Writing my dissertation taught me that I write to think, or that I think by writing. My best thinking happens not when I am mulling over a paper or trying to craft an argument in my own head, away from paper or the computer screen, but when I am actually trying to express ideas through sentences and paragraphs.
My dissertation writing, and thinking, were aided by a variety of strategies that help me get started in writing. Just as I’ve confronted the challenge of moving forward in my research in even when the exact end product isn’t clear, writing involved similar challenges. Many historians talk about the point when, in final revisions or even after, they say, “Oh, that is what my project is about!” with a sense of clarity that eluded them earlier. Knowing that this is often the case, I wanted to figure out how to keep writing – regularly, productively, and without too much anxiety – while that clarity was still developing.
Many of the strategies I used in my own writing came from my life as a high-school humanities teacher, when I learned much from colleagues and courses in the New York City Writing Project. The Writing Project emphasized ways to get reluctant writers to write, in part by making writing a part of different kinds of thinking. Apparently, my future dissertation-writing self was paying attention, because once I had embarked on the longest writing task of my life, I found myself using strategies that I had first encountered with my high school students. My thinking about writing strategies was refreshed by training for the Columbia Undergraduate Writing Program (which drew in part on John Bean’s work on writing in the university classroom) and by stories of writing I’ve heard from other historians.
Using these strategies while writing my dissertation meant that it was possible for me to keep producing text every day that I sat down to write. Not necessarily the same kind of text every day, and not polished text, but text that would, with (sometimes extensive) recrafting and editing, find its way into the final product.
Just start somewhere. Sometimes, it was overwhelming to think of starting on a new chapter. What would the overarching argument be? Was I exactly sure? Could I state it succinctly enough? I found these kinds of questions paralyzing at times, and so to get the writing – and the thinking – started, I would choose some place to start just because I could imagine writing about it. Often I chose something specific: I would describe an event – who did what where, and why, with what consequence? Answering these questions could get me started in storytelling mode. Or, I would describe a source that particularly captured my attention, and then move from description to analysis, explaining its significance. Although I haven’t revisited this text in years (but now I am prompted to do so by Sarah Manekin’s comment in her essay on this site), I think of some of these approaches as akin to Anne Lamott’s ideas in Bird by Bird.
Outline, sometimes. I wrote very general-level outlines to help orient me to a chapter, and then added to them by cutting-and-pasting in the different bits of text that were relevant, often pieces written with different small starting points, as I described above. If outlining wasn’t working, though, because I still hadn’t figured out or settled on what the chief argument of the text was or what exact structure the narrative would take, I put outlining aside and let myself write smaller pieces, as described above.
Reach for the big picture. Writing conversationally, or in brainstorming fashion, without the pressure to produce the perfect erudite phrase, was an important way to get my mind moving and to clarify the “big point” I was trying to make. This helped when I had a creeping sense that there was a “big point,” but just had a hard time articulating it. I have many brainstorming paragraphs that begin with phrases like “This might be about…” or “Maybe the point is…” or “What if it was about…”
Work backwards to make sure the pieces hold together. Outlining was an editing tool more than a writing tool for me. When I had bits that I knew needed to work in relationship to one another, outlines were helpful in trying out those relationships. But I found outlines to be even more useful as a way to review and check my prose for clarity and organization. When I was in a mental tangle about how to organize a chapter or a section, I worked backwards from the text to create a detailed reverse outline. This forced me to see how the section was in fact structured – something that sometimes wasn’t immediately clear to me as I would try to edit – and made it easier for me to see where the structure wasn’t working. I know of one senior historian for whom the last stage in writing a Bancroft Prize-winning book was to reverse-outline his entire manuscript, to check both for organizational clarity and paragraph-level transitions.
Talk out what you want to write. As colleagues prepared for conferences and job interviews, there was a lot of talk about describing your project succinctly and smoothly. I found that forcing myself to talk about what I was struggling to write – even if just a small piece of the overall project – could help get the thought process going, enough to them sit down at the computer again. Sometimes I’d talk to my (patient) husband, or sometimes to myself in the car, or on a walk or in a quiet room. (Now you see how even young scholars feed the image of the Mad Professor!) Reading aloud a text I was having trouble editing would help me hear both sentence-level issues and broader problems with flow and argument.
Value editing as much as writing. I tried (although I didn’t always succeed) to produce at least some new text each day I sat down to write. But my writing style, with all of these various bits and types of writing, required that I would edit, and edit, and re-edit. For this reason, among others, I’m sure this approach isn’t for everyone. I had to leave time a lot of time to edit, and then put a document away, and then come back to it later with a fresher view.
Write for other purposes. Early in graduate school, one of my professors referred to my writing as “a trifle clotted.” I was heartbroken – I thought I wrote well! What does this mean for my future!?! But the suggestion he gave after this critique has proven invaluable for me. He suggested that I write more, and not only academic prose, even in the form of a journal. I’ve been only a very inconsistent morning journal-writer, but what I have done I have appreciated both personally and as a writer. More broadly, though, the message was that we can help ourselves write well just by writing a lot, by working that muscle.
There are surely very different and very useful approaches to writing. I know of colleagues who write very differently – one who transformed her intricately detailed outlines into narrative sentence by sentence, for example, or another who wrote carefully crafted topic sentences for each of the hundred-plus paragraphs she would anticipate in a chapter, make sure they were in just the order she needed, and then flesh out the paragraphs from there. I share my approach only as one version to provoke thinking about yours or other possible ones.
For me, dissertating was about getting comfortable with the idea of being in a long, dogged pursuit of something whose outlines were often fuzzy. I had to figure out how to acknowledge that uncertainty without having that mean intellectual paralysis. Thinking about writing in the ways I’ve described here was, for me, a crucial part of keeping the process moving productively forward both in thought and on paper, while clarity came gradually.
I have an uncle by marriage who is a lifelong academic. He offered dissertation advice that I took to be great writing advice. He once asked a colleague why he came to the department office, every day, whether he taught or not. His friend replied that he never knew when the muse would come, but that he had to be sure to be at his desk when it did. I feel this way about writing. Many days, I won’t generate the paragraph that captures the argument and makes it all clear. But if every day I’m writing something, then I am more likely to be there when the muse comes.
About the author:
Ansley T. Erickson completed her Ph.D. in U.S. History at Columbia in May, 2010, and is Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education and History (by courtesy) at Syracuse University. She thanks writing mentors and colleagues Ed Osterman, Linas Gintoff, Josh Heisler, Nicole Wallack, and the many New York City high school students who got her thinking about writing.
How to cite this page:
Ansley Erickson, “Keeping the Writing (and Thinking) Going,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010, http://writinghistory.wp.trincoll.edu/2010/10/06/erickson-thinking/.
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