October 2011 Update
Dissertation Writers at the Writing Studio
Although most of our clients at the Writing Studio are undergraduates, dissertation writers regularly come to see us too. As a new dissertation writer myself, I’ve noticed that dissertations often pose the same challenges as course papers on a much larger scale. The sheer length of even a single chapter makes organization unwieldy. The need to synthesize research with an original argument often trips us up. And then, of course, is the dreaded “so what?” question. Yet graduate students face some special challenges too, bound up with their status as developing professionals and the demands of academic writing. A dissertation consultation can be difficult on both sides of the table; but it can also be mutually productive and even fun when things go right.
For clients, sometimes one of the most challenging parts of the session is simply showing up. Graduate students, especially in the humanities, often feel that being a good writer is a major part not just of their work, but of their identity. When one’s self-perception hinges on being a good writer, seeking help with one’s writing can mean making oneself vulnerable. We have been told for years to “fake it ‘til you make it,” to assume a professional and confident demeanor even when we feel anything but confident. To put aside that persona in a consultation, to acknowledge our struggles with academic thinking and writing, feels like an unmasking. Even though I know that no one writes perfect drafts on the first try, and that everyone needs peer responses to their writing, I still find it difficult, as a dissertation writer, to put aside my desire to impress people, even the consultant who is trying to help me.
Another challenge of dissertation writing that confronts both client and consultant is the challenge of making radical revisions. In Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Joan Bolker describes the anxiety that attends revision: “The idea of hacking away at words I already managed to get down on paper, to change or even to discard them, struck me as both unpleasant and dangerous…. I didn’t really believe that I had any more words where those first ones had come from, so tampering with or discarding any of the ones I had already set down felt risky” (117). Even advanced graduate students may not have had much experience with revision, and to radically change or rewrite their work feels overwhelming. My writing often feels fragile, and I worry that if I revise, I may make it worse instead of better.
The question of what kind of revision to do also confronts client and consultant alike. It is easy, when presented with a piece of advanced academic writing, to focus on style and presentation to the detriment of the argument underlying them. Polishing prose is often easier than refining ideas. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “The Problem Is: You Write Too Well,” Rachel Toor diagnoses a common problem in dissertation writers and recent graduates—after carefully crafting and editing their chapters, they are told, “You write too well.” Toor suggests this critique is often code for “[Y]our writing is better than your thinking. Perhaps it’s a way of saying that while your prose is solid, your argument is frail.” The lesson to take away from Toor’s article is not that good writing is irrelevant to academic writing, but that academic writers should not devote all their attention to style at the expense of ideas. Revising an argument is difficult; it requires consultants to ask tough questions and clients to wrestle with complicated concepts. But for aspiring academics, this is often the most important kind of revision to tackle.
Yet dissertation writers continue to visit the Writing Studio because the payoffs can be even greater than the challenges. The consultation offers a space to talk through ideas in a low-stakes setting, an opportunity that is not always present when writers meet with their committees. Many graduate students find it liberating to be able to admit that they struggle with their writing and their ideas, and that sometimes they don’t really know what they’re talking about. I have found it helpful to visit the Writing Studio when I have an early draft that I’m not yet ready to show my committee; these work-in-progress meetings help me to figure out where my thinking is clear and where it’s murky. As Peter Elbow says in Writing Without Teachers, “If you are stuck writing or trying to figure something out, there is nothing better than finding one person, or more, to talk to. If they don’t agree or have trouble understanding, so much the better—as long as their minds are not closed” (49). Consultants are great at playing the role of that open-minded, yet sometimes confused interlocutor. Consultations also offer us another opportunity that committees often don’t: the chance to think and talk about the writing process. When we write, how we write, whether we draw up outlines or freewrite our way into an argument or talk our way into it—all of these are legitimate topics of conversation in a consultation and can help us develop writing strategies that will work within our own schedules and predilections.
While clients get the benefit of conversing with a smart reader or listener, consultants can get some intangible benefits from these meetings too. One consultant told me that she particularly enjoys working with dissertation writers because it provides insight into her own writing process and gives her ideas for new writing strategies. And though we try to treat all of our clients as peers rather than students to be tutored, with dissertation writers it is especially easy to let the client be the expert, and to offer our readerly responses rather than authoritative advice. Finally, for consultants who are or plan to become graduate students, working with dissertation writers gives us a chance to practice academic communication across fields and sub-fields, to get beneath discipline-specific terminology and research and engage with the argument underlying them. Whichever side of the table we are on, the dissertation consultation can clarify our perspective on our own writing and the work of the Writing Studio.