Friday, September 26, 2014

Dissertation Advice vs. Book Advice

A piece of advice that I got while I was writing my dissertation was that at the end of every week, I should step back and assess the new work I had done and its place in the bigger project, and then write a new, maybe even a totally reorganized, table of contents that would better suit all the new work rather than just shoehorning it in. It was advice from a professor who was very invested in the readability of academic writing and in innovation in the scholarly monograph as a form.

And as dissertation advice goes, it was actually pretty worthless.

(Pause to be struck down by lightening arranged for by the now-deceased and very-much-missed advice-giver.)

Because my own dissertation was such an extreme version of a quick scramble to finish, I don't know that I could articulte why, in any broad sense, it would be such a pointless exercise. Perhaps because dissertations are just one of those conservative forms of writing that don't benefit from a lot of creative reorganizing? Perhaps everybody is just scrambling to finish, even if it's on a slightly less compressed schedule than mine and if the only good dissertation is a done dissertation then anything more than a basic organization isn't a top priority?

It turns out to have been great book advice, though.

The weekly TOC reivision wasn't something I had activley thought about until I realized in the last few weeks that it was, more or less, what I have been doing as I make a final push to finish up my book manuscript. I'm not revising my TOC weekly, but as I do even what I would consider to be superficial editing, it is making me think, to a surprising degree, about the structure of the project. I have done a lot of shifting around of the order of the chapters (which turns out to have revealed a really major flaw in my tagging system for Zotero — when you've tagged a bunch of references as "chapter two" and it's suddenly chapter three or four, you still have to keep track of the old organization and sync it to the new one). I have had a chance to really consider what ought to be in a general introduction and what a first chapter is for, anyway. Where the little-picture editing has been especially helpful in the big-pictures is in allowing me to generally tighten up the parameters of the project, which has most recently manifested itself in my definitive decision that the book will be five chapters and not six (or even the seven that it was for a brief period this winter) because a subsequent reception history can, for a project like mine, be handled responsibly in a single chapter even if it could be the subject of its own book.

Every time I've made a change I have rewritten the TOC and saved the newly-reorganized document as a new file. And even though in the most recent reorganization I've added sections to several chapters, the ultimate overall effect really has been to tighten the project up and give it more focus with each incremental change. It does make sense that better organization should have that effect, although I'm not sure that the mental process has been quite as linear as that.

Just my two cents about reflecting on dissertation advice from the perspective of being pretty far along in the dissertation-to-book process and filing procedural things away for later even if they don't help at the time (all of which reminds me of something else I was told while dissertating that was as true then as it is now: It all comes together in the last few months).


Any dissertation advice that you got that was awful as dissertation advice but turned out to be really helpful for the book? Or vice-versa?

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