Name: Kate Page-Lippsmeyer
Department: East Asian Languages and Cultures
Field of Study: Japanese Literature and Culture
Year in Program: 7th
Dissertation Title: “The Space of Japanese Science Fiction: Illustration, Subculture, and the Body in SF Magazine”
Greetings. If you’re reading this you are probably getting ready to write your dissertation, or possibly have already written it and are feeling nostalgic. If you’re the latter, I’m hoping to join you. If you’re the former, I am still a part of your larger cohort. While I work on modern Japanese literature, visual culture, and new media studies in general, my dissertation focuses on the first commercial and longest running science fiction magazine in Japan, SF Magazine, to argue there is a fundamental link between the visual representation of science fiction and the form it took in Japan, and this magazine was the space where that happened.
Much of the time I have spent writing my dissertation has really been a balancing act between writing and not-writing, between researching and doing other things. There are a million other tasks (like, say, writing this blog post) that will distract you as you attempt to take on the longest writing project (as yet) in your scholarly life. There is no one master plan. There is no perfect strategy. There is, I think, a point where you find balance. Manage all of the things that will take you away from your writing and your research and combine it with getting your research done. You can’t ignore one or the other.
And my best advice is this: only let yourself feel guilt as long as that guilt is motivational.
What do I mean by that? One of the open secrets of post-qualifying exam life is that we are for the first time given a stretch of time that includes no firm or hard deadlines. There is an ultimate goal, but the goalposts and the metrics towards hitting that goal will no longer be as clear as they are when you’re in coursework. They will largely be self-determined. Rather than the term paper that you are so used to having to write, the dissertation is long, it is nebulous, and regardless of how careful you are in planning your research and in strategizing due dates with advisors and committee members, it is largely work that is left up to you. It is all too easy to set goals you think are achievable and then, when they aren’t hit, to feel as if you have somehow failed the whole project. It is all too common to feel like an imposter scratching the surface of research it feels like might take years to complete before you feel confident enough to write a single word. And it is all too simple to have that guilt turn into depression and the creeping dread that nothing you do will make a difference – that the first step will not matter, nor will the last, so why take any?
I’m saying these negative thoughts in print not because I don’t believe in the work we do. But because I myself have experienced this kind of depression. And I think it better to be honest and acknowledge that this possibility exists than to pretend that it doesn’t. One of the reasons why I’m so glad Tori asked me to write this post was that I think it is important we acknowledge the toll this kind of labor can take on us, especially as we move from a classroom environment to an entirely self-directed one. The only way out is through communication and through an honesty that we have to have not only with ourselves but with each other. Don’t despair. There are as many ways out of this kind of spiral as there are going into it, and any one of them can work for you. In this post, I write about some of the things that have worked for me, and why. Hopefully, they will help you in your writing/researching process as well. Remember, though, that just because a certain strategy worked for me (or even for you in the past), it doesn’t mean it will work for you now. Be honest with yourself (and, in turn, honest with your advisors and your writing community), and flexible, so that you can get support in this endeavor. Because even in this self-directed labor there is a community available to support you. The fact that you’re reading this blog post is a good start.
How then did I go about researching and writing my dissertation? Well, for me, I floundered a lot. I still sometimes do. In the end, I have come up with a mix of things that help me articulate my project, and then I return to different types of time management to see that the work gets done. First, though, I had to know myself as a researcher. Then I developed strategies for dealing with my own strengths and weaknesses, which included developing my community resources as much as possible. The discussion that follows will mirror that process. I’ll outline how I found out what kind of researcher/writer I was, discuss personal time management strategies, and finally, point out some of the community resources I’ve depended on, in the hope my process helps you clarify your own needs, desires, and strengths.
I.Defining Your Research Style
Three years ago, freshly post-quals, I joined a dissertation writing group (more on that in the final section) and the professor running the group on the first day asked us to fill out a survey explaining what our own writing habits were. While I’d had some fuzzy idea of what kind of researcher/writer I was prior to that moment, having to illustrate it clearly on a single sheet of paper, then talk about it with other members of the group drove home the knowledge that there’s always more to learn, even about ourselves. The questions were simple, but every member of that group had trouble answering, at least, one of them. Take the survey yourself:
Writing Habits Survey
- When do you write? (mornings when you’re full of ideas, when you’re sad, in a good mood, scared for deadlines?)
- What environment do you need to have to write? (do you like music, quiet, a clean house, a clean desk, a library, a coffee shop)
- What do you have to do before you sit down and write? (cup of coffee? Clean hair? Talk to the friends/parents/partner so they won’t interrupt?)
- What time of day are you most productive?
- How long is your attention span?
- How do you write? (are you someone who writes everything and then goes back and edits, or someone who edits sentence by sentence?)
- How much research do you need to have done before you write? (do you need to have the whole book read? Do you like to start musing on a particular quote? Do you feel you need to have read a whole shelf before you can synthesize?)
- What are your strengths?
- What are the things you like most about your writing?
- What are your weaknesses?
- What are the things you like the least about your writing?
- What are you most excited by in this project?
- What are you most worried about in this project
- How do you work out your ideas? (outline? Freewriting? Other
- What are your strengths and weaknesses as an editor?
The hardest questions to answer for the entire group? Questions 8 and 9. Every single person in the writing group had trouble with these, and some people actually left them blank. The easiest? Questions 10 and 11. Our advisor pointed out that it was very important to be able to know our good qualities, not only because as the writing process goes on we question ourselves out of the competency we have already gained, but also because we need to acknowledge that we are very good at this. You, dear reader, are very good at what you do. You would not have gotten to the point of beginning your dissertation if you had not already passed many milestones. In fact, you didn’t just pass those milestones, you did them well. Acceptance into a Ph.D. program itself is one milestone that doesn’t get celebrated enough. Working through the first two, or three years, where you refine your knowledge in the field is hard, and your skills have been refined over those years too, and you need to acknowledge that.
Knowing your strengths is just as important as knowing your weaknesses.
II. Time-management and Writing Strategies
As I said above, I use a mix of strategies for writing and researching. And I’ve come across others that sound so amazing I thought I’d share. Before I get to my own writing rules, I’d like to introduce you to one of these time-management strategies.
The “Writing It All At Once” Schedule: A time-management guru (a woman who finished her Dissertation in one year, and had gone on to write another book while she was teaching a class on publication through our Graduate School) suggested to my class that, rather than writing a single chapter at a time, we consider writing the whole dissertation a little bit at a time. Rather than laying out a weekly schedule broken into small tasks that were all part of one single chapter, we lay out a daily schedule that would persist for four to eight months and result in the entirety of the dissertation getting worked on simultaneously. That weekly schedule would include two days for non-research activities where you don’t write at all. It looks something like this:
|Chapter 1||NON-RESEARCH||Chapter 2||Chapter 3||Chapter 4||Chapter 5||NON-RESEARCH|
Every week you’re working on every chapter, so you can’t get tired of the chapters, and you move around on your research. She also argued that if you schedule two non-consecutive days a week off to take care of all of the things that happen in life – paying bills, going to the grocery store, visiting people you like, attending department meetings, seeing movies, watching your favorite shows, etc. you feel better both doing the task for each day and doing the non-research thing (and no guilt, because you know you’re going to be working tomorrow).
Once you’ve isolated each day of the week with which chapter you’re going to work on (say, Tuesdays are always Chapter 2), you further break down each Tuesday with subcategories. The first 3 Tuesdays are then research Tuesdays. Maybe the first Tuesday is the archive Tuesday, where you only read the first chapter of all the books. The second and third Tuesdays then become about synthesis, where you read and write-up all of the research materials. Then the fourth and fifth Tuesdays can be writing the first 10 pages of your chapter (because 5 pages a day is a good goal for writing). The sixth Tuesday you go back and do more research, the seventh you incorporate it and write 5 more pages, and by the eighth Tuesday, you’ve finished more than half a chapter. Now, if you did that for every chapter, you’d be done with your entire dissertation in four or five months.
However, since I work with a lot of primary texts, I didn’t feel comfortable using this model. It comes from someone who worked primarily in social sciences, and it didn’t work for the requirements of my own research. Instead, I split my days up as follows, working on a single chapter:
|Theory (either Japanese or English)||NON-RESEARCH||Japanese primary texts||English historical research/critical texts||Writing the chapter||CFPs, Reworking paper for publication||NON-RESEARCH|
I was able to stick to it for about three weeks before the whole thing collapsed. I tend to work in fits and spurts, and this simply required too much consistency and specificity. All is not lost, however. These rules have managed to get me continually writing and researching and now I have developed my own rules of thumb…
Read Part Two and Kate’s writing rules of thumb here.
Kate is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California. Visit her website to learn more about her research. https://dornsifecms.usc.edu/kathryn-page-lippsmeyer/