losing the forest in the trees

I have moments in my dissertation writing when I feel like I’m a horrible writer and I need to just to quit.   I go down an emotional rabbit hole.  Writing has never been my strong point.  I’ve had moments in my academic career when professors have read my work and told me they had no idea what I was saying.  Of course, I knew exactly what I was saying.  I never really learned whether it was a problem of my choice of words, writing style, or that my flow of thought was just plain incoherent.   Maybe it is a mix of these things.  But, internally, the problem I feel is that I get lost amidst the trees.   It’s not that I don’t understand what I’m saying or thinking.  It’s that I see so many questions and connections at once, I get lost in perspective.  And, as I get lost in the possibilities of one sentence or paragraph, I make the mistake of wanting to put too much in a sentence.   That can make it difficult to cipher what I’m saying.

One fault of mine is that I’ve never been good at outlining.   I’ve never found a way to outline that works for me.  I think best in pictures and mind-mapping.  (Mind-mapping is when you create diagrams of ideas and their connections.)  But, linerality for me is hard.  And writing moves from left to write in a linear way of reading.  Structuring my thoughts in such a way that I know what I want to say in a linear presentation is difficult for me.  But, I have no problem digging in and discussing.  Texts and ideas are like bodies of water for me.  I just dive in.  The dissertation process, however, requires me to do what I don’t feel good at doing: outlining a set of ideas in an argument that I can deconstruct by simply taking another angle on my own line of thinking.   This is horribly frustrating for me because beneath all the critical thinking I am fearful of being discovered as an impostor, an idiot, simple-minded, or someone found impersonating someone worthy of a PhD.

It is difficult for me to really make sense out of the fact that I have almost 300 pages of writing and, yet, sometimes when I’m revising it I don’t really know what I am saying.  in fact, I do know what I am saying.  I just stopped and got lost, losing the forest in the trees.  I get lost in revisions.  I so easily get lost in a sentence or paragraph and don’t see the bigger connection.  I have the unrealistic, even ridiculous, expectation when I’m editing or revising that every sentence and paragraph must be decisively constructed in such a way that it analyzes the concept I am highlighting completely, as if much of my writing isn’t also supposed to be descriptive.  Since I am dealing with dialectical philosophy and theology, it is easy to get lost in analytics and forget that I am constructing a view from a certain way of thinking.

In the end, I just hope I have the sense to keep going.  I’m not that bad of a writer.   In fact, many tell my I’m an elegant writer.   I guess I am as long I have a point to make.


10 responses to “losing the forest in the trees

  1. Eh, everyone has a different writing style. I like to have a super in-depth outline before I even think about writing, whereas one of my good friends likes to sit and think for hours without writing down a thing or taking a single note. I think he’s crazy, but once he starts writing he can put out a page in less than 15 minutes. Everyone’s different, I guess.

    • SR, thanks for the perspective. I think I’m somewhere in between. I started with a proposal and outline before I even started my diss. As I researched each chapter, however, I got seduced by even more interesting connections. Once I find a tree, I hang out there for a whole….and I lose the forest.

      Thanks for commenting. Rock on…

  2. I discovered rather later in life (and in my writing/editing career) that I’m definitely a “mind-mapper.” Occasionally I’ve taped six or eight (or more) sheets of paper together just to get a big enough area for a “map.” Then I’d go crazy with circles and lines and arrows.

    I can recall as a student writing essays first, then creating an outline to match it–just so I could turn the outline in first because that’s the way the teacher wanted it done. In fact, it’s hard for me now to remember how I engaged the writing process back in my pre-computer, Smith-Corona electric-typewriter era. I do know that mowing the lawn has always been an incredibly productive time to organize thoughts and work out details on writing projects. Unfortunately (at least in this case) we don’t get enough snow regularly here in western Missouri to do the same with snow-shoveling. But then, that’s also much harder work (especially now that I have a power-assisted lawnmower).

    Try to keep reminding yourself, Matt: It’s all good. When you’re ready to write, you’ll write. Just hang in there.

  3. Don’t try so hard to do what is so natural for you…expressing yourself. Just relax and let it flow. You ARE an elegant writer, but you are struggling too hard. Relax and have confidence in what you know and it will just flow onto the paper as you want it to. Don’t second guess in your editing. It is like taking a test, if you think about it too much and change the answer, you find out your first answer was actually the correct one. I don’t know a more talented writer than you, except your wife and I think you two are pretty well matched!!!!

    • Matt:

      I’ve always found in proposal writing on a tight deadline with millions of dollars at atake or putting out a technical report with Cabinet Secretary’s or Governors’ reputations on the line (see — no pressure!) that things get incredibly impossible. And then they get funny. And then you’re over the hump.

      You’ll get the PhD dissertation done, and you’ll go on to even bigger and better things in your explorations of theology.

  4. Matt, In the fifth sentence of the second paragraph you wrote, “And writing moves from left to write in a linear way of reading.” Did you mean “right” rather than “write” or does this have some other meaning that I am missing? I am more of a linear thinker and writing comes pretty easy for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I am a good writer though. I enjoy reading your work. It is thought provoking and challenges me. Keep up the great work.

  5. Hey, Matt,

    Thanks for your post. You’re a good writer as this blog proves…and yeah, I know that dissertation/academic/technical writing is really different from blog writing…but it’s still writing.

    When I was working on my dissertation, I felt like what you have written–trouble with linear, dry style that is required, and no use for outlines. I tended to write all parts of a chapter together rather than going from the start of a chapter to the finish. I’d write a little of one section, leave it, then write a little of another section, and keep writing each section until I could figure out how to write each into the next. Not sure if that makes sense, but it worked for me.

    If you’re having trouble with the forest because the focus is on the trees, you might try a reverse outline. A reverse outline means that you do the outline from whatever draft section you’re working on, so that you can get a feel for where you’ve been and get some perspective to figure out where you go next. And whenever you do the next bit, add it to the outline…

    Blessings on your journey.

  6. Matt

    I also found my dissertation very difficult to structure, and found major shifts in thinking between my chapters. It took me about a year to write up my research, but six months to do the revisions necessary to make all the garbled text into a coherent whole.

    Keep at it! It eventually comes together, and at some point to have to practice ‘non-attachment’ and just let it go 🙂

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