Thursday, August 23, 2012

Spirited: The Craft of Writing

I've been putting off working on my writing sample for PhD applications all summer. I have had a lot of other things to do, but I've also just been procrastinating-- doing anything else to avoid it. At first glance it might seem odd that this is the task which I have been avoiding. While I do find writing to be slow and difficult at times, I enjoy writing in general and I really loved writing my undergraduate thesis.

The issue is doing battle with my undergraduate thesis again. While I still believe in most of it, the copy editing is a mess and there are places where the writing is downright unwieldy or the ideas are expressed in an excessively convoluted manner. Yet, even this was not the main turn off. I've been hitting my head against the page restriction on writing samples for a long time. 25 pages is just not much space to express the ideas in an 80 page thesis. I honestly didn't think I could do that. In my head this was just something I couldn't get around.

For my birthday, my parents very smartly bought me a copy of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Avoiding drilling more Latin vocabulary, yesterday, I decided to read the beginning of this wonderful book. While I am not turning this into an article for publication, the book helped me feel that I could probably mine something out of my thesis to make a solid 25 page stand-alone piece.

One of the things that Belcher recommends is to read the paper through twice, once without a pen and once with a pen. Most of the time, I read the binder copy I have of my thesis which already has some notes with typographical errors and snide comments. This time, I borrowed the nice, clean, bound copy I gave to my parents. Looking at it clean and not looking for problems at the level of sentences, I realize that there are at least 10 pages I can cut out of my introduction and first chapter because I wrote my thesis in the hope that someone without expert knowledge of Plato (and particularly someone who had not read the Laws) could read and understand it (as it will reside in the library of my alma mater). My new target audience (1) will mostly be people who have a solid knowledge of Plato and (2) who don't necessarily need to be up on the data because they are more looking for argumentative structure and originality than understanding. I'm sure I will find even more passages that I can cut the further I go.

Beyond this, I noticed that my writing style tends to imitate the authors I have been reading most recently. During my thesis I read a lot of two wonderful scholars: Catherine Zuckert and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood. While I hope I incorporated some of their flair for analysis my writing definitely picked up some of their faults (Zuckert: over-inclusion of summary in arguments; Sourvinou-Inwood: clunky, overly-complex sentences). Divesting myself of some of this will also make my thesis more cogent and streamlined.

If anyone has any tips for doing similar things, I'd love to hear them. Also, so far, I would highly recommend Belcher's book. In the first 60 pages she tackled so many of my writing excuses and insecurities and made me feel like I should just go for it. I'm hoping it continues to be stellar.


  1. If you have a chapter of your thesis that works as a stand-alone piece, you should just use that. I was able to patch together two chapters from my master's thesis into a successful PhD writing sample.

    1. Sadly, the thesis was a single extended argument over 3 chapters (+ intro and conclusion). The second chapter can sort of stand alone (although not entirely), but unfortunately it was more of a survey of historical and art historical evidence that corroborated my idea rather than the work I actually do (lit and philosophy).

      I do have another talk I gave on a related topic, but I worry that if I send in something other than my thesis, programs will wonder if my thesis was really bad, and that's why I didn't send it in. However, I get the feeling that I can possibly do an abbreviated version of the idea as a whole by patching and cutting my thesis. Cross my fingers.