As I’m in the thick of writing my dissertation, I’ve been reflecting on the writing advice I’ve received, my own anxieties about writing, my goals, and what seems to be working. In this post, I’ll reveal some of my writing habits and advice that may seem a bit contrary to the advice I’ve gotten. This is to show that there isn’t any correct way to do this as long as we complete the task and are proud of accomplishing it. There are many different roads to the final destination.
Since I was young, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I’d write stories for fun, draft poems, and was even told to “write an essay” by my dad whenever he tried to get me to occupy myself in place of turning on the television. In many ways I’ve fulfilled my dream in my career so far. But somewhere along the way I’ve gotten onto a course of scientific writing that feels sterile and clinical. Coupled with dry writing, I’ve gotten advice from many sides to “make sure to write everyday!” While this is excellent advice, I’ve found that it doesn’t work so well for me. I either feel pressure to write and then don’t write and feel bad, or I write something I don’t like or isn’t productive just for the sake of getting something on paper. I know writing just to get into a habit of writing works for some and sometimes getting anything down can end up being helpful later. I prefer to wait until inspiration strikes.
What has been working for me so far is a slow approach to writing. I write in fits and spurts. I also know I write best in the morning, so if I spend the morning doing something else, I most likely will not get to writing that day. There’s many days or sometimes weeks where I’m reading through notes or working on other tasks entirely. On a good dissertation writing day when I’m starting out on working on a chapter, I jot notes first, usually in the form of outlines and ideas, and then begin my drafting process by bringing together parts of other papers and notes I’ve written in other places. This is not actually writing per se and just a lot of copying and pasting. Once I get going, I usually hit a good stride and keep going until the task is done.
If I’m working on a deadline I can usually work well setting aside two hours every morning for writing. While I consider writing for two hours out of a whole day as a good writing day, it is very little time devoted to the task. I am working hard on seeing this as progress and not as wasting the rest of the day. Therefore I find it useful to split my attention. I work on other tasks or other goals to accomplish. I also make sure to go on walks and jogs to try and inspire ideas and connections. This has been my pattern for the conference papers and chapters of my dissertation that I’ve drafted so far. So while my process includes thinking about my work and writing everyday, it does not necessarily mean that I write everyday.
To help with the clinical and dry style of writing I adopted in grad school, I’ve been trying to read more fiction by authors whose writing styles I greatly admire. I’ve been trying to make this an even more productive task (because reading fiction does not feel like work and feels more like I’m shirking my responsibilities rather than bulking up my skills) by reading South Asian fiction literature. This helps me to see how authors weave stories into what I view as ethnographic detail about the region of my work. I’ve also read other dissertations on my topics or based in India, and the words of one of my advisors is always in my mind, “Everything in anthropology is primary data.” Maybe more than just a more descriptive writing style will make its way into my dissertation. On the other hand, maybe not and that’s okay as well.
I often have the notion that everyone else is working harder than I am. While this may be true, in my field I made sure to take time to “turn off,” meaning that while I could easily see every interaction I had from grabbing coffee with a friend to buying vegetables could be a potential entry in my fieldnotes, I quickly became exhausted wearing my anthropologist hat all the time. I’m sure I was also exhausting company for those who spend time with me while I was “on”—asking questions and gleaning information wherever and whenever I could. This is why I make sure to take time or even days off from writing or thinking about writing to rest and do other things. I find time to do enjoyable activities like watch movies and visit museums and spend time with friends and family. I often cook and listen to innumerable podcasts as well. Most importantly, I remind myself to not feel guilty for doing these activities instead of writing or thinking about writing. That is key. The task is not so overwhelming but the guilt can be. I remind myself that the time spent resting will actually help my productivity and energize me for the next bout of writing which may happen when I plan for it or may come to me out of the blue.