Contemplations on a Dissertation Pt 2: Throw it Away?

Speaking at a CCT conference session designed to provide advice on how to turn dissertations into publications Markus Geisler strode to the front of the room brandishing a copy of his dissertation before summarily dumping it into the trash. The first step, he said, is to “throw the dissertation away”. He recommended starting fresh with a few of the most important concepts from the dissertation, but not to be tied to the actual text.

I liked the idea so much that I decided to apply it. I wasn’t deterred by the fact that my dissertation wasn’t yet completed.

And, truth be told, I didn’t really throw anything away. However, in the time honored tradition of adapting things to one’s own purposes, I decided to “metaphorically” throw away what I had already written by pretending that it didn’t exist.

I did this because I had recently found myself lost in the maze of my own writing. I knew, in my head, before I sat down at the keyboard, what I wanted to talk about, but once I opened the document, I was sucked into what was already there. Being tied to what was already written limited my options. I was using the existing text as a reference for where I wanted to go next. I constantly felt the need to connect the next set of ideas with those previously expressed. I realize the importance of transitions and building bridges between related concepts, but without having all the essential ideas in place, I found myself building bridges to nowhere.

So I stopped looking at what I had already written and began afresh. It worked surprisingly well. Without the chains created by the original document, the other ideas started coming out. I was very happy to see them. So there I was happily writing away until I got to a point where I thought to myself, “I know I’ve talked about this before”. Then I had a decision to make. I could ignore myself and write about it again or I could stop and go back to the original document. This is a judgment call. If I felt really strongly that I had already covered the topic and I didn’t want to do it again, I would stop and call the original document back into existence.

This was almost always rewarding. It was great fun to discover that I had already written pages and pages that were now “the next step” in my narrative. Of course there were times that I found myself searching in vane for something “I could have sworn” I’d written only find myself spending far too long looking for something that wasn’t there.

There was an advantage to those “fruitless” searches as well because when I conducted them I looked at the original document from a much more objective viewpoint. The original doc was not the paper I was writing. It was now reference material so I could evaluate it with a more critical eye. This also proved extremely valuable.

So thank you Markus. Although I’m sure my application of your advice wasn’t exactly what you had in mind, it works for me and I wouldn’t have thought of it without you.

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