It’s time for another installment of the Grad School Survival Guide.
You’re home from your research year. You’ve been all over the place, and have thousands of photocopies and scans and lots of great material!
So … uh, now what?
This column is going to be one of those ones where I tell you what I wish I had done, rather than emphasize what I did.
What I did was this: I came home, worked another month at my job, quit, went to Mexico for two weeks to visit in-laws for Christmas, came back and started prepping my first adjunct class at a university nearby (not the one where I was working on my Ph.D.). It was the following summer before I even started working with the material I’d brought home and I’ll be honest: my memory isn’t as good as I had hoped it was.
Here’s what I wish I’d done instead.
Don’t worry about writing yet.
We all have this fantasy that we’re going to get off the plane from research and immediately start writing our dissertations. Some of us probably set out for research with the expectation that we were going to get a bunch of stuff written while we were doing research.
In my experience, writing while doing research is minimal, and being able to compose those beautiful paragraphs right after research … let’s just say there’s a reason it takes a while.
In other words: if you’re sitting there thinking that you don’t know where to begin, you’re in the majority. Breathe.
Go through everything you collected
Unless you are an absolute superstar and heavily annotated every document you photocopies and scanned (in which case you don’t really need my advice), you probably did so-so on this.
Even if you did a decent job, you probably did what most of us do: your understanding of what you collected is based on which archive you got it from. Now, obviously you don’t want to forget this because it’s important information that you’ll need, but more than that you’ll want to know what everything you collected says.
In order to get excited about writing, you need to both simultaneously go through all of the stuff you collected in order to synthesize it, and gain a bird’s eye view in order to start seeing the linkages in the material. This sounds tedious (I won’t lie, it can be), but it can also get your brain cells firing up and ready to start composing text.
Here’s where you start.
Whether you use post-it notes, an Excel spreadsheet, the notes and keywords function in Zotero, or some other program and system (I would suggest doing it electronically rather than pen and paper as the search function is going to be a key factor in making this useful), start going through and giving your documents a closer read and collecting useful data.
I suggest that at a minimum you’ll want to track:
- Names (sender, recipient, subject of the document, any other key personnel you think you might want to search for later)
- Dates (the date it was authored at a minimum)
- Title (if the document has one)
- Subject matter — (this doesn’t have to be super detailed: “Letter from H.C. [High Commissioner] to Interior Ministry re: sale of onions in 1917” is fine.)
- Connections (see below)
- What I Need (see below)
If you have multi-document PDFs (for example: if you scanned a box or file that all has the same file number and you want to keep them all together), create internal bookmarks for each sub-component so that you can easily locate a document within the larger file. I’ve lost hours scrolling up and down looking for one-page memos lost within a 90 page PDF. You’ll thank yourself for this later.
As you do this, you’ll start to notice trends and connections between documents. This is where you’ll want to go back and add items to your “connections” category — whether it’s “compare to [document reference]” or noting that the other half of the story is contained in a file you found somewhere else, or whatever you need it to do.
I also kept a running note of What I Need–I used this for two purposes. First, I used it to write notes to myself to do a little research in areas that I just didn’t know very much about. If the document referred to an incident or event or person that I didn’t recognize but seemed important, I’d make a note.
I also used it to record articles or books I knew were out there or things I wanted to review (“I know Gallagher discusses this in her book — revisit.”).
The biggest and most important piece of advice I have is this: NEVER EVER TRUST YOURSELF IF YOU FIND YOURSELF SAYING “I’LL REMEMBER THIS.”
Write it down.
Starting the writing process
At some point–hopefully–in all of this, you’ll find yourself with a story you want to tell. Start telling it. Open up a word document, and write it out (don’t forget to cite things!)
At this point, don’t worry about linear writing — none of the chapters in my dissertation were written straight through from beginning to end. Start writing things down as they come to you, and as they interest you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not very good and you’ll never show your adviser — at this stage in the game, what you’ll want to get over is the oppression of the blank document staring back at you from your computer screen.
In the early stages you’ll have a bunch of paragraphs that don’t link together — that’s fine. You’ll have stories that have a beginning and a middle but no end, or an end with no beginning — that’s fine too.
Potters don’t throw a lump of clay down and create beautiful vases immediately — they do a lot of molding and shaping and sometimes if it sucks they smush the clay back into a lump and start over. Writing is the same way.
What you want in this beginning stage is to get a feel for what you have in your documentation and what stories you’re excited to tell right up front. Let the structure of the document form around it. Don’t worry about whether it’s what you set out to write at the beginning–that can all come later.
Believe me, you’ll get plenty of practice in the months to come!