A Possibly Useful Tip on the Process of Writing a Dissertation

Oct 19 2011 Published by under Academia, Personal, Teaching and learning

Fair warning: if you joke around about dissertations with someone who has written more than one, that someone is likely to share a Possibly Useful Tip on the Process of Writing a Dissertation. But, possibly it will be useful.

It started when, after passing his Ph.D. oral exam, Eric Michael Johnson tweeted:

I passed! Now there's just a little matter called the dissertation. This is the first I've heard of it. Are those hard?
ericmjohnson
October 18, 2011
@ericmjohnson If someone tells you the 2nd dissertation is easier, she's lying.
docfreeride
October 18, 2011
@docfreeride You mean, you can't just copy and paste from your first one?
ericmjohnson
October 18, 2011
As it turns out, you are often better off not copying and pasting from an earlier draft of the same dissertation.
In the process of writing a dissertation, you spend a lot of time grappling with a theoretical approach, or an experimental design, or a concept -- whatever kind of intellectual heavy-lifting your subject requires.  Then, you need to use words (and sometimes also graphs or charts or other visual representations) to communicate what you've been grappling with to an audience that probably hasn't been grappling with it as actively as you have.
What I found (in dissertation #2, the philosophy one) was that my grappling generated a lot of words on the page, and that the generation of those words was crucial to figuring out the stuff I needed to figure out.  However, not all the words on the page advanced the goal of communicating what I had figured out to an audience not already in my head.
My very smart advisor, noticing that I had become too precious with some of the elaborate examples that had helped me crystalize my own view as I revised draft N to draft N+1, gave me a writing tip that made all the difference to the task of communicating that view.  He said, "For the next draft of this chapter, start a brand new file. You are not allowed to copy and paste anything.  Whatever you want to carry over from the last draft verbatim you need to retype."
I followed that advice and lo and behold, my chapters became quite a bit shorter and quite a bit clearer, simultaneously.  However, I'm pretty sure that the longer, less clear drafts were a necessary step on the way to get to the optimized final form.
Happy disserting, Eric!

9 responses so far

  • Coturnix says:

    I should this with my blog posts. Perhaps that way they can become less legendarily long...and clearer.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    You mean you just don't copy and paste from other sources? Then what's the internet for?

  • Possibly also useful for this paper I'm writing - thank you!

  • Darkling says:

    That sounds like very good advice from your adviser. It's something I'll need to keep in-mind for myself.
    A comment that has stuck with me from the first draft of my first dissertation was "write for humans". Painful to read at the time, but it did help to improve my writing.

  • physioprof says:

    Dunno about humanities dissertations, but for a science dissertation you actually do very little "grappling" with anything other than literature review. All the grappling has already occurred when you wrote up your work for publication.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      In my own science dissertation (which I was writing without the benefit of this tip), the grappling with the literature review, and especially with the newish theoretical approaches to the kinds of system my research group was studying that came out of that research group (and so were not "common wisdom" in our scientific community the way that some other bits of the literature were) was significant. Verily, explaining that stuff clearly -- clearly enough so my committee members would understand it, and that future grad students in my research group would understand it -- took the lion's share of my writing time.

      Plus, my thesis described some experiments that were at the "preliminary results" stage -- it took a few months of additional work after I defended to wrap up those experiments and write them up for publication. So, I was grappling with experimental results for the dissertation, too. (Worth noting: the manuscript I submitted describing those results was the only scientific paper I have ever written that was accepted with no request for any revisions at all. Maybe that's because I did most of the relevant grappling when I was writing up that piece of the dissertation.)

  • Miss MSE says:

    I've heard this tip from creative writing teachers, and generally apply it to science ( though I will copy-paste equations). It really helps me recognize and fix areas where I jump around excessively whereas just rereading it doesn't really help.

  • physioprof says:

    The not copy-pasting thing I totally agree with. This is why I insist on marking up drafts of paper, grants, and manuscripts with ink on paper, rather than using track changes in a word-processing program. It is very important for the person incorporating the mark-up to type the changes in, rather than just clicking on "accept changes".