Monday, August 8, 2011

Finished Prose

When I found myself struggling with the first chapter of my dissertation, I realized that it wasn't because I didn't know what I was doing, or that I didn't have a plan. I'm good at being prepared, well-rested, and disciplined. The problem was a new one for me: I kept catching myself laboring to write finished prose the first time through a claim.

I typically like to write my way through an idea and then go back and work with what I have. But for some reason when it came to drafting the first dissertation chapter, I kept unconsciously trying to write the first draft like it had to be the last draft. This problem proved exhausting and a little discouraging.

Finally, one day I narrated what my claims were doing to myself in my writing: "what i want to accomplish in this paragraph is 'x' so that I can show 'y' and provide my audience with context for 'z'" and so on. In this way I wrote my way into a healthier process. Something else that helped was that I happened upon an interesting anecdotal example of an idea I was discussing, and I just wrote about this example because I thought it was cool. I had that realization that, oh yeah, I'd like to write something that I myself would enjoy reading!

That realization led me back to one of my favorite essays by Anne Lamott in which she explains the concept of the "shitty first draft." I'm sure many of you are familiar with this concept, and it may or may not work for you. All I can say, is that going back to this idea of just getting a draft down on paper so that I have something to work with has fundamentally changed by dissertation writing process...and for the better!

If you're struggling with your own writing on any kind of project today, maybe stop trying to say whatever you're trying to say perfectly, and just write exactly what you would say instead. Nobody has to see what you write besides you if you don't want. Just get something down and then go back and work with your ideas as they've made themselves known to you on the page.

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