Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My World War I Research is Finished!

Tomorrow everyone on this side of the pond will be tucking in to large plates of food in celebration of Thanksgiving. That holiday came a day early for me when I (finally!) finished writing my paper on World War I-era Iowa libraries. The project evolved a lot from when I started about a year ago, and I ended up with a paper that is about 190 pages long (including tables, bibliography, etc.) I learned a lot about my writing style and about how I work best, and I think a few of those things might be good to jot down here for my fellow students (in LIS programs or otherwise) who are undertaking large writing projects:
1. It always takes longer than you think it will: I thought this project would take me 6 months. In fact, the research took 6 months, and the writing took another 6 or 8. A lot of the reason wasn't that I couldn't write more quickly, it's that I tend to have more 'on' writing days and more 'off' days. When I'm at my peak, I can assemble my ideas quickly, support them well, and use better wording. When I'm not, it's much more of a struggle just to outline a chapter, nonetheless write it. Plan ahead, and budget lots of time.
2. Everyone has their own method; learn yours and stick to it: I was at the receiving end of criticism from some folks because they felt that my writing and editing process wasn't 'right.' Mostly it boiled down to the steps I take, and the fact that I always insert my endnotes last because it gives me another chance to go over my writing and check my sources. I am much more flexible when it comes to shorter projects, but when I'm compiling an epic tome I know now exactly what I need to do in order to write, edit, and finish. Once you figure out a system that works for you, stick with it! You'll be much less stressed out.
3. You'll still be stressed out: There's really no way to get around it. Embarking on, conducting, and finishing a large project are all very stressful activities. Make sure you have your ducks in a row in other areas of your life (i.e. are you able to count it toward a thesis/independent study credit to give yourself more writing time? What activities are you able to neglect for a little while to free up your schedule?) Also, make sure you have a few good support people in place. I have my awesome boyfriend and a few good friends who've all helped with practical things (like preparing food and cleaning), to sharing down time with me, to advice on writing and research.
4. Keep your project in perspective: Yes, it is stressful. It eats up a lot of your time and you find yourself staring at the same resource five or six times hoping to get one more usable sentence out of it. Remember that you will feel amazing when you are done, and be nice to yourself while you're working! If it takes you a little longer to finish a section, you feel like your writing wasn't up to par on a certain day, or you just need a break from the thing for a day or two, that's OK! Everyone has different limits: you know yours, and you know you've worked hard. So if your hard work doesn't pan out the way you want, you did your best and that's still something to be proud of.
5. Get lots of advice: Having friends, faculty, and family that you can wrangle into offering some free reading/editing is so valuable. Another set of eyes often catches things you miss, and someone new to your work can offer a perspective on what they needed clarified, which will help you better understand the perspective of your readers (and helps you step outside only your perspective as a writer).

I am currently polishing up a book proposal in the hopes of having my writing formally published. This is very exciting, but it also makes it so I feel cautious about placing my work online lest it interfere with a future copyright held by the publishing house. That being said, I know there are a lot of folks doing exciting research on library history or other subjects who I'd love to share findings with and compare notes! So, contact me if you'd like to learn more about the project or hear a bit about what I found!


  1. I have a colleague who's very fond of quoting Hofstadter's Law: 'It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law'.

  2. That may be the most useful law for any graduate student (faculty as well, I presume)!