Thursday, October 29, 2009


It's been ages since I posted here, and who knows when I'll be doing it again on a regular basis--probably not for a while, I don't think...

I just sent a manuscript off to the publisher, fulfilling the main part of my contractual obligation (still have to do an index), but it's on its way.

My book: The Universe of Design: Horst rittel's Theories of Design and Planning. I'm credited as second author, but really I'm third author after the titular Horst Rittel and the listed first author Jean-Pierre Protzen.

This is an academic book, no question. It is, in many ways, very abstract and philosophical. But this abstraction has immediate relevance to our day-to-day lives, and especially our lives as acting, thinking people trying to make plans for a better life for ourselves or for others.
This book discusses the process of design, which, in the sense used in the book, is a process in which we all engage sometimes: we may not be planning a whole city, we may only be planning a menu for the week, or planning a budget. But we make plans that we use to help us solve our problems. As members of a democratic society, we are also called on to contribute to or evaluate plans for our society. We all engage in planning and design.
The book examines the nature of problems: design problems are "wicked": they are not easily defined, may be understood in many different ways, and any attempt at a solution counts significantly--we cannot attempt a plan without repercussions (e.g., if we plan a menu, buy the food and cook it, we have paid the costs of the meal in effort and money no matter how palatable the food may be).
The book also discusses the processes of design, the reasoning of designers, the use of rationality and other conceptual tools for design, and reasons designs/plans fail.

It's due out in six months or so, assuming no problems in the process.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


If I were to cut this draft short at the 50,000-word, reduced goal, then I would be almost done. So, I'm starting to write and engage with the project more from a sense of "how do I complete this draft" rather than a sense of "what else can I say to make this cover all the issues that I think are important?"

I'm over 49,000 words tonight, but I know that a bunch of my recent additions will either be cut or necessitate cuts in the main text.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


making a little progress...
writing right now, but got over 47,000 words and looked at the clock and wanted to post a blog before midnight, so I officially only missed one day since my last post.

Monday, July 6, 2009

some days, not so much

I struggled for hours with writing today. And to little avail. I console myself by remembering that there are bad days sprinkled in with the good (or vice versa, depending on how things are going), and that the bad days are often days when I'm struggling with important issues. Things were very productive in early June, not so much lately, but at least I put in the time.
I wrote a few hundred words and considered the elimination of significantly more.
My word count is still 46,000+, with about 4000 words to get to my low-end goal of 50,000, and 14,000 to get to my initial 60,000 word goal.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Problems, problems

It's funny how the problems shift.

About ten days ago, I was struggling to get writing done and thinking that I should just cut the draft at 50,000 words.
Today I got to 46,000+, and suddenly 50,000 almost seems like it won't be enough. I feel that there must be more than 4,000 words of material left. Not that I can actually think of it right now.

In any event, with the reduced goal of 50,000 just a short jog up ahead, it's funny how my sense of the problem shifted. Of course, it's not a problem at all: the 50,000 word goal is not a limit; I can go over if I want.

Whatever; for now I just want to keep on plugging so I can put the complete draft together, and then step back a little and try to see how the whole thing hangs together.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Getting back on the horse (again)

What's to do when circumstances keep one from a project? Berate yourself? Or get back on the horse?

In June I was cruising for a while, writing very productively--if I had kept that pace, I would have reached 60,000 words by now. I didn't. Should I hang my head in shame? Should I spend time lamenting what was lost? I don't know, but those don't seem like they will help me finish the book. If I spend time lamenting what was lost instead of working on the book, won't that give me something to lament in the future: the hours I spent lamenting instead of working?

So I want to get back on that horse every time I fall off, as quickly as I can.

I'm over 44,000 today (thanks, partly, to finding 1000 words I wrote years ago that will suit).

It may not be graceful, but I'm riding again.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Getting back on the horse

It always helps to get positive feedback and support...thanks!

I fell off the horse about a week ago, and didn't get any real writing done until tonight, and I'm just getting back into the same sense of knowing what I want to work on that I had last week.

The last three days I have spent some time with the book, but not actually writing--I did almost cut a thousand words though--may still; I'm undecided.

Tonight, I did some writing.
The word count is now at 42,000, though as I say, I'm looking to cut about 1000.

Still...just trying to get back to it and not let setbacks set me back any more than necessary; the lost time is lost, why lose more regretting it?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


still rolling nicely.
Don't want to jinx it. But it's nice to recognize that it goes well, sometimes, and when it does it's not a burden to write.

20,000 words to go.

Sometimes I feel like it's dragging and I have nothing to add anymore, then I'll come across something that I want to expand, or I'll have a sudden idea that I can expand on some, and suddenly (that is to say over the course of a few hours), there's 500 or 1000 words.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Getting monotonous, I know.
I'm spending most of my writing energy on writing.

I'm glad to get 1000 words a day for the last few.
I'd love to get more. I'm almost 2/3 of the way to my planned length.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


It feels good when you're making progress!
I look forward to having a complete draft soon--July sometime, if I keep making good progress.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


I'm sure the monotony is infuriating--except that no one is reading anyway.

I got to 37,000 words in my draft. 23,000 to go. Only 13,000 if I cut it at 50k.

Friday, June 12, 2009


I spent Friday night writing, and have cranked out some words.
Now nearly at 36,000--may perhaps make it there before going to bed tonight, but I wanted to post today, especially to get my sense of momentum going again after a slow start in June.

Maybe I'll start counting down now...25,000 to go.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


So I missed about 10 days of reporting on my work. And didn't do that much writing, but I have gotten the draft to over 33,000 words. Fifty-five percent of the way there...
At a thousand words a day, I could do it by early July. I don't think I'll manage a thousand words a day, but you can dream...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Set clear goals

I'm at 31,000 words now.

I was talking with a writer who said "I want this section to be 10 pages."
I asked what would go into the 10-page section, and she mentioned three main sub-sections. I asked her how long each subsection would be, she said "five to seven pages." This doesn't add up. And it's a good recipe for spending time writing and coming up with something that is not well focused, because you weren't sure where it would start and end.

Right now I'm having a bit of trouble imagining how I'm going to fill in the remaining 29,000 words to get to my goal of 60,000. But I also have one section that has gone over the estimated length. I imagine that, given time, I could write more than I estimated for each individual section. The key will be to keep it focused and cohesive.

only 29,000 more to go...
and then I can start the second draft.


Half the planned size.
60% if I cut the original plan down to 50,000 total.

Maybe a month or two to a complete draft?

Sunday, May 31, 2009


just over 29,000 now.

I'm having trouble seeing the whole project. I'm also wondering whether I really need to be striving for 60,000--it seemed such a nice, optimistic number, but does it really suit my subject? Most of the books similar to mine seem to be maybe in the 40-50,000 range.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

irregular blogging, but some regular writing

I am managing to stay with the project, though the last three days have seen only minimal progress.

I suppose it's reasonable at some point to take a short break, but I want to keep it moving--otherwise the project won't get done.

At the same time, I know that projects just take a long time to develop. I have a book in proposal to a publisher right now (I'm the second author) and the commissioning editor was talking about how if we get a contract going this summer, we can hope to have the book out next May. She was surprised to hear that we actually have an almost-complete draft, and as best I can tell, we are ahead of the curve in terms of actually having things when we say we'll have them and not creating delays. And this with a project that has been in the works for about two years, with two of us working on it, and funding to support the effort. Thus I need to be cool about the fact that I'm on a second draft (no complete first draft yet) of this project which is in its second year, and I still only have a half-draft. As long as I keep plugging, there will be a complete draft.

The sooner the better, but no panic.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


with about 600 words this morning, my complete draft is now at about 27000 words--almost half the way there. And I haven't even started adding in the material that I decided to add back in when I changed my mind about who the audience would best be.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

still moving...

another 300+ words...not fast progress, but at least I'm still with it. It's growing slowly but surely.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A few hundred

struggling with major questions--can't decide on what audience to aim at, and not sure which audience would be better overall--partly because the idea of what is better overall is complex, and partly because the main concern in my wish for better overall is largely based on what audience will buy more books, or at least, what audience will appear as a more likely market to a publisher--because it seems to me that getting the book published would be pretty neat.

Despite that struggle with major questions, there are still some parts that Ican work on--and I managed about 600 words.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

minor work

today and yesterday, I did some excavation of old notes trying to find pieces that fit into the new vision of the book. I found some.

My total draft is now at about 25,000 words--slightly less than halfway there.
It gets hard at this point to keep the project moving. It's hard to keep in mind all that has been done and all that is wanted, and to keep focus on the different aspects as well as the overarching goals.

Frustration sets in here, too.
It's nice to have the record and to be able to look back and see that eight days ago, the draft as at 17,000 words. Seeing progress helps deal with frustration.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

making progress

I didn't get a ton of writing done today, but I did get some.

At latest count, my current draft is 22,000 words, or about a third of the way there.
Right now it's feeling pretty hard to find more words.

Is my estimate of 60,000 for a target too ambitious?
It's too early to tell.
When I get to 40,000, then I might be able to make a better judgment, but even that seems like a long way away--another 18,000 words--weeks of work. At least one week, if that week is very productive--but it's a rare week that I can average 3000 words a day.

Best not let that daunt me: push on.

I did get evidence that my writing will get a decent reception in the publishing world--at the least, the book that I have been working on editing and annotating (as the second author/editor, behind my former dissertation chair), is getting very positive treatment from the commissioning editor at the publishing house that we submitted to. She wrote and said "Unusually, there were no suggestions from the reviewers for any changes, so I feel very confident that my Publishing Board will be as enthusiastic about the book as I am." I don't think an author can ask for much better than that.

And this is all the more reason to push on, so that this book can get a similarly good reception. I hope it can. But it's 38,000 words and a proposal away from that.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


today I pretty much just wrote about writing. I didn't write hardly anything that I have any intention of using as part of my book, but I did write 500+ words about what I want to write and asking questions about how I want to structure it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

not actual writing...

I did spend about 40 minutes with my book this morning, and excavated a good 430 words from an old draft. It's not actually writing, but...

It can be a matter of some despair to see how little of an old draft is usable...a lot of effort went into those old words. But the framing of the work changed, and with that, whole sections simply need to be completely rewritten--or rather most of the old work is no longer usable for its words, only for its ideas.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Day off to celebrate (and do other work)

Today I was distracted by a letter from an editor at what I hope will be my publishing house for a book I'm working on (as second author):

"I thought I would send the two reviews I have received on to you.
As you can see the feedback is overwhelmingly positive and it is clear that there is a real gap in the market for a work of this kind. Unusually, there were no suggestions from the reviewers for any changes, so I feel very confident that my Publishing Board will be as enthusiastic about the book as I am."

And then I was told that another book to which I contributed a chapter will be out in June.

And with all that, and some work to do for other folks, and a birthday party for my friend, somehow it feels pretty easy to skip the other book for a day.

Which probably isn't the best excuse...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

500+ words

pretty good--a spate of late night writing and some excavation.

Working on envisioning the entire structure, but trying to figure also, what to add, detail-wise, to get to my overall goal of a 60,000-word draft.

My total draft right now: just under 20,000.
The other 40,000 seem pretty far off.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

moderate productivity

Maybe 500 words; a little more excavation.

Also, I did more work defining the aim and the intentions for the structure. I'm currently aiming at about a 60,000-word draft, and I have currently about 17,000. In other words, I've got a lot of writing to do to get to the complete draft that I'm imagining. All the more reason to focus my efforts more intently on trying to write, and on committing to getting writing done regularly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

keeping moving...

I managed to get in a not-so-quick 450 words this morning. Wish I had time for more.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Excavation and archaeology

One big problem I have as a writer is actually using what I write.

I take it for granted that things need to be revised and rewritten. And I often write things that I don't like. And I often get stuck on a project because I wrote something I didn't like.

And what gets lost is that the project may also have some good writing in it. Sometimes I have to go back and see what I wrote and discarded to get back some of the good ideas that motivated me as I worked in the past.

This morning I did a little of that. Having not written for a few days, I put writing at the top of my priority list this morning. But on starting, I found myself considering issues that I have written about before. So I went excavating. I don't know that it was faster than just writing might have been, but I found about 2000 words that I could reuse without much revision.

Two days, no writing.

But I am still committed to the project, and I recognize that the project is much more likely to stall if I don't jump right back on it.

But I'm tired now.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Another slow day

But I managed about 150 words.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

just more than 100 words today

managed to get back to it just before midnight.
At least I got something done.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

today's progress

limited...but I wrote about 200 words.
Struggling to keep the project moving and not let distractions stop me. And not let fear stop me.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Keeping the momentum

So I didn't do much writing yesterday, and only in the last minute did I get to some today--not much--about 100 words, and I think that will be all.

But remaining committed to trying to realize a goal--in this case a book--is necessary for any project that takes a long time. If you can't stick with it, you won't finish. And I personally want to finish this project, not just let it slip into the background.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Didn't make a ton of progress this weekend; felt low; struggled with feeling like my writing isn't worth the effort.

But I did make a little progress. And, for all that I'm feeling bad about what I do write, I feel worse when I don't write. 200 words today. Very little, but more than nothing.

Friday, May 1, 2009

decent day today

over a thousand words, and feeling like I have ideas.
Feeling a little bit lost about structure, but trying to plow ahead to get to a draft that feels complete.
Some of what I have written tonight, I'm not sure how it fits into the structure yet, but I see it as being crucial to the discussion...

The exploration of the ideas and the possible orders in which they could be presented--it's a little mind-boggling...

In the draft I started last week, I now have 8000 words, but I'm entering the danger zone where I'll have gotten far enough in that the problems I face are difficult to answer, and I need to be able to stick with the project. Eight thousand words is easy enough, especially if they're not entirely coherent. But extending that by a factor of seven? Oy. That's a lot more to keep in mind and to see as part of a coherent whole.

missed a day, but got it going again

Yesterday I didn't get any writing in,
but I managed to get about 700 words today--late in the day (well, it's really tomorrow already, but I'm counting it as today).

I feel like the project is still moving forward, and I have ideas on how to proceed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

managed to get in a few words before bed

Another day without much chance to write until night, but I managed to sit with the computer and write 280 words before giving in to the lure of my bed.

Monday, April 27, 2009

yet another slow day

maybe 400 words today...but still plugging.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Another slow day

I didn't get a chance to start writing until 10:00pm, but have managed to punch out 600 words. Still feeling OK about the basic structure, though, also feeling a little more uncertain about where I'm going. Which is not good--hopefully I will be able to make this stick together as I get deeper in.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Saturday in the park

There was an Earth Day celebration in the park today, and I didn't get much work done, but I did just come in and write a couple of sentences (82 words) for my book, and maybe I'll write a few more tonight. But even if I don't, at least I got to it.


yesterday, I didn't make a record of what I accomplished writing--but I did manage to write about 300 words--not the most productive of days, but I got something done.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

progress: minimal writing; work on structure

I did some writing in the morning, but struggled to get words on the page and to keep from reworking what I did yesterday.

I managed to add a little beyond what I had so far--about 400 words.

Not much, but at least I feel like I still am in the right direction--this seems like a good place to start.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

today's progress

My title may become a common one as I use the blog to report on my day's progress.

I revised my overall structure--found some refinements that will help me reuse old material.

I looked through old material--there's definitely useful stuff.

I wrote about 1000 words on the beginning of hte new structure (the beginnings get written and rewritten more than any other thing I work on.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

since last I wrote

I wrote about 1500 words, and had a major crisis over structure and am working through alternative structures that might support what I've written better than the structure I have now.

I'm not afraid of writing more, but if I keep changing the structure, I'll never finish...

Where I am now

The current version that I have been working on this last week or so is about 7,000 words right now. I have an old version that is about 27,000 words but is based on some ideas about presentation and writing that are no longer being used (I have changed ideas about what audience I want to reach).

I don't feel very happy with my current version, either--I don't have a strong sense of structure for the ideas I want to express.

Nonetheless, I press on, because that is the only way that it will get any better. For now, I just need to stay with the project long enough to shape a complete draft of the appropriate size that is consistent and coherent within its own chosen purview.

So, really, my touchstone is the 7,000-word draft that I have right now.

A new phase

I haven't been writing here much.
Mostly I've been trying to take the ideas that I was sharing here and cast them into a book. Partly it was because I felt like I was repeating myself--I only had a few hundred posts worth of good material...this would be the place to type "lol," I think.

It's not that I don't want to continue to share my ideas, but the book project itself takes away the time I could spend writing the blog.

But I have been erratic with the book project--I started working on it almost a year ago, but have kept letting long gaps of time come between efforts, and then what I have written no longer seems useful, or at least needs rewriting.
Of course, the flip side of this is that I have written multiple drafts.

Anyway, my current plan is to push for a complete 50,000-word draft that I can then use as the basis for a proposal for a publisher.
To that end, I'm going to keep tabs on my progress.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Forests and trees (once more unto the breach)

I've been writing a fair about lately, but not so much in the blog. Partly this is because I've been finding it hard to find things to write about that I haven't written before.

One thing I've been thinking about doing, is to look back at my past posts and maybe do some digests or archives or indexes--something that would help look at the past writing.

I've written about forests and trees in different ways.
Recently I was thinking about how, in a way, the written object is just another tree in a larger forest. As I write, I see that that metaphor will work in (at least) two ways, but I will focus on just one: the written object, is only part of a larger process or program ("partial fulfillment of the requirements").

I had a query from a writer: "Can you help with my dissertation?" I asked to see the dissertation and to have some explanation of the situation in the program: what was the relationship with the committee? Had anyone read the draft? What kind of work was called for?

Any written work serves an audience. We have to see and imagine the work with respect to the audience. The work is just one tree in a forest of discourse, if you will.

I have previously talked about forests and trees with respect to seeing the scope of the entire written work, and not focusing too much on any specific part, especially not without showing how that part relates to the others. For example a single chapter is very different when conceived in a vacuum as when conceived as serving a specific rhetorical purpose within a larger structure.

We can see a different level of forests and trees: just as a paragraph belongs in the context of a section of a work, and a section belongs in a chapter, and a chapter belongs in the work entire, so, too, can we see as the specific work as belonging to a larger collection of discourse. It needs to fit within that discourse.

To shape your work to suit a specific discourse or a specific audience is not the same as selling out. I'm not talking about being a Marxist and saying "I think Marx is all wrong," just for the sake of getting your necessary signatures. That's selling out. I won't rule out the possibility that selling out is a wise choice, but it's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is you having an idea, and also someone that you want to explain the idea to, so that they understand what you're talking about. Would you try to explain that idea to all people in the same way? Of course not.

Your written work is going to be placed into a context--a forest. And that context is not limited to a context of the ideas being explored. The context includes the practical considerations of filing a dissertation, of writing and revising one, of working with the committee to move towards cooperation and completion.

When you, as a writer, engage in writing, it can be very helpful to consider where in the process you are, and what the steps you are going to take will be. It can help focus effort. An obvious example is with feedback: you have a draft that you have to revise. Do you have any feedback yet? If not, then one kind of revision is appropriate. If you do have feedback, of course, the revision should be guided by the feedback you have.

The dissertation does not stand alone. To say only "I need to work on my dissertation," doesn't recognize that there is a context in which you are working: what kind of work, for whom, and to satisfy what end?

This pragmatic view--it must be noted--is characteristic of the lives of many who are considered great artists. The Van Goghs of the world, whose greatness is acknowledged despite the creator's lack of ability to promote it him/herself, are rare. More often one finds the Picassos, the Hemingways, etc. who pursued publication, who found editors to publish them, who completed work, etc. Who, in short, managed the practical aspects of the process.

The notion of a "pure" academic work that just presents the truth and is therefore universally applicable, is nice but it's naive. Whatever the "truth" in question, it would have to be presented differently to a child than to an adult, differently to an atheist than a fundamentalist, differently to a Marxist than to a post-structuralist. Different people understand the world, and words, in different ways. If you assume that all people will respond the same way to all words, then you will be surprised often. Instead, see that your writing fits into a context, and then let that context help guide the decisions you make.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sometimes it's not as bad as you imagined

I actually read an article on the internet some time ago about how our anticipated responses to events are often very different than our actual responses--I wish I could remember the details, it seems like it would be nice--right about now...

speaking of things I read that I've lost touch with--there was an article on doodling and how it can actually help you remember--I was thinking about that while listening to some music and editing. But I digress...

Sometimes it's not as bad as you imagine. Once I was working with a writer who was hoping to get re-admitted to his program. The first step was to submit a draft for his thesis (it was all he had left). We worked together to get that draft together. As of the last draft I saw, I thought he was on the right track--he made one revision after I last saw it, and submitted it. One of his professors expressed willingness to accept the draft as thesis, unchanged. Sometimes things are just easier than you would expect.

I had a similar experience recently--but I don't want to tell that story until a little more of it has been written.

Still, it's a nice thing to remember. We often anticipate great difficulty or stress, but it is the anticipation that is the real problem; when the moment arrives, it is not as difficult as we feared.

As writers many of us get paralyzed with fear at the response we might get--"Oh, my advisor doesn't like Marxists, so if I use this theorist I'll get in trouble"--If you let that fear stop you from writing what you believe, then you're in much greater trouble, because it's damn hard to write what you think, and it's even harder to try to write what you think someone else wants you to think. And, it's not as bad as you think: if you have used a theorist carefully and elegantly, even a professor who disagrees with that theorist should be able to see the value in the argument. It's true that there are professors who will not accept work that they don't agree with, but I think it's more often to find professors who will accept work as long as it is of sufficient quality.

If we can tell ourselves "Sometimes it's better than I imagined" or at least "sometimes it's not as bad as I imagined" we can write more effectively.

And that creates opportunity: the chance of something good happening is much greater when you risk that possibility and risk the rejection that goes with it--as the old saying goes: you can't win, if you don't play.

And sometimes even the worst result that you imagined, isn't as bad as you expected: your work gets panned, but maybe you understand why and you see how to move forward from there.

So write. And if you find yourself worrying about some bad outcome, think of the writer I worked with: sometimes they actually like the work that you did. Think about that possibility, and get to work thinking about the work, rather than sitting fearing the worst that is yet to come.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

One cookie now or two cookies later

Yesterday I was talking with my friend about some difficult issues he was having related to raising his son, and in particular with respect to a complex decision where there are clear pros and cons on either side of the equation. On a certain level, of course, it's laughable to ask me about raising a child, since I've none of my own. But philosophy is philosophy; some wisdom is always worthy.

When we were talking, I was thinking of him and his son just as people like those I often help--which is to say graduate students. He's a smart guy, but his son is eight, so you can't quite talk through ideas the same way with an eight year old. "But there has to be a simplified parallel that he would understand," I finally claimed.

And there is; it's a classic one. I think that Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence says something to the effect that those who, as children, choose two cookies later over one now, tend to be more successful as adults--successful in most measurable dimensions, in terms of career, social life, etc. I don't know if Goleman's assertion is true, but it is clear to me that the one cookie now vs. two later is a model for many of the things we face in life.

My friend was concerned with some issues of social responsibility, but also with his son's social community, too. He felt a conflict between large-scale social responsibility, and a desire to care for his son and to give him opportunities. Two different value systems were coming into conflict.

As I was out running today, I was thinking that the one cookie now vs. two cookies later paradigm is a good one for talking about the complexity of issues, and for showing how we can be faced with questions whose answer is not clear, or which inevitably involve some sort of compromise.

Suppose you're offered one cookie now vs. two later. One good first question might be "how much later?" If you only have to wait one minute for the two cookies, it seems like a no-brainer. Similarly, if you are going to wait a decade to get the two cookies, it seems pointless not to take the one right now. Somewhere in between these two extremes, we might logically presume that there is a point where it is hard to decide.

In exploring the complexity of the question, we can also note that the reward offered for waiting (the two cookies) can be altered--maybe it's three cookies later, or ice cream and a cookie later instead of just a cookie now.

These are terms, I think, that an eight year old could understand. On the other hand, getting an eight year old to see the point, and to accept it may be unlikely. After all, this is difficult for adults to manage.
Some decisions are like the one cookie now vs. two cookies in one minute decision: it's easily made. Most are not.

When we're writing, or when we're managing a project, or when we're trying to decide whether to support an institution (like my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley), we're faced with questions that are much more closely balanced. Yes, the University builds weapons of mass destruction; it also harbors and supports some very good progressive thought. Yes, the university sports programs are problematic in many ways; they also do some good, and buying tickets to one game won't really make a difference. Yes, you want your son to be able to have communal activities with friends, including ones that you enjoyed as a youth; you also want your son to be able to make socially responsible decisions that promote peace, justice, etc.
Or, to take this out of the realm of my friend and into the realm of the writer: we might offer this similar paradigm:
shitty draft now vs. good draft later. How long do you wait for the good draft? A shitty draft now may be far superior--if, for example, you have been told you must submit something immediately or be dropped from your program. Sure, at such a moment it would be nice to have a good draft, but often we feel that the draft we currently have is a shitty one.
The answer is never clear. Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, once wrote that a bad letter in good time was better than a good letter late (though he said it more elegantly than my awkward paraphrase, I have lost the original quote and the reference to my source--I think it was from a collection of his letters). But if you submit a bad draft to a publisher, you may be rejected out of hand, hurting your future chances, while waiting longer would have meant a better reception.

Sadly there is no clear answer to many of the problems that we struggle with (which may help explain why we struggle with them). I believe that the more clearly we can see what is involved in choosing the different alternatives, the better we can make a choice that will serve us well.

Well, the logic sounds ok, but I wouldn't want to try to convince anyone of the wisdom herein--least of all an eight year old.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


This is a hideously overused buzzword, partly because it's a good idea.

A writer told me "I had to send something to my advisor. I'm not thrilled with what I sent her."

My response: this is a win-win situation. Either she likes it, in which case you win, or she doesn't, in which case the two of you agree, so you also win. What could go wrong?

I realized that this is the perfect paradigm: always turn in work that you're not happy with, and then either you get an unexpected good result, or you agree with the reviewer!

(Disclaimer: professional writer on closed course. Always write safely and obey the rules of the styleguide. Unless you're pretty sure your audience won't be upset.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Recently I have been trying to get material together for a book proposal that I am trying to submit (as second author to my former PhD advisor). And I am experiencing, in all the worst forms, the hallmarks of writer's block and procrastination.

Each time I look at what I have written, and what I know have to clean up, and I cringe. I know that it's partly just that I'm so close to the work. but it's also that I keep finding things to fix. Problems little and small, and by the time I've cleared away a whole bunch of little problems, I decide to rewrite the whole thing from scratch, thus creating a whole new set of little problems that need fixing.

I feel like I completely rewrote the cove letter something like six or seven times before I came to a draft that I stuck with and refined. But today I was reading a book that made me think that I should revise yet once again.

I'm not going to, though. By virtue of having a co-author, and a senior one at that, I have the opportunity to just trust his judgement and stop rewriting. It may be that he's wrong, but it's a good lesson in learning to let myself stop revising eternally.

Really, all I'm trying to do, as I struggle with the difficulty of letting go of my own imperfect work, is to accept the possibility of rejection ahead of time: my life does not depend on this.

As a writer--especially as an academic writer--one has to be able to withstand the blow of a rejected work. One has to be able to look at a work that is not good enough--for whatever reason it has been deemed not good enough--and to say "I can make it better." Even better is when, by learning through the feedback (even if the feedback is just bare rejection), we are able to look at ourselves and say "I can learn to improve how I handle this."

If we can do that--if we are ready to take the worst feedback we can get--then it's much easier to write.

This seems terrifying, I know. Imagine, for example, that the worst possible feedback would be for a committee to say "you should no longer be enrolled in our school." Can you imagine what kind of paper it would take to get such feedback? Can you imagine getting that feedback if you never turned in anything at all? (That's a rhetorical question: actually, if you never turn anything, you'll be more quickly asked to leave than if you're turning in almost anything moderately careful.) So if your fear is rejection, and this is keeping you from writing--struggle with that fear, but put it under you: the fear is more likely to lead to a bad result than taking a chance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Writing and More Writing

The other day I wrote about 5000 words in the day. That's maybe fifteen pages, double spaced. In one day.

At that rate, someone could feasibly write a 100-page dissertation in six days.

Of course,when I write that much in a day, I also throw away a large part of what I write. This is ok if I can keep my eye on how things add up. If I write 5000 words in a day, and then throw away 80% of what I write, I finish my 100=page project in 30 days, not 6. And if I throw away 95% of what I write, I've finished my dissertation in 120 days--one semester.

All it takes is to write 5000 words a day, and then find that 250 of them are useful.

If you were to keep every word you write, then you would only need to write 250 words a day to write a dissertation in a semester. But that would be far harder, and would probably lead to a worse dissertation, than trying to write 1000 words a day with the conscious acceptance that you were going to only use 250 of them in the long run.

As a writer, what is harder: to write one coherent, well-formed page or to write four, rambling, poorly written pages? My personal opinion and experience say that I can probably write ten times as fast when I don't care about the quality of the outcome as when I do. When I worry about the outcome, each word is a struggle. When I write, on the other hand, just to put my ideas on the page to see how they work out and to discover if there are any weaknesses, then I write easily. I may hit many dead ends; I may struggle with obstacles, but in the end I produce more.

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott titles a chapter "shitty first drafts," and says "all good writers write them."

Write and then write more. Don't worry about making it good; worry about making it express your ideas. Worry about it saying all the different things that you want to say. In whatever order it comes out. Just write. And write more. And try to learn as you go.

If you write regularly, the writing adds up. If you're too intent on getting it right the first time and therefore you don't write, you're not doing yourself a favor. Be willing to get it wrong first, and then fix it later using what you have learned.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Writing and Thinking

William Germano, in his book From dissertation to Book, says "Writing isn't a record of your thinking, it is your thinking" (p. 23). I don't entirely agree, but I do think it's a valuable way to think about your project.

I often talk with writers who tell me that they're confused or that they don't know what to say. My answer to them is to write.

I don't believe that our writing is our thinking, but writing can certainly shape our thinking.

What do I think our thinking is? Generally, I follow a group of researchers who believe in "the embodied mind." In this theory it is presumed that "mind" and "consciousness" arise from our physiology, and is rooted in our physiology. Our conceptual system is then rooted in these physiological systems, and shaped by them: we understand all concepts in terms of the systems we have for interacting with the physical world. And further, we understand concepts in terms of whole domains of experience. For example, we do not understand the concept of "supermarket" without having a wider set of understandings--buying, selling, property, money, etc.--in which that concept is meaningful.

And what does this mean for the writer? Well, one thing I think that it means is that our thought--that is to say, our embodied conceptual systems--handles many ideas in combination and at the same time.
Writing, on the other hand, is sequential--one word at a time, and while language does support some degree of overlapping thought (e.g., in a double-entendre), it is basically linear and has (ideally) a unitary focus.
Writing, in short, because of its linear nature, cannot be our thinking, as Germano claims. But, it can help shape our thinking.

One aspect of our thinking is that our ideas are accepted unconsciously: we do not, for example, consciously consider all the different ideas, theories, practices and systems that make such a thing as a supermarket possible (much to the despair of the poor carbon-filled atmosphere)--we don't explicitly think: "Gee, this market can only exist because we have an idea of private property, and we have an idea that the most efficient society will be specialized, and that the most efficient way to grow food is on big farms a long way away from the people, and to then ship the food a long way to those people"--we take these for granted.
And this is fine: if we had to consider the full detail of every action we take, we would become paralyzed.
But, this lack of definition is a great hindrance to the writer, and at the same time, it is exactly what the writer is attempting to overcome. Our writing is not our thinking, nor a record of our thinking, but a product of our thinking whose creation forces us to refine our unconscious, synchronous conception of the world into a conscious, sequential explanation of the world, which is then open to the examination--whether theoretical or empirical--of other scholars and researchers.

Writing is not identical with thinking, but to write, one is forced to make conscious and explicit what has been unconscious and implicit. And this process often reveals that our unconscious reasoning doesn't live up to the standards we set for our conscious reasoning.

Writing shapes our thinking; it refines it and tempers it. It challenges our thinking to achieve a high level of consistency and clarity. It forces us to understand our subject better than we did when we were just reading.

A parallel I often find useful: most graduate students have had the experience of teaching and have discovered how much more they learn about their subject when trying to teach it, and how trying to teach a subject they thought they knew well challenges the limits of their understanding. Writing, and the experience of writing are much like the experience of teaching: you may think you know, but when you sit down to write, the blank page is much like the bright, inquisitive student who stumps you with a question. Writing, in a way, is teaching--just to an audience who will only read your words.

So, if you're writing and you find yourself confused: this is natural; this is the process of writing. The solution is to keep writing. What confuses you? In what way are you confused? What problems are cropping up for the other ideas that you're using? By writing, you seek to find answers. Sometimes you will find an answer, and sometimes, to be an honest scholar, you will have to admit that there is a question for which you have no answer.

But still, the way out is to write.
Write to structure your ideas, to test them, to expand them. Write with the expectation that it will not turn out exactly as you expect. Write with the expectation that writing will force you to learn something new, or understand something more deeply.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bracing for Feedback

A writer wrote to me:
> Ok, I'm tired and I'm probably being a little reckless here, but I ended
> up finishing some changes to ch3. Finished enough, that is. I cut out
> the entire section on the _______. It was a tough decision
> to do, but the chapter had already exceeded 31 pages...
> I went ahead and sent ch1 & ch3 to My chair.

I wrote back:

Hi Writer,

congratulations on sending off drafts!
Perhaps you were a little reckless, but we need to be able to take risks. There's no certainty in life.

What you have done is done. There is any range of possible outcomes. The thing to do now is to make plans for the future. Focus on what you can do.

In your case in particular, one set of plans that you may not be making is how to manage feedback. Of course making plans to manage feedback is difficult, because we don't know what the feedback will be. Still, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves. We can consider the range of possible responses and develop general plans depending of the rough outcome.

More importantly, we can step back and look at our work with a critical eye and say "what is a critical reader going to say, and do I think that response is important?" What are the different criticisms, and how can you plan to meet them?

Hypothetical responses:
1. You need to clean up your writing!
response to 1: I'm planning on hiring a proofreader.
2. Your argument is weak (generally).
response to 2: Could you give more detail on what you mean, and what kind of weakness?
3. Your argument is missing XYZ data.
response to 3: could you explain why you think that would further my general purpose of stating ABC?

There are any number of responses, of course, and it would be easy to get lost thinking about negative responses that you might get ("gee, you're stupid", "never talk to me again," or whatever insult), and get emotionally distraught from that process.
But if you think about the response that you would make, that can help defuse the emotion. On the one hand, what kind of response does one make to an insult? On the other, if you have planned a response--like #2 above--that places the onus of explaining the insult on the other person, you can turn the tables on them. Act as if it isn't an insult and ask for further definition and clarification.

Anyway, we've all _got_ to be a little reckless sometimes. Take the chance that the work that we could work on more is going to at least speak to the reader enough that they see the spark that makes it fly.

With your chair, stay on message: For your part, keep in mind the main point of the dissertation, and how it manifests in each piece. And in response to any comment of his, remember you can always say "how does that help me explain my main point? Can you clarify how you see that working?" This response should be practiced and used particularly in the context of any emotionally difficult response.

But most of all: remember to be kind to yourself. And celebrate getting two chapters sent out. No matter what the response, being able to write, wrap up and send off the two chapters (with all the flaws that every writer sees in the work going out), is a matter worthy of recognition and celebration.



1. No guarantees exist. We always take a risk when we put ourselves out there--whether submitting a draft or looking for a job or asking for a date, we might get rejected. But the risk has to be taken because the paralysis is actually worse than the rejecion.
2. any rejection of our effort is evidence helping us refine our effort; if we cannot understand the rejection, it is worth our while to ask for additional clarification (especially in the context of dissertation advisors who have an actual responsibility to provide _useful_ feedback).
3. We can plan our responses to help focus our efforts and our energy during the periods of waiting for feedback. This helps us from being overtaken by anxiety.
$. It's hard to complete a draft! No matter what, that is worthy of acknowledgment--even if you have to go back and rewrite that draft (which is pretty much what an experienced writer expects to do with early drafts any way).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A question of focus

I was thinking about a writer who likes the theories of a particular author, except that there is one part of the theory that bothers her.

I was thinking, in a parallel way, about how we handle anger.

Riding my bike today, I witnessed a man losing his temper at some mechanical failure of his bike.

On the one hand, I believe that emotions are real and that we do not make our lives better for trying to bottle them up. When we are angry, it is not inappropriate to feel the anger--the anger is an action signal--a sign that we want to change things and that we should take action to make change.

But as each moment passes, where do we focus our attention? The event that bothers us has occurred; the author has written the part of the theory that bothers us. Where do we focus our attention? On that which has gone wrong (in the past)? Or on that which is yet to come and that which we can still shape?

I was walking with my friend at the civic center park in Berkeley and a bunch of kids on skateboards passed, weaving between us and some mothers with their babies in strollers. My friend yelled at the kids to be careful. We went and sat down, and he was still fuming.

I understand the reality of emotions as not just passing instantly. They are physiological and the physioloigcal state of anger or fear doesn't just pass quickly. But that being said, he had a choice: to focus on that which had angered him or on something else.

I'm not saying that I know what the right answer to that choice was. I'm not sure that I believe that there is a right choice. But it is a choice. I think it's a choice that depends on what we think is important.

At any moment we are faced with many different choices of what to focus on--we can focus on what has happened to us in the past, any of many things; we can focus on what is happening to us in the moment, again, any of many things; and we can focus on the future, which yet again presents many choices of what to focus on.

Is there some rule that says that we must focus on the injustice that is most present in our consciousness? Is there a rule that we must focus on the aspect of the theory that bothers us? Is there a rule that says that we must focus on the problem?

I don't think so. We can look past the injustice to what we will do to prevent such injustice in the future, or to what we will do, if we will not act to prevent it. We can look to getting revenge or retribution, rather than just focusing on what happened before. We can focus on getting back to where we were before the problem.

We can look at the theory and abstract the parts that we like without having to accept the parts that we don't Thomas Jefferson's claim that all men are created equal is a claim that has an abstract meaning that each person can respect (at least if we interpret it to refer to all humans). The fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and might not have even considered them people, is a difficult, unpleasant fact. But it does not mean that the ideal that he recommends is any less beautiful.

If a problem exists, must we deal with that problem? Or can we strive to make proress in other ways? Sometimes, of course, there is a problem that requires immediate attention, but what about problems that do not? Can we not choose to focus our attention elsewhere?

Our lives are complex and filled with many competing demands. We do not want to shirk responsibility, but are there not times when we can choose to look at something other than the negative things that are presenting themselves?

Progress can come in many forms; progress provides new resources and new opportunities. But if we focus on what has gone wrong already, on that which we cannot fix, on the fact that some imperfection exists and we need perfection, then we will be stuck.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"In partial fulfillment of the requriements for the degree of..."

This phrase can be found on the title page of dissertations and theses.
As a book I was reading recently (Making the Implicit Explicit by Barbara E. Lovitts) suggests, this should indicate that the dissertation is not standing alone as the factor on which the candidate is judged.
And if signing off on the dissertation is the last hold the committee has and is equivalent to granting the degree, then it might be presumed that the faculty actually vary their standards for what is acceptable as a dissertation depending on their assessment of the worthiness of the student. (the logic here, if not derived from Lovitts, was certainly sparked by what she was saying.)

One could make an argument that this is ethically wrong, and that all dissertations should be held to the same standard. But I'm not sure that there isn't a good argument on the other side, too.

It has long been my opinion that this might be operating on an unconscious level: if your committee believes that you are capable of doing good work, then they will be predisposed to focus on the strengths of the work. If they believe that you are not up to snuff, they will look for problems. This kind of unconscious dynamic works in all of us.

This suggests that you can profit by taking actions that convince your readers of your worthiness; this includes work on the dissertation, but is not limited to such work. It is a point worth strategizing: what can you do that would make the committee believe that you are ready as a scholar?

I recommend Lovitts' book to any dissertation writer who wonders what the dissertation is supposed to accomplish and how they will be judged. I don't think it provides absolute answers because each professor is different, but I think it provides very good general direction.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I was watching a little of the television broadcast of the Australian Open last night and saw an interview with world #1 Jelena Jankovic, who had just lost. Jankovic was very courteous, giving a great deal of credit to her opponent. Seeing the interview made me think of what I had read of Jankovic--that she is extremely courteous, and that she also might not be quite the competitor that the really top players are--that what keeps her from really dominating is her head. By contrast Serena Williams is known for being ungenerous to her opponents in losses--she has the reputation for blaming a loss on her own play and not giving credit to her opponent.

Along these lines I was thinking about the figure-ground reversal I had recently discussed and the general success that we can create in our own lives.

Serena Williams is known for her competitive will--for her ability to play even better when the competitive stakes grow, and for her unwillingness to lose. How strongly is that competitive will related to her belief that it is her play that determines a win or loss? Is it easier to rally against an opponent if you think "wow, s/he's really good, maybe better than me" or "well, s/he's good, but if I were playing my game, s/he wouldn't have a chance"? It seems to me that one is much more likely to succeed if one believes that one can exert one's will to succeed.

When we view our projects, when we get discouraged, is that not a type of perspective in which we are surrendering our power?

If Edison was right in suggesting that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, doesn't this imply that we have to continue to believe in the validity of the inspiration through extensive struggles? We have to believe that the power to succeed lies in us.

Or, perhaps, we need to act on the premise that the power to succeed lies in us. Many writers struggle with believing that their writing is good enough--the emotion of belief may be hard to create, but we can still logically think through: "what would I do if I believed that I had the ability to finish?"

The character of plans made by one who is confident are radically different than the plans made by one who is expecting defeat. Different plans lead to different results. In addition to the emotional boost that accompanies confidence is also the difference in plans. I wonder whether the plans of the optimist might be more focused on the strengths of the individual, and thus will focus attention on the places where the richest opportunities are to be found?
How much does the pessimist look at weaknesses and thus make plans that fail to take advantage of places where the strengths lie?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Bootlicking and Buddhism

Actually, I don't really know that Buddhism is what I'm going to talk about. But I was thinking about the difference between the internal world and the external world and what we create in those spheres.

By the internal, I mean our minds and bodies; by external, I mean all that stuff out there. Looking at the world with such ego-boundaries is not, I suppose, too Buddhist. But anyway...

I was talking with a friend who was angry at someone. This person had wronged him, by pretty much any standard of how people would judge the matter, but not exactly a grievous crime--certainly he was hale and hearty to tell the tale of how he was wronged. Now I've been wronged (and I've wronged others, too--nothing grievous, I hope), and I've been angry as result. It doesn't feel good. And I've been able to rekindle anger for old wrongs, too; that doesn't feel good either.

What I've been working with is too focus my attention on those things that provide me with the greatest opportunity to move forward. This means, on the one hand, not focusing my attention on the wrongs that I've suffered, and on the other, not necessarily airing my grievances against difficult people.

Which brings me to the first world of my title: bootlicking. When I was talking with my friend, I was thinking about a writer I've been working with whose chair makes snide comments and tends to obstruct the process--like the time she said "I'll submit a draft in two weeks; when do you think you'll be able to give feedback" and he said "in three months." Hopefully you will never have this kind of problem, but should you, what is the effective response?

For the long run it seems to me that the more important response is the internal one: what response protects your health and your ability to work? The response that looks to the future, the one that avoids the stress and anger, is the better.

What does this mean about the external response? It means that one is clear about what one is trying to get, and one tries to avoid getting caught up in proving that one is right. It's not that an injustice might not have occurred; it's just that that proving injustice, or discussing injustice places attention on things that rightly generate anger and stress. This means that responses to injustices are framed with equanimity and courtesy, and thus might appear to be bootlicking.

It should be noticed, of course, that there are times when an injustice must be addressed. A chair, for example, who regularly refuses to give feedback sooner than three months, and who does not want the writer to show the drafts to other readers until he has seen them, is obviously creating obstacles that need to be addressed. Something would need to be done to changes the feedback schedule, to get timely feedback. But even if action is needed, where does one direct one's attention? On the injustice? Or on finding a solution to the injustice?

The writer in question whose chair said that feedback would not be forthcoming for three months, submitted a draft on the schedule she had proposed. She ignored what he had said about schedule and just courteously requested feedback as quickly as possible; her chair apparently has promised feedback within six weeks, not three months.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


I was thinking about writing as a practice, and as an exercise that builds ability even as you use it. I was thinking about the athletic metaphor and ways in which an understanding of athletic processes can shape understanding of similar aspects of writing. I was also thinking of music as another metaphor.

For both music and athletics, when one begins the exercise/practice, one begins with a warm up. No musician would begin a practice by trying to master the most difficult passage in her/his repertoire. No athlete would try to perform at the highest level without warming up first. But we sit down to write and expect to be able to write instantly.

There are differences between writing and athletics or music that might lead us to reject the need for a warmup: writing is not physical--you can't pull a muscle by writing too hard right away.

This is true, but isn't it also true that if we sit down to write and nothing happens in the first fifteen minutes we get frustrated? What if you had a writing warmup before you start in on the real work--a period in which you began to get used to the general process of putting your ideas in words, and the focus on your writing that is necessary to work on it.

Warmups should be easy; they should be done for the experience of doing them, not for the outcome--a musician plays scales not for the sake of playing the scales, but because the scales are a relatively easy way to begin the process of warming up the muscles and nervous system.

What could a writer use as a warmup? Almost anything--a list of things to work on after your writing period is over, or a list of things to work on during your writing period, or a note to a friend or anything that might be drawing your attention that you can work on for fifteen minutes as an attempt to get settled into the desk chair and into the writing state. You don't want to get absorbed in something that will take too much time, but if there is something distracting you, writing it down as something to return to when you're done with the writing might be one way to put it out of mind for the period of a few hours in which you're writing.
Writing something easy related to what you're working on might be a reasonable warmup, but you don't want it to be something that you're placing too much stock in--the warmup has to be easy to write--something that is free from judgement, something that is about getting started more than it is about production.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Books on writing

Have you ever read any books on writing?
Any books on dissertation writing?

Did they help?
What did you like about them?
What didn't you like?

I'm curious about books on writing. There are a lot of them; some of them are pretty good; some aren't. I haven't read that many, but it's my intention to read more and I'm just looking for recommendations.

I'm engaging in something of a research project. Partly I want to see if I can learn something new. Partly I want to see whether there are other people out there who are looking at the process the way I am. If there aren't, then there's a place in the literature for anything that I see that others don't. So I have to do my research.

I'm exploring the obvious channels--Amazon--but also wondering which are particularly good. There are too many options and I want to try to cull the best.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Figure-ground reversal (for real)

The basic phenomenon of figure-ground reversal is one in which there are two distinct ways in which to see an image. In famous examples, the same image can be seen in two different ways. For example we might see a vase, or we might see a pair of facing profiles.

Whatever we see, we see it one way at a time. We may be able to see the image in both ways, but we switch between them; we don't see both at the same time. I won't attempt a neurological explanation, but I don't doubt that there is one.

George Lakoff speaks of "biconceptualism"--the ability to use two different views of the world--which is a similar concept, but not visual. We can explain situations in different ways--for example, how does one respond to an enemy or one who has wronged you? The Bible says both to take retribution (an eye for an eye, etc.) and to treat that person with love (love your enemies). We can take these as two different models on how to deal with the same problem: we don't want someone to hurt us and ours repeatedly, so what do we do? The hawks say that the answer is to go to war; the doves say the answer is to seek other means to reduce the aggression.

So working with a writing project (or any project, really) one of the questions we're faced with is how to look at the situation: what view are we going to use. The examples above, and other simple examples, use binary comparisons, e.g., is the glass half full or half empty? But as a matter of practice, there are any number of different views that one can take of a subject. Horst Rittel, late professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that many problems that we face can be described in many different ways--"there is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem," he wrote--a wicked problem being what he called problems that did not suit the rationalistic problem-solving techniques of his time (I'm digressing a little here).

Think of what it means if there is no definitive formulation to a given problem. What if the problem is to get a dissertation done? Well that's one very general formulation. More specific formulations would be "to convince your professors that you're done" or "to write a great dissertation on my topic of study." These two formulations are distinct, though not mutually exclusive.

The other day Sarah asked for common flips that might occur to grad students or researchers. I mentioned one example: the flip between seeing the project as an expression of your own interests and your own wisdom, and seeing the project as an attempt to say what is necessary to please the professors.

Another flip might be between having too much research material and having too little. This, I think, afflicts a lot of people in the literature review sections, or in their work if they don't have a clearly defined research agenda, or if their project is open-ended, as a project in literature or history might be. At one moment a person can be saying "I have so much material that I have to read and organize that I'm overwhelmed." The next moment the same person might say "I need to do more research." Admittedly, these are perspectives that might reasonably co-exist--sometimes we do have too much material to handle and still have to acquire more, if, for example, a professor requested more--but from a pragmatic point of view, we can only act effectively on one of these perspectives at once: either we can try to get a better handle on the material we have, or we can try to gather more. Both courses might be productive, but vacillating between them is not.

I don't know that I can think of other specific perspective shifts that might be common to the graduate student writer, but I think that the writer who learns to deal with these shifts, and learns to manage the different perspectives is well-positioned to respond to the myriad different demands of the long-term research project.