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Advice for non-fiction writers and Ph.D. students Advice for non-fiction writers and Ph.D. students
by Joseph Gatt
2021-07-16 10:47:01
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I've read my fair share of non-fiction work. And have worked with my fair share of Ph.D. students. I was going to do two separate articles discussing non-fiction writing and Ph.D. life.

But, Ph.D. life is mostly about writing non-fiction, plus dealing with the human relations that go with it. So here's advice, in no particular order.

-Now there are two types of non-fiction work.

wrter001_400Type one: the writer “kinda” knows what he's talking about. But the writer clearly did the research recently, had his or her Eureka moments very recently, and maybe has trouble grasping the bigger picture. Nor has the author looked at other people's research in depth.

The problem with type one is that those books or dissertations (and I've read many of those) are either stating things that are very obvious to any reader, even high-school educated readers (which makes the reading boring). Or the author is only looking at one aspect of the deal and neglecting all others, and that would be like writing a book about the music industry and dedicating 90% of the book to Michael Jackson... the reader goes like “I wanted to read about everything from jazz to r'n'b to pop to soul, and I end up with the king of pop's biography.”

Type 2: the writer knows what he's talking about. The writer gives the full picture, discusses the facts with confidence and authority, and is so familiar with the facts that it's like he or she was a direct witness, and a conscious witness of the events. Or the author was not a direct witness, but an indirect witness, and just soaks in the information, and helps the reader soak in the information.

-So, how do I become a type 2 writer? Everyone works differently, but there are different methods and approaches.

Method 1: You start off investigating a topic as a hobby. You have a full-time job, but spend your free time searching the web, talking to people, interviewing people, reading books, and soaking in the information. You're not researching the topic for the glory or to write a book, but just for the fun. Researching the topic is a calling, it's fun, or you feel like you're doing your patriotic duty.

Further down the road, you've collected so much information that the book or dissertation just writes itself naturally.

Method 2: You take a sabbatical or a year off to investigate the topic. This is a little risky because you could end up realizing researching the topic was not a calling. But you read books, articles, interview people, research people for a year, work in kind of a messy fashion. After about a year, the information will blend together rather well. You now write a book, paper or dissertation with assertiveness and confidence.

Method 3: You don't have one particular research topic in mind, but you have a curious mind. You read about this, read about that. Read a book about biology, another book about history, another one about sociology, and read everything from self-help books to classical novels to non-fiction books. Soon enough, a research topic comes to your mind, and you connect the dots between what you learned in biology and what you learned in history and what you learned from that epic novel.

Method 4: You grew up in a strange place, or under strange circumstances. Maybe you were home schooled. Maybe you were a gang member, and then left that life for good. Maybe your father was the Prime Minister of Wakanda and you got to meet a ton of famous people. Or maybe you grew up raising a disabled sibling or something.

So that background, plus the research you had done, plus the information you collected first hand will help you out. Now you read a few books and articles, but the information in there makes complete sense to you, because you had direct experience. In some cases, as a direct witness, you can even contradict some of the information contained in books. Book says one thing, but what you witnessed says a completely different thing. So you start digging for realistic accounts. Writing a book or dissertation is a no-brainer.

-Things to avoid as a Ph.D. student or non-fiction book writer.

Trap 1: You have “conventional” views on academic topics. That is you're mostly a guy or girl who reads the papers every morning, who watches CNN or Fox News, and you get your news from Facebook chats and ramblings about politics.

If you try to write a book or a Ph.D. dissertation with that kind of knowledge, you're going to crash and hit a wall.

Trap 2: You have an oversized ego, plus, you get all your information from CNN and Reddit chatrooms, plus, you are 120% convinced that your views are correct.

That's not gonna work. No one is gonna read your book. And your Ph.D. adviser won't be happy with your work.

Trap 3: You want your Ph.D. because you want people to call you “Dr. Smith” and you're convinced that with that piece of paper on your wall, the President is gonna call you and appoint you Secretary of State, and then four years later you'll run for the Presidential election, and you'll win.

Your Ph.D. dissertation won't write itself. You have to write it with first hand research. Your information has to be provided with confidence, authority, assertiveness, truthfulness and so on. Being President is not just a portrait and an Instagram profile, it's dealing with lots of facts and information.

Don't try to make your family proud. Try to satisfy the reader.

Trap 4: “Everyone's doing a Ph.D. so I should do one too” or “that bitch Jane got into a Ph.D. program even though she slept through most of her classes, and she got a full scholarship, so I'm going after that Ph.D. cause I deserve one more than she does.”

No, no honey. A Ph.D. should be about doing research and presenting facts with authority. It's not a beauty pageant, not a catwalk!

-Ph.D. traps to avoid – spoiler – some Ph.D. programs are corrupt, and you basically “buy” your degree

A Ph.D. program is like moving to a new country. Things feel strange at first. Then you start observing the culture.

Some Ph.D. programs have very high research standards, and you could get failed for one tiny mistake like quoting the wrong source. I'd get kicked out from any program like that.

Some Ph.D. programs are “old-school” racist and professors are not very fair and just in assessing students. The White guys get the best grades, the Jews get to do all the skunkworks, and minorities get failing grades when they provide work of equivalent quality to the White kids who get better grades. That's not always the case, but sometimes, it is.

If you're in an “old-school” program, your confidence and assertiveness will be your best weapon. Reads books, discuss your research with authority, talk to professors with authority, go out and present at conferences, show your school that the world needs you and your research. Walk straight, and look the professors in the eyes. Lecture, and show your classmates that you know your stuff. And don't turn the other cheek.

Some Ph.D. programs are corrupt. That is if you show up with a confident demeanor, the program is going to start pestering you with “crimes” that you did not commit. An absence at any event, and they'll give you a big shake. Two absences and they'll threaten to throw you out of the program. A small mistake and they'll fail you at the test. And yet, if you send your professors gift vouchers, and cheques hidden inside cookie boxes, you'll get your Ph.D. and your absences and mistakes won't be noticed. I'm not for that kind of stuff, and, unless you want to be a fraud your entire life, don't do that. Get out of the program, and join a better one.

And some Ph.D. programs just want you to write a decent dissertation. They don't want the CNN and Fox News stuff; they don't want the Facebook chatrooms stuff. They don't want ink on paper. They want to be satisfied readers who learned something from an assertive source. That's what most Ph.D. programs are about.

-Bonus: Ph.D. student bloopers

“I speak 6 languages so why are they failing me?” Well, speaking 6 languages, unfortunately, does not qualify you for a Ph.D. Research, collecting facts and data, analyzing facts and data, clear writing does.

“I have 10 years' experience working as a computer programmer. Why is my adviser making life so hard for me?” Because there's a difference between writing other people's code and inventing your own code, and your invented code has to work perfectly. That's what computer programming Ph.D.s is about.

“I'm Palestinian. Why is this Jew-loving professor failing me?” Are you getting your information with balanced sources and data on the ground from Ramallah and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, or are you getting all your information from Intifada Facebook pages?

“I don't know what to write my dissertation about. Why doesn't my adviser pick a topic for me?” And why doesn't your adviser pick a husband or a wife or both for you, pick a job for you and pick a bank account for you and pick a car for you and pick your outfits for you and pick a haircut for you? And maybe your socks and underpants as well. Maybe they do that in Cuba or North Korea. But your adviser's not going to write your dissertation for you, nor is he or she going to force you to do in-depth research on a topic that might bore you to death, leading to a disastrous dissertation.

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