On Writing a Dissertation: The Joys of Writing by Hand

I wrote the entire first draft of my dissertation by hand. Here is a picture of the entire thing, every piece that eventually went into the finished product.

Complete Rough Draft of the Dissertation, Norwich, NY, May 2015

There is an obvious dig to be made here: I wrote a dissertation on ecology and literature, and here I was actually increasing my paper consumption. But in the end, writing by hand was more conducive to completing the project.

I decided to do my first drafts by hand when I was working on the papers for my oral exam to advance to PhD candidacy. My academic papers I had always written on a screen, but the things I had written for the drawer I did first by hand. I decided to try writing by hand to see if I could get more joy from the creative process that goes into essay writing and I found it satisfying enough that I continued the practice of handwriting for the dissertation.

There is, admittedly, a certain amount of vulgar romanticism at play here: pushing my pen across the paper and producing something that I could then hold in my hand brought a certain satisfaction over having done something creative, whereas the screen felt more alienating. There was a certain Wollust to writing by hand.

But writing by hand also had many practical benefits for the writing process. Being only able to cross out things allowed me to focus like never before on simply getting the ideas on the page. That also meant that I felt more liberty to try out certain ideas and lines of argumentation, even if much of it ended up on the cutting room floor. By the second half of the drafting process, I began noting the date of each section that I had written, which helped me track my own progress. And typing the document later meant that an extra round of editing was already built in to the process. Then there are the apparent cognitive benefits of writing by hand.

In the summer of 2013 I visited Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane’s archives in Braunschweig and the Berlin/Potsdam area respectively (photos and musings here!). Part of the value of the archive work was being able to see their handwritten manuscripts. Raabe’s were fairly clean, even the extent manuscript of Die Akten des Vogelsangs, which he labored on and corrected extensively, does not look like it went through that much revision and change. Fontane’s manuscripts could not be more different: he wrote all over the page in different kinds of ink, he wrote bits of his stories on the backs of letters, envelopes, or other scrap paper, and if he liked something and felt it belonged in a certain place, he would rip it out and glue it into the new section. The manuscripts are a perfect window into the origins of the novel, or they would be, if Fontane’s family hadn’t scattered so much of the archive to the wind.


One response to “On Writing a Dissertation: The Joys of Writing by Hand

  1. Pingback: Who’s Afraid of the Anthropocene? | Literary Ecology

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