Paper writing time

The way things work in my PhD program, we have a 12-week semester and then we write research papers. The papers aren’t generally due within the semester. In the winter, we hand them in in January, during the reading period.

I’m firmly in the middle of that period right now. So far, it’s going well. I’m writing a paper about urban pneumatic tube networks and I’ve been working on a more theoretical angle that ties in Sigfried Giedion and Walter Benjamin, as well as some more contemporary information theory. I’m not convinced about how I’m going about it so far but I’ll feel much more comfortable when I start writing about the network itself. It surprises me to find myself writing my second paper on some aspect of 19th century Paris and its architecture and urban infrastructure, but it turns out to be the most interesting case study. I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t love Paris: I find it overwhelming. (I like Berlin better, but you probably know this about me.) At any rate, it’s harder to study things that I love. Either that, or I might be discovering I really like Paris’s subterranean wackiness and its unwavering devotion to its networks.

Two things are hard about the papers: the slog and the self-doubt. My first PhD student paper ballooned to 50 pages with no end in sight. It turned out there was no central argument. Now, I carry around a book called The Craft of Research, suggested to me by my undergraduate professor Lew Friedland, to remind me how to structure arguments when I get lost in things. Academic writing is hard and it’s scary to admit that. It does not come naturally to me. I spent years trying to write clearly and simply, and while I try to do that in my papers, I need to construct more complex arguments than anything in the Web or the design world asked of me. Last year, I collapsed into tears after 8 hours in Marquand Library, where food and drink are not allowed. It didn’t help that I didn’t eat as I worked on my paper about Xanti Schawinsky and that I really needed something to keep my blood sugar stable. By the end of the three papers I had to write, I was dejected and exhausted.

For obvious reasons, I’m trying to keep that from happening this year. I’m getting enough sleep, setting page limits (Cory’s recent tips helped), giving myself small rewards, eating properly, exercising, even. I’m hoping to make it through without dissolving in a self-loathing mass.


  1. Hi there,

    I saw your pneumatic tubes talk at Ignite Philly a while back and really liked it. At some point I added your blog to my rss reader and found this post. I inter-library loaned “The Craft of Research”, and my god, why didn’t someone hip me to this book like a million years ago? I’m doing some torturous academic writing as well (I’m speaking about my topic, electronic waste, at The Next Hope) and this recommendation has really gotten things moving for me. I actually gave a copy to a friend who’s working on a book. So thanks for that and for good readin’ on your blog.


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