1. Develop a habit. A dissertation will not simply happen: you need to develop a plan, a schedule, and viable work/writing habits that you can commit to over a long period of time. Writing is a habit that should become part of your daily life. If writing is unbearably difficult, it will be hard to complete a dissertation, so develop methods of writing that are not unbearably difficult—schedules, strategies, techniques for getting words on the page on a regular basis that work for you, that you enjoy, and that make your life livable.
2. Write every day (or almost every day). Writing is like physical exercise: it is far more productive to exercise for an hour each day than to exercise once a week for eight hours. And once you are in shape, it’s easy to exercise and a little bit addictive rather than agonizing and painful. Rather than waiting for a clear afternoon to sit down and write (which rarely if ever arrives), make time to write at least once a day for a short period (even fifteen minutes) or several short periods.
This strategy works for a number of reasons: first, when it seems impossible to find five hours to write, finding 15 minutes is never impossible. Second, if writing seems daunting, the prospect of committing to only 15 minutes of writing makes it much less daunting to sit down and open the computer file. In my own experience, opening the file is actually the hardest part: once I begin working, I’ve gotten past the biggest hurdle, which is my own anxiety about getting to work. Often I begin to write by revising what I wrote the day before, and then continue writing where I left off. So, third, when you write every day, it is not very difficult to pick up the thread where you left off and continue with new work, whereas picking up that thread a week later is far more challenging and time consuming. Mentally “touching” your work every day is a way of keeping your mind engaged with your dissertation even when you are not writing because the generative space of thinking about the dissertation is close at hand.
3. Use a writing log, ideally together with one or more fellow grad students who are also dissertating. A copy of a writing log I have designed is available on google docs here: writing log.
To use it, make a google docs account for yourself, then click on the link above, and then sign in to your account (“sign in” is located on the black bar, upper right side of screen). Next, click on the “File” drop down menu (left side of screen); choose “copy file” and it will be copied to your own google docs account. You can then set restricted access to the google doc for use by yourself and the other members of your group by clicking on the “private only to me” link next to the small padlock on the upper left of the screen and changing the access settings.
To use the writing spreadsheet, log in with your name (and the names of others you are working with—each on a separate line) and the date each and every day. Write down what you were able to accomplish, how it went, and what your plans are for the next day. Give yourself a check each time you sign in. You may want to modify the spreadsheet if you have other thoughts on categories that might be helpful. However, the important aspect of the writing log is that it externalizes the accomplishment of writing every day, which enables accountability and gives substance to the nebulous work of intellectual labor. Writing a dissertation is a task that takes a very long time, and, as such, one day in the lifespan of the dissertation can appear to matter very little. A daily writing log allows each day to matter. And only if each day is part of the process will the process ever be completed.
4. Create an objective correlative. Because academic labor—research and writing the dissertation—is, in many respects, a drawn out and immaterial process, it is extremely helpful to concretize aspects of the process in order to chart one’s progress and give a “local habitation and a name” to the work of dissertating. In the name of generating an objective manifestation of this labor, consider the following strategies (in addition to the writing log above):
- Set a daily word count goal. Word has it that Stephen King’s daily word count is 2,000. But even smaller goals will help you make stunning progress over the long haul if you keep up with them every day. Make a chart; give yourself a gold star for every day you reach your word count.
- Set a goal of time spent writing: use a kitchen timer, and set it for ten or fifteen minutes at least once (if not more times) per day. Just write until the time is up. Alternatively, use this Online Stopwatch. Don’t forget the gold stars. Or create a chart of your cumulative hours. In any case, make a concrete record of your progress.
- Write or Die: this is a website widget that allows you to set goals for word count and/or time during which you write or suffer annoying consequences. The widget is the somewhat smallish box on the right hand side of the site, and is free. Enter your word goal, time goal, consequences, and grace period, then click “Write!”. In all honesty, I have not used this, but I hear tell that it can give you a good jumpstart when needed.
5. Work with a writing group. Working with a group of fellow writers helps ease the isolation of dissertating, tends to demystify the process of writing the dissertation, and gives you concrete deadlines and modes of accountability. There are a number of different kinds of writing groups—some more focused on process and some more focused on content. Any and all of these models work. Take it upon yourself to form a writing group, schedule regular meetings, and work with the group. Here are different possible models of writing groups:
- Reading/Exchanging Work Group: One person in the group pre-circulates a chapter or portion of a chapter to the group prior to the meeting. At the meeting, the group discusses the work and offers suggestions for revision. This is a very standard model, and is enormously effective, particularly if you are able to meet regularly with others who are working in related fields. It is not necessary that your work be in the same field: feedback from others in adjacent fields is valuable, and meeting a deadline for circulating work is a huge incentive to write.
- Accountability Group: Accountability groups focus more on process than content. Such a group might meet once every week or two to discuss the writing process. Each person gives an account of what progress he or she has made, what difficulties have been encountered, what strategies have been used to accomplish work, and what goals will be set for the next few weeks. Incentives for meeting goals can be collectively designed.
- Writing Boot Camp: For a fixed period of time—six hours, a whole weekend, three afternoons a week, or every Saturday morning—sequester yourself and a group of fellow writers (even yourself and one fellow writer) in an isolated space in which you have nothing to do but write. Make up rules governing issues such as talking and eating. Have someone deliver snacks/food so that you feel important.
6. Practice zero draft writing. Better to write than not, no matter how wretched the writing is. The key is to stop the self-critical voice long enough to just write. A “zero draft” is a draft that is so bad that you have zero expectations attached to it: setting the bar ridiculously low makes it possible, however, to write rather than merely agonize (while not writing) about the inadequacy of one’s ideas and/or words. Remember that your ideas develop as you write, not before you write. So writing even the most poorly phrased, poorly thought through ideas may actually be the best route to accomplishing the thinking and writing to which you aspire. Write—despite insecurity, confusion, and disarray—then rewrite. Give yourself permission to write regardless of the inadequacy of your ideas, and this will give you time to think and explore as you write: coherence, cogency, and polish will arrive later, after revisions.
7. Even if you are just researching, do some writing. You no doubt have systems (or should develop them) for taking notes on materials you are researching. However, one pitfall of the writing process can involve delaying writing perpetually in the name of completing research. Given that literary research, in particular, always involves interpretive work, it is far better to be writing (interpreting) as you research than to put off the writing until an undetermined future date. If you are primarily researching, take five or ten minutes at the end of each article, book chapter, poem (unit) you read and brainstorm (in writing) as to the nature of what you just read, noting key claims, your thoughts, and the relation of this material to your dissertation. Many times your thoughts about your own argument will emerge from these notes and these notes will be a valuable resource to return to when you are writing in a more concentrated way. In addition, brainstorming in this fashion may allow you to realize that you are more ready to write than you thought.
8. Check out existing dissertations on line. Given that, as a graduate student, you are primarily reading published scholarly work in your field, it may be difficult to know precisely what a dissertation looks like. It is easy to imagine that a dissertation should look like a published scholarly monograph. That is not the case: a dissertation and a published book are two different things, written for different reasons and intended for different audiences. To get a more realistic and less daunting sense of what finished dissertations look like, browse through recently completed dissertations in your field on line. Looking at recent dissertations in your field will give you a good sense of where the debate your work will intervene in stands, and give you access to recent bibliographies in your sub-field. Full text dissertations are available through Dissertations and Theses (Proquest). You will need a subscription to access this database, but many university libraries subscribe, including Northeastern University.
9. Learn to use bibliographic software. Make yourself at home with some version of bibliographic software: it will make your life easier. At Northeastern University, Endnote is available to download for free and I have found it easy to use and extremely helpful for manuscript-length projects in particular.
10. Figure out what works for you. Dissertation writing is difficult: it requires constant little steps. Most importantly, it requires developing habits of writing. Figure out what works best for you: spend some time looking at the resources listed on this site and avail yourself of ideas and techniques that suit your schedule and temperament. Take out a piece of paper or open a word file now: make a plan with concrete steps. And give yourself some check marks when you complete the steps.