Keeping the Research and Writing Organized (Enough)

By Ashton Merck
Ph.D. Candidate in History

keeping writing and research organized

I’ll be the first to admit that things can get pretty disorganized when I’m working on a writing project. But if the number of articles on how to write well and how to organize your research can be any guide, I’m not alone. Inspired by the idea of a successful writer with well-organized files, articulate thoughts, and clear topic sentences, we seek that kind of serenity and productivity for our own nascent writing and researching lives.

This is where workshops like the VH@Duke’s “Summer Writing Kickoff” and the Rubenstein Library’s workshop on the “Efficient Archival Researcher” come in.  These workshops presented an array of inspiring ideas and best practices for writing, note-taking, and planning, which can help graduate students gear up for a summer of research and writing.  This year, they also opened up an invaluable reflective space for dialogue that was a great way to pull back the curtain on how writers and researchers do their work every day.

The more we talk as a collective about the messy and chaotic circumstances under which the research and writing happens, the less likely we are to feel individually beholden to the fantasy of a clear day – that perfect world in which we write every day, near a sunny window, with a warm cup of coffee.  More importantly, we are less likely to feel like we have failed when our argument folds in on itself, our carefully constructed outline falls apart, or the right concluding statement eludes our grasp. Instead, we understand how these struggles are part of what it means to write, and to eventually write well.

So, where should we begin these conversations? Toril Moi and Sarah Beckwith chose as a good a place as any – the beginning.

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Moi spoke on the importance of writing a good introduction, because “if you cannot begin well, you will not be published.”  Yet an introduction may be where the gap between advice and practice reaches its widest point. We all know what a bad introduction looks like – we read them all the time in undergraduate papers – but how often do we find ourselves falling into similar traps?

Beckwith, on the other hand, spoke more abstractly about beginnings. With every new paper or a new semester we are given a fresh start; we have the chance to get it right this time. We will do better about working from an outline. We will write a better, clearer, shorter introduction.  We will buy a better notebook; we will try a different brand of pen.

Yet the dissertation resists the normal ebb and flow of beginnings and endings that define the semester.  We are always coming at dissertation in media res.  We are still dealing with the trouble of beginnings – a new chapter, a new paragraph, a new sentence – and yet we are never really rewarded with that feeling of a fresh start that has defined so much of our writing, and the rhythms of our academic life, thus far.

Moi and Beckwith then asked the group to consider where we start when we start writing.  Did we start with the evidence? The theory? The argument?  From the audience, someone chimed in: “I knew someone who began their dissertation with the acknowledgements.”

Beginnings are difficult, everyone struggles with them, and they can always be improved. It is enough to find somewhere that is comfortable, and begin from there.

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We already know that it is important to be organized, to have a system for managing sources of evidence and locating those sources and citations during the writing process.  (There is no better way to avoid writing than to read articles about organizing your research.) But therein lies another delusion, the twin of the fantasy of the clear day.  With profuse apologies to Toril, I’ll call it the fantasy of the clear desktop.

In this world, all of our data is cleaned, every file neatly arranged according to a logical and consistent naming convention, all of our drafts are version-controlled so that we never send “final” instead of “final FINAL” to the professor or panel chair, and we can always find that quotation we are looking for (you know, the one that you just know is there). There are countless tools that promise this kind of holistic, all-encompassing organization; they promise to capture and catalogue your every brain-wave, appropriately tagged and with Dublin core metadata included.  Even more tools offer us myriad solutions to organize what can be a frustratingly nonlinear writing process.

Along with fellow Ph.D. Candidates Imani Mosley, Mandy Cooper, and Joseph Mulligan, I had the opportunity to be on a panel at the “Efficient Archival Researcher” workshop lunch.  Over the course of our conversation, I think that each of us made a conscious effort to dispel this fantasy of the clear desktop.  We described our process of selecting and keeping the tools we used for research; all of us had some issues with organization or efficiency, and all of us had at least one anecdote about trying some shiny tool, process, or program, only to discard it later.

In those instances, we found that it was necessary to evaluate whether the research tool in question actually addressed a particular problem in the research and writing: if it didn’t address a problem, or worse, created entirely new ones, we simply eliminated it. As a consequence, most of us used pretty simple solutions – yet each approach was slightly different, according to the needs of the research … and the researcher.

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Underlying the questions “how do you organize your research” and “what are your writing strategies” is another, much more personal question: “and how am I doing it wrong?” We assume that because it takes us longer than we planned to do a task, we’re just being inefficient. (Perhaps a new tool can help.)  We think that because we can’t write at 6:00 in the morning,  or sit in our library carrel for six hours every day, that we can’t keep to a writing routine. But these panels and workshops were an important reminder that every dissertation—and dissertator—is different. It is up to you to find the tools, the routine, and the strategy that best fits your writing life.