What is your angle? And how to proceed if you can’t decide


Note: In the “Do you work?” series, a doctorate. and an academic writing coach answers questions from faculty members and graduate students about scholar motivation and productivity. This month’s questions arrived via Twitter and Facebook. Read his previous columns here.

Question: I can’t decide how to organize my thesis, and this has stopped my progress in its tracks. I could do it two different ways – one is more “exciting” for my discipline, and the other will be easier for me to complete but rather boring. I’ve made a list of pros and cons, but that doesn’t matter. I spoke to my advisor and she says she can’t make this decision for me. Can you make this decision for me?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and they were both a dissertation

Hello Mr. Frost,

Well, in fact, you can make that decision for you. This happens a lot more than you might think, and not just with graduate students at the thesis stage. As a writing coach, I regularly work with senior scholars facing the same problem. When you’re in the tons of research but little writing stage of a large project, it’s rare that the perfect organization of materials jumps out at you.

So that means you have a tough decision to make:

  • Do you choose the angle that you think will be the easiest, and thus write faster? Sounds like a good idea until you have 100 pages and realize you’re bored, let alone readers.
  • Do you pick the (pardon my French) “sexy” topic that will inspire you to present at a bunch of conferences? Seems rock solid, until trends change drastically before your work even hits print.

There will always be as many reasons to make one organizational choice as to make another. So here’s what I recommend: do both.

No, I don’t mean writing two entire essays; it’s unbalanced. What I suggest my clients do — and it hasn’t disappointed anyone yet — is to try what I call the Sliding doors approach. In this 1998 film, Gwyneth Paltrow took a train and missed a train, then experienced each result. Do this with your writing: make a decision two different ways and live with each a little.

Spend two full weeks fully committing to Choice A (the “exciting” angle) for your manuscript. Write a detailed outline (if you’re a draftsman) or write 500 words a day for 10 days straight (if you’re new to free writing). Start compiling all the additional sources you need and think about how long it will take you to go through them. Start writing where you see this argument going. Test what it’s like to live in Choice A and think about what it will be like to continue living with this choice for another one to three years.

And then… stop.

Do a week of palace cleansing. Focus on a short, low-key task (finishing a conference paper or grant application; catching up on lesson planning, etc.). Then you repeat the same steps with choice B (the “easier to complete” approach).

You can’t know how a particular choice will really affect you until you make it. But the good news is that at this early stage, you really have time to choose both options and test them. After all, what have you got to lose if your progress has already stalled? Experiencing two different versions of your college destiny is a great use of the time you would otherwise spend worrying.

Question: I need to remove 1,000 words from an otherwise worded article, and I have to do this yesterday. But each time I try, I end up seeing more and more arguments to make, and add words that I’m sure don’t need to be there, because they’re probably overloading this article otherwise made. I’m doing a very bad job at this. To help!

They said cut, not add

Dear Cup,

Cut the obvious items first:

  • Get rid of all adverbs.
  • Next, start with the adjectives.
  • Once that’s done, look for anywhere you could have repeated yourself, even a little.
  • Then, examine each sentence longer than two lines and find a way to express that thought more concisely. Every word counts.
  • Is there anything you referred to in the singular, with an article, that could be pluralized without changing the meaning? Do it.

Only when you’ve tweaked every possible sentence language-wise is it time to start making some really tough choices: should you cut out aspects of your argument or remove source references? I’d start with the second one (sources), and throw everything you can into a footnote (unless the publisher includes footnotes in the word count – ugh!), Or, in the worst case, limit your reference to a name drop.

Cutting the argument itself should be your last resort. But if you end up needing to, it’s possible that what you had to say is more complicated than expected in an article of this length. The cups might be better suited, in all their magniloquent glory, for another home.

Question: Tomorrow I have to prepare for class, answer a bunch of emails, and then somehow get 500 words written on my monograph. What is the best order to do this?


Dear Over,

Make your 500 words first. If possible, grab a piece before you even brew your first cup of coffee. Not only does this take some of the work out of it, but it also creates an automated habit (maybe even a compulsion?) of putting on your proverbial own oxygen mask before taking care of someone else’s.

This is the most difficult challenge for many of my clients – learning to prioritize their own scholarship – as many other deadlines are more immediate. But the thing to remember is that course preparation will be done because it has to. Do the teaching preparation second and save the emails till the end. Emails will be answered one day – or, honestly, they won’t, and no one will die. At the “worst case”, you’ll get a reputation for being a bad email sender and people won’t email you as much anymore.

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