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.