Wednesday, January 04, 2012

How I'm Writing the Dissertation

People may be interested to know how I intend to go about writing my dissertation this year. My topic is medieval English literature, and I will write a software program to do a special sort of parsing for several texts in the corpus. I have three different types of parsing I want to do, and most of the dissertation will concern recording and analyzing the results generated by the program.

The project is pretty exciting, which is not an unimportant point because one reason I didn't finish my first dissertation back in 2001 was that I fell out of love with the topic. Back then, I had written two decent chapters but couldn't do the research or find a focus for the remaining chapters. My prospectus and plan were hardly helpful and I eventually had to resign myself to the idea that the project was untenable.

As I see it, once the software program is sufficiently developed, the dissertation itself should be relatively easy to complete. Of course, herein lies the major technical challenge: my ability to write the program. Software developing has been much more difficult than I imagined, but I'm working it. My hope is to have the program ready for trial by the end of this month or middle of next month.

Another challenge is my lifestyle. After all, I am a professional with a full-time salaried position. I'm not a graduate student with a few classes to teach and chunks of time that can be dedicated to library work and writing. I also have a household to care for, which means my family and my home. My kids want attention from me. My wife needs me to help out around the house. Bills need to be paid, errands need to be run, neighbors and friends need to be connected with. Finally, I need to manage my health and fitness.

Given my technical and time constraints, here is how I have game-planned the dissertation:
  • At least 15 minutes per day learning and doing software development.
  • At least 15 minutes per day planning dissertation content.
Fifteen minutes may not sound like a lot of time, but it can be. Besides, I often work for much longer than that. The main thing is to dedicate some time every day to being productive on the main elements of the project. In this way, I'm approaching the project similarly to how I conduct an exercise program or business project.

Indeed, the formal 15 minutes are "executive sessions" and not necessarily the execution work of programming or writing. These execution activities can take place throughout the day, even while I'm at my day job. Although I am at work during the day and have a full schedule of meetings and tasks, I also have pockets of time where I can focus exclusively on some part of the dissertation. What's more, I often have opportunities to work the dissertation as part of a multi-task scenario. In fact, that's how I blog as much as I do. Beyond the execution work, the 15-minute executive sessions will allow me to develop and refine the big picture of the dissertation, its important arguments, lines of support and evidence, critical background and objections, and paths forward.

The innovation (for me) of my approach lies in how I'll actually write the chapters. In short: I won't write. Instead, I am going to spend most of my time, at least in the early stage, using a storyboard process. Storyboarding is a technique I use in my job to help our technical teams develop proposal content. It's like a very robust outline that accounts for what information customers have asked for, what knowledge we bring to the subject, and what features and benefits distinguish our offering from other companies competing for the same business.

The advantage of storyboarding for the dissertation is that it allows for capturing a lot of data in individual sections while also making it possible to find places in the large-scale outline for new information and arguments. My dissertation writing plan, to make it basic, is to storyboard the dissertation so completely that it's practically written when I put everything together.

I have a high degree of confidence in this process because I've used it dozens of times at work. Nevertheless, it doesn't make completing the dissertation any easier or less labor intensive. But it will help me work on all of the dissertation instead of on individual chapters in sequence.

I'm excited about the project and about how I intend to conduct it. All that's left is to do it!


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