Dos and Don’ts of Dissertation Writing

Originally posted on May 2, 2013.

Dissertation writing tips
The first draft of anything is shit. Ernest Hemmingway.

It is finished. The dissertation, that is. After submitting a final draft on Monday, I just received official word that the book was approved and accepted. That’s 285 pages of DONE!

Having had a few weeks/months to ruminate on the process, I thought I’d share some helpful tips and strong cautions for those heading into dissertation land. Mostly these things are about writing and surviving, and not planning out the research project, so I’m guessing they might be applicable to other big writing tasks as well. In no particular order, dos and don’ts of dissertation writing:

allow yourself to write “shitty first drafts.”
Anne Lamott* is right. Striving for perfection out of the gate will create anxiety and paralysis. I subscribe to Laurel Richardson’s perspective that writing is a way of knowing. It’s through getting the ideas on paper that they can be analyzed, finessed, clarified, improved. Now, I’m not saying messy writing is easy by any stretch. I’m definitely guilty of trying to get it “right” the first time (and then procrastinating or quitting, etc.). But there’s something motivating about getting words on a page–even when the words are lazy, cliched, not-quite-right.

Don’t try to go it alone. Start a writing group. Find accountabili-buddies (aka people to check in with/yell at you). I joined up with a good friend at another school for what we called “Adventures in Dissertating.” We created a shared Dropbox folder (a good idea for sharing drafts with your advisor, too!), wrote weekly goals, traded drafts and chatted most Fridays with updates. Consider non-academic groups, too. I joined “NaNoWriMo” as a “rebel nerd.” While others penned original fiction for National Novel Writing Month, I pounded out three findings chapters. Although I didn’t meet my word count goal, I made incredible progress for what is usually one of the busiest/least productive months of the year.

Do talk frankly with your advisor about revision schedules. Recognize early on that your ability to get the dissertation done is directly related to your advisor’s availability to review the work. Ask up front how much time (often measured in weeks) your advisor will want between drafts as well how what type of chunks (section, chapter, full drafts) are preferable. Keep in mind that while you may be working holidays, weekends, and all hours, your advisor probably will not. This is not to say that your advisor won’t be putting in a ton of hours on your behalf, but she/he likely has other advisees, publication deadlines, classes, a life, etc.

Do write everyday. A no-duh piece of advice if ever there was, but seriously. Write. Every. Day. Even if it’s just 10 minutes or 10 words. I found that so much of the dissertation process involved guilt at not working enough. Committing to writing something, even just a little bit, helped alleviate that burden.

Don’t expect everyday to be super productive in the writing department. I learned this year that I get next to nothing done on Tuesdays. Perhaps it’s because I use Monday as penance for things I didn’t get done on Sunday, and therefore I’ve used up my discipline by Tuesday. Whatever it is, know that productivity will ebb and flow. A friend of mine shared a great way to keep moving though. Instead of just ordering to-do list tasks by importance, consider assigning them an effort factor- low, medium, high. That way when high-effort writing seems impossible, you can tackle low-effort tasks (wrangling references, etc.).

Do pad your timeline! Plan for inevitable work slowdowns, tough revisions, life events, etc., and add days and weeks into your timeline. Me? I “lost” almost two weeks after the Sandy Hook tragedy last December. I could not bring myself to write thinking about those poor souls. I had similar work stoppages for personal tragedies, holidays, off days. And then there’s the inevitable ill-timed cold or flu. Mine descended during the last week of dissertation writing but I kept calling it “allergies” until after I was finished. All that said, pad your timeline!

Don’t expect to write the book in order. One of my committee members told me that a dissertation is like sausage. You really don’t want to know how it’s made. SO TRUE. Post-prospectus (intro/rationale/methods), I wrote findings chapters 4-5-6, outlined the discussion (chapter 7), then revised the findings, then re-wrote the literature review (chapter 2), then outlined the conclusion/implications (chapter 8), then revised chapter 7, then updated chapter 2, then updated the findings, then wrote the introduction, then cut chapter 7, then revised chapter 8 (three times!), then updated the methods… See what I mean? Sausage.

Do ask for help. A few weeks before my dissertation due date, I asked Mr. T to help with evening meals and sanity snacks. Although one of my great stress relievers is cooking, I couldn’t waste precious minutes in the kitchen. If you can, ask for help from friends, family, roommates, partners, spouses–anyone–to take care of some of the mundane life details you might be forgetting (like food, laundry, etc.). Also, ask folks for help in understanding that you will not be as available during the final months. Luckily my family was really gracious and did not guilt trip me at all for missing family events or cutting out early. (THANK YOU, fam!)

Don’t leave your references until last (like I did). Someone may or may not have spent 8 hours fixing references on the day of the final final dissertation submission deadline. Ahem. It takes a LOT longer than you think. Or you could be really smart(er than me) and use a reference wrangling software like Endnote or RefWorks.

Do expect it to be an emotional process. It is with no small measure of pride that I tell you I only had one dissertation-related cry (in public no less!). But I also had dissertation malaise, frustration, excitement, hope, guilt, anger, anxiety, etc. I was surprised at the gamut of emotions throughout the process, but especially near the end. Especially when I needed to cut a chapter and reorganize ideas. Especially when my advisor said big chunks weren’t working. Even now that I’m done, I’m wrestling with all of these dissertation-related feelers. Be warned.

Don’t think that all genius happens at the computer. If you’re stuck or just needing some creative oomph, take a break. Go outside. Look at something beautiful. There’s scientific evidence that insight comes from relaxation and repetition (think about all the good ideas that materialize in the shower or while walking the dog). Use that to your advantage with the dissertation. That way, you can call zoning out “work” time instead of procrastination. (Just make sure to follow up with some writing, ahem.) Likewise, consider other ways of expressing ideas. Some of my biggest “ah ha” moments came from drawing out what I was trying (and failing) to articulate with words.

Do create multiple work stations. Avoid cabin fever/creative stagnation by finding several places that work for writing. In addition to my desktop computer, I created a stand-up work station, used a lap-desk for sitting in comfy chairs, frequented the “coffice” (coffee shop office), and spent hundreds of hours typing in airplane seats (amazing the level of productivity that comes with no internet/kitchen/people distractions).

Don’t stop exercising. If you’re going to be like me and stress eat Cadbury Creme Eggs and Little Debbie’s powdered donuts (it was a particularly bad week, okay??), don’t ax exercise from your schedule. It’s tempting to say “I don’t have time” but the health and stress relieving benefits of exercise are too great to ignore. Try cutting down workout times or swapping exercises. Me, I missed Zumba for an entire month, but I tried to take walks around my neighborhood everyday. Bonus, walking allowed me to read chapters at the same time.

The internets in a nutshell.

Do limit internet distractions. No shame, I gave Mr. T my passwords to Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and he locked me out for a month so I could finish my dissertation. Unfortunately, I still had the rest of the internets to distract me, but at least my main problem sites were blocked!

Don’t waste your cognitive resources. A way to stay productive and sane? Keep your cognitive energies focused on major tasks and limit excess decision making. Experts warn about “decision fatigue” and I reduced mine but “outsourcing” extraneous decisions like what to have for dinner, tabling non-critical decisions, and doing important dissertation things early in the day. Another trick? Creating your day’s schedule the night before so you can hit the ground running without having to waste time/energy deciding what to work on first.

Do use your discipline wisely. Some scholars describe discipline like a bank account that can be emptied and refilled. As you’ll need to be focusing your energies on dissertating, consider letting other areas slide for awhile. For me, that was (sadly) zumba, housekeeping (ha), and healthy eating (the last one is not exactly my fault, Mr. T kept me plied with comfort food favorites like fried chicken, Thai takeout and pizza. It will be amazing if my pants ever fit again.)

Do expect to change your work schedule. The closer I got to D-day, the earlier I woke up. At one point, I found myself at the computer before 5:30 a.m. and believe you me, that is not a normal starting point around these parts. (Do rest assured that post-dissertation madness, I’m back to more sane hours. More like banker’s hours. If bankers were on vacation. ha!)


Don’t write your acknowledgements last. Something I’m super grateful about? That I wrote my acknowledgments in November for the dissertation I finished in March. Truth be told, I wrote them during NaNoWriMo to pad my word count, but the fact is, I got them drafted before the super intense rush of the final month when I could barely remember my own name. Take my advice and draft them when you’re actually feeling grateful and not exhausted/burned out.

Do use covered drink cups. All I can say- At least it was water that I knocked over on my desk and not coffee (again). Towards the end, I found myself exceedingly clumsy so do take care.

Don’t seek perfection. A good dissertation is a done dissertation.

Anything I missed?

Dr. Shawna

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