Monday, December 23, 2013

Using Visuals to Help the Writing Process

Wordle of My Thesis
Wordle of My Thesis (Photo credit: organprinter)
by Elizabeth Jamison - Dissertation Gal, Elizabeth Jamison's PhD Journey:

I have never been a visual learner. I don’t “look” at the details, I don’t “see” things that others do.

I’d rather sit and take notes and talk than look at a PowerPoint. I’d rather think and read.

I am not a decorator and have never subscribed to the theory of Feng Shui.

But after going through my rather long slump, I needed to shift gears and go about my work in a different way.

Obviously, my way was not working, and so if it’s not working you need to change.

I sought out my good friend Susan Strickland. She’s a fantastic counselor at Harrison High School. But more than that, she’s a scholar.

She finished her PhD a couple of years ago and has the leather-bound dissertation to prove it. Her writing is fantastic, and her methods are too. Finally, after months of frustration, I went to her and explained my problem:

I had so many files all over the place, but they weren’t visible. Some files were in the file cabinet, some were in my work bag, some were on my desk, and some were in piles on the floor. Even more files (over a hundred) were on my computer in assorted files.

I thought I was “filing” everything the right way, but let’s talk about the theory of filing. When you file something away, it implies that you aren’t going to need it for a while. You “file it away” because sometime, in the future, you may need to see it again.

Research is not like that. I can’t file things away, because if it isn’t in front of me, I forget about it. But it’s taken me this long (a year) to realize it. I need to place everything in front of me, in a visually organized way, so that I can continue from one day to another and know exactly where I left off.

My friend Susan recommended that I clear out my office, bring up some tables, and organize - and that’s what I did.



So the miracle is that when I see things in front of me, it is much easier to keep track of my ongoing research. For those people who have already written the PhD, this is nothing new I am sure. But for me, it’s meaningful because I always shied away from the visual aspect of everything.

So, Here is my New Program

1. Separate your files by categories or chapters. That way, every time you have something to add to that chapter, you can put it on that section. As you can see from the picture, I am adding sticky notes to the wall (crazy - but I am hoping this will be a reason for my husband to repaint when I’m finished).

2. Make sure you can see everything: Don’t put anything away. If you are working on it, you want to see it. That means to make a space for all your work. I had to move furniture and change the room around.

3. As you read and annotate, be cognizant of the important aspects of each article. If you find a source you must find but can’t at the moment, write down the source (I am doing it on sticky notes) and put it by your “category” where it’s visible. That way, you won’t forget.

4. As a side-note: respect the archivists. They are your lifesavers.

5. If you find a compelling quote that you feel backs up a primary argument of yours, print it out in a Word doc, (with MLA citation on top) and write why the quote is important. Even if you aren’t working on that particular chapter or section, you can still have the quote and the lead in and analysis in your view, ready to use when the time is right.

6. Keep track of your sources through an easy online resource like This way, each time you find a new source, you can cite it, document it, and remember it. Don’t lose track of your sources.

7. Remember that each day you work is one step further toward the end goal.

8. Keep the cat off your work.

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