Editor’s note: this is Part Two from Kate. Part One can be found here.
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”
My 6 Writing Rules of Thumb
- Write for 15 minutes every day. Most days if I tell myself to sit and write for 15 minutes. If I can get myself to do this I will inevitably stay at the computer and write for 40-50 more without a break, and thus the beginning of progress is made. I don’t track page count since I tend to edit every time I sit down to look at my chapter. Instead, I measure progress in blocks of time spent writing. If I write for three or four hours, I consider myself having accomplished what I need to for the day. Doing it this way produces more pages for me then when I focus on the page count. This method works for me because I can always talk myself into 15 minutes – it’s just not that long of a time. Even if it’s 11pm at night (a time when I am at my least eloquent), I can do 15 minutes of something that will be worth looking at the next day.
- Research and write at the same time. In addition to a daily writing routine, I try to do a little research every day, even if it’s reading a single chapter from a book. I am usually able to come up with more ideas as I read and react to what I’m reading. I also use more precise language this way and interact with the author I am reading in a more nuanced manner.
- Always complete a thought, but try to leave the next thought for the next day – that way there’s already something on the writing agenda when I sit down and write. This advice came from one of my committee members who has more than a dozen books to his name. I like this idea because when I sit down at the computer with something I was already itching to write about, I always go faster, and am more committed to writing.
- Use conference papers as my starting point, and propose a conference paper per chapter. I have some of the best “aha!” moments when I’m preparing for a talk. I’ve given conference presentations on three of my chapters, and each time I gave the presentation, I ended up articulating the guiding thesis of my chapter in a way that I was unable to do in writing prior to the talk preparation. These conference presentations also gave me specific deadlines to work towards, which I need. And when I sat down at the computer after the talk to flesh out the material in the chapter (which is always almost double the material I presented in the talk) I had the manuscript to work from.
- Do one pomodoro in Japanese every day. Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique? It’s basically a time-management system where you do the task for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, do another 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, and so on. After 4 sessions, you take a longer break for 15-20 minutes. For me, translation has to occur in these small bursts. If I can do a full set of Pomodoros every day I am absolutely on track with my translations. Some people use it for writing too, but I tend to have a little trouble with that – my comfortable writing period is much longer than 25 minutes. I use this mainly for translation work or projects that require a short burst of attention and focus.
- Take one day off every week and don’t feel guilty about it. One of the other markers of higher education is the feeling you always have in the back of your head that there is something else you should be doing/researching/writing. The only time I haven’t had that feeling was after I graduated undergrad but before I came back to do my masters. However, this is part of balancing being a graduate student and being a person. I have to have time to enjoy living life. Time to watch terrible tv. Time to take care of the bills and the calls to family. One day a week is hardly egregious.
There you have it, my rules of thumb. Though simple, they provide a roadmap for me to get back on course when life gets busy, and also to make sure I don’t fall down the guilt spiral if I have to attend three talks in three days and only get an hour’s worth of reading done each one of those days. Or if I spend a weekend with family. Or if I spend an afternoon reading one of my friend’s papers instead of doing the five Pomodoros I had planned. Or if I spend a whole day reading a thesis by someone who works on magazine culture. Or spend six hours in the library falling down an archive rabbit hole and not coming up with a single quotation out of it. Or the days I spend eight hours writing, and get the draft of a new chapter to my committee. Because all of these things – distractions and non-distractions – happen all the time. And they are all a part of the work that goes into my dissertation.
- On Committee Members…My dissertation committee chair is great – brilliant academic, committed, generous with his advice. However, he’s currently the Dean of his program, advising approximately 20 doctoral students at any given time, working on his own projects, and tends to prefer giving feedback in person rather than on a particular document or via email. He does not give out deadlines, nor does he require me to stick to one (except for the big defense deadline at the end of this whole shebang). I have learned to go to him when I’m stuck theoretically, and after only a five-minute conversation, I end up with a clearer articulation of my work than several days’ worth of trying to email back and forth. However, I also know that I need more feedback than that single five-minute conversation. The other members of my committee have strengths in other ways. One professor reads each of my chapters in detail but prefers to give her commentary verbally in a meeting. I take notes at these meetings and end up with a map for revisions. One responds within a week with detailed written feedback – he’s even used MS Word’s editing software to mark up my chapters with specific concerns. Another professor always reads my work and suggests more books for me to read. Our conversation is more a generation of ideas than it is a specific engagement with holes in my writing, so I tend to give her more unfinished drafts to discuss.
- On Dissertation Writing Groups...As I mentioned above, through a miracle of timing and connections, I was able to start work on my prospectus with a dissertation writing group run by one of the programs not affiliated with my department, but with our Visual Studies Program. Run by the same professor for the last two years, and with mostly the same people (when some members graduate, we have openings and add new people), we meet once a month to read and comment on 2 members’ chapters. This means once a year my work gets read and commented on by about ten graduate students and a professor not affiliated with my discipline. Above and beyond feedback that sometimes is line-by-line, the group has given me models for writing – I got to see what other people’s drafts looked like, hear what other people’s writing processes were, and we bolster each other both during group meetings and outside of them. When another group member presented a chapter where she both did historical analysis, an intervention into a theoretical standpoint and a set of textual analysis (which is what I was trying to do in one of my chapters) I was given a model on how it could be done with elegance and style. Additionally, because all of the members come from different disciplines I see different ways of investigating subjects. I cannot stress how helpful this group has been, and I strongly recommend finding or starting a dissertation writing group of your own.
- On Cohorts...Finally, there is my cohort, the other graduate students in my department. We have a grad student organization that organizes group meetings where we share our conference presentations. The feedback I’ve gotten here from friends who have been watching the development of this project through our shared courses has been nothing short of incredible. From friends who toss me references when they’re in the library archives finding relevant things in places I would have never thought to look, to colleagues who are willing to look over my translations, to others who tell me how much my argument has gained depth and nuance over the years, this kind of community cannot be underestimated. The main challenge is finding the time to help others out as much as I feel I’ve been helped. I often feel as if I haven’t given back enough for what I’ve been given, so I’ll offer to read papers, edit cover letters, or make suggestions on CVs. Naturally this takes time away from my own writing and research but is also the way I give back. Like I said before – it’s a balancing act. We all have to navigate our way through it. I know that sometimes I err on the side of doing too much, but at least I know that about myself.
In the end, there’s only you
So there you have it. “It” being, of course, an imperfect treatise on an ideal world. Or “it” being an impractically long discussion with some practical advice in there somewhere about how to find balance and get work done. It was also a really long way to say that I have no fixed day-to-day schedule.
In many ways there is no way for me to give you a day in my life that wouldn’t somehow be fairly exceptional (and also probably fairly impractical). Yes, I have done a string of 10 hour-a-day writing and research fests to share a draft with my dissertation reading group. I have written for 15 minutes and spent the rest of the time on grant applications (because yes, you need to do those as well). I have also spent a month on a single translation.
You’ll note, however, those all fit within my rules of thumb. Which is why these rather loose guidelines are what I have come up with that allow me to feel productive without feeling like I have somehow fallen off of a schedule and failed myself. That’s the real place you need be eventually – a place where you know you are getting work done, and you know you are being responsible, and you know you are satisfying your own expectations. I hope in some small way I contributed to your understanding of the dissertation writing process a little. I wish you the best of luck!
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/