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As most historians, I have thousands of images of documents that I use on my research. Some are photographs of manuscripts and others are scans of photocopies that I made from a microfilm at the archives. As I collected my documents, I entered information about them on a FileMaker Pro database so that in the future I could search for either a person or a keyword. I collected thousands of royal letters at the archives in Barcelona and my plan was to work on each chapter thematically. When I wrote a paper on conversion from Judaism to Christianity last summer, all I had to do was search for “converso” in my database. That gave me a list of the documents I had on that topic, I pulled them out or printed them, and used them for my paper. So the idea was to make a list of documents related to the larger theme of each chapter, pull all of the documents out (most I have in photocopies and I was willing to print the ones I had only in digital photographs), put them in a separate folder, and work on them. But once it was clear that the list of documents for my current chapter was in the hundreds and that with each document possibly reaching five pages, I needed a better system that didn’t involve shuffling around massive amounts of loose paper. That’s where Adobe Bridge comes in.

Since we have a 24″ iMac, I thought I could simply go through the documents on the screen and take notes on my laptop. My favourite way to browse through images is to use Bridge, which allows me to easily mark files, move them, rename them, etc. It soon became clear that I could be using Bridge for more than simply displaying the images and perhaps moving them to a separate folder dedicated to the theme of the chapter. You see, Bridge allows for tagging. You can add keywords to any file through it. Better yet, you don’t need Bridge to access those keywords. They get embedded onto the file itself so I can actually search for keywords on Spotlight on Mac OS X and the images would come up. Within a folder, it gives me a list of the all th keywords I have assigned in that folder, which allows me to quickly get to the document I want by clicking on the keyword.

Here’s the setup (click on the images for larger size):


These are some of my Bridge Screen shots, notice the keywords on the left bottom side:



Another neat thing about Bridge. Notice the film strip on the bottom of the page where it displays the images I’m working on. You’ll notice on the picture above that some of them have a number “2” superimposed. Those are two-documents. I can select all the pages that go together and group them. They still display the same way but it means they don’t get separated and count only as one file on Bridge, which gives me a more accurate sense of how many documents I’m dealing with and how many documents relate to a specific keyword.

For my notes, I’ve been using DevonThink Pro, which is simple, allows you to create files of all kinds within it and has very powerful searching capabilities:


You’ll notice that some files are labeled green and some are yellow. Since one of the objectives is to compare Catalunya with Aragon, I decided to assign a colour to each. Catalunya is yellow and Aragon is green. Looks like this might be a system that will work for me. By the way, for those of you who need printed notes to be able to write, DevonThink allows for easy export of all the files you select as word documents or text files (or even PDF). But I think I’ll try to minimize the printing. When it comes time to write, I’ll go to my carrel, where I have a second monitor (just a 17″ flat screen, those can be had for very little money these days) and I can display the notes on one screen while I write on the other.


Since I’m finishing my main stint at the archives, the writing stage looms and I’ve started thinking how to go about organizing myself and getting onto a writing schedule. I really want to be done within 2 years and I would much prefer to graduate in the spring.

I came across some good advice by Dave at academhack today:

  • Get on a ScheduleThis was the most important advise I got. A faculty member told me how she wrote her dissertation in a summer. She said that she spent everyday of the summer in the library from noon till six working. While I am not sure this intense of a schedule is the way to go for everyone, I think getting on a schedule is key. For me I know I work better later, so I gave myself the mornings off to run errands, watch a movie, blog, or do whatever I wanted, but after lunch was work time. I tried to work five to six hours a day. Whatever works for you though. Develop a plan and stick to it, even if it is “eight hours a week.” This will help you to not feel guillty all the time that you are not working, and also get you in a routine. I know that many are in academia to avoid treating life like a job, but treating my dissertation like a job helped me tremendously. I eventually settled on a schedule of working at least five hours two days in a row, taking the third as a break. Sometimes I worked more then this, but this was my minimum.
  • Write, Even if you have nothing to say: Early on I spent time trying to write a whole chapter cleanly, start to finish. I thought I had to write the introduction, then the first section then the second . . .and do this by writing the first chapter then the second. Forget it. Just write. Later in the process I learned that what helped was just to start to write anywhere. I didn’t write the chapters in order (I wrote #3, #1, #4, #2, intro, #5), and the later chapters I didn’t even write within the chapter in order. That is, in a particular chapter I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say but I knew I was going to talk about a particular moment in Lolita or Patchwork Girl, so I just started writing. Sometimes you just have to write to figure out what you want to say. This means that you will probably scrap a lot of your work, or rework it, and you will have to organize it, but this is better than trying to write 50 pages in order from the start. (I know someone who writes everything three times-complete rewrite each time.) Rachel even mentioned that she had a long chapter which she eneded up cutting into scraps and organizing onto a poster board. Me, I like the giant whiteboard, with colored markers, but whatever works. I wrote about this before, when I discovered Scrivener. On a related note, I think blogging helped as it gave me writing to do that was less demanding, a sort of warm-up exercise for the day.
  • Read Other Dissertations: Shealeen mentioned this, and I wish I had though of this sooner in my process. Go to your Graduate Library (or where ever the dissertations are kept) and read some. Particularly read ones that were supervised by your committee, this will give you a sense of the expectations and the genre. Many schools and committees have specific expectations that if you discover early will help you.
  • Read a Book: When I was struggling with what I wanted to write, I read, even if what I read was only tangential to what I was writing. I found that this helped to get me thinking, and often I found inspiration in the strangest of texts.
  • Talk to Your Committee: Set up deadlines, let them know what chapters are arriving when. This will not only help you work to a timeline, but also insure that you are giving them time to work on the material. Giving them a chapter in the middle of grading, or when they have just been given three other chapters by other students, will probably slow down your feedback
  • Editing and Writing are Different: I know a lot of people disagree, but for me this was true. I wrote, global edited, and configured as one step, let the chapter sit for a while, and then returned to it to edit much later.
  • Do Something:If you are tired/exhausted and feel you cannot do any more work for the day, but still have hours left, do something simple: Spell check (surprising how long this process can be for a 40 page document-especially if you are me), run down a reference, format your bibliography. There are many mind numbing steps to the process that you can do even if you feel like never seeing another word about Thoreau (assuming you are writing about Thoreau).
  • Write What You Teach: Under the category of two birds one stone. This goes along with the bit about writing out of order. I was teaching a class, several weeks in fact, on House of Leaves. In my dissertation I have a whole chapter about this book, but it is late in the dissertation. Still when I was teaching it during the week it was easier to write about. I didn’t finish the chapter in those weeks of class, but when I did go back to that chapter over the summer I had some substantial work done, some of it as a result of class discussions. Bonus: Also made me more prepared to teach class.
  • Get Office Space, or go the Library: There is only so much writing one can do in one space. Sometimes shifting venues helps. I was surprised out how just the act of going to the library would help me to get work done.
  • Get Good Tools: Seriously some days you are going to spend six hours or more at a computer screen. It’s worth it to invest in a good/large monitor so you don’t get headaches and eye strain. Writing for that long can be exhausting. Along with this consider different word processing programs, honestly it helped me.
  • Back Up Your Writing: You never know when your computer will decide it doesn’t like you dissertation and delete it (especially if you are running Windows). Back-Up. I kept everything on my home computer, a copy on a flash drive, and a copy on a remote server (you can email yourself a copy of what you are working on occasionally).
  • Get a Life: Do something that has nothing to do with academia. Hang out with people who have no idea what MLA or APA or Chicago Style means. Do something that requires no books, no libraries. For me this was running, but whatever it is, do it.

What do you guys think? Any recent phds have anything to add?

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