How to Write a Dissertation or Book the Whitney Phillips™ Way

January 30, 2014 § 3 Comments

Lately I’ve had books and writing and writing books and writing about writing books on the brain. So, when my friend and fellow PhD-guy Patrick reached out asking for dissertation writing tips, I was happy to oblige. In the process of obliging, I realized I’d never written anything about my writing process, or even the act of writing generally, on this here blog. And that’s too bad because boy do I have some thoughts on the subject!

The following is a modified version of my response to Patrick, and forwards four tips that might be somewhat helpful to those just embarking on the road to dissertation glory, and/or any large or otherwise daunting writing project. But a caveat: I’m not saying any of this is the right way, just that’s it’s my way. The right way is whatever way works for you, you special snowflake!

Some background: my dissertation process was somewhat abbreviated, in that I advanced to candidacy (i.e. completed coursework and took my exams) the same year I defended my dissertation. This isn’t normal, and meant that I was cramming 2-3 years’ worth of major, brain-breaking work into a 9-month period (I’d completed a fair amount of writing towards my dissertation before advancing, maybe about 30%, so it’s not like I was writing the thing from scratch, but still). I can’t remember why it was so important I finished on this timeframe, though I do remember having a reason, and being super serious about it. Whatever my motives, I decided to go for it, and although my advisor wasn’t a huge fan of the plan, knew better than to try and fight me — because fighting me would only have made me want to go faster. Anyway: had my schedule not been so tight, I might not have relied so heavily on the below measures. Actually who am I kidding, I would have done this regardless. Which, incidentally, leads me to my first point.

1) Work on developing a personality disorder. For me, this consisted of sitting for 8,10, sometimes 12-hour stretches during which I was not to go on the internet, respond to an email, even respond to a text message until I crossed all the day’s assigned tasks (more on that below) off my list. This was an extremely effective strategy, and allowed me to bang out crazy amounts of writing in a crazy short period of time. The flipside, of course, was that it made me crazy. Furthermore as a result of my my tragicomic hyperfocus I ended up developing a repetitive stress injury in my hands, not that it slowed me down. In fact, the indignity of being told what to do by my own stupid body motivated me to beat my original schedule by a month. Suck on that, me. (I’m being flip, this was actually horrible and I regularly wish I were better at taking a more moderate approach to things)

2) Try using the 100/0 MPH rule to get yourself over major research humps. By this I mean, be fast and furious when you’re working (see above), and fully inert when you aren’t. For me, this meant that I was EITHER writing like a crazy person OR watching television. Setting aside time where my entire job was to be a potato helped recharge my battery just enough to get me through the next day.

One way to ensure that my television-viewing practices didn’t make me accidentally think was to restrict my viewing to what I call chicken soup shows. For the last eight years, my go-to chicken soup shows have been The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; given how many times I’ve watched both series through, I am now incapable of exerting any brain power to consume either. Yes I said consume! Normally that word smells a bit too Horkheimey for my taste (I prefer media engagement), but in the case of chicken soup viewing I deliberately create conditions under which my mind is but an empty vessel into which corporate content may be slopped. I highly recommend this strategy, at least when the conservation of mental energy is a desirable outcome.

3) Come up with a work-related safeword for your primary partner (or primary partners, no judgment). My need for this sort of system emerged when Chris, whose New York-based job allowed him to work remotely, moved into my apartment in Eugene. Suddenly there were two results-oriented obsessive-compulsive work monsters living under the same roof, and initially we struggled to deal with the fact that, sometimes, we desperately needed the other person to stop talking. Because telling someone you love them but that you would appreciate it if they would please shut the fuck up can be a bit awkward, we implemented a color-coded communication system wherein red means I’M WORKING LEAVE ME ALONE NO EXCEPTIONS, yellow means Proceed with Caution, and green means Let’s have a pizza party!!

So, if either of us really needed to focus, and the other person sauntered over all talkative-like (in an ironic twist we’re both every bit as chatty as we are focused like a laser beam), all the chatee had to do was say the word “red”; in response, the first person was required by house law to stop mid-sentence and leave the room. Over time, Chris and I got in the habit of asking “what color are you” before talking, which made things even easier. It really was a clever system: because the terms red, yellow, and green had been previously discussed and agreed upon, and because we wouldn’t be stretching our already-stretched brains trying not to sound like an asshole and failing (having been on both sides of that fence, I can tell you that “I love you but shut the fuck up” is a minefield), there’d be no hard feelings. Just like, “oh, red? Cool, we’ll talk later.” I doubt this strategy would have been as successful if either of us didn’t share the same relentless drive to cross things off our respective to-do lists, but as it was, red/yellow/green proved to be (and still remains) a lifesaver. I can’t even guess the number of squabbles it preempted, and how much mental energy we’ve saved over the years from not getting butthurt when the other person can’t really talk right now.

4) Take the manuscript bird by bird (WTF you say?) This might not work for everyone, since some people need to write their way into a thesis/structure, but I saved myself months of wheels-spinning by sitting down and asking myself WHERE AM I GOING WITH THIS before writing a single line of academic prose. Once I had a basic idea of how to get from A to B, I would broadly sketch out what needed to happen in a specific section (always in relation to the chapter and overall argument), which I would then divide into further and even more granular sections until the entire chapter had a nice movable-parts skeleton.

To make this brainstorming process more interesting, I would use the most bizarre, vulgar language I could think of –a holdover from high school, when I would create filthy acrostics (not that I knew that word at the time) as mnemonic devices– to help me puke out my ideas. After the first full pass through the chapter, I would return once, twice, sometimes three or four times to make sure the argument had a nice logical flow, and each time would simultaneously add more details and smooth out the language to more accurately communicate whatever idea (not to make my prose sound good, but to trim the fat and make sure I was saying what needed to be said). Only then would I go back to the beginning and start properly writing — but not before running through the document and assigning specific sections to each day of the week (this work plan was constantly under construction, as I would often try and beat my own schedule). At the end of day –and I wouldn’t stop working until I met/surpassed that day’s quota– I’d pat myself on the shoulder for a job well finished, even if what I’d completed was one segment of a two hundred thousand piece pie.

Not only did this process allow me to quickly visualize and manage my workload, it made the writing itself easier. I’d already built flow into the argument, so transitions often made themselves. Plus it put me in a different mindset for each day of work — on brainstorming days it was nice to focus exclusively on that, and not worry about stylistic concerns (except to the extent that I would try to make myself laugh). And on writing days, it was nice to focus on the prose itself, and table questions about the argument because I was literally just painting by numbers (of course to really let go and focus solely on making your prose pretty, you have to trust yourself and your argument — so this is not a step to begin prematurely). I would often need to kick a section back to the brainstorming phase, and of course I revised, re-revised, and re-re-revised as many times as necessary. So it wasn’t a perfectly streamlined process, but it did keep me moving forward.

I’ve been using this approach –or some modified version of it– since about 2006, when I sat down to write my MFA thesis (a novel). Over the years I’ve found that it’s just as effective with formal academic projects as it is with creative projects, which now that I think about it seems a bit odd. But whatever; that is how I’ve written books before, books books books, and might be of use to others but then again maybe not, it’s in God’s hands now.


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