The hard part of writing for me is working out the argument. For smaller projects, like seminar papers, I learned how to pick a topic, dive into the text and the research, talk through my ideas, make outlines repeatedly on the backs of envelopes, and think things through until I had the entire argument in my head. Then I’d sit at my desk with stacks of books and articles surrounding me, post-it-note tags marking all sorts of relevant information, and I’d write, from start to finish, finding quotations as I went along. It usually took about three days to do the actual writing.
With the dissertation, the same things are hard, but I’ve got some added complexity. First, I’m a verbal processor, but far from my university and with no academic community to speak of near home. Long gone are the days when I’d hash over my ideas with roommates over breakfast, or with friends over coffee. Every once in a while when I get stuck, my husband (a computer scientist who isn’t quite sure what it is I do) will listen to me rant through my ideas. I’ve had to learn how to write first, and it seems I am always re-writing. I’m not one who can tinker with sentences or move paragraphs around. I’ve got to start with a blank page, old draft alongside the new, and type and cut-and-paste from beginning to end. Second, the very length of the dissertation means I can’t hold it all in my head at once. Working through the argument means a lot of writing, reading what I’ve written, re-writing, formulating ideas, writing some more. I’m not used to the iterative nature of writing a longer piece, and I find it hard (but it’s growing on me).
The thing I’ve discovered recently–a thing I actually practiced in my shorter writing–is that I’ve got to review and review and review until the problem gets small enough that I can get my head around it. I honestly thought it wouldn’t happen in a dissertation-length work, but it does. I finally have a document titled “What My Prospectus Really Should Have Said” that outlines a coherent, interesting, manageable dissertation. It took four years of dissertation work to get to a coherent view of my dissertation, but it’s here. And it makes me happy.
I suppose that’s been the hardest thing for me about writing–how long it takes to get to the point where the end is in sight.