The Single System: Part 2

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dissertation writing has been a struggle this week. Nothing has come easily, not even reading and note-taking, and most days I end up feeling like I've made little progress. My Accountability Chart has helped me from becoming too negative, though, because even when I feel like I haven't made much progress, I can look at my chart and see all the little tasks I've completed that are moving me forward, as well as how much time I've actually been devoting to my work. And I have been putting in the hours, even if I have less to show for it (and very little writing).

Like most writing coaches, Single argues that establishing a set writing routine is one of the most important components of becoming a fluent writer and finishing the dissertation on time. I firmly believe this because when I'm writing every day the writing comes much more easily than when I take a few days off. Besides the fact that I'm sleep deprived and have a hard time writing when I'm tired, the reason I've been struggling this week is because I'm trying to get back into a routine after 2.5 weeks off. Before Tuesday, the last time I'd written was May 23rd, when I submitted my introduction to my director. All that time off may have been good for my relationships and for my tan, but it was horrible for my scholarship. I'm paying the price now.

That's why I'm recommitting to the Single System and my writing routine. It's going to be tough because we are going on vacation the first two weeks of July, and I know better than to believe that I can work on my dissertation at Disney World that first week, but I'm hoping while we are in L.A. the following week (and T.J. is at a conference most days), I can at least put in a couple of hours of writing each morning. I've never been good at keeping up my writing routine while on vacation, but I'm realizing more and more that I'm going to have to learn to do it if I want to stay on track.

Because I'm such a visual person, today I made a calendar for the next year, with all my new dissertation deadlines filled in. I like to see things spatially, to see how one month relates to the next and the next, and my daily planner and monthly wall calendar just weren't cutting it anymore. Thank goodness we had a giant whiteboard just sitting in the basement, begging to be put to good use.

The green highlights are my newly established chapter due dates.
Now thanks to this new calendar, I can see exactly what it will take to be finished with the diss. by next summer so I can graduate in August. And if I need to push graduation back for job-search purposes, I can graduate in Fall 2013. But either way, if I can keep to this schedule I will be DONE in 2013, right on schedule.

The calendar was my idea, not Single's, but as promised I thought I'd share a few more techniques from her book that are working for me.

1) Establishing a Writing Routine. I've just mentioned this one, but Single has some very specific advice about establishing a routine that has been helpful to me. Most of her ideas I've heard before, but I didn't put them into practice until I read her book. As I mentioned in my last post, I used to plan my writing days based on word count or page count. Even though I would typically set the bar low, like "write one page " or "write 500 words" each day, each time I missed my goal I would feel discouraged, and I began falling further and further behind. With Single's help, though, I started planning my writing days based on length of time instead. I'd say, "I'm going to write from 9-11 today." And no matter how poorly the writing was going, I had to stay in that chair and work the whole two hours. Eventually, once my mind finally realized that I wasn't going to surrender and let it watch syndicated sitcoms or play on Pinterest, it would finally give in and words would come. They might trickle in at first, but the more often I adhered to my routine, the more easily they'd come.

What's most important about establishing a writing routine is consistency, something that's difficult for most grad students or people who are working full-time, as I am. It's been easier since the semester ended, and I'm really looking forward to July when (after vacation) I will be a full-time dissertation writer. But even then I know I will have to be vigilant in keeping up my routine, something that's difficult to do on your own. That's why Single recommends finding a writing partner and talking with that person everyday when you are supposed to be writing. She recommends finding someone whose writing issues are different from your own and establishing a similar writing routine, so that you can call each other (or text, email, IM, etc.) everyday at a pre-set time to discuss what you plan on doing that day/what you did do/what your concerns are/where you want to go next. Most of us could use the extra accountability, as well as the chance to just talk about our work, to bounce our ideas off another writer. Thinking aloud can be one of the most important parts of the prewriting process, and I know that I need to get better at working with others through this whole dissertation thing and not always try to go it alone. It's tough now that I'm a thousand miles away from my friends and cohort at Auburn, but Single's method could work anywhere, as long as you have someone with whom to connect.

Other techniques she suggests that are important to a writing routine are 1) writing only during your prescribed time--don't try writing beyond, even if the writing is going really well, because that's a recipe for causing writer's block later on. If you say you're stopping at 11:00, stop at 11:00.; 2) having a designated writing space and keeping it clean--take time after every writing period to clean up the space around you, so that it will be more inviting the next day when you sit down; and 3) begin everyday by re-saving your current project with the day's date--such as Chapter 1_120615. Always put the year first in the date (since most dissertations and books take multiple years to write), so that your files will be in chronological order. This way you will always have all of your old versions in case the file you are currently working on becomes corrupted or in case you accidentally delete something you want back. Single also suggests starting a Deletes folder (Chapter 1_Deletes) that you keep open, and as you delete something from your main document, you move it to your deletes document, just in case you decide later you want something back or in case your committee asks for something you had previously included but then decided you didn't need anymore.

2) Overcoming Writer's Block. According to Bob Boice, there are seven reasons why writer's block develops; Single concentrates on four of them: perfectionism, procrastination, impatience, and depression/dysphoria. As luck(?) would have it, the first three love to take turns interfering with my writing process, and I have an especially complex relationship with the first two.

Perfectionists (like me) like to edit as we write. We get hung up on having a perfect opening paragraph to the point where we can't move beyond that until it's in place. We get stuck when we can't find the exact word we want or the perfect quote, so we may spend half our writing time trying to find one word instead of continuing to write. This is something I've struggled with for years in my writing, and although Single hasn't cured me, she has at least given me the tools to begin. She says you should never write your introductory paragraph first (something I'm still trying to overcome). When you come to a place where you don't have the right quote, word, etc., put blank and keep going. Sometimes I do this, but I used to put a physical blank (_______________). By writing the word blank, later I can do a search for the word and replace it with the appropriate word or phrase. Doing a search ensures that I won't miss any when I'm revising. Single also suggests sharing non-perfect drafts with your writing partner or writing group. Perfectionists need to get used to others seeing our work when it isn't the best that we can make it. We need to get over that fear. We need to get used to having "shitty first drafts," which I've never allowed myself to have. I'm working on that. I will probably always be working on that.

Procrastinators (again, me) suffer from writer's block because we have developed bad habits (among other reasons). Mine began my first year of college, and ever since then I have written every paper the day or night before (some the day of). In grad school, when I usually had two or three 20-25 page seminar papers each semester, I could easily churn out 10-15 pages of decent prose the day of or day before a paper was due. I might have been researching the topic and thinking about it for weeks before, but I never did any writing until just a few days before the deadline. As you can imagine, this method does not work at all when writing a dissertation, which is why a writing routine is so important. The problem for procrastinators is that even when we have a writing routine, it's difficult to get words on the page because we don't feel the urgency that we feel the night before something is due. Our bodies have become used to writing with that adrenaline rush, to the point where we have convinced ourselves that we can write no other way. And that just isn't a sustainable process when writing a dissertation. So one of the methods Single suggests for procrastinators is to journal before starting each writing session. You can journal on the screen or on paper, but just take ten or fifteen minutes (or however much you need) at the beginning of every writing session to start jotting down ideas, questions, or concerns. Write in your own voice, just as if you were talking to someone about your project, and hopefully that will jump start you into the writing process. Journaling directly into your outline can also help.

At the end of every writing session, take a few minutes to type up a few notes about where you want to go from there tomorrow. If the ideas are really flowing, you don't want to lose those ideas, but you also don't want to write beyond your allotted time and risk burnout from overwriting. When you start back up the next day, skip directly to the bottom of the document and only read the last couple of paragraphs and your notes. Don't read more than that or you (especially if you are a perfectionist) will get bogged down in revision before you even have a draft. (I know. That's exactly what I used to do.)

3) Revising. Revision is one of the hardest parts of the writing process for procrastinators because we tend to revise throughout, and it's also difficult for procrastinators because we wait until the last minute and then don't have enough time for true revision. By following a strict writing routine, the goal is to get down a rough draft, no matter how terrible, and then have adequate time for all stages of revising. Single discusses two types of revising: organizational and content.

Organizational revising asks you to examine your outline (more on that in a minute) and look for more logical methods of organizational. First, you make the corrections on the outline itself, moving the parts to where you think they better fit, then, once your outline is the way you want it, you go into the actual document and move your sections to match the new outline. Getting feedback from writing partners on your outline can also be helpful, because they might see a more logical organization from a reader's perspective.

At the content level, revision should be done section by section. Single suggests using sections no larger than five pages and printing them in two-page view, so you can see more of the section all at once. (This really works for visual people like me.) Then work through the section paragraph by paragraph. Make sure the first paragraph of the section previews the rest of the section. Then make sure each paragraph only has one main idea (topic sentence) and supporting ideas. Smooth transitions and make sure you have an adequate review paragraph or review sentences that allow you to switch between ideas or present complex, intertwined ideas. Next, work on revising your own writing idiosyncrasies. If you know there are certain words or phrases you often repeat, do a search for them and try to find new words to replace them. Search your document for any other over-used words or phrases that you might not know about. And don't forget to look for all your blanks. Finally, proofread carefully, making sure that your document is free of typographical errors. When you're finished, reading the entire thing from beginning to end. Turn off your inner critic (so easy to do, haha) and try to read as a reader does, just enjoying the work, not constantly looking for errors.

4) Outlining--short to long. I know I should have put outlining before the other points I listed today, but to me outlining was the most important thing I learned from Single, so I saved the best for last. Honestly, outlines have never worked for me. It's weird, because normally I like lists and organization, but for some reason my right brain has always resisted the kind of regimentation outlines seem to require. I've especially always resisted outlining in my fiction writing (which is going to be the subject for my next blog post), but Single taught me an entirely new way to look at outlining, and now I honestly don't believe that I could finish my dissertation without one.

The first version of the outline, the "one-page outline," begins with your working title and your focus statement, a few sentences describing your dissertation. I've also heard this described as your "elevator pitch"--basically what you'd tell someone who asked what your dissertation is about in the thirty-seconds-or-less it takes to ride a few floors in the elevator. (Longer if you are in a packed car riding from the first to ninth floor of Haley.) After the focus statement, you list your chapters, and under them, a bulleted list of what will be discussed in the individual chapters. Sounds obvious, right? This is your first draft of the outline, and it's a starting place for you and dissertation director to begin talking about the big picture of your dissertation. (Single also suggests including a copy of your outline on top of each chapter you turn into your director. That way your director can easily see how that chapter fits into the plan for the dissertation, without having to ask or referring back to previous chapters.) After you've met with your director, you can begin turning your one-page outline into a long outline.

First, you estimate how many pages each chapter will be and write that out on your outline. Then, you give each chapter its own focus statement and organize the bulleted lists into the order in which the sections should be. Guess what comes next? Focus statements for each section. Under those focus statements, you begin listing all those citeable notes (remember those?) you created when you were researching. You also start adding additional subheadings, and Single suggests writing out your subheadings and topics as sentences instead of phrases. That way you are practicing writing prose and developing your academic voice.

As you develop your chapter sections and subsections, you can also estimate how many pages each one of them will be. Make sure that all your chapters add up to enough to satisfy the minimum requirement of your department. Once you have all of your citeable notes placed (and you might also keep a "miscellaneous" section for notes you think you'll use but you aren't sure where yet), look to see where you have a profession of notes and where you might need to do more research.  More than likely, you will have done more research than you needed to. Start organizing the notes into the order you believe you will use them within the subsections, and also add placeholders where you know certain kinds of information is needed.

When you're done, you will have a solid skeleton of your entire dissertation, beginning to end, a map for you to follow when the writing gets hard or you feel blocked. It's a good idea to keep a copy of the outline with you at all times, and when you have some downtime, scan over the outline to refresh your memory and keep the wheels turning. That way, the next time you sit down to write, you won't have to do as much to remind yourself of where you are and where you are going. Of course, outlines will change, and you should never feel too tied to one. Outlines will (and should) evolve. But when I finished mine, for the first time writing a dissertation felt doable. I could see the dissertation as a series of five and ten page chunks of information, and I could also see how all those chunks worked together to make a whole.

Writing a dissertation is still hard. Some days are easier than others, but each one presents its own challenges, and I'm constantly having to adapt to the new obstacles that are presented. But thanks to Single's book, I now have the determination to push through those rough patches and come out better on the other side. I focus on all I've learned and accomplished, not on how much further I have to go. Now I better understand my own self-sabotaging tendencies and understand that I'm not alone in them, that thousands of other people have had the same struggles and overcome them, and so can I.

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