Many doctoral students fail to earn their PhDs because they never finish their dissertations. They complete their coursework, pass their qualifying exams, and do all of their research, but writing the thesis proves an insurmountable barrier. Why does the dissertation present such a challenge? Because students can’t push past the first chapter. Too many dissertators start with their introduction and find that they have nothing to say. Or they realize they have no idea what they are trying to introduce.
In Anne Lamott’s brilliant book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the author advises all would be writers to embrace what she calls the “sh*tty first draft” (SFD). Decide what you’re going to write, and then write it straight through without stopping. If you need an article, spend some time thinking of an abstract that captures the essence of your argument and the data you have to substantiate it. You can take a few days to put together a really good abstract. Once you have it, use it as you introductory paragraph and start writing.
Keep putting words on the page until you reach what you think will be the end. Never go back and read what you have already written. This may seem difficult, but you can learn to let your thoughts flow. If you find yourself stuck at a section or in need of a particular fact or reference not at hand, leave placeholders in your text. Phrases like “insert quote here” or “discuss relevant studies here” litter my first drafts. If I need to stop working for the day, I always type the letters “XXX” in my electronic document. When I come back to the file, I open the document and search for the “XXX,” thus bypassing the text I’ve previously written.
Writing straight through presents bigger obstacles when working on a dissertation or book. My colleague Doug Rogers understands these challenges and still insists on writing as much as he can without revising:
Given all of the revising and reclassifying that I practice and recommend, it’s imperative for me to keep going, to put off the urge to re-write and re-classify until it will be most useful. I could revise some paragraph or section forever, but I won’t know if it’s right until I see it in the larger chapter context. So I try to push through a whole chapter before I dismantle it. At some point, even if I’m a bit dissatisfied with it, I leave the chapter and move onto the next, so that I can revise at a higher level (two chapters together [and] eventually the whole book) later on.
Like Doug, I break up my big projects into individual chapters and place them in tentative order. I start with the first and write to the end of the chapter. Inevitably, this first chapter stinks because I lack clarity on the overall structure of the book. But I must persevere. If I go back and start tinkering too soon, I’ll never make it to the end.
Once you have your first draft, read it straight through before you make any changes. Usually enough time has passed from when you started writing that you will have forgotten some of the things you wrote. If you start editing immediately, you may end up rewriting passages that you have already written later in the chapter, article, or book. If you print your first draft you will be less likely to make changes to the text while you read. Make notes to yourself about what needs to be changed, and circle typos, bad grammar, and awkward syntax. But don’t touch the electronic file until you have read the text from start to finish. When you reach the end, then go back and have at it.
Revising this awful first draft presents the hardest challenge. My own writing appalls me at this stage, and I ponder how I produced such atrocious prose. Sometimes this first round of editing takes more time than the initial writing of the whole draft, which both frustrates and exasperates. At this stage my inner critic attacks; insecurity and doubt cripple me. I ask myself: “What if this is a stupid project?” “How am I ever going to make this crap readable?” “Why the hell would anyone want to read about Bulgaria again?” “Maybe the bathroom needs cleaning?” “Maybe I need to arrange my wardrobe by color?” In Maine, where I live most of the time, we suffer about six months of winter, so I can shovel snow, sand a path, or hack at the ice dams on the edge of my roof. My house reaps the benefit of my self-doubt. Windows get washed when I face the prospect of revising a first draft.
Books are perfect examples of commodity fetishism. Readers rarely glimpse the sweat and tears and anxieties that hide behind the sleek covers of a new book. When I read my favorite ethnographers, I deflate with the thought that I will never write a book or an article as good as theirs. I waste my time to produce second-rate garbage.
If I silence the inner critic and stick to my guns, however, the second draft of my manuscript always improves. When I reread the manuscript after this first round of heavy editing, new questions burble up: “Is this really as bad as you thought it was?” “Are you sure there won’t be an audience for this?” “How many more times can I dump ice melt on the walkway?” Slowly, the inner critic falters, and I beat her back with another round of revision.
By my third draft, confidence creeps back. I stand as my own worst enemy at the beginning of any project, but if I can take a deep breath and accept how badly my first drafts suck, I can finish any project. The key is keeping that forward momentum.