How to write a dissertation: Tips and tricks

Posted: June 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: writing | 1 Comment »

Recently I was chatting with some of my fellow grads about how intimidating it can be to get started with – and continue – writing a dissertation.  In fact, it can be so intimidating that many postpone it, sometimes indefinitely.

Eleven months ago I started drafting my dissertation.  To date I’ve written seven chapters totaling roughly 90,000 words, or 200 pages of text.  This isn’t a fast work pace – colleagues of mine have written as much in far less time.  It’s not an especially long manuscript, either.  In fact, I’d say it’s about average for a qualitative/ethnographic study of communication.  I’m now getting ready to revise and finalize the manuscript.  I can finally see the finish line looming ahead.

Looking back my assessment of the writing process is that it was surprisingly manageable.  How so? How do you get started writing a dissertation and then keep going until it is done?

These are the tips and tricks that have worked for me.  They aren’t very original, and they may not work for everybody, but they’ll give you an idea of potential strategies for tackling the process of dissertating.  At the very least, I hope they’ll show you that writing a dissertation can be a much more approachable task than you might imagine.

  1. Have a model. What do completed dissertations written under the direction of your committee chair look like?  How long are they?  What sort of chapters do they have?  How many pages are dedicated to the literature review, the methods, and the findings?  What sources did they cite?  How did they present their data?  What strategies did they use for writing persuasively about the findings?  I spent about a week reading dissertations that had been successfully defended by students in my department working with my chair.  It gave me a very good idea of would be expected from me.  I don’t think this is a substitute for talking directly with your chair about his/her expectations, of course, but it’s a good preliminary step.
  2. Have a plan.  Before drafting a single chapter of the dissertation I sat down and wrote up a project plan.  The format I used was very simple – at the top of the page I wrote my desired defense date.  I then worked backwards to the present day, noting the milestones leading up to the target defense date and the dates by which I wanted to reach each milestone.  Under each milestone I noted the various tasks involved.  As I figured out how long the entire project would take I took into account how many hours I’d have per week for writing, the amount of time my chair would need to read each chapter draft and provide me with feedback, the time I’d need to incorporate feedback into my manuscript, time for additional revisions, time for additional data analysis, time lost (over holidays, during periods when my extra work duties would prevent me from writing, etc.), and so on.  Not only did this project plan help me organize my attack on the dissertation, it also helped me devise a realistic and feasible idea of how long it would take me to complete it.  This gave me a lot of confidence in the project even before I started writing.  Although I didn’t use a formal template for my project plan, I think that these ones here look useful.
  3. Think small.  Remember that project plan?  I often wrote up mini plans for each academic quarter, each week, and sometimes each day.  It helped me tremendously to see my project as a large collection of many small, manageable tasks rather than one monumental job.  I never sat down at my computer and thought, “now I need to write a chapter.” Instead, I asked myself what little things I’d need to do to get that chapter done.  These would be things like:  organize my notes; read more sources on topic X; write up the chapter outline; write the first section of the chapter (as noted on my outline), made of paragraphs addressing a, b, and c.  Being able to focus on and complete these small components was also a confidence-booster.
  4. Be consistent. Once I had my plan I was very diligent about working regularly, even it if was only for a limited amount of time each day.  I quickly noticed that if I spent long periods of time away from my dissertation I lost touch – the gist of my arguments faded, my citations went stale, and I’d have to spend extra time re-familiarizing myself with my work.  By spending time with my project each day, it stayed fresh in my mind, and I could dive in much more easily.  I even went so far as to schedule writing times into my calendar.  Not only did this help me maintain a consistent working pace, but it also helped me allot priority to my writing time.
  5. Be accountable to someone. When you’re writing a dissertation there aren’t any external deadlines to follow.  Nobody breathes down your neck, telling you when to hand each piece in.  This may sound liberating, but for some it can actually slow or even halt productivity.  This is why I think it’s a great idea to be accountable to someone.  Remember that project plan?  Share it with someone – your chair, a fellow grad, a writing partner, a friend, a family member, a colleague.  Tell people when you are planning to have things done, and ask them to check in on you, even informally, to see that you’ve followed through.
  6. Get extra writing support.  It can be very beneficial to talk through your writing with someone, whether for feedback or simply a pep talk.   For these purposes, writing groups can be a great resource.  My impression is that writing groups are best when structured.  For more information see the Phinished website as well as this article written by Chris Golde.
  7. Choose your workplace strategically.  Think about where you can write productively, and under what conditions.  I know that I can’t write any old place – I need somewhere very quiet with minimal external distractions, so I make sure that I get to these places for my writing hours.
  8. Fight distraction.  Even in the quiet, semi-isolated places I search out for writing, I still find myself bombarded by distractions.  To fight temptation I keep my phone and sometimes even my wifi switched off.  I use a stopwatch and make myself write for blocks of 45-50 minutes before taking a little break.  I also keep a notepad and pen next to my computer, so that I can jot down any ideas and/or tasks not related to writing that suddenly pop into my head.  At the end of the day I allow myself to go back to that list and follow up on what I’ve noted down – half of which turns out not to be very important after all.  One of my colleagues goes so far as to maintain multiple desktops using Spaces (he’s a Mac user).  On his work desktop he has no access to his personal email account, no Internet browser, and no documents except those related to his project.
  9. Finally, keep on keeping on.  Every little bit of work that you do gets you that much closer to the goal.  At some point it’s more about stamina and determination than anything else.

I’ll finish with the best words of advice I got from my friends and colleagues when I announced that I was starting to write my dissertation.

Kate D. said:

This is the stage where I reminded myself that it’s not about being smart, it’s about the will to hit the next key.

ML said:

One page a day. That’s all you need to do. Once you’ve done that, amp it up to two. It’s like exercising. A marathon seems less impossible once you’ve managed a mile.

Dale C. said:

Remember that the best dissertation is a *done* dissertation.

And Tom G. said it best of all:

Fight that blank page. You can do it! Choose words. Make sentences. Build paragraphs. Construct chapters. It’s a sinch…it’s a cinche…it’s a singe… It’s easy.

One Comment on “How to write a dissertation: Tips and tricks”

  1. 1 Tabitha Hart said at 11:53 am on June 10th, 2011:

    I’ve also heard that Joan Bolker’s book, “Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day” is very good.