Never Give up on Your Dissertation, For It is Crunchy and Goes Well with Ketchup

A little over a year ago, my dissertation committee chair shared a link to a blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website: The Rule of 200 by Erin E. Templeton. She presents what I think is a practical, accessible approach to the challenge of balancing the varied demands of a career in academia. She writes that in the swirl of semester activity,

We have to find a way to balance research with teaching and service, and that can be very difficult to do.

Often, because the research goals are long-term rather than immediate, they get the short end of the stick.

OK, I thought; she and I are at least on the same page; someone who actually gets it. After laundry-listing several techniques for increasing productivity in the writing department, including the “first half hour of the morning” and 750, Templeton admits

I am simply not a morning person, and I’m often so busy that 750 words seem insurmountable when I finally do sit down to write. At the end of the day after my teaching and service obligations have been met, I’m usually fried. So in order to maintain my writing pace (which is, albeit, slow), my
system is slightly different. Instead of writing 750 words, I follow The Rule of 200. It has gotten me through my dissertation and the writing that I have done since. There is no website or digital tool (save for your trusted word-processing program), and rules are pretty straightforward.

The Rule of 200 works like this: my document word count must increase by 200 before I am done for the day, no exceptions. 200 words is a modest goal. It isn’t even an entire page of double-spaced 12pt font. It’s a grocery list, an email, a series of text messages.

I could accept this; I probably write more than 200 words a day collectively via text message, Twitter, and Facebook complaining about the drudgery of dissertating; why not redirect that energy into a more productive channel? So I vowed to give Templeton’s tip a fair try, and a year later, I still follow the “rule of 200,” albeit with a few modest adjustments of my own. Firstly: I make whatever writing project I’m focusing on—dissertation, journal article, etc.—the first priority on my to-do list each day. While I am not a morning person and firmly believe that there should be a tax for perkiness, by the time I sit down at my desk, I’m usually too overly caffeinated to grumble about being vertical and mobile. Secondly: I usually allow myself one day—what I like to call my “get out of jail free card” day each week to set my project aside, mostly because, like my mother’s spaghetti sauce, all good ideas need time to simmer, and I’ve found that, at least for me, stepping away from something—covering the pot and turning down the heat, if you will, on the mental burner—allows me to return to it later with renewed energy, or at the very least, graceful resignation.

I found myself struggling to recall Templeton’s practical advice a few mornings ago when I noticed that as I went to update the file name of my current dissertation chapter with the date, I’m approaching the six month mark; that is, I’ve been working on this chapter, off and on, for nearly six months. Excuse me while I rummage in the pantry for my emergency chocolate supply; I’m dangerously approaching the depression point. The draft is, as a dearly-beloved professor of mine once described the difficult draft, “like a very slow, painful bowel-movement”. Normally recalling this analogy makes me laugh; that day it just induced the urge to cry, vomit, and cry some more. (I once described the process of writing a dissertation as like being pregnant; all I do is eat and cry). Obviously, I realized I needed some fresh inspirational material. I turned to Anne Lamotte’s visualization technique in “Shitty First Drafts” of taking all of the negative voices in my head, pretending they were mice, dropping them into a jar with a nifty little volume control, and pressing mute. This unfortunately proved ineffective. I took a walk to the lady’s room to relieve a non-existent urge to pee; I coaxed my guidedog outside for a few minutes of fresh air (as it turned out, he didn’t need to pee either). I returned to my desk and checked the word count on my document; I still had 130 words left to write before I could close the document for the day. I considered calling my boyfriend until, in a horrifying, Bridget Jones-worthy realization, I remembered that I don’t in fact have one. I rolled my shoulders a few times, said a quick prayer, put fingers to keyboard, and tried again. It was Friday, I told myself; if I could just write 130 more words, I could move on to bigger and better things. I tried Anne Lammote’s visualization technique again; no go. I tried pretending that if I wrote my 200 words, I would win a coffee date with the celebrity of my choice. This only inspired unproductive fantasies and a humiliating imagined scenario involving an uncoordinated me spilling hot cappuccino in Colin Firth’s lap. Closing my eyes and massaging my temples, I waited patiently for the word fairy, who had apparently gone on holiday. Well, I’d just have to manage without her prolific pixie dust then. Laboriously I began to type, experiencing a sensation not unlike that of upending a nearly empty ketchup bottle to squeeze out what little there is left. I typed; I paused; I squeezed; I typed again; lather, rinse, repeat. OK, so this description is conjuring up the bowel movement analogy yet again, but I think my visualization is equally colorful and perhaps slightly less offensive.

In short (and because this post is considerably more than 200 words and funnily enough took far less time than the above exercise)I did in fact produce my 200 word count for the day, and I am now considering keeping a ketchup bottle on my desk to remind myself that however empty I might feel, sometimes all the brain-bottle needs is a little shake to get the juices flowing.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Posts: Never Give Up on Your Dissertation, for It is Crunchy and Goes Well with Ketchup “Are You Still Dating that What’s-his-Name?”: and Other Awkward Holiday Part […]

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