From the CGS Forum, Notes to Narrative: The Art of Crafting a Dissertation or Monograph in the January 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Managing the Terror

Brad Gregory, January 2009

This essay addresses a challenge—or perhaps the sense of abject terror—that confronts everyone who has ever written a history dissertation. We might call dissertation writing the fourth of the five terrors of graduate school (the first three being the uncertainty of whether you’ll get accepted into your favored program, the anticipatory dread prior to taking exams, and the daunting imperative of choosing a dissertation topic; the fifth is the anxiety of going on the job market). Typically, you’ve been deep in the relevant scholarship and sources for two or more years. You’ve compiled hundreds of files of notes, notes on your notes, folders with handwritten addenda to your notes from days spent sans laptop, and notes-to-self about what to do with your notes. You look at these files and piles, then you look at your bookshelves filled with historical monographs. You wonder: how can I turn this mess into something resembling those books? You consider making a grand performative gesture about the putative arbitrariness of narrative, coherence, and rationality within the discipline—“I’ll just bind my notes as they are and turn them in as my dissertation!”—but then you remember your committee members and hopes of finding employment as a history professor, not as a note taker.

Although creativity perhaps cannot be taught to historians, the terror of turning notes into narrative can be managed. Writing history requires a demanding combination of discrete intellectual abilities: the mastery of relevant sources, knowledge of pertinent scholarship, self-awareness of one’s own methodological and theoretical assumptions, and an ability to combine these to generate coherent, sustained prose that is both true to the past and intellectually compelling. Anyone who thinks this sounds easy has never tried it. There are multiple ways to go about it—historical projects are themselves hugely diverse, and individuals work best in different ways. In lieu of any master plan, I hope that some of the following nine points will be helpful as you begin or continue to transform masses of notes into a successful dissertation—which means not only writing a draft, but also submitting a finished dissertation that is the best it can be.

1. Study Monographs as Models

When you’re faced with turning your notes into persuasive historical prose, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. See how great historians have done it—especially in first books, since these are the scholarly products closest to a dissertation. Although you don’t have access to their notes and drafts, you do have their footnotes, quotations from primary sources, and acknowledgments of theoretical underpinnings. From these you can get an idea of how they moved from your current stage to the published monograph that you admire. Think backwards, as it were, from their narrative and analyses to their sources, a valuable exercise even if it’s not a work in your field. Study how great historians organize material and think in section- and chapter-length chunks, integrate primary sources with background scholarship, balance paraphrase with direct quotations, combine the concrete and particular with the abstract and analytical, and make successful transitions from one paragraph to the next. Their outstanding books were once piles of notes, too.

2. Make a Provisional Chapter Outline

Making a chapter outline might seem like putting the cart before the horse—presumably you need to know what your overarching narrative is in order to conceptualize its subdivisions. How can one imagine parts of an as-yet undetermined whole? To write history you must bring your intellect to bear on your sources. You must decide what your narrative is and how to structure it, which normally involves a dialogical process of coming to see how plausible parts (usually “chapters”) relate to potential wholes. So while respecting chronology and what is already known, you must think and reflect. When considering possibilities and making a provisional chapter outline, don’t worry about whether things will turn out as you envision them. The important thing is to think hard enough to consider seriously some possibilities. Is yours a before-and-after single story?

Will it be one narrative told chronologically from start to finish? Or will it consist of multiple narratives embedded within an analytical structure with a different organizational rationale? Is it, for example, about the ways in which multiple individuals or groups experienced common changes, and so best organized by chapter according to their respective perspectives? Most graduate students, while reading sources, are simultaneously thinking about possible narratives and ways to organize their material. I did, and I urge my graduate students to do likewise; indeed, it seems impossible to separate the reading of sources and taking of notes from decisions about what you’re reading, why you’re reading it, the questions you’re asking, and the sorts of answers you’re getting or not getting, all of which are related to certain possible narratives and not others.

Implicit in this research activity is a range of possible ways to organize your material, but certainly not an infinite range. Guiding questions have shaped what you’ve read, and source content affects what arrangements of the material are possible. As you’re considering potential outlines, make chronologies of key events and where crucial sources fit; this can remind you of much more than you can hold in your head, stimulating reflection about the relation between the parts and the whole. It can be useful to draft multiple chapter outlines, each reflecting different ways of organizing your material—potential advantages and disadvantages emerge by comparison and contrast. Remember that you’re not bound to stick with the chapters you think might work. If they won’t, you’ll find out soon enough. You can always change your mind.

3. Reacquaint Yourself with Your Notes in Light of Your Provisional Outline

A big difference between writing a dissertation and an article is that a dissertation usually involves more research than most of us can remember. Most of us probably have had the experience of finding our notes on a source about which we had forgotten entirely. Moreover, most scholars don’t remember everything significant about a source on which they’ve taken notes. And new questions arise in the course of research that we didn’t have when we first took the notes. All of this means that you can’t just take notes and forget about them until you’re ready to start drafting. You need to make them alive and “in play” with each other and in your thinking. So with a provisional chapter outline, and before you start drafting a chapter, it’s important carefully to reread your notes and review secondary scholarship relevant to your prospective chapters. (This might take weeks, but it will be time well spent.) Here specific working methods vary considerably. I proceed in what is now perhaps an old-fashioned way: I print hard copies of all my notes and work by reading, rereading, annotating in the margins, and crossreferencing what might be relevant to a particular chapter. Then I think about patterns, or thematic clusters, or specific chronology, depending on what it seems the chapters require, and write out abbreviated references to sources for potential placement within a chapter. This process is somewhat analogous to conceiving the relationship between the whole of one’s dissertation and its provisional chapters, but with a finer grained conceptualization—sections within chapters, subsections within sections, events and reactions to them within narrative strands—all provisionally guided by the overarching structure of the chapters within the whole. If there are significant problems with the arrangement of chapters, they’ll usually become apparent at this stage, when you see whether (and if so, how compellingly) your evidence can sustain your argument. If you don’t have the evidence, perhaps you need to read more (see below); if your evidence doesn’t fit well your provisional narrative and chapters, you might need to alter them. There’s nothing wrong with that. Focus on the best possible final product; don’t cling stubbornly to the first imagined arrangement of your masses of material.

4. Break Big Tasks Down into Little Ones

Much of the terror involved in writing a dissertation comes from its size. For nearly everyone, writing a dissertation is an unprecedentedly ambitious and arduous endeavor, and we are tempted to consider it as a whole and feel overwhelmed. And it is overwhelming, if you think: “I’ve got 300 or 400 pages to write; the most I’ve ever written is 40; how am I going to do it?” The answer, of course, is simple: one sentence and one page at a time. No dissertation or book has ever been written in any other way. No one can write a dissertation in a month or a chapter in a day. But you can write a page or two or five in a day, and as the days pass, the pages accumulate. In one way or another, everyone ends up doing this in practice—but conceiving it as an incremental process helps psychologically. After writing three pages, don’t say, “That’s only one percent of the whole dissertation, the notes are sketchy, plus I’ve got to reread that article and make sure I didn’t misrepresent the author”; say instead, “At this rate, I’ll have 20 pages done this week, which is decent productivity for a first time through.” Which, it is. Reward yourself for steady productivity (watch a movie in the evening, have a drink with friends, or go to the gym).

5. Don’t Let the Editor Overwhelm the Writer

Most scholars agree that revising is easier than writing a first draft. But in proportion as one cares about beautiful, analytically precise prose, a premature editorial impulse can stifle writing and stymie productivity. Some of you have perhaps experienced an internal dialogue something like this:

Editor: That sentence is trash—the second adjective is redundant, and there’s your chronically overused verb, “emerge.” Not to mention that the prose has no life, no rhythm. Can you really imagine reading that in print? Ugh.

Writer: I’m just trying to get something down; I’ll go back and fix it later.

Editor: Why not fix it now? If you know it’s lousy, make the corrections. Maybe you’ll forget them otherwise.

Writer: If I interrupt my train of thought, I might forget where that’s going, and right now that matters more. I need to work this quotation into this paragraph.

Whether or not you’re prone to something like this, try to draft without worrying about style. You’ll revisit what you draft many times, and can concentrate then on improving the clarity, eloquence, logic, and rhythm of your prose. Of course, your initial prose has to be clear and coherent enough to sustain the flow of what you’re saying, something that comments such as “Insert Southern view of slavery” usually can’t do. I typically start a day by reworking what I’ve written the day before, catching awkward phrases, lousy word choices, overused adverbs and semicolons, and the like. I might spend an hour or two on this. This revision invariably improves the original, which puts me in a good frame of mind for the current day’s drafting. With this habit I also retrace the previous day’s train of thought as a prelude to pursuing it further.

6. Resist the Temptation to Include All Your Notes

Great history is marked not by how many of a scholar’s research notes are included in the narrative, but by whether what is included persuasively serves the purposes at hand. More is not always better, and very often less is more. It can be initially painful to leave out, say, a body of sources on which you spent two weeks of archival work (“I did all that for nothing?”), but it’s often advisable. It’s unlikely you knew exactly what your dissertation was going to be about and what specific form it would take before beginning the research. Almost certainly you weren’t sure whether everything on which you took notes would turn out to be important. So it’s extremely unlikely that all your notes will find a fitting place in your dissertation. The question for turning notes into narrative is not “How am I going to fit everything I have into my dissertation?” but rather “Drawing on what I have, how can I write the best dissertation possible?” Prudent concision, not bulk, is a virtue in historical scholarship, not only in writing prose but also in using evidence. Writing history is so difficult partly because of the constant, multilevel decision making that it demands about what to include and exclude. Seeing that something should not be forced into your account often becomes clear only after you’ve drafted a section or chapter. If in doubt, try at first to work it in—or consider whether it might fit somewhere else, or is best addressed in a stand-alone article. You can always return to something that you leave unused in your dissertation

7. Return to Research Mode Whenever Necessary

This suggestion is the converse of point six: just as you should exclude notes if it becomes clear that they don’t serve your purposes, so you should return to primary and secondary sources if it becomes apparent that you lack either the evidence or the knowledge (or both) to draft what you’re about to draft. This happened to me multiple times while working on my dissertation. I realized I knew next to nothing, for example, about the person who was ostensibly the subject of my next paragraph. What then? You go and learn something about what you need to know. This might be as simple as checking a biographical dictionary or encyclopedia entry; at the other extreme, it might mean a return trip to an archive. It is fairly rare for a historian’s research and writing to be two entirely discrete, sequential phases. In part, that’s because the actual process of writing usually discloses strands of exposition that weren’t envisioned when a chapter or section was outlined, and for which you don’t have enough material. The relationship between research and writing is usually a matter of degree: just as you might make diagrams, sketch possible chapter outlines, draw up chronologies, and jot interpretations of sources as you’re taking notes on them while you’re still primarily in research mode, so you can (and when called for should) return to reading and taking notes in order to acquire the basis necessary for drafting when you’re primarily in writing mode.

8. When You’re on a Roll, Ride It

Some historians, including dissertation writers, can write with remarkable regularity—say, five hours per day, yielding a predictable average of three double-spaced pages per day, six days a week. I envy them. Based on my experience and that of most colleagues I know, greater variability is the norm. Sometimes the upcoming paragraph frustrates us for hours, but at other times we’re “in the zone”: the argument and evidence for a section mesh beautifully, and we find the sentences almost writing themselves. It is as if the muse of history were integrating sources and analysis and suggesting unanticipated insights. When this happens, stay at your keyboard longer than usual. Often that’s easy to do, because the experience is energizing and you don’t want to relinquish your intellectual high. But beware the temptation to work so hard and long that you skip meals, sacrifice sleep, and work yourself toward exhaustion or illness. (This is especially a danger when research is going well.) Different people have different work habits, but whether you’re a “morning person” or a “night person,” try blocking out chunks of time each day in which you resolve to be at your computer writing (not checking email, surfing the web, or browsing through YouTube). Then, if things are going well, expand your working hours so long as you don’t compromise your intellectual edge or your health.

9. When the Writing Bogs Down, Do Something Else Productive

There is perhaps nothing more difficult in being a historian than turning notes into one’s first draft. It’s unrealistic to expect that every day, you’re going to cruise toward your goal without snags, letdowns, mood swings, intellectual quandaries, and other realities than impede your progress. When the drafting hits a wall, turn to something else that you’ll have to do prior to handing in the finished dissertation. Revise a previous chapter or rework an unsatisfactory paragraph; read articles that you’ve printed out but haven’t had time to read; clean up your notes from another chapter; recheck your translations from non-English sources. All of these things need doing before you submit your dissertation for approval; it doesn’t matter in what order you do them. Keep your eyes on the prize of the finished, polished dissertation.

I can’t promise that these nine suggestions will impart historical creativity, but I hope they will be useful in managing the task of writing your dissertation. Remember that it’s been done before, many thousands of times—in the phrase from Walter Johnson’s book, “soul by soul,” and sentence by sentence.

—Brad Gregory is the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 2003. He earned his PhD at Princeton University (1996), was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows (1994–96), and taught at Stanford University from 1996 to 2003, receiving early tenure in 2001. The recipient of teaching awards at both Stanford and Notre Dame, he specializes in the history of Christianity in early modern Europe. His first book, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), received six book awards. He is also the editor of The Forgotten Writings of the Mennonite Martyrs (E.J. Brill, 2002). In 2005, Gregory was the inaugural recipient of the $50,000 Hiett Prize in the Humanities, sponsored by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, presented to a young scholar “whose work in the humanities shows extraordinary promise and has a significant public or applied component related to cultural concerns.” Gregory is currently writing a book about the enduring influence of the Reformation era, to be published by Harvard University Press.