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Notes From a Writer's Desk: Approaching Your Work with Fresh Eyes

“After you submit your dissertation, don’t look at it for a year.”

I received this advice from someone whose opinions I trust. At the time, it made sense. I had been working on my dissertation so intensely, especially in the final months before submitting it to my committee, and my brain was owed a well-deserved vacation. I did not adhere dogmatically to this advice, of course, as I had already planned out two articles that focused on items in my dissertation and needed to mine some of the work I had already done. Other than that, however, my dissertation—in print form, at least—has been sitting in a binder on my bookshelf for the past year or so.

It was not until this past Christmas that I understood the benefits of setting my completed dissertation aside. You see, my sister was hosting the family for the holidays, and as part of the festivities, she decided to hold a “table-read” of the script—songs and all—from The Muppet Christmas Carol, the definitive holiday film from our childhood. I was assigned the role of Scrooge and other sundry bit parts. It went just as well as one might expect, but we really started hitting a groove by the time Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present were standing outside the house of Bob Cratchit (played expertly by Kermit the Frog). It was at this point that I noticed something odd—words that felt familiar but out of place. Different characters were discussing the meaning of citizenship performance and the processes of social memory production. Unbeknownst to me, my sister had surreptitiously inserted sentences from my dissertation into the script, just to see how long it would take me to notice. The first few insertions were surprisingly seamless—but I caught on as they became more obvious. 

I was amused by my sister’s light-hearted prank, but it got me thinking about the value of being able to approach your own work with fresh eyes. Setting aside my completed dissertation for a year allowed me to forget the specifics of what I wrote, but I maintained the passive expertise that comes with researching and writing about a subject so intensely for so long. I had effectively turned myself into a learned outside reader, familiar enough with the subject matter to follow the argument and evidence, but unfamiliar enough with the style and content that I could more readily critique what was written and offer (myself) advice on what was done well and where the work could be improved. These are skills I use every day as a writing specialist in the FWC, and I am lucky to be able to apply them to my own work.

So, my advice to anyone in the midst of completing their dissertations, as well as those grad students who might be working on a dissertation chapter, an article draft, a course paper, or even a research proposal, is this: Don’t be afraid to set your writing aside for a bit, especially if you have been struggling or working intensely on it. Even giving yourself a few days or a week can be immensely helpful. By temporarily shifting focus to something else, you can return to your work with a fresh perspective, enabling you to spot areas for improvement and refine your ideas. And remember, your dissertation is meant to serve as a foundation for future research, akin to a ready-made piece of secondary scholarship from which you might draw inspiration and insights.

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