuition/registration costs.

One potential client who called me had maxed out all her possible student loans and still was looking at another year or more of work. But what does she do now? The key is always to find the most productive response to the situation you face.

Thought Clearing

Any writing project can gain momentum.
By writing, we grow accustomed to the practice and we can find our words more easily.
And when we can find our words more easily we can often--but not always--find our ideas more easily, too.

Ultimately the practice makes the difference--our facility grows, and as it does so do the pleasure and the reward from the practice. It can start an upward spiral.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get myself and others onto that upward spiral.
This blog is a record of my thoughts and struggles with trying to get others onto that upward spiral, and myself, too.

With a little luck, someone will find what is said here useful and it will help them in their endeavors.