Category Archives: Writing the Dissertation

When Outlines Paralyze

There are essentially two types of writers in the world: those who create and follow outlines with ease, and those who are paralyzed by them.

I’m the type that gets paralyzed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still find outlines very useful, but not until after I’ve written a full draft. Then and ONLY then can I find the right organizing scheme that develops organically from the content, rather than being imposed upon it. If I set up an outline too soon in the game, and then try to follow it, I will spend hours staring blankly at my screen, or writing in fits and starts, going here and there and essentially nowhere in the end.

I am the kind of writer who needs the process of getting the words down on paper (or these days, coded into bytes), in order to find out what I know and what I want to say. Writing for me is a process of discovery. I write down one thought, and that thought suggests another, and another, and another. Ultimately it becomes clear that I am beginning to repeat myself, and that I am rambling, often incoherently. But it’s best for me to keep the words flowing until they just won’t flow anymore. Then I can go back and edit out the chaff and put like things together and contrasty things side-by-side, and separate the ideas that belong in some other work from the one I need to write at the moment.

So how does that work after you have submitted a dissertation proposal with this beautiful outline that makes so much sense…until you actually try to write the material that is supposed to go with it? Well, as I told one of my coaching clients recently: the purpose of your outline in your dissertation proposal is to get your committee’s approval. After that, you are free to go wherever your ideas and your research take you, as long as you end up with something remotely resembling your proposal…and it is good.

The truth of the matter with my own dissertation is that you would barely recognize what I ended up with compared with the original outline I proposed. That’s because in the process of doing the research I learned so much more than I knew when I started. How can you create a workable outline of a piece that you haven’t even researched yet?

Another analogy I gave her derives from an essay I wrote decades ago when I applied to be a teaching master of arts candidate at Cal State Long Beach. I wrote then comparing writing to the process of working with clay in the ceramics courses I’d taken while I was an art major. One day I was working in the ceramics lab diligently trying to create nice little objects that would serve as Christmas gifts. The instructor came by and asked what I was doing. He said that was fine if that was all I wanted to do. But if I wanted to become a potter, I had to learn to listen to the clay. Instead of imposing pre-conceived ideas about what my object should look like, I had to learn to listen for the clay to tell me what it wanted to be. And I had to make mountains of mistakes, working the clay over and over and over again. Stopping, slicing it to see how even the walls were, then punching it down and starting over again. And over and over and over again.

That’s the same way I approach my writing. That is, the writing that comes before the editing.

My client gave me her plan for the next time — that she would do the next chapter, and she said it would be beautiful.

I said, “I’m not looking for beautiful.” Beautiful is what happens after the clay is out there, after it’s been worked through, after it has told you what it needs to be. Then we carve, cutting out what doesn’t belong, shaping and reshaping what is left.

Don’t worry about beautiful, I said. I am an expert at organizing and polishing writing, but I can’t do it until after the writing has been done!

See, the thing is that when you are aiming for beautiful when you don’t have much to work with yet is that the Editor in your head becomes a Vulture standing over you, ready to pounce and destroy. Or, as Gail Godwin put it, the Editor becomes “The Watcher at the Gate,”

Freud quotes Schiller, who is writing a letter to a friend.  The friend complains of his lack of creative power.  Schiller replies with an allegory.  He says it is not good if the intellect examines too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates.  “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.  You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.”

 [I read this essay ages ago for an assignment at a women’s writing conference at UC Santa Cruz, two weeks worth of nothing short of heaven for me at the time, 1978.]

Editors are wonderful beings — whether in your own head, or hired. They are extremely useful and, when activated at the proper time, they can do beautiful. But the ones in your head have a tendency to block you rather than help you if employed to early in the game.

So for now, just write! 


A pet peeve: MS Word is more than a typewriter! Learn it!

Ok ok. I’m going to let off a bit of steam here. My biggest pet peeve is having to deal with a document written by someone who has never learned how to use even the most basic features of MS Word. Beginning with…would you believe…word wrap?

I still get materials from writers who use a carriage return at the end of each line.


Most, of course, do understand word wrap — that is, that the software will wrap the text to fit any line length you specify. So, for instance, if you have need for a 4″ text line, you just set your margins, and voila, Word wraps your line around that length and there you are. But beyond that most are clueless.

Among other things, I will secretly hate you if you use tabs or spaces for indents, and tabs or spaces plus carriage returns to set up the format of your bibliography. I will hate you because in order to properly format all of the above, I will have to remove every tab, every space, and every carriage return that doesn’t follow the final period in a citation. I will secretly hate you because having to do all that repeatedly (remember most of you send me long documents, and I have many other clients doing the same thing) results in repetitive stress injuries and the need for physical therapy.

Back in the dark ages, long before computers, I took a typing class as a freshman in high school with the expectation that it would serve me well throughout my education as I would be typing many papers. I was right. I learned to touch type and ultimately pushed up my speed to 65 wpm as I also began composing with the typewriter. Now with my compact Mac keyboard I am able to type almost as fast as I can think!

I bring that up to make another point: somewhere along the way you all should have had a class in how to use the amazing functions of MS Word. I don’t care how “un-intellectual” or how “vocational” such a course might seem. Like the typing course I took in high school, it will serve you well throughout your education, and your life if you plan to be an academic.

Word’s style format function is a dissertation editor/writer’s godsend. If you set styles for body text, headings, footnotes, and bibliographies, and use them religiously, you can be guaranteed that your final document will match up to your Graduate College’s requirements. And if there is a mistake it can take a minute or less to fix the problem. Even more wonderful is that Word can generate a Table of Contents, with all the pages perfectly matched to the headings, in the blink of an eye.

Because I have learned the hard way that the vast majority (as in 99.9999%) of the people who will be submitting work to me will have little to no acquaintance with Word beyond Word wrap and maybe setting margins, and as a consequence I would be having to deal with massive amounts of formatting and the resulting RSI’s, I am going to charge a separate fee for formatting, to wit: an extra $1.50 per page. Now, believe me, this is not me being either mean or greedy. It is me trying to save my body. Because the point of it isn’t to bring in more money for me, it is to get you to do your own formatting.

I will be providing every client with a style template geared to their own College and selected stylebook requirements. Of course, that doesn’t mean you will know how to use them. For the completely uninitiated, I suggest that you look at one or more of the following:

For PC users:

Microsoft Word 2007 Style Basics

The Essentials of Creating and Using Styles in Word 2007

Setting Up a Paper in APA Style Using Microsoft Word 2007

Styles, Templates, and Quick Styles in Word 2007 – Libby Hemphill

Have later versions of Word? Well, there’s a simple thing you can do. GOOGLE! Here are good search terms for that:

Word 2010 format styles (change the year for later versions)

Here are a couple that I get from that search:

How to Use a Formatting Style in Word 2010 – For Dummies

APA Format in Word 2010 – YouTube

Of course there are many more.

Now, if you are a Mac user like me, using styles is even simpler. Here are some tip pages that show up with I modify the search with Mac versions (Mac versions come out a year later)

Word 2008 format styles (change the year for later versions)

How to Define Formatting Styles in Word 2008 for Mac – For Dummies

Applying Styles in Mac Word 2008

Word 2008 for Macs: Text Styles – Tufts University

You may even find instructions and templates specific to your own university if you just add the name of your university to the search terms.

Ain’t life wonderful with Google? You just have to know what search terms to use, and often that’s pretty basic, as above.

So, if you haven’t had a class in how to use Word, don’t have the time for one, but expect to be producing written documents for academia for some time, whether as student or faculty, it’s time to give yourself a self-driven course in using styles for formatting. You will thank yourself, and your editors (including journal editors) will thank you.

Resources on Academic Writing Part I

As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My own original literature review began exactly the same way. It was rambling, overly long, inchoate, disorderly…leaving readers impatient for me to “get to the point!” I had good excuses for that. After all, I had bit off an giant chunk of ideas to chew on: sociological theories of agency, historiography, feminist theory, and women’s history; all of which I intended to bring to bear on a field that by its very nature had given very little thought to any sort of theory at all: journalism history. And oh yes, I forgot, I also had to cover various approaches within communication theory as well.

Needless to say, “cutting to the chase” was a long, drawn-out process struggling with decisions to cut prose with which I had become enamored and that seemed indispensable — to no one else but me.

I went looking for something to help explain to a new client the problems with her literature review and to offer some ideas on how to resolve it, and happily came across this wonderful article, “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review,” by Justus J. Randolph of Walden University. As Randolph writes in his abstract, “Writing a faulty literature review is one of many ways to derail a dissertation.” It is also one of the many ways to cause your editor to tear her hair out!

Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review. By Justus Randolph.

This article provides a terrific taxonomy of the different kinds of literature reviews, and approaches to writing them. Little did you know that there are many ways to accomplish this task, with the choice depending on your audience(s) and purpose.

Here is a table of that taxonomy, created by H.M. Cooper in “Organizing Knowledge Synthesis: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews,” Knowledge in Society (1988) 1: 104-26:

Cooper's Taxonomy of Literature Reviews

As you can see, there are many variations of focus, goal, perspective, coverage, organization and audience. As noted in the U Illinois-Urbana/Champaign library I took this from:

This chart seems overwhelming! But don’t be afraid. All it is doing is laying out some simple questions you should ask yourself before beginning a Literature Review. For example, the first row, “FOCUS,” is asking what outcomes, methods, theories or practices your literature review is about. Are you tracking the outcomes of previous studies, the methods that have been used over time, or something else?

You don’t need a definitive answer to all these questions, but they will help focus your research.

Questions to consider:

  • Which of these characteristics seem to fit within your field?
  • What would you like your Literature Review/thesis/dissertation to accomplish?
  • Is your aim to influence theory within your field, or have specific application?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Does your field necessitate a particular perspective?
  • How does your field typically organize its findings?


Another very useful article is this one, the first chapter in a book by Eric Hoftsee, Constructing a Good Dissertation:

Writing the Literature Review

As Hoftsee notes:

A literature review serves several purposes in your dissertation. A good literature review shows

  • that you are aware of what is going on in the field, and thus your credentials
  • that there is a theory base for the work you are proposing to do
  • how your work fits in with what has already been done (it provides a detailedcontext for your work)
  • that your work has significance
  • that your work will lead to new knowledge. 

Hoftsee has some very helpful suggestions for how to organize your literature review and select the materials to include. This one is a bit simpler and easier to understand than Randolph’s, but both are useful.

Indeed, I plan to make the both of them required reading for all new dissertation clients! So get busy!

Respect (and honor) your process

Tonight I was conversing with one of my clients who’s finally found her way through the tunnel she was in when we first started. As I told her, to be perfectly honest, if it had not been for what I know about the psychology of writing and learning to write (after decades of working with people at various levels of skill), I would have responded to her first drafts with something like “Who let you into graduate school?” Her work appeared to be about the level of a first year student in need of remedial instruction. And it would have been easy to dismiss the job and say “sorry, I don’t think you are cut out for this.” As, apparently, other faculty have implied. But I knew there had to be something deeper going on. You don’t get to that point in graduate school without being smart.

And then there was the topic of her dissertation, about what African American women students have to deal with, particularly the isolation, and being bombarded with cultural images telling them that they will never have what it takes.

I knew something deep was going on here, and we had to track it down and work through it.

And we have. Much of it has to do with the process she must go through in order to learn the material and apply it. This is very much like the process I had to go through with my then undiagnosed ADHD, where it took me forever to do the same work other classmates did in no time. (Though, to be quite honest, their end result often was nowhere near as good as mine, as reflected in my receiving my department’s award for Outstanding Doctoral Student in Research.)

She said she felt embarrassed about the work she had submitted earlier. I said, no! Don’t be embarrassed about it.  Don’t let yourself get bogged down in that self-criticism. Respect and honor your process. Clearly there are some people who will not understand, and from them you need to hide your process. But don’t let their lack of understanding give you something to beat yourself up over.

That’s how you work your way into another block.

Equally important, I saw how she was bound up in the very same conditions about which she was writing, in the same way that another client of mine who is facing blank page panic. Both of them must deal with not only all the conditions that lead the rest of us to have that panic; they must also deal with the cultural images telling them that they as black women aren’t cut out for academia.

All the more reason to respect and honor the process. This is how you get where you need to go.

My commitment to supporting minority achievement

One of my current clients is working on a dissertation about academically successful black women, and what it takes for them to survive and succeed in academia. Among the issues she raises is the isolation that black women feel — the sense that they are out there, alone, struggling against internalized critics spouting racist denigrations of their character and ability, and having those voices reified in comments made by cohorts, faculty and administrators, albeit  often in unconscious ways.

These internalized critics can have a profound impact on the student’s ability to write. Much of good writing boils down to confidence in yourself. Without that confidence, getting the words out is extraordinarily painful. And terrifying. That critic within — the combined voices of all those committee members clearly horrified with your “obvious” shortcomings — stands over you as your worst enemy, ax in hand, ready to cut your head off if you don’t produce, and the words just won’t come. Or when they do, they are squeezed into incoherent, turgid, upside-down, inside-out sentences and paragraphs — making it appear as if you are so lacking in intelligence and skill that faculty wonder (behind your back) how you ever got admitted to graduate school in the first place. They may privately shrug their shoulders and believe you made it in solely because of affirmative action, unable to say what they really think because, well, there are all those pesky lawsuits just waiting to be filed, and they fear being named.

And then there are those who want to help, but don’t have the slightest clue how.

Beneath it all, however, there is this: without an advocate, without someone believing in you, without someone recognizing the psychology behind your frozen writing, you are at sea in a world that doesn’t understand, that cannot see the value of your contribution. You are caught up in a sticky, unrelenting web, and every effort to find your way out just binds you tighter.

There is a way out. I am more than an editor: I am a coach. I am that advocate. With me, your success is my success. I feel deep satisfaction as you work your way around and over and hurdles placed in front of you. I “walk the walk” right along side you, cheering you on, helping you find your way, filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle that somehow never made it into your preparation for academic work. And when the breakthroughs happen, I’m jumping for joy.

The joys of being an editor

Today I am in awe of the performance of one of my clients whose revision of her final dissertation chapter is such a vast improvement over her original that it brings tears to my eyes.

It is often all too easy for editors to become utterly frustrated with fixing all the little things that are wrong, and to lose sight of the big picture.

If  someone has been admitted to a graduate school and has reached the point of writing that dissertation, clearly that person has the capacity to perform well. Early versions of the dissertation may hide that capacity underneath the students’ struggle to find her own authority and personal voice, especially when the text contains a significant number of minor errors.

The editor’s job is to look past all those little frustrating things to help the client find the diamond in the rough, waiting for the right chisel and vision of possibility. Once that happens, everything else falls into place. The empowered voice takes over and suddenly the student’s contribution to scholarship becomes clear.

Of course, the pleasure I derive from seeing that happen is the same joy I always felt when I was a teacher and a student made substantial progress in any of my courses. There’s nothing like it!

Writing the Introduction

As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.

The first draft of most dissertations seems to be very similar: the student is trying to demonstrate competence in all the major literature in any way remotely connected to his or her study. This is not only unnecessary, it is annoying for the average reader.

The Introduction or introductory chapter is often rambling and extensive, leaving the reader who is interested in the actual subject of the research feeling very frustrated. Get to the point! one wants to shout. The literature review and methods sections continue in the same vein.

This is perhaps most characteristic of the qualitative study. Unlike quantitative studies, which have very specific expectations for how one is to proceed, qualitative studies have no predetermined methodology or research design. Often, especially in certain fields for which qualitative studies have only begun to be accepted, there is still the need to JUSTIFY doing qualitative instead of quantitative research. And very often one needs to review and integrate large bodies of literature from outside the field, literature unfamiliar to many readers WITHIN the field. All too often that leads the writer to spend way too much time covering that literature before you get to your actual study. There are huge bodies of potentially relevant literature, and it is difficult to distinguish among literature that

  • 1) sets up the background for the study,
  • 2) provides the theoretical framework that
  •        a) justifies taking a qualitative approach,
  •        b) defines the acceptable parameters for the study, and
  •        c) enables interpretation of the data.

I find that  good deal of the material presented in first chapters is “front-loaded” — i.e., it more properly belongs to the literature review or methodology sections, or even the study section where the researcher explicates what is perceived to be occurring in the data.

The introduction to a dissertation must do the following, and the following ALONE:

  1. It identifies, locates, and justifies your study within your field. It demonstrates that your study attends to something entirely new, never examined before in the field.
  2. It states the specific problem that your study is to address, a problem not heretofore addressed by previous studies
  3. It states the research questions to be addressed by your specific study
  4.  It states the methods to be used
  5. And finally, it outlines the chapters to come.

The introduction answers the following questions:

  • What is the problem? Why do I study this issue? Why should it be solved?
  • Who will benefit the most from this piece of writing? What is the contribution?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What are my methods?
  • What can the reader expect in the subsequent chapters?

Except for an overview of the literature that needed to demonstrate that the study at hand is unique and adds important NEW understanding to the existing literature, the major literature reviews are saved for the literature review and/or to the methodology sections.

The introductory chapter of a dissertation is much like that first paragraph in the old “five paragraph theme”: essentially, you tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em. The big difference is that you must also demonstrate that the study about to be read is unique and makes a major contribution to the field in which it is located. .

I will discuss the literature review and the methodology sections in separate posts.