Thursday, December 3, 2009

Writing Lessons: The Big Nasty Exams

So I'm still not sure whether Blogosphere has fully accepted my apology, but as a show of good faith, I plan to do a series of posts on writing lessons learned during my bloggy absence.

The first--what I learned about writing in general from my Big Nasty PhD Exams (which I passed, by the way--woohoo! I'm ABD officially!).

Okay, so as I think I explained a few months ago, my exams consisted of 20 hours' worth of written exams in the period of a month on a variety of subjects related to courses I'd taken, followed by a 2-hour defense of what I'd written.

As it turned out, most of my exams were 2-hour in-house exams, which meant that on Mondays and Wednesdays, I studied for a particular question during the day, then from 3-5 p.m., came into the department and wrote on a laptop as fast as I could for 2 hours.

From this, I learned that I could create 7 nearly-coherent pages of prose in 2 hours. A valuable lesson, indeed. I'm pretty sure I can repeat this project in other academic and non-fiction writing circumstances, now that I have this skill. In fact, I'm thinking about using a "write a bunch in two hours several times per week" strategy for drafting the early stages of my dissertation.

The only downside? If you have to add citations, it can be a royal pain to go back in and add them afterward, as I learned when I tried the same strategy for my take-home prelim. So if I do this with my dissertation, I'm planning to have all my references pre-loaded into Zotero and clear in my head, ready to pull in clearly, BEFORE my 2-hour sessions begin.

I do like this idea, though--I think it would work better for me than the also-interesting "write a page a day" strategy mentioned by a colleague. See, with research and editing rhythms, it doesn't always work well to write something every single day. If I plan to do two or three 2-hour sessions per week (more if I'm feeling inspired), it will get a lot of pages out there, leaving me lots of research and editing and simmering time between. I think it just might work, both for the upcoming dissertation and in the future for other potential non-fiction drafting.

Woohoo! The Big Nasty Exams have both been successfully completed, AND have given me another writing skill. This is a beautiful thing.

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