The Urbanatomy website used to run a series of interviews with China-connected authors under the title “Why I Write” (unfortunately, it seems that the archive is no longer online). But the series title was actually a little misleading: authors not only answered questions about why they wrote, but also how. Almost invariably, they cited the Internet as their main distraction, and while some claimed that they could write anytime, anywhere, others described work routines that made Roxana Robinson’s look flexible.
I always enjoyed reading the “Why I Write” interviews and learning how others liked to work, even though nothing I saw there ever tempted me to alter my own writing routines. I prefer to start early in the morning—like, before 7 a.m.—and need to have a caffeinated beverage by my side when I’m doing it (coffee, tea, and diet Coke are the standards; if you see me with a diet Mountain Dew, that means I have a deadline looming and you should stand clear). I absolutely can’t work with music or a podcast playing in the background, because I’ll pay more attention to the words I’m hearing than the ones I’m typing. I have to turn off my wifi when I work, lest I get distracted by the pinging of my email notification or fall victim to the lure of Twitter. I tend to pace when I need to think about what to say or how to say it. And when I finish, I read the entire piece out loud to myself to make sure I like how it sounds (and also because that’s how I catch the smallest of typos).
As you might imagine, it’s best when I work at home.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing habits and rhythms for the past week, since I had coffee with a friend who’s also working on his dissertation and was passing through Shanghai. We spent a lot of time comparing notes on writing routines, trying, I think, to sort out an answer to a question neither of us voiced: How do you write a dissertation?
There’s no magic formula, though a quick Amazon search shows that lots of people want to sell you books that might seem to offer one (my favorite, of course, is Writing a Dissertation for Dummies). For most of us, myself included, the dissertation is the longest piece of writing we’ve ever had to produce, and it’s largely done independently. I can look at my university’s calendar and see the date my dissertation needs to be filed by if I’m to graduate in a given quarter, but what I do on a daily basis between now and then is mostly up to me (though I will need to show chapter drafts to my committee members in the interim). I research, read, take notes, analyze, and write, all at my own pace and without anyone looking over my shoulder. For my friend, me, and pretty much every other PhD candidate I’ve ever talked to, this total lack of structure is the #1 challenge of dissertation writing.
The approach I’m taking is based on a book that I haven’t read, but I think I get the point from the title alone: Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. The idea is simple (and explained more fully here): writing a dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint, and the most effective way to work is at a steady, if seemingly minimal, pace. I don’t only write for 15 minutes a day, but on a good day, I can meet my writing goal of 250 words in about half an hour.
A daily target of 250 words often seems kind of ridiculous to me; most of the emails I send are longer than that. But I intentionally set that as my goal for the time being because I am trying to turn myself away from the kind of “binge” writing that been my habit in the past.
This has been incredibly difficult for me (though not nearly as difficult as deciphering poor scans of handwritten Chinese documents). For as long as I can remember, I’ve written to deadlines. Ever since high school, I’ve had the feeling that my brain doesn’t really activate until I can feel a deadline creeping up on me; I can remember more mornings than I’d like to admit when I’d wake up before 4 a.m. and write a paper due that day from start to finish. And while years (and years and years) of graduate school have taught me that I produce better work when I start writing more than 24 hours in advance, I still tend to operate that way when I’m working on short-form pieces for websites or the like.
But I don’t think I’ll be happy with my dissertation if I spend months researching a chapter, then try to churn it out in a week or two once that section of the research is done. In fact, I think that’s the shortest path to chugging Red Bull, pulling all-nighters, and living in my pajamas—all of which I’d like to avoid. So while I still haven’t entirely adjusted to the idea that I can write for under an hour a day and eventually (hopefully) produce a dissertation, I am trying very hard to learn a new writing rhythm and become more comfortable with working at a slower pace.