#AcWriMo and Life Lessons

This month of #AcWriMo is just about over, and I can happily say that I have done an OK job of meeting my goals.  Sure, I didn’t actually get two beefy paragraphs written everyday, and I am not at a place to submit an abstract to the conference I was eyeing, but I am in a much better place overall.

What’s better, I’ve learned a few things about writing and how I have developed as a writer. If I were to write about book about writing a dissertation I’d develop these ideas into chapters:

Finding and using my voice

This means finding my own sense of authority and mastery over a topic, that I am allowed to say important things. Finding my voice involved taking ownership over the project instead of always trying to submit to some vague, imagined notion of what my readers want me to write. I’m having a hard time coming up with the right words to use here to define the writer’s voice. It is more than a sense of self-confidence, although that is a big part of it. The dictionary gives these words as synonyms for voice:  opinion, view, feeling, wish, desire, will. Perhaps the phrase “give voice to” gets at what I’m trying to emphasize: the sense of being allowed to express an opinion, interpretation, or idea. And certainly the sense of being allowed comes from both the messages I receive about my work from my readers and peers, and from my own internal feedback loop.

I’m pretty sure that there are some who think this struggle of allowing oneself to express an idea is absurd! After all, I applied to a graduate program and have undertaken the task of writing my own book on a topic that I am uniquely positioned to write. But there seems to be some other personal hang-up involved that has made it hard for me to exercise my voice. Fear of being told I’m wrong?

It’s OK to explain stuff

I spent so much time and energy trying to craft little arguments in my writing that I often left out the necessary explanations of the significance of something or how to places or people are related. When I was teaching my summer class, I realized how much important information was conveyed through explanations. In fact, there is no way one can make a reasonable argument wtihout explaining much of the context. Expository writing constitutes so much of what ends up in the thesis. Perhaps I had it in my head that because almost every sentence ends up being footnoted that every sentence had to carry a lot of insightful, persuasive weight?

Eat chocolate

In the weeks after Halloween when we’ve had a candy bowl around with mini-chocolate bars, I’ve enjoyed a few little indulgences during my break times. Eating a mini-chocolate bar means relenting on my strict diet rules. I gave myself permission to eat a little piece of chocolate and to enjoy the sweet treat. (You’d think that someone with such a strict orientation to sweets would be thin, but, alas, this is not the case.) In other words, I tried to stop being so hard on myself!

Learn how to deal with criticism

Critiquing other people’s work can be hard, and giving constructive criticism is even harder because it means only conveying the aspects of the work that are poor, but also offering specific comments on making improvements. Not all criticism is constructive, even though a reader might be trying to make the best possible impact on the piece of writing. I’m the kind of weak-spined writer who considers even too much constructive criticism to be a problem. Yikes. I certainly prefer to just deal with feedback in terms of encouragement to focus on specific issues or ideas, but I’m not in control of the world. I try to be as encouraging (and non-judgmental) as possible with the work of my peers. I’m still trying to deal with criticism better. The dissertation process is about getting criticism. It’s about living through many years of criticism. Shudder.

I’m not going to write this book! We don’t need another manual on writing dissertations. I’d like to see fewer lists of “ten things to make academic writing better” though; too often those lists only incorporate impersonal issues like being busy or organizing files.

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