A year and a month ago, I finished my MSc dissertation in Digital Anthropology, on a topic I usually simplify to ‘atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there.’ The 16,000 words I submitted at 3:00 AM on the last grueling day may eventually become a right proper ‘publication;’ in the meantime, I shortened it to a blog post for Material World (one of several recent anthropology-themed posts of mine).
The following year (which is to say, recently), a number of my friends went through the same process, and I helped with revisions. I hope my advice was useful to them; for me, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the process of writing and editing, and emerge with what I hope are useful insights on writing composing a large, multi-draft dissertation-type document that involves theory, research, and personal experience.
The Great Draft of the Internet abounds in generic writing and productivity advice, which one could, ironically, waste a lot of time reading. Some of it’s useful, some crappy, some usefully tongue-in-cheek, some implicitly extrapolable from the exemplarily productive, including censorious dictators. As such, the aims of this document are rather modest: writing’s a personal, contextual, and highly contingent thing, and it’s probably best to learn by doing and then reflecting. However, in terms of communicating knowledge of the writing process, de-contextualized useful advice has a tendency to sound both heroic and generic, speaking to ideals while bypassing the messiness of the writing process. Also, generally speaking, it’s difficult to remember what’s commonly taught in high school, to speculate on what may or may not be taught in school internationally, and judge what’s practical and what are the (rational and irrational) bugaboos of English majors and house styles.
Drafts are liminal: never meant to be displayed, and yet, necessary to write (and then, read) to make something deliverable and definite. The finish may be pleasantly beyond one’s original vision, though – if working in good faith – also inevitably compromised by (at best) the impossibility of depicting the whole of reality, and likely: time, inexperience, fatigue, apathy, and the tendency of the present to demand your attention. As David McDougall wrote on ethnographic film, in his essay “The Fate of the Cinema Subject”:
“For the filmmaker, the film is an extract from all footage shot for it, and a reminder of the events that produced it. It reduces the experience onto a very small canvas. For the spectator, by contrast, the film is not small but large: it opens onto a wider landscape.”
Similar arguably goes for all experiences one shapes to share – and the fieldwork-based anthropology dissertation with which I’m familiar (broadly speaking) adds the challenge of considering that experience in light of a theoretical framework. The form bleeds through unevenly in the process of production, at times barely comprehensibly – especially if you’re writing on complex topics. The overall multi-draft production process involves grasping at insight where it’s thick and cogent, while at the same time keeping an eye toward potential directions as yet unknown, as well as the expectations of your readers. One could compare the writing process to participant-observation itself: being in the draft, but not of it, one eye towards the immediacy of experiences (both the writing itself and the remembrances it describes) and the other towards a larger picture, saved insights you must sort through in retrospect. In short, writing is a chronological mess of past, present, future, aspiration and practicality. It’s living inside a non-linear test of Zeno’s Paradox, moving in multiple directions but never quite reaching the end. And then (in more ways than one) you submit.
These are some of the reasons why creative work is challenging, as the dissertation writer is essentially called on to do the work of a seasoned professional, whatever his/her level of comfort or interest in the creative process itself. If you don’t much like writing, the drafting process can make you feel like an introvert delivering a wedding toast that goes on for months. This is why drafts exist: because it is impossible to do all these things at once – and why the process of writing can feel imposing and the end product can turn out pretty satisfying it you work at it.
So get to work. The earlier you start, the better. Slacking off, surfing the web, getting more coffee, re-arranging your pens – we all do it, and (like complaining) it’s an integral part of staying sane. But the actual act of writing is what contributes to the end product, and the foremost contingency of the writing process is actually doing some damn writing, after which, I promise, you will feel better. The more time you spend writing, the more room there is for you to address the content of your ideas. As suggested above, this is a matter of finding both time and energy to write. So when you have the time, be sure it coincides with the energy to be productive. And if you have time but not the focus, consider taking a break lest you spend inordinate time staring at a screen, producing nothing, and calling it “work.” Then get to actual work and don’t beat yourself up, just write.
Don’t consider it “writing” until your words form complete sentences. There was probably more pressure in the days of paper to write in complete sentences, though now the temptation is great to vomit non-linear thinking into a word processor in the hopes of re-arranging it into complete thoughts later. A computer can be a great place to store half-finished thoughts for later, but it’s also a lot of mental work to re-input gibberish back into your mind for processing, much more exhausting than if you did the filtering and processing the first time around. So, where possible, get your thoughts into complete sentences and paragraphs ASAP. No matter how hard you work, you’ll likely spend a certain period of time pre-submission working furtively revising, so it’s best to get as far as you can before you get to that final stretch.
More importantly, the sooner you write, and the sooner you make it understandable to others, the sooner you can seek personalized advice, and move forth into higher-order concerns about the arguments you’re making. That’s what your professors and peers are there for, though they don’t like to receive phone calls past midnight (when you’ll often find yourself working), so you’ll likely find yourself puttering around the Internet for advice (which may have been how you found your way here). Pages like this one are much less useful than personal review, which can supplement these general generic outlines with the specific examples with which you’re wrestling.
Speaking of those arguments you should be making: Don’t just mention things, marshal them towards ends. What’s been written has been written, and it’s only interesting and/or useful contextually to the new thing you’re making. Ideally, you should have something to communicate, and something to say about it. This is, of course, a huge challenge of making readable academic writing: using extant bits of information relevantly, placing them in sentences and paragraphs that convey your discussion goals, their information, and the contextual framework that fits them all together.
For short advice on how to do that: we all get better with practice and good thinking and writing doesn’t develop all at once (see above). To improve in drafting, I would suggest an imperfect relationship-in-development among sentences, concepts, and sources is generally preferable to lists of the same, with little indication for the reviewer what you intend to do with them. In other words, after your prose is readable, make progress toward fitting the bits together usefully. Don’t let drafts linger too long as clusters of hesitantly-connected information.
To choose what to keep and what to discard, don’t ask yourself “Is this relevant?” Ask: “How can I make this relevant?” And if you can’t, delete it. If it’s exceptionally beautiful and you can’t bring yourself to cut it, save it in another document and use it for something else down the line. Have a justification, however spurious, for why a statement / paragraph exists, which you can then use to judge its potential uses. If you’ve worked hard on a section and it still doesn’t feel right, you may be missing the obvious: it’s not working, and you should cut it. Or save it for another piece in another time, when maybe you can make it right.
For example: this blog posts starts with a short narrative that hopefully engages with a bit of drama, establishes my relevant experience, and accounts for the year’s gap between this and my previous post. I included other credentials (my professional writing experience and B.A. in Writing) in earlier drafts, but removed them because I felt they derailed the piece’s focus and failed at establishing credibility: mentioning I wrote a thesis establishes experience, but you’ll likely decide whether I’m full of crap based on the quality of writing in this article, my writing degree and other work experience be damned. I cut and pasted those sentences into another document, and eventually re-worked them into the text here. Had I not been discussing the mechanics of editing, I would have left them out – as I did a direct link to this other Material World article I wrote. All this is not just a narcissistic ploy to discuss myself: see how vaguely relevant discussion – things mentioned, but not necessarily applied – grinds this piece to a halt? I had another two paragraphs elaborating on an example directly from my dissertation, and I spent an hour developing them, but cut them because they largely duplicated (even more chunkily) info in this paragraph. Anyway, continuing:
Use active voice. You may be attracted to passive voice because it sounds vaguely intellectual – or when you’re an undergrad, because it tends to pad out word counts. However, in the dissertation, you’re much more likely to have the problem of staying under word count. More importantly, passive voice is emblematic of an issue problematic for academic writing: a lack of specificity, the lack of clarity it produces around who performs an action. One of the good reasons to use passive voice is to evade directly mentioning an action’s performers, which you should do strategically, not by accident.
The easiest way to fix the passive voice / specificity problem is to make sure your sentences have an actor performing an action. People and things do stuff to other people and other things: this advice was constantly drilled into my head throughout high school and college, and yet it’s so easy to slip into writing in passive voice that I did it in this very sentence. I could correct it by saying teachers drilled this advice into my head.
The composition classic The Elements of Style also mentions this (like I said, probably the most common bit o’ writing-teacher writing advice) in its current 4th edition, section II.2, page 18. Have a read of the Elements of Style, especially sections II and IV, respectively “Elementary Principles of Composition” and “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”; I regard sections I and III as more take-it-or-leave-it-English-teacher preoccupations.
Write the paper you‘re writing, not the paper you didn’t write. As you re-draft, you’ll probably find your paper deviates from what you originally envisioned. As I stated above, this is partially from the thrill of discovery and partially from inevitable compromises. A result is often loose ends you don’t have time to develop – usually beginning with the vestigial remains of story about what you set out to produce in the first place, a personal narrative that has an unfortunate tendency to lodge itself at the beginning of a draft and send the paper down a multi-paragraph dead end. In the case of my dissertation, I began wanting to research evangelical Christian robotics enthusiasts and wound up studying atheists in the woods. It’s an interestingly ironic reversal, but to explain it in the context of my dissertation would have raise more questions than it answered, encouraging the reader’s mind to wander from the lengthy path ahead. Developing such scaffolding and removing it are part of developing a project, as is laying desolation to large chunks of text you poured your soul into.
Don’t wait until the last minute to write your abstract. Draft it early. And make it understandable to someone who hasn’t spent months writing your dissertation. I’ve added mine to my website, I stamp it across the ‘publications’ on my CV, so it’s fair to say I see it often – and yet, the further I find myself removed from the process of writing it, the colder I regard it. Compressed language like that may be technically accurate, but it also does the forest-for-trees-missing thing. Still, I’m reluctant to tinker with it because it is what I submitted: the description of the dissertation I submitted. It’s taken me a year to realize that in some respects that simplification I mentioned at the start (“atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there”) isn’t necessarily a bad thing for what it is: a vague intro, regrettably light on the more interesting theoretical concerns, but not a thesis unto itself.
When you write your dissertation, you’ll have been immersed in the subject matter for a good many months, and anyone reading your dissertation probably doesn’t have your knowledge. They may want to know it, however, and will decide whether to read it based, in large part, on your abstract. Your markers, too, may know the theory or general framework behind your subject, but may not have knowledge of your specific topic. So be sure your abstract is technically accurate and inviting to someone who is interested in your topic and wants to know more. By the end of writing, you’ll be more or less insane anyway – and for some time after your submission, you may be pre-occupied with hyper-thoughts of better wordings.
You likely don’t agree with a lot of what I’m saying. This is because you realized I’ve made assumptions that don’t resonate with you. Communication is inherently assumptive, and early drafts especially so. After you’ve had the productive burst of actually getting something on the page, you can go back and recognize those assumptions in your own writing, and in revision, give them more nuance. Practicing writing is also much more useful than listening to advice; I suspect the personal nature of writing makes it easier (after a certain point) to develop by doing than to resonantly communicate useful aspects of the process; I imagine this post will – against my better efforts – resonate more sympathetically with those who have written a dissertation than those who are beginning writing one. Just as I’ve chosen not to go back, however, and attempt to strip these apparent subjectivities from this blog post (and it is a blog post and not a thesis, where less revision is a luxury, and the temptation to revise tends to lead me to create fewer posts), this is less an exhortation to strive for possibly unattainable-perfection than encouragement to writerly self-awareness: to understand the possibilities out of which to choose a position, and go forth confident and aware. If you’re concerned about anything, just write.