Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I was recently thinking about writing in terms of articulation. The word "articulation" has as its root the Latin word "articulus", or "small connecting part."

It's easy, when writing, to let the flow of ideas carry us from one point to the next, without clearly indicating the articulation: the ideas that we flow through--one to the next--are not uniform--they are, in our heads, articulated, but in writing they are not if the flow of the writing does not make an effort to show where he one idea moves to the next. In this sense we want to "articulate" our writing in the sense that "articulation" is "the formation of clear and distinct sounds in speech": we want each idea to sound clearly and distinctly.

How can we accomplish this in writing?
One good way to do this is to break the work into sections, and to break the sections into subsections.
Our writing, of course, is broken into the small sections of words, sentences, and paragraphs, and we also break it into chapters, for very large works. But we can create divisions at a scale in between these extremes: we can group paragraphs into little sub-sections related to specific ideas, and these groupings of paragraphs can also be grouped into larger subsections that help divide the chapter into pieces.

By articulating the written work, we can help the readers in their effort to read, but we can also help ourselves organize the work: by breaking the larger work into smaller pieces, we can manage the effort of the project more efficiently, but by including explicit descriptions of how each little piece connects to the larger project and to the other pieces around it, we can can work on one piece at a time, secure in the knowledge that the piece will fit with the others--because it was written in relation to the others, and attempts to connect to them.

Monday, September 29, 2008

No Apologies for not Writing

The flip side is true--for the most part you don't want to apologize for not writing.

I'm not saying that if your angry Aunt Mabel confronts you about not sending a thank you note for the wedding gift she sent, that you shouldn't apologize. And if you promised someone a book chapter by a certain date, you also should apologize if you don't make the deadline.

But to the extent that you may be failing to get work done because you're suffering from writer's block? That's nothing to apologize for. In fact, apologizing for not writing may make it more difficult to write--if feeling bad about not writing today makes you feel like there's more pressure to write tomorrow, and feeling bad about not writing yesterday puts more pressure on your to write today, then that emotional tension can interfere with writing.

Writer's block is a common problem and one that can be overcome by practice. If you haven't been writing and you want to be writing, don't worry about what you haven't written, just try to put your ideas down on the page and see what you can write. And if what you can write is imperfect--well, you don't need to apologize for that either.

No Apologies for Writing

When I told my friend Eve about my blog, I broke a rule that I generally propound in terms of presenting work: don't apologize. So writing my previous entry about Eve brought this to mind.

Speaking for myself, it's one thing to write for an anonymous world, and something different to write for someone I know. And something different to show work to a friend than to a professor or other person in a professional context.

But it's neither necessary nor appropriate to apologize for writing (presuming, of course, it's not writing of a nature that could be considered offensive--racist, perhaps).

Presumably you have done what you could do in the time you had, with the resources available to you. That is nothing to apologize for. And if you've been wasting time, out playing, why apologize for that. Or at least why apologize to someone else for that? It's your choice of what to do with your life.

I find in presenting my writing and in the writing itself, I have a tendency to apologize for my positions or to apologize for the quality or character. It is a tendency that I try to eliminate from my writing, because I don't think it helps make it better.

If we expect criticism, or if we are good at criticizing ourselves, then we look at our work and see the imperfections and the problems. But that is not how others are looking at the work.

Take me, for example. I'm good at finding problems--that's part of what makes me an effective editor. But my aim in reading is not to find problems. Yes, when I'm reading as an editor, I am looking for problems, but when I'm looking at a piece of work just to get an idea of what it is, as I do when making an estimate, I'm looking to see what the work has to offer--to see its strengths, its value and significance.

Of course people present their work to me with apologies all the time--which is a little silly because my role is to help clean up your work--but I think it's natural to have some apprehension that our work will not be treated lovingly. And if we are closely associating ourselves with our work, then that can be painful.

The worst thing about apologizing for work that we've done--whatever faults we might that the work has--is that apologizing sets the reader looking for the problems. And why would we want to do that? There may be a time and place to inform your reader of flaws in your document (especially when working on a dissertation), but even such indication of flaws should not be presented as a problem to apologize for, but as a part of the "to do" list.

If we can learn to let the work speak for itself, our luck, I think, will be better.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Short Blog Post for My Friend

So my friend told me that she had signed up as a follower of my blog but that she hadn't read any of the posts because they are so long. So this is a short post just to say hi to Eve. Hi Eve!

I've not written for a few days, and I think it might be nice to say something substantive, but once I get started, I sometimes run on a bit, and then I would be off the subject of this post, and off its aim of being short and saying hello to my friend.

A professor of mine once said "if you're brilliant, dare to be brief."
John Lennon said "We all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


In the Literary Mind, Mark Turner argues that narrative, and parables, are fundamental structures that govern human thought. Below is a passage from Turner's book. I've touched on this same passage in a different post, but I'll repeat it here:
"Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories. The mental scope of story is magnified by projection--one story helps us make sense of another. The projection of one story onto another is parable, a basic cognitive principle that shows up everywhere,...
"Parable is the root of the human mind--of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking."
From one perspective, academic work is the job of creating parables: it tells stories that are meant to be projected onto another.

When we think about parables, often we may think in terms of the simple parables, like those in the Bible. Usually such stories are boiled down to a single idea--the moral of the story--though often such stories are complex and not easily simplified (e.g., is the prodigal son a story of forgiveness, a story of letting go of jealousy, or is it a story of contrition?).

When writing an academic work, it can help to boil the work down to a single core statement and use that to organize the material, because that core provides focus.

But that core can be hard to identify. One way to identify a core might be to think of the work as a parable: what does this story teach us about other stories? I'm not sure what the parable of the prodigal son is supposed to teach, but I see that its point is to suggest something about more general sets of behavior. It is not intended only for those who are in a family where one son goes off, ends up herding swine, and then returns. It is intended for a more general range of experiences.

So in what way does the parable of your project work?
If you're doing a study using inferential statistics, the parable is obvious: the statistics are meant to make inferences from a smaller population (the sample) to the population at large.
If you're doing qualitative work, or doing any sort of work that isn't quantitative, the parable might not be obvious. For that matter, it's possible that you haven't even thought of your work as a parable at all.

Thinking of a complex subject as a parable in a particular dimension can help organize complex material. So, for example, one might be looking at the interface between a specific group of people--(e.g., a racial/ethnic group, an occupational group, etc.)--and how that group interacted with a set of general bureaucratic systems. That story could become a parable about how people respond to bureaucracies, or it could be a story about how bureaucracies count people. It could be any number of other possibilities, but just taking these two, we can see that they organize the material and the focus of the writing differently. They both provide opportunities for the writer to mention the same material--e.g., material about the creation of a specific bureaucratic procedure, or newspaper/newsletter reports from the press within that group--though with aim to tell different stories.

Or, to take another example, one might be looking at the history of a local delicacy and how globalization of markets affected that delicacy. Does that become a parable about market operations? does it become a parable about policies of globalization? is it about food? about local culture?

Choosing one of the possibilities creates a focus and leads to structural requirements. Choosing one of the possibilities is not meant to eliminate discussion of the others, nor is it meant to exclude the other possibilities--maybe you can see that your study is a parable on many different levels and you want to try to convey that. Nonetheless, it can help to choose one as a focal point to guide the structure, and then to work in the other stories as sidelights to the main point.

I have spoken of using a parable as a perspective to help focus the complexity of the dissertation. But it worth keeping in mind the points I made at the beginning of the post: The second was that academia is in the business of making parables--of taking specific stories and using them to illustrate general positions (this is the basic issue of induction: making a generalization based on specifics). So what does your story tell about other stories? The first point was that we think in terms of parables. I know there's a lot of different ideas of how we think, different theories of cognition/psychology, so you may not accept this premise, which is why I listed it last. The fact that academia uses parables is a direct observation of academia, and it does not require the cognitive theory. I, however, find that theory an interesting and instructive one, so I like to explore what it means.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Writing the Literature Review: techniques

I was talking with a writer who queried me about the process described by a book on dissertation writing. I've not read the book, though another writer I work with likes it.

The technique, as reported to me, relied on scanning the literature, and, apparently, even made specific suggestions to keep the writer from reading the material closely. The method included skimming works, taking quotes, and building the literature review from those pieces.

My initial response to this was that it was an impoverished view of scholarship--as if scholarship is just about being able to quote the right people. Personally I've never been impressed with people who could quote other writers unless they knew what that writing meant. And I've met plenty of people who knew who the authors contributing to the discourse were, but couldn't really engage with the ideas in any depth.

I believe that scholarship, research, and the academic life, is about a search for deeper understanding, a search for wisdom. Skimming can be misleading. It's like reading Hume and thinking that he doesn't believe in substance or human identity because you came across a paragraph that siad that we can't prove such things exist. I think that we should test the assertions of the things we read, and we should try to understand how the ideas we read fit into our world view, and how they fit into the discourse of the field in which we are scholars.

That being said, I want to acknowledge that different techniques work for different people. It's quite possible that a person who is of a different character than I could work quite well with that process that involves skimming. One way to look at it, and to justify it is that skimming allows one to review a wider range of material, and then allows the writer to read more deeply in the most important works.

It is important to explore different techniques and different ways of approaching the project. Different things will give different insights. And the most important thing, it seems to me, is that the writer work on refining his or her own voice--through seeing the work from different angles and from trying different approaches to presenting that work.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Keep On Message

A writer asked me today about how the stuff written for the introduction had turned out a lot like the stuff written for the abstract. This seems to me to be about right.

Politicians talk about staying on message--which typically means repeating the same simplistic argument over and over. As writers we don't want to talk to our readers as if they were fools, so we want to be careful about repeating ourselves too much, but that being said, it's also important to stay on message--to keep saying why you're writing and how the work relates to the main questions that you want to address. To some extent there is a level of redundancy built in, but on another level, it's not so much redundancy, as a rephrasing of an old idea in a new context--because each time you are returning to a large guiding idea, you are doing so in the context of a different section of the written work, and therefore, sometimes you are talking about the main idea in the context of one idea, or one set of data, or one time period, etc., and sometimes you are talking about it in the context of a different idea. Each time you mention the main point--each time you are "staying on message"--you are rephrasing it with different linkages, so that you are reminding the reader that what you're doing is looking at the new idea in the context of the main message.

And there is no clear guidance on exactly when to do this, or how much to stay on message. You want to make sure that your reader can easily follow the main point, so that their energy isn't lost trying to stay on track and they can follow the subtleties of the argument. At the same time you want to make sure that you're not repeating yourself so much that the reader feels like you're talking down to them. And the right balance of this will be different for different readers. Nonetheless, you're looking for some balance of this, and therefore your choices will seem fraught with difficulties: "did I do too much?", "did I do too little?" When working with a point of balance, one can (obviously) fall off on either side at any moment.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


A lot of people are motivated by deadlines. I often have people tell me that they work well under the pressure of a deadline. The thing is that deadlines really only work for short time periods. One cannot really sustain the deadline type of pressure for the length of time it takes to write a dissertation or a book. And realistically, one would not want to develop a work habit that requires high-stress work all the time in order to be productive. If the dissertation is preparation for an academic career, wouldn't it make sense to try to develop a work practice that will support you through an entire career?

But there are some good things about deadlines. And I'd like to look at those aspects of working to a deadline to suggest that they can be principles that you use even when you're not faced with the pressure of a deadline.

There are two very important aspects to working to deadline that many writers don't see: 1. Deadlines force the writer to abandon perfectionism and 2. the writer must prioritize efforts so as to create a work that is balanced and complete--complete in the sense that all the parts are included (i.e., no notes that say "Add section on XYZ"), and balanced in the sense that all the parts are equally finished. These two factors really work together.

The value of completing the whole piece is great: by completing the whole work, by writing drafts of all the chapters, the writer can see how all the pieces work together, thereby giving further definition to what each piece must look like alone. I feel like I run into a lot of people whose professors tell them to do the opposite--to work on one piece at a time. Of course you need to write one chapter at a time, but having done an initial draft of one chapter, do you then go back and revise that draft, or do you draft the next chapter? I recommend drafting the next chapter. When working towards a deadline, one always includes all the necessary sections.

When working towards a deadline, in order to get all pieces of work equally done, it is necessary to prioritize. Generally one wants to finish with the piece being worked on, and move on to the next piece is basic accordance with a schedule. When taking an exam, one is well-advised to budget time according to the value of the questions; similarly when writing several seminar semester papers in the closing weeks of a term, one is wise to budget the time amongst the different papers to ensure that all of them are addressed. This prioritization allows us to put aside perfectionist tendencies. If we've ever successfully worked to meet a deadline, then we've managed our time to accomplish all the allotted tasks, and almost certainly put our perfectionism aside to work. It's a choice that we can make to help us make progress: we can say "the work needs to be brought to the same level of completion as the other pieces I've already worked on."

Friday, September 19, 2008


There are many good uses for schedules.
But for me, at least, schedules can be difficult--they can feel restrictive. I suspect this to be the case for others.

One way I like to think of schedules is as a guide: they show the direction you're heading, but that doesn't mean that you're obliged to follow. You're in charge. If there is some detour that you follow for a few days, or if some task otherwise takes longer than expected, that's not a problem, that's simply time to revise your plans. The schedule-as guide-is there to help you get where you want as quickly as possible. But the choice to follow the schedule or redirect it is always yours.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Symmetry of Ignorance (2)

I was thinking about the symmetry of ignorance today in terms of infinity.

Let's assume that there is an essentially infinite body of potential knowledge relevant to a problem. From a practical point of view we could argue this in terms of the size of the body of published literature, and the pace at which that body is growing, as long as the subject matter is defined sufficiently broadly, there is far more material than an individual can read in a practical amount of time.

If we accept this to be the case, and we also accept that the knowledge of any individual is finite, then it necessarily follows that each individual is faced with a practical infinity of material still to learn, no matter how much they have already learned. Therefore the amount we each don't know is equal, even when the amount that we each do know is unequal.

On a certain level, we might look at this argument as nothing more than sophistry of a sort--an argument for the sake of the argument. Can we even accept the notion that there is a practical infinity of knowledge in a well-defined field of study?

But on another level, we can see that part of the fundamental development of knowledge systems relies on the development of different perspectives--both those that are the incorporation of new ideas into older frameworks, and those that represent paradigmatic shifts to entirely new frameworks of reasoning (e.g., the Copernican revolution).

In a way, what every author has to offer is a new way to look at old questions or old material. This is inevitable: we are all different people with our ideas shaped by our experiences. Even if we closely share ideas with a person or group of people, there are probably ways in which our perspectives differ.

Even if you are reporting on things that have been reported on before, you can create something new by presenting that old material through a new context.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Symmetry of Ignorance

I was talking with a friend of mine on Sunday. She was telling me about her baby: "She's just a little learning machine," she told me. "And let's hope she stays that way for the next fifty or so years," I said. I still learn new things. It's a great shame to stop learning, because learning is itself an enjoyable activity, for all its difficult moments.

Horst Rittel, who I've mentioned in previous posts, suggested a notion of "a symmetry of ignorance." He suggested this concept in the context of planning problems--planning in the sense of large-scale urban planning. In a 1972 article titled "On the Palnning Crisis", he writes:
The expertise and ignorance is distributed over all participants in a wicked problem. There is a symmetry of ignorance among those who participate because nobody knows better by virtue of his degrees or his status. There are no experts (which is irritating for experts), and if experts there are, they are only experts in guiding the process of dealing with a wicked problem, but not for the subject matter of the problem.

This description (even if we ignore the concept of "wicked problems", which may not be familiar, which I've not defined here, and which, in my opinion, is not paticularly well described in wikipedia), obviously isn't quite appropriate to the writer who is working alone, or to the writer who is seeking to complete a dissertation.

But I think the notion of the symmetry of ignorance is still relevant to the writer. First of all, Rittel writes "nobody knows better by vitrue of his degrees or status." But is there any criteria by which somebody does know better? I would say no, and Rittel, I think, would say no, as well. Rittel writes:
an essential characteristic of wicked problems is that they cannot be correct or false, but only good or bad. But who says whether a plan and the solution to a problem is good or bad?

Who, indeed? With a dissertation, of course, we can identify the specific individuals who get to say whether it is good or bad, but we may not be easily able to assess what they would say is good or bad. But that's sort of beside the point: Rittel is suggesting that there is no absoulte standard by which to judge the work. If we are thinking about the work as a written piece and we want that written piece to be "good", who says whether it is good? We don't really know what will make it good ahead of time, and neither do our professors. This is not to say that neither we nor our professors can assess quality, but rather to say that until the paper is written we can't know exactly what it will take to make it good.
The symmetry of ignorance does not suggest that there is no point in trying to plan, and the idea that we don't know exactly what is needed for our dissertation, and neither do our professors, is not intended to suggest that we're just shooting in the dark. Rather this notion is important to the writer--to the academic writer, at least--to help keep in mind that the process of writing is one in which learning is going to take place: we don't know what it will take to finish the project, but we will learn that in the course of the writing. We don't know what the experiment will show, and so we learn from it. This idea that we must necessarily learn in the process might, perhaps, help us deal with the emotional difficulty of not knowing what we have to do: of course we don't know what we have to do, we are told by the principle of symmetry of ignorance, the challenge of the task is to understand what it is that we are going to write. And a natural corollary of this is that as we write--especially near the beginning of the process--we will necessarily do work that needs later revision, because it's work based on what we knew before we started learning during the process.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Borges and I

The great Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short piece titled "Borges and I" (or, at least, that's its title in translation; Borges wrote in Spanish). I take it from the book Labyrinths, which is a collection of short pieces. The piece is in a section of the book titled "Parables."

A "parable" is often defined as a story meant to teach a simple lesson.

The parable "Borges and I," is, as I read it, largely concerned with the public persona, and the persona captured in the public eye (i.e., the "Borges" of the title) as opposed to the internally experienced life. And this part of the parable, I have some trouble connecting with, because I do not really have a public persona--at least not that is strongly reflected back at me by others; unlike Borges, people do not write about me.

But the latter part of the parable (which is all of maybe 500 words) speaks to me of a different sense--a sense of the difference between who I am today and who I was in the past.

I recognize myself less in [Borges's] books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things.

As we write, and as we explore ideas and work on learning from them, we change and grow. As a result our perspective changes. We come to deeper understanding.

When you're trying to write a work of 100 or more pages, you have the danger that what you write at the start will not match what you write near the end due to the natural learning process that we would expect.

I often find myself looking at what I wrote in the past and wondering how to reconstruct the idea that drove me then.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Order of Things (2)

Every large paper needs an introductory piece that tells the reader what to expect. This introductory piece gives the reader an overview and tells the reader what to expect. But because its purpose is to give the reader an overview and to tell the reader what to expect, it also gives you, the writer, an overview and tells you what to expect. It is a sort of plan for the rest of the work.

The first draft of an intro can be written much more quickly than the first draft of any of the later chapters, so it's a small task, and therefore a good place to start. It's just a draft to be moved through quickly to help organize your thoughts. That organization then informs the first draft of each of the chapters that follow. It's true that in writing the first draft of the later chapters you will see the arguments in greater detail and depth, and that that knowledge could help you write the introduction, but it could just as well help you re-write the introduction.

But for this schema to make sense, you don't want to spend too much time on the first draft of the introduction, you want to move through it quickly and use it to help you plan the rest of your writing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Order of Things

In what order should one write the different parts of the dissertation?
Is there a best order in which to write your chapters?

One simple answer is to write everything at once. But that's a problematic answer for several reasons. It's an answer that makes most sense on the large-scale, in terms of your time and project management over the course of months. On the scale of how you spend your day's writing time, you'll need to focus on one piece.

Another simple answer would be to say that there is no simple answer to this--that each situation is different and each writer's task order will be different. This simple answer is not based on simplistic reasoning, nor on a desire to evade the question, but rather on premises suggested by Horst Rittel, who suggested that the design process could not accurately be described in terms of a sequence of phases, but rather at any time the designer might be called upon to engage in any number of different tasks. (I would have to digress through several paragraphs here to give a more detailed discussion of why I think Rittel's premise is relevant to the question of which chapter to write first; I am not interested in writing those paragraphs right now, however, as I would rather keep my focus on the question of which chapter to write first.)

Neither of those two simple answers is satisfactory, because they don't really provide enough information to help a writer plan out their writing practice.

One thing to do is consider the structure and type of the dissertation, because different structures will present different issues to the writer. The structure of a dissertation describing an empirical study is different from the structure of a dissertation examining a body of literature, or describing a history. But I don't want to go into the details of any specific type of dissertation, rather I want to talk about my first simple answer a little more.

Basically, I think that writers should try to write the whole thing at once. What do I mean by that? Instead of thinking about getting one chapter done and then moving on, I like to think in terms of cycles of review and revision: you should have at least two or three in the course of writing your dissertation. For each cycle you want to bring all the chapters up to an equal level of development and sophistication before going back and trying to rewrite any one chapter.

The way I see it the really difficult things about the dissertation project are 1) the size of the project and 2) learning to develop your own voice and express your own view of the world.

The two points are related: the dissertation is a larger project than most dissertation writers have ever undertaken (and the same is true, most likely for the average writer of any sort of thesis, whether for an undergraduate degree or a Master's). The challenge is not writing a sufficient number of pages--most students have already written enough pages over the course of their academic career--the challenge is making those pages all work together. Making them work together depends on our developing our own coherent vision of the project--a sense of purpose and our own voice about what needs to be said.

Writing a dissertation is a project that extends over a long period of time, and if you're writing throughout that period you're going to learn a lot about your project. And in learning, you will come to see the project differently than you did in the past (that's what learning is), and therefore what you have written in the first chapter you wrote may not match with the last chapter you wrote. Therefore, it is my opinion that one try to bring the whole project--all the chapters up to the same level of completeness, and once you have done so, then you start reworking all the chapters, using the insights you've gained through the process of writing.

For empirical studies, you have to propose first, so you obviously can't write all the chapters to the same level of completeness before your propose, but you can write the first three chapters together (Intro, LitReview, Methods).

The question that prompted this blog entry was from a writer who is writing up an empirical study, and who has a book that suggests that one start by writing the literature review. My first response--noted above--is to disagree. My third response (no, I've not forgotten the second--I'm just mentioning them out of order) is to note that there are many different ways to accomplish a project, and I know the author of the book has a good deal of practical experience working with writers, so there's got to be some value in the suggestion; it may well have worked for many people. My second response is that my experience shows that many writers can fall into the literature review trap: getting lost in the whole literature and not knowing when to stop with the literature and losing their own voice in the attempt to discuss the voices of others--it is this, I suppose that is my greatest worry on the practical level: unless one writes the literature review in the right frame of mind, one can lose one's own voice (see my previous comments on the literature review).

The insights that one gets from writing the introduction and methods chapters of the proposal for an empirical study help inform and shape the material in the literature review. Of course the writing of the literature review also helps inform the writing of the introduction and the methods.

It is my working presumption that anyone embarking on writing a dissertation has already done significant research and should be able to write a scholarly draft using the material he or she already has. This does not mean that the writer won't want to to do more reading and research during the course of writing, but just that writers should start writing, and thereby start the process of developing cycles of review and revision.

Now, having said that I don't believe in any one right way to start, I will say that I recommend starting by trying to write a draft of an abstract or an introduction or something in between. The abstract and introduction are both condensed descriptions of the whole project--therefore in writing an abstract or introduction, you're actually also writing a plan for what you're going to do and write in your project as a whole. So you start by writing and abstract/introduction/plan of action, then you go on to try to write other chapters, then as you learn through the writing of the other chapters, you go back and revise your abstract/introduction and plan. This plan that you develop is aligned with your own voice, and when you have a plan it's easier to avoid getting lost in the literature review.

That's my take on it, but your mileage may vary. As I said earlier, it's quite possible that the insights of the other book, though different from mine, are, in fact, a viable way to proceed.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Stereotypes and Generalization

I guess my thinking was partially triggered by a conversation in which a writer told me that a book on dissertations said that a dissertation would take something like 1047 hours of work. I forget the exact number, and I'm not going to mention the title of the book lest my comments be construed as a criticism of the book, which I've not read. But to suggest such an exact number? It seems to me that it might make sense to discuss the rough order of magnitude of the time that goes into writing a dissertation, but not to try to claim such precision. It seems an undue, or inappropriate generalization.

Generalization is a very useful tool. But we want to be careful of it. Stereotypes are a form of generalization. There's nothing wrong with stereotypes, in themselves, but due caution is necessary in their use.

One writer I was talking with suggested that quantitative studies take less time than qualitative studies, and that therefore it would be easier to write a quantitative study. It is in reasoning like this that the use of generalizations goes wrong. Just because one can make a general statement about a group, doesn't mean that statement holds for all members of the group. It's like saying that because men are taller than women (a safe, and easily verifiable generalization), all men are taller than all women, which is, of course, absolute hooey. I meet plenty of women taller than I. I meet more women who are shorter than I, but that doesn't make the opposite true.

One reason to be careful of generalization is that if you use it poorly in academic writing, you open yourself to ridicule. I worked with a writer once who was writing a dissertation that explicitly argued against "essentialism" in reasoning, and against racism, yet the writer consistently made generalizations about race--in direct contradiction to the anti-essentialist positions she claimed to hold. It was a frustrating experience because much of the writing and thinking in the work would have been sound, but for the use of essentialist reasoning and the careless use of generalization--"all black people experience X," she would write, "and all white people experience Y."

But more importantly than looking like a fool for expressing oneself in crude generalizations, one can benefit by thinking things through properly.

I heard the "quantitative studies are easier" from one writer who had previously almost completely planned a good deal of her study. She had planned a qualitative study, and she had worked out many details related to structure of the study and recruitment. Then, on hearing from a friend that quantitative studies are shorter, she abandoned all the work she had previously done and spent several weeks just trying to orient herself to a new project. I don't know how much shorter the quantitative study was compared to the qualitative study, but I do know that a significant amount of past effort was scrapped and due to that decision, a significant amount of new effort was necessary. Now, if we know that a dissertation takes 1047 hours of work ;-), on average, what's the difference in the amount of work necessary to do the quantitative vs. the qualitative? 10% (or 100 hours)? or is it 5%? or 25%? The crude generalization doesn't really help us. And again, we might also think about the dissertation not in hours of work, but in weeks or months elapsed from start to finish. 1000 hours is 50 20-hour weeks. If the writer lost four or more weeks (which she did) switching topics, then her time cost was about 10% of a 50-week project, or 5% of a 100-week project. So for that writer, the generalization would only pay off in the case of her study being more than 5% shorter.

Anyway, this isn't really so much about writing, I suppose, as it is about logic. My basic point is that, while generalization can be useful in many ways, one must always check whether the generalization is apt to the specific case.

To put this in slightly different terms, two forms of logical inference depend on generalization. These two forms are very useful, each in their own way, but they are not logically certain in the same way that logical deduction is. The two logical forms: induction and abduction.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Significant to whom?

This is a brief follow up to the post on significance from a few days ago.

Then I mentioned different levels of significance as places to look for significance. What I want to add has to do with the inherently personal nature of significance: significance is a matter of perspective. Different people have different ideas about what is significant. This can be worth remembering when it comes time to write.

I was talking with a writer today about the significance of her work. And when she had stated a personal sort of significance for her work, she commented that she didn't feel like she could use that significance for her paper. I agreed but it seems to me that it's one thing to recognize why something is important to you, and another thing altogether to try and convince others of that significance.

If you can recognize a personal significance for a work, that may be a good reason to motivate a project, even if you're going to try to present it to others as having a different kind of significance.

On one hand, having this split significance--the story you tell yourself, and the story you tell others--could be interpreted as hypocrisy. On the other, the fact that you are motivated for personal reasons doesn't mean that there isn't a reason that is truly significant to others that may be important.

For example, many environmentalists espouse vegetarianism because of the high environmental cost per calorie of meat as compared to the environmental cost per calorie of vegetable. The fact that a person is vegetarian for environmental reasons doesn't mean that another person--one who believes in animal rights, or one opposed to killing, as suggested by Buddhist principles--cannot appreciate to value of the vegetarian's behavior. The fact that the environmentalist and the Buddhist place the major significance on different aspects of the vegetarianism does not mean that either of the motivations is somehow corrupt.

When we're working on a writing project, it may make sense to recognize that the significance that we find in our own work may not be the most significant aspect of the work in the eyes of others, and it may make sense to focus attention on the significance that others find in it. Writing. after all, is about reaching other people, and reaching them doesn't mean blindly remaining intent on your own purposes, it usually means trying to connect with their purposes. And that's not hypocrisy, that's respect and perhaps empathy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Introduction: APA recommendations

I was looking back over what the APA (American Psychological Association) Publication
Manual has to say about Introductions in preparation for a meeting with a writer tomorrow. As an aid to my own understanding, and because I need something to write about here, I figured I'd just make a few notes about what they say. I think these notes, while not entirely applicable to dissertations that aren't structured around an empirical study, provide some good insight into what readers are looking for--for what the APA thinks is worth asking for in introductions.

As an aside, the APA Manual also has a good section on what to put in abstracts (pp. 12-15) that is also worth reading, even if you're trying to write an introduction, because an introduction and an abstract are attempting to do very similar things: they are where the reader starts; they are what draws the reader in.

Ok, so I'm using section 1.08 of the 5th edition of The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, pp. 15-17.

The APA Manual breaks section 1.08 into three parts, which, if we want, we can also take as a basic outline for an Introduction--each part of the Manual's section 1.08 corresponds to a section of the Introduction. The three parts are titled: "Introduce the problem;" "Develop the Background;" and "State the Purpose and Rationale." The character of each part, I think, is basically apparent from the title of the section, but these section titles wouldn't really work as section titles in an actual introduction. Instead, one might have sections titled "Statement of Problem," "Background" (or "Literature Review"), and "Purpose and Rationale of the Study."

The first section, "Introduce the problem" says:
Before writing the introduction consider
  • Why is this problem important?
  • How do the hypothesis and the experimental design relate to the problem?
  • What are the theoretical implications of the study, and how does the study relate to previous work in the area?
  • What theoretical propositions are tested, and how were they derived?
A good introduction answers these questions...and, by summarizing the relevant arguments and the data, gives the reader a firm sense of what was done and why. (p. 16)

We can see in that terminal phrase--"what was done and why?"--a call for an explicit statement of purpose. At the least, I read it that way; regular readers of this blog have probably noted that I talk about sense of purpose a lot.

The four bulleted questions do not necessarily represent sections of the first section of the introduction (the "Statement of Problem"), but they could be, because that section is setting up all that comes after, and before getting into the details of a literature review, one wants to give the reader a complete sense of "what was done and why", so that the details of the literature review are framed in terms of the purpose of the project.

The "Develop the background" section opens with the sentences "Discuss the literature, but do not include an exhaustive historical review. Assume that the reader is knowledgeable about the field for which you are writing and does not require a complete digest" (p. 16).
What this means to me is: keep the details down, except with respect to those details that are directly related to your study. For example, if you are using a two variables, you need only discuss details of those variables that are related to how the two variables might interact, and not details about how each variable interacts with all other variables. (I think that last sentence doesn't really make sense; I apologize; I want to move on.)

Finally, the "State the purpose and rationale." Have I ever said anything about the value of an explicit statement of purpose? Ok, so here my claim is seconded.

Anyway, if you happen to be writing an APA paper, taking a look at section 1.08 of the manual can be of great help: it provides a model for what is expected.

If you don't have a manual of your own, and don't want to check the library (it's only two pages of reading), it's worth thinking about what the three tasks assigned to the introduction by the APA: "Introduce the problem;" "Develop the Background;" and "State the Purpose and Rationale." How is your paper going to accomplish these three things in the introduction? I think that every academic work wants to do something of the sort in its introduction, whether we're talking about the introduction to a chapter or to a book/dissertation. The introduction is where the foundation is laid for the rest o the argument; it is akin to the statement of axioms prior to the beginning of a logical proof. The introduction says what you're looking for, how you're going to look for it, and what kinds of evidence you're going to consider. This is a paradigm that any paper can follow.

If, for example, one is writing a paper in history the introduction might say (1) what the temporal parameters are, and what kind of development you're looking at (whether those are changes in a population (e.g. US expatriates in the 1920s), a process (e.g., agriculture) or type of object (e.g., furniture)), (2) what is your philosophical/theoretical lens (how do you define the task of the historian? Are you e.g., a Marxist theorist)?, and (3) what general primary evidence you will be using (actually, this last may be unnecessary for many fields like history or literature where what is considered acceptable evidence is so well accepted that no discussion of it is necessary).

Like yesterday, I think I could say more, and maybe will, but not right now, got other things to do...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Feedback cycles

Recently I've been thinking a lot about writing in terms of iterated feedback cycles. Basically, the writing of a dissertation or thesis can be seen through the lens of the fundamental interaction between the writer and the committee, and especially the advisor/chair.

The committee chair is expected (required, really) to give the writer feedback and guidance in the move towards completion. It doesn't always work out so well. Even so, I recommend working under the assumption that what you want to do is to create a useful feedback loop.

This can be done by the simple expedient of turning work that is basically complete. I don't necessarily mean completely edited and proofread and formatted, nor do I even mean with all problems resolved and no questions of how to develop the material. I really mean complete in terms of the structure of the paper.

A structurally complete paper has an introduction and a conclusion. It dedicates space to defining the basic terms and premises. It presents an idea to be discussed and a purpose for discussing it.

Minor digression here: I often think about the basic five-paragraph essay that everyone (of my generation, at least) was taught to write in elementary school or junior high. There was an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. It's a structure that is pretty roundly dismissed, I think, by composition teachers now. But I think it's elegant, and provides a basic model for what all writing is trying to accomplish.

All writing--fiction, speech writing, essays, etc.--starts with something that is supposed to draw the reader in and orient them in some way. A writer of fiction tries to draw the reader in differently than does the speech writer or the essayist, but still the writer of fiction wishesthe reader to know what the book is about. (aside: for any who believe that "different/differently" must always be paired with "from", I disagree. As I write to be understood, and as I seriously doubt that the sentence is hard to understand, I pooh-pooh the scorn of any prescriptive grammarian who thinks it "wrong." I could continue this digression with references, but really...back to our main story.) "Call me Ishmael," opens Moby Dick, thus informing the reader that the whole book will somehow be about this person Ishmael. Fiction writers don't always want their reader to understand the full import of the orientation, but yet their words orient the reader, nonetheless. Brave New World opens with the sentence fragment: "A squat gray building of only thirty-four stories." The sentence orients the reader to the fundamental oppressive dystopian vision. (and a big raspberry to all the petty grammarians out there who are appalled by such casual use of language as Huxley's incomplete sentence.)

Similarly, all pieces of writing have some ending, something that wraps up the work and leaves the reader with some sense of what the work was about. In the case of expository writing, this tends to be some statement of what you have shown and the conclusions that you draw from it--the moral of the story, if you will.

And, of course, there's something in between the beginning and the end.
A complete piece will have all of these.
If, then, you submit a work that is structurally complete, your reader can read it and has to be able to explain why it's not complete, and thus give you feedback on the content and other aspects of the writing. If it is complete, you're begging to have your reader say "it's not complete."

I'm maybe going to say more about this later, but I got off on digressions and now have to run off...

Sunday, September 7, 2008


I had a writer today ask me about finding the significance of her work.

Thinking about it, it seems like significance is context-dependent, or rather viewer-dependent. What counts as significant depends on point of view. We all, I imagine, have memories of feeling a deep significance in somethings that we just wouldn't worry about now. Those are situations where our view of significance changes; they should give us some insight into the basic truth that the significance that we place on something is not the same that others will.

That being said, I think that we can recognize a number of different levels at which we can find significance for a work, or at least these levels are levels at which we can seek to find significance.

Personal Significance. The obvious first place to seek significance is for yourself. If you don't feel that a work has any significance, then it can be mighty difficult to persevere, especially at the times that the project seems difficult. This is the sense of purpose that should drive the work. There are different types of personal significance: there is simple interest and curiosity; or, by contrast, there is also the personal significance of the crusader. There are probably other flavors of this, but I don't want to pursue that too far.

Academic Significance. As an academic writer, an obvious place to look for significance is within the academic community and the academic discourse. Are there publications that address similar issues as you hope to look at? Are there any publications that call for the kind of research that you hope to do? Are there authors whose work might be supplemented or challenged by your work?

Political Significance. An academic writer might also be concerned with the possibility that their work might shape political discourse in some way. There's some overlap here with the next type of significance.

Practical/Policy/Protocol Significance. Does the research tell us about the way we do things? If we carry out a research project, what does it show us about how we do do things--are we doing them well? And is there any way we could do them better?

Are there other types of significance I've missed? Quite possibly. In truth I'm rushing a little o get something written after missing yesterday, but I don't really feel like spending a lot of time on this right now. Hence, a short post; but better a bad post on time than a good post late.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Avoiding a Battle of Wills

I don't advocate getting into a battle of wills with your faculty committee; it makes the process much more difficult. But at the same time, it's important to be able to adhere to your own sense of purpose, and your own sense of what the project ought to be.

This is one of the most difficult pieces of the dissertation project to manage: how much of your vision are you willing to sacrifice to the demands or suggestions of your committee? How much do you want to respond to instructions of your committee when they call on you to do work that you would not have done?

The answer, of course, is not simple. It's always a matter of judgment calls. First off, is that comment that says "include a discussion of X" or the one that says "cut out section Y"--are those comments demands or suggestions? You have to judge with respect to your committee. But I think it is easy for a graduate student to forget that sometimes professors ask questions or make suggestions because they want to help.

I remember clearly being stopped part way through my qualifying orals. I don't remember exactly what the subject was, and I'm not quite sure which professor it was who spoke first, but she said to me something like "We're asking the question because we're trying to help you plan your dissertation, not because we're trying to find out a weakness." So one thing to ask yourself when looking at those comments is, are they demands or suggestions?

The next thing to do is to examine whether or not that comment really helps. And to do this, you have to have a good idea of what you're trying to accomplish with your dissertation, because without such a sense of purpose, how can you determine whether the comment helps or not? It is crucial to put aside any resentment at being ordered around, and just examine the suggestion on its own merits: if the suggestion helps you--and I emphasize 'you'--that doesn't mean that you'll be able to recognize its value immediately; you have to give the idea at least a little chance--though only within the crucible of your scholarly analysis. Some suggestions really do help. If you can see that a suggestion helps, then you want to use it.

Some suggestions don't really help. These ones you need to figure out how to manage. One good tactic is to simply ignore them. If you turn in a completely revised draft that's significantly different from the previous one; if that draft incorporates some of the suggestions that your professor made; and if that draft is focused, coherent and generally complete in its structure, then it is quite possible that your professor will evaluate that draft on its own merits, and not on the basis of comments written some months earlier.

Another possible strategy is to use the handy "that is outside the scope of this discussion." I was talking today with a Berkeley Professor of education who was telling me how he had shown a draft to a friend, how that friend had taken him to task on a certain issue, and how he had decided to respond by putting in a footnote that acknowledged the difficulty and said "but that is outside the scope of this discussion." As he said to me: one does not wish to appear ignorant of the subject, or the issue, but opening the discussion is like opening Pandora's box: all sorts of problems come out. His "Pandora's box" is parallel to the rabbit holes that I was talking about. But he's right, in a way: going into that discussion actually does create many problems, and given the desire for concise and focused work, even exploration of interesting subjects is something of a problem. We may be able to convincingly respond to a suggestion by writing a paragraph that acknowledges a body of material that is relevant, but is outside the scope of the study.

It's possible that the suggestions I have made above can help resolve the great majority of problems with comments and suggestions from your committee that you find difficult. It seems to me likely that this strategy, repeated over a couple of cycles of feedback and revision, might be successful in avoiding direct conflict. If you are able to respond positively to some of the suggestions, that always helps defuse difficulties related to failing to respond to all of the comments.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Framing (2)

Sarah asks:

I'm looking back at my text and thinking to myself "I have 9 pages of revised single spaced text (with several more to follow) and no where in here do I feel I have shared with my reader why this long digression in detail is important."

When should we tell the readers about our framing? How often do we need to remind them of it? What are some graceful and tactful ways of doing this without it feeling out of place?
The most important place for framing is right near the beginning. It seems to me that you want your reader to know the general purpose and context of your work right from the start. As I said yesterday, this framing is related to the sense of purpose, and I have previously (on Aug. 18, in a post titled "Sense of Purpose: Explicit statements") noted how these explicit statements of purpose are placed in the preface--that is to say the first piece the reader is to read. This is true for the entire work, and it's true for pieces of the larger work: as you begin a new section, you frame that section within its context.

You might start an entire work saying "Our goal is to trace the history of X, in order to better understand what X is like today." Or maybe "The goal of this work is to trace the history of X, in order to provide an example of the general process Y." Or, to take an example from a book I revere: "The following essay is written in the conviction that anarchism, while perhaps not the most attractive political philosophy, is certainly excellent medicine for epistemology, and for the philosophy of science." (From Paul Feyerabend's Against Method. The italics are Feyerabend's.) Of course, when you start a work, the need to frame it is greatest.
When you are beginning a section of a larger work, you want to frame that section in terms of the larger work. This can be done by explaining to the reader the transition and flow of the work. For example: "This section discusses issues related to a specific aspect of X." Or "Having defined the basic parameters of X, we will look at some of the effects of process Y on X." Or maybe "In order to discuss X, we need to take a look at what came before X; therefore we must first examine W, which will serve as a foil for X."
To return to Sarah's question, as you open those nine pages, do you reference the main question of your study? Do you reference the section that comes before those nine pages? Do you discuss what will follow those nine pages? If not, then I suggest adding a couple of sentences to tell the reader right up front something like "The history of the ABC commission played a crucial role in the development of the 123 department, which set the general parameters for who would be counted as receiving DEF benefits." This kind of statement only comes at the beginning of a section that is, in a way a self-contained unit in the larger work. This kind of framing requires your having a sense of actual purpose for including the discussion: why did you choose to include this discussion in your work? What does this specific discussion--whether it be a discussion of an event, of a theory, of a term, a person, etc.--what purpose does this discussion have in the context of the larger work?

Beyond that opening statement, I think that you want to start to work framing in through the use of simple sentences later in the section and at transitions within the section. As you start to wrap up the section you want to say to the reader stuff like "this detail that we just discussed is one of the key factors in stuff that I'm going to tell you about later," or maybe "this detail is one of the keys in understanding the stuff I discussed in the previous chapter."

Good methods of framing often rely on mentioning what has just been discussed or what will next be discussed in relation to the current section: how does this section relate to what comes before and after? What is the transition and what the logic? If you just finished discussing theory A and you're currently discussing theory B, how do those theories compare to each other? Are they in conflict or in agreement? where are they alike and where similar? If you framed the previous section well, then you can frame the current section in terms of the previous section. If you are trying to frame the current section with respect to what will come next, it helps to make some reference back to the main question, too.

How often do you need to remind the reader? I think the answer to that is: whenever the link starts to seem tenuous. I know that's not really clear. But what I'm thinking of is that sometimes, as we write about a subject we've been thinking about, it is easy to make leaps of reasoning and follow them--those are the places the reader gets lost. So, if you're working to tie your chain of reasoning together so the reader can follow it, then a lot of framing will naturally develop.

The most important framing of all is in your head: you, the writer, need to be able to explain to yourself what role a given section serves in relating to the main question of your work. If you are framing the ideas yourself--and you write about the things that you see the importance of--then the ideas will naturally come out framed.

If you want to show, for example, how the development of enumeration practices in government, business and charity, led to an entire segment of the population suffering from a series of problems, then each discussion of government policy, of business practice, of theory, etc., will naturally be imbued with framing because you, the writer, will be motivated. If you discuss a government commission, it will be because that commission had an impact in some way; if you discuss a theory, it is because that theory shaped some aspects of the phenomenon you're studying, and so on.

As a final note, the hardest things to frame are things that you need to include to satisfy others. In my dissertation, I was primarily interested in ideas of science and the practical implications of these ideas and how to improve on those ideas given things that we've learned about human cognition. But I included discussion of architectural aesthetics largely at the prompting of my committee; I was interested in the aesthetic questions, and I had a lot to say about them, but it was not quite as directly germane to my main sense of purpose, and so framing it was very difficult. One can't just drop the material in and say "oh by the way: here's 20 pages on some tangential issue," or at least it doesn't feel confident. I guess in such situations, I would recommend making sure that you have a strong vision of what you would like to include, and then it becomes easier, at least, to encapsulate difficult material, or to maybe work in little bits of it in unobtrusive manners, perhaps as a subtheme.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Internet phenomena fascinate me. I certainly don't study them, and the general study of such phenomena (and the consequent understanding that would come) might well avail me, but it's not really my bag. I'm more interested in thinking through ideas related to writing and communication and how to do it.

One thing that I notice in internet phenomena, especially internet searches is how quickly things come to be taken out of context, or how the context gets lost.

For example, there is a page on the site Technorati that
presents the matter of my blog in an odd way. While it does basically represent what is going on in my blog, context is lost. Look, in particular, at the section "what this blog is about", which uses the labels of my posts to create a display of topics. The four topics that dominate the list are consistency, emotions, practice, sense of purpose. And I do talk about those often. The problem is that what is completely lost is the framing I provide at the top of my blog: "Seeking insightful perspectives on writing, dissertations, and projects in general." I talk about consistency, etc., but in the context of writing. I'm not writing about emotions; I'm writing about the role that emotions play in writing.

This notion of maintaining the framing is a good one for writers to keep in mind. When presenting a long and detailed exposition to readers, it behooves the writer to make sure that the framing is well done, so that the reader understands and can readily remember why the details are being discussed.
But having once framed something in the context of your main topic, you do not need to talk about your main topic explicitly. After all, we want to assume that our readers are not idiots and they can remember our basic purpose.

The framing is crucial: without it, our meaning is lost on the reader.
The framing is set by your sense of purpose: your sense of purpose is what sets your focus, and it is that focus which determines the scope and direction of the work.

Monday, September 1, 2008


What Counts?
I'm thinking, in this case, particularly about what to count as "work accomplished", but it's a very interesting general question as well, because deciding "what counts" is a crucial decision.

Consider, for example, the United States Constitution in one of its darker moments:
Article 1, Section 2, paragraph 3: "Representatives...shall be apportioned among the several States...according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free persons,...and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons."
Indians not taxed counted not at all in determining representation of the new federal government. "Other persons" counted 60% in determining numbers of representatives, but of course those other persons didn't get 60% of a vote, being slaves.

It's nice and dandy to think of numbers as objective. It's one of the lovely myths of science. But what we choose to count is determined by how we see the world. What gets counted depends on our subjective decisions concerning what to count. This is true whether we are a physical scientist looking data sets and trying to decide whether some data can be considered outliers, or whether we are social scientist trying to decide whether certain data are coded as one thing or as another, or whether we are a politician trying to decide who to count as eligible with respect to some policy. It is inevitable that a value-laden subjective determination is made considering what counts.

While I mention this as a general principle that all academics ought to be aware of, my real concern here is in thinking about writers and how writers can sabotage themselves. I had a writer lament to me the other day "I didn't get much done; I only wrote abut 2000 words." When I wrote back "That's great 2000 words is a considerable piece of work and if you keep up a pace like that you'll finish in no time," I got a response "Actually I only wrote about 1000 words."

Well, we all have to figure out what to count. It's easy to count the words that we have written: lots of word-processing software will do it for us. It's not so easy to count if we start saying "well, these words do count, but those don't." But the determination is ours: we have to make the subjective decision of what counts before we can start enumerating.

But I wasn't so much concerned with counting words, as I was with counting effort and counting progress. The effort we put in, and the progress we make are not perfectly measured in the number of words we write. I think that writers with writer's block and related problems often suffer from not being willing or able to count what they did as actual work or actual progress.

It's important to learn to celebrate the fruits of our efforts, and even more important to learn to count the fruits as actual fruits. If we spend a day of hard work, thinking through difficult problems and then say to ourselves "I got nothing done because I didn't write enough words," we are counting our effort as worthless. And what kind of emotional state does such a method of counting lead to? It leads to depression, one can easily imagine.

Dr. David Burns, M.D., author of the mass-market book on CBT titled Feeling Good, argues that there are "ten cognitive distortions that form the basis of all your depressions" (p.32). Number four on his list of cognitive distortions is "Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they 'don't count' for some reason or other" (p.42). While I have reservations about any mass-market book on psychology, and don't know that I would accept Burns' contention that all depression stems from his ten cognitive distortions, I do believe that if we engage in his cognitive distortions we are creating a strong negative emotional state. If we reject our efforts as not counting, then each day that we make an effort, and each day we discount the effort of the day, we add to our negative feelings about ourselves and about our project.

It seems, therefore, important to be able to celebrate the effort, and to celebrate the actual progress that we do make, even if it isn't as much as we would have hoped. And in that celebration we definitely don't want to focus on the idea that it wasn't as much as we hoped.

In the long-term practice of writing it is crucial to be able to have days where the productivity seems low, and not berate ourselves for those days. Writing, like many practices, is uneven--some days go well, some go badly; sometimes we make a lot of progress in an easy, measurable sense. Sometimes we make progress by having some sort of epiphany--even sometimes when that epiphany leads us to want to throw away some old writing that we had previously intended to use. Writing is about creating a working whole: a complete, coherent written work. Some of the progress necessary in that endeavor will involve re-arranging ideas we had earlier in the process before we knew what we have learned during the process.

Finally, I want to note that yes, sometimes we get nothing done. Some days we don't try. Some days we may sit down and write nothing, or write a load of tripe that doesn't contribute to the project. It's okay to admit that you had an unproductive day. But it seems to me superior to try to focus--everyday--on the positive accomplishments, and to remember to count them and celebrate them. That whole load of tripe?: well at least you learned that that wasn't what your dissertation needed. Deciding what to count is a practice in itself; it's nice when we can get the practice to support us.