Before you begin writing your dissertation, most programs require you to submit a research proposal of sorts. At Marquette this is called the DDO (doctoral dissertation outline). As the name implies, part of this document is a tentative outline for the dissertation. The funny thing is that everyone sees this outline as tentative except often the person putting it together. For you, this is no tentative outline…this is the way you’re going to proceed.
Once you start writing, you might discover that your outline simply doesn’t work, even if you discussed it beforehand with your advisor. This was definitely the case with mine. I had determined that each chapter was going to follow a five step methodology that was almost deceptively simple. I proceeded with this outline for the first couple of months.
About three weeks ago, after I had been working on my fourth chapter for a little while (I’m writing this thing completely out of order), I hit a wall. Not writer’s block…a wall. I had plenty to say, and I kept inserting bits of wisdom here and there, accentuated by the usual footnotes and the like, but the wall kept me from really moving forward in any real sense of the word. Upon hitting the wall, I began to move sideways.
As it turns out, all I needed was a pair of fresh eyes. I brought what I had of chapter 4 to my advisor and said, “I’m convinced that most of this is good, but that it doesn’t make any sense.” He agreed. We proceeded to more or less completely thrash the outline that we had devised as part of the DDO. I was heartbroken as I watched my simple, clean five-step method get replaced with a seven-step method. I was even more heartbroken when I sat down to actually drag around the blocks of text. In the process of reediting what I had so far, I ended up losing about 800 words in less than half an hour. I know, 800 words isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re somewhat early in the writing phase, every bit counts.
A couple of friends and I meet every Friday morning to write together and keep each other accountable. I was in a foul mood because my beloved word processor informed me that, because of my editing, I was beginning the day 800 words in the hole. Absolutely no way to start the day. Something strange happened, however, when I actually sat down to start writing – I had lots to say. The new outline had given me a new perspective on the project. This new perspective really got the juices flowing, and I ended the day 1,000 words UP from where I started!
The moral of this story is that you should never be afraid of reorganizing your project, and I imagine this would apply to any stage of the project. Reorganization is painful, as you often must rebuild much of the connective tissue that is lost in editing, but in the end your project will be better for it.