The Biography of a Dissertation Chapter

The Moscow move approacheth. I depart on Thursday with The Husband following a few weeks later. Blogging has been sporadic because I have heretofore been incapable of tackling creative problems more demanding than, “How many of these books and clothing items can I live without for a couple of months while I wait for our shipped items to travel to the other side of the planet and clear customs at multiple borders?” This, however, is a post I have been meaning to write, and there was a new development today, so I might as well go with it. 

I think even seasoned writers need reminders of just how intense and even repetitive the revision process can be for pieces that actually get published. One time when I was doing a revision workshop for a freshman comp class, I brought in the six extant drafts of my dissertation prospectus, each covered with advisor comments to make a point. The point was that at multiple points during the production of a successful piece of work, you are probably going to want to put your eyes out with a fork. This is normal.

In about a month, I’ll finally see my third article–which originated as a dissertation chapter–in print. Without a question, this is the piece of work I’m the most excited about, but also without question, it has been the most labor-intensive. In order to remind myself that I don’t completely suck and to show ailing grad students out there just how normal this sort of thing is, here is the story of how my beloved monstrosity was brought into the world.

July-August 2011 – During my first research trip to Boston, I made a significant finding that ruined my plans for the dissertation chapter I thought I was writing but turned into something way more awesome. In a sort of fugue state, I hammered out multiple drafts (probably 3-4) of a 14,000 word chapter in two weeks, edited the rest of my dissertation, and sent it all off to my co-chairs before my 5 week stay was up. I felt like a freaking god.

September 2011 – Co-chairs make a bunch of suggestions for small changes but deem the dissertation defensible. Graduate Advisor pushes for Fall semester defense in order to make it for certain job market deadlines.

November 2011 – Dissertation is successfully defended. Committee members note that because of the sharp left turn my research took in the summer, that chapter no longer really fits the rest of the project in terms of scope and methodology. They suggest publishing it as a stand alone article instead of including it in book revisions.

January – February 2012 – I work with a committee member who is enthusiastic about that chapter to turn it into an article submission. It goes through a couple of additional drafts (we’re at like 7 or 8 now) in which I strengthen it’s claims, explain central concepts for non-experts, and completely rewrite the first third and the conclusion Because we are planning to submit it to a flagship journal with no length limits, I add a new section based on more recent reading. 

March 2012 – Major scholar in the sub-field gets wind of my project from a couple of sources and requests the article for a special journal issue to appear in Fall 2013. The special issue topic is a perfect fit for this research, and multiple mentors advise me to go ahead with it. 

April – June 2012 – I revise the article again to better suit the theme of the special issue and to speak more directly to the concerns of scholars in that sub-field rather than to a more general audience. I submit my “final” draft to the editor well ahead of the deadline.

January – February 2013 – Editor gets back to me with several suggestions and asks for the changes in six weeks. I go ahead and make them, and the editor is pleased with the results.

May 2013 – Editor has bad news: the amount of space available for the special issue was radically overestimated, and in order to keep costs in line, the journal is asking all contributors to get their submissions under 11,000. At this point, my article is 18,000, which is an absurd length, but I was so close to getting away with it. I am also in the midst of selling/giving away most of my earthly possessions, submitting final grades, planning another research trip and an international move, and having a nervous breakdown. This latest development becomes the topic of my next couple of therapy sessions, and for two weeks, I’m sort of paralyzed by the whole thing, unable to look at the article without wanting to cry.

June 2013 – I finally finish making the cuts, and admittedly, the article is better for it. I remove certain sections that were admittedly digressive and indulgent entirely. I streamline some paragraphs and remove extraneous examples. I combine sentences and paragraphs to say the same thing with fewer words. The very apologetic editor is again pleased with the results.

August 2013 – The journal editor (different guy, reads this blog apparently – Hi, Tim!emails me the publication contract and a list of minor changes that need to be made before the thing goes to press. This is what I’ll be doing on the 12 hour flight to Moscow. 

So that’s like 14 drafts or something. I don’t even know anymore. Because I’m a psycho, I save a lot of intermediate drafts (though not all of them) as new files. One day, I might print them all out and show a class to make a point. That point will be that writing and professoring are stupid things to do for a career if you want to keep your sanity. But somehow, sometimes, it’s kind of worth it. 


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