I have told several people about writing my dissertation as a paperless project. Most of them were my fellow students, and had written many papers themselves for undergraduate and graduate school. Their reaction was, almost 100% of the time, unenthused at best. The most common response was something like this: “I just need to have the hard copy of the journal article there in front of me. I highlight it and take notes, and need to refer back to it.” This is precisely the voice that was in my head at the outset of my project. I had to fight my past habit just to get started.
All of the psychology papers I had ever written followed the same workflow that these students used. The process began with doing a literature search for the topic. Once I had found my articles, I would print them out, over time amassing an imposing stack of science for me to sift through. I did my best to only print out those articles that were relevant to the topic, and I was usually successful there. Following this was the reading and note-taking process, which is fairly self-explanatory.
The problem that I ended up facing with the note taking was always the same. I’d read through the articles, making sometimes sensible, sometimes cryptic notes in the margins of the article. I would write down thoughts for different sections of the as-yet-written paper, notes for the literature review section, critiques of the study, and so on. Then, I would return to said notes and be faced with what looked like some maniac’s manifesto. I was faced with illegible notes, poorly phrased thoughts, and comments referencing God knows what. Alas, my best efforts to produce a paper left me with a mess that needed serious reorganizing. To be sure, I always pulled off the production, but was frustrated with the process. Until recently, I didn’t have a better way. Until recently, I’m not sure there was a better way. At the very least, I couldn’t have come up with The Better Way, since the technology I now employ was either nonexistent, or was in its nascent state.
Since I already felt like a bit of a lunatic, I thought it was definitely a good idea to try out an all-new method of writing and research. I also decided the perfect test subject was my dissertation: the biggest and most important project of my life. “Good idea, H” I thought, and patted myself on the back. Against all odds, it worked. Stay tuned for next week’s post, where I’ll get into the finer points of how I pulled it off.