I began this blog with a short post on “Getting Published” http://www.jobs.ac.uk/blogs/language-and-literature/2011/04/27/let%E2%80%99s-talk-getting-published/ . In that post I discussed the basic principles of why and how we as collective knowledge builders undertake this central scholarly activity. Today I would simply like to share some of my personal experiences of the difficult process of shaping a short 7000-8000 word article from my 95,000 word plus PhD thesis.
To coin a metaphor, it’s rather like preparing a one course meal from the grand banquet you prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime festival. What to put in? More importantly – what to leave out? Most ironically, it is becoming clear to me that this whole process is in a sense the opposite of what it took to produce the thesis itself.
Let me explain with reference to the actual context. As a scholarly writer my great struggle has always been – to find the right design and the right connecting axes for my argument. Structure, structure, structure. Words and ideas rushed in on me – but the simple and absolute necessity of putting each one in the right place occupied my days and nights.
However that story doesn’t concern us for the purposes of this post – somehow, like other survivors of this marathon, I found a way through this terrain and at an unsuspecting moment reached my destination. Aspects of this journey have been discussed elsewhere on this site by Heather http://www.jobs.ac.uk/blogs/phd-student/2011/06/15/what-makes-a-phd/ and Kat http://www.jobs.ac.uk/blogs/language-and-literature/2011/05/30/world-building-with-mind-mapping/. My own work now is to scale down – to sift through the first chapter of the thesis and produce a unified miniature – something which will tell the reader what I feel it is important for them to know about the forty two year poetic career of my subject: D.L. Richardson. A British-born poet and teacher who, like many of that generation of Anglo-Indians, lived between nineteenth-century Calcutta and London. The first time around it took me 20,000 words.
Well…the FIRST thing I’m doing is to follow my supervisor’s advice to “write what you need to write.” I mean that I’m following the mysterious, rational and more than rational shaping instinct which allowed me to form a view of Richardson’s life in the first place – I’m combing through the chapter and cutting and pasting the sentences and passages which form an outline of his poetic life into a new document. It’s amazing how your focus changes with your word count –like packing a smaller suitcase.
The SECOND thing – is that I’m making space for change. Putting in the final full stop was definitely not the end of my thinking about Richardson, the nineteenth century or the Romantic movement. It was a stage in the development of that thinking, and I would like the finished chapter to reflect that ongoing growth. Nothing complicated about this – I’m simply adding in new thoughts and ideas as I go along in brackets containing both short, haiku-like questions and long, rambling ones (nothing like the bracket for relieving the military precision of linear sentences, eh?).
The THIRD thing is– carving out and creating time to deal with the copyright permissions I’m going to need to get and the formatting of the chapter in accordance with a new (to me) set of style rules.
And – finally – given the hours, energy and patience this takes, I make time to remember why I’m doing this. The joy of work can seem very far away after hours at a stretch on my laptop – so I need to remember that ,in fact, I’m recovering – or rather helping to recover – the life and hopes of a real person. And presenting him to an audience that probably would never otherwise come across his work or feel any relationship to it.