What I’ve learned in the past few years is that the process of writing a dissertation is an experiment in itself. No one can really teach you how to develop your own research and writing processes. You can learn from examples of the craft. You can consult with advisors and other graduate students. But when all is said and done, you have to figure out for yourself just how things should work.
Through trial and error, you determine how to get the most out of your archival research and how to keep track of the materials you’ve gathered. Then one day – most likely a day when you still feel like there’s no way you are possibly ready to write the dissertation yet – you sit down and you start writing. You start to put the puzzle pieces together. You begin to doubt whether this really was a worthwhile subject to tackle at all, or whether you’ve done it the right way. You question whether your argument is really interesting at all, or just passé. And then, of course, you spend many hours fretting over whether you actually can write well at all.
But you keep writing. You keep writing because as you go, you discover new ideas and new questions and new answers. You learn how to piece together a chapter, and you learn how and when to give up on a chapter and start it again. And someday, in between all the writing and editing and reading and teaching and other activities – you wake up to find you have a couple hundred pages of something that’s starting to look like a dissertation….along with dozens of marginal notes from your advisor and pages of typed comments from your meetings.
And all of a sudden, you begin to realize that it’s all coming together and you’re reaching The End. The End, I’m beginning to learn, can be just as nerve-wracking as the beginning. You see, no one can really tell you how to finish the puzzle either. There will be Opinions on this from a number of faculty and graduate students, and there will be things you do to respond to their comments and criticisms. But when all is said and done, you learn to finish just as you learned to start.
A little more than two weeks post-West Point, I’m working on the dissertation again. The dissertation and I took a break in June, some much-needed time for me to soak up the new ideas at West Point and to let other ideas marinate for a bit.
By the middle of next week, I’ll have six chapters. Not perfect in any sense of the word, but six chapters that will, in a few months, form a coherent and completed dissertation. A week from now, I’ll have a draft of my intro and my conclusion, and I’ll be poised to move into revision stage – a phase of the dissertation process I’m still trying to envision properly, I think.
After so many years of wanting to be here, now here I am. I’m starting to learn the finishing now, at this odd place between the drafts and the polished prose.
I’ll let you know how it goes.