Meeting the Ugly Reality of Writing in Graduate School – and Beyond

Many graduate students step into the world of research because of a sincere interest in a topic and the belief that their work will forge new paths in their respective fields.   Though such a drive may prompt people to start the pursuit of a doctoral degree, it can often subvert the creation of that final piece of doctoral work – the dissertation.

When the ideal in our heads doesn’t readily make it to the sheet or screen it becomes easy to wait – wait until we’ve read one more article, talked to one more expert, put together one more outline.  But we eventually face the inevitable and must write something – and it never looks as good on paper as it does in our imagination.  So, we wait longer.  If we find the right process, everything will go smoothly.  Maybe it just needs a few more days, weeks, or months to age and then it will come out all right.  Like a perfect bottle of wine.

In her article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Herrmann (My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation) brings us back to reality and the mess that research is.  She emphasizes that it’s much easier to edit a terrible dissertation than it is to edit a nonexistent perfect one.  Obvious, yes.  However, in the midst of wanting to develop that ideal dissertation it’s easy to forget and difficult to accept this common sense statement.  Meeting this reality brings students to a humbling awareness about academic work. Our best efforts many times begin with an ugly draft.  Yet, in the process of writing, and discussing with others, this ugliness is transformed.

In this journey we come to see that writing is not merely a means to share our well-defined ideas with others; the process of writing actually provides insight into the research itself.  Our initial efforts might include a series of outlines – maybe some in colored pencil or with a images drawn throughout – to help pull the pieces together.  They may include a bunch of free writes that explore ideas and questions we want to test.  Maybe some writings are responses to readings – not in a formal essay, but in the words of a casual conversation.  These meanderings eventually come together to take shape in  cohesive paragraphs, sections, and even chapters.

Maybe some people can accomplish such work in a more linear fashion (and several comments to the referenced article indicate this – just write, create an outline, etc.), but many students I encounter take the more round about way.  However, these writings are more than a means to get started.  Just like serendipitous side-trips on vacations, they can take us to places we would have never gone if we would have stayed on the original path – or followed the first outline.

My own experience of putting together a dissertation wasn’t very pretty most of the time. Spurts of writing here and there eventually came together – and then apart.  The disdain for sitting at a desk grew so severe at times that I had to leave, and almost trick myself into writing by doing so in parks, libraries, and museums.  At times I laid out the drafts on the floor, trying to determine a reasonable narrative to help explain the research on the pages and still in my head.  Then, as I was drafting yet a new version, insights emerged or questions arose.  Eventually it came together – and the side-trips often became the heart of the final product.

Now this formally ugly dissertation is starting a new journey into a book.  Again I’m fighting the desire to have a finished piece of writing immediately.  So, I’m doing a lot of waiting.  But Herrmann’s article encourages my post-dissertation self that it’s time to take these writings and start drafting a terrible, no good, horrible very bad book.  It’s time to go.

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