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Monday, March 27, 2006
On Avoiding a Train Wreck
I am finally, after much lamenting, back on track with this chapter. I didn't have a chance to work on it much this weekend since T is out of town and I was an (exhausted!) single parent, but I nonetheless made some progress and am feeling better about it. Before I fall asleep (which I may do in the middle of this entry), I thought I'd quickly write about why this chapter has been so horrible. For my own personal writing method, how can I avoid a train wreck like Chapter Six in the future?
1.) Don't begin a chapter by first relying on a pre-existing version of the chapter, thinking "I'll just plug in additional details and do some revising and, voila!, the chapter will be done in no time!" This was truly the kiss of death, and I should have realized it a long time ago. This chapter existed in a very juvenile form as a conference paper, a paper I wrote before I had even thought-out the theoretical section of the dissertation. I kept trying to re-work about 12 pages of existing conference paper text, pulling passages out and trying to remember why I wrote what I did and how the sources fit together. But the fact of the matter is that I know so much more about this case and the entire topic now that the vast majority of what I wrote in the conference paper draft is no longer valid or no longer makes sense to me. In fact, I discovered a huge, glaring error in the conference paper draft (an error so specific to the case, however, that no one else would have noticed) that, had I not corrected it in this new chapter, would have led me to incorrectly evaluate a part of one of my hypotheses. The correction, now fully executed in the chapter after a lot of painstaking attention to boring details, makes me "more right" hypothesis-wise than I would have been if I had relied only on the conference paper draft.
2.) Don't believe that you "already know" how the chapter will look because you have a "working draft." This ties in with what I wrote above. Because I thought I knew exactly how this case worked in my dissertation, I tended to push it off, to take it less seriously. I felt, in a way, that the "hard" work was already done. I was really wrong here. The hard work had only just begun, and every time I felt myself getting in deeper and deeper, the more discouraged I became. I kept thinking, "Gosh, I've already done this for a conference paper, so why is this so hard to write as a chapter?" In reality, the conference paper case study draft is nothing like what I wanted to accomplish in the chapter. The conference paper "working draft" did not work at all.
3.) Don't be afraid to ask for serious help. Each of my case studies requires me to learn an entire new body of rules in which I have no background. (Hard to explain without revealing too much!) For the most part, I can figure things out because I know just enough to get me through a case and into the aspects of it that interest me most for the dissertation. But Chapter Six presented (and is still presenting) a unique challenge in that it involves a complicated mess I could not, despite translating every word in the documents I'm working with, unravel. This weekend, I sought not only help with the language (my friend Kurt), but also the help of a specialist in the topic of the case. Once I did that, I could more easily work through the "nasty" section of the chapter that has been holding my progress hostage for days. I am now almost finished writing it, and it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. Knowing what's going on really helps. (That's one thing I'll really miss about being at Doctoral University: ready access to experts in a variety of topics. When I begin my job at Smallish Midwestern University, that expertise will be over 100 miles away.)
4.) Don't be afraid of writing something because it's really hard. This chapter has been so difficult to get motivated on precisely because the subject matter is so complex and the arguments so subtle. I really hated to think about it, and especially hated that I couldn't figure it out on my own. The chapter made me feel stupid, and no one likes that.
5.) Don't undertake a dissertation with such a huge foreign language component. Too late to correct this one, but I've learned my lesson. I remember, at my prospectus defense, one of my committee members saying, "Wow! Your German must be fantastic if you want to do this project!" I was so confident back then, assuring them that even though I knew it was going to be difficult, I could handle it and would relish the opportunity to further enhance my language ability. Hah! My German is good. I understand the bulk of what I read and hear, no problems. Most of my dissertation research, however, involves foreign language skills at the highest end of my ability, and sometimes just outside of it. Heck, most of my dissertation research involves lanuage skills at the highest end of Kurt's ability, and he's a native speaker. This makes for very frustrating days, although I must admit that although my vocabulary was good before, it's pretty awesome now (although specialized to a level that no native speaker would be interested in hearing what I had to say!).
So, it's progressing. It's been a long haul. I would like to say that my final case study will be easier than this one, but I doubt it. I know it will be significantly shorter, though (Prof. G. gets annoyed by chapters over 30 pages, and Chapter Six has already outgrown that), and that's a good feeling. God willing, tomorrow will be a good day for writing. That would make me happy as well as T, who always worries about me when I'm frustrated with a chapter. I'd love for him to walk in the door tomorrow after almost a week away from home and be able to tell him that the plague of our existence, Chapter Six, is on its way out.