Dissertation Writing

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

A couple of weeks ago two students who had recently obtained their PhDs and I (I haven’t finished yet-but close) got together and held a workshop/talk on advise about writing the dissertation. The students who were able to attend found it was useful, so I thought I would spend some time writing up the bits of advice that were disseminated to the yet to write. First, I should say some of the advice here will be contradictory, because it comes from different people with different takes. Second, this is advice from recent PhDs, faculty who have been writing and publishing for a while probably have their own thoughts they could add to this discussion, this was mainly about how to transition from having structure (classes and exams) to developing techniques for spending your days writing. Special thanks to Shealeen and Rachel, any mistakes here are mine and please don’t blame them. Finally, any additional advise? Add it to the comments.

  • Get on a ScheduleThis was the most important advise I got. A faculty member told me how she wrote her dissertation in a summer. She said that she spent everyday of the summer in the library from noon till six working. While I am not sure this intense of a schedule is the way to go for everyone, I think getting on a schedule is key. For me I know I work better later, so I gave myself the mornings off to run errands, watch a movie, blog, or do whatever I wanted, but after lunch was work time. I tried to work five to six hours a day. Whatever works for you though. Develop a plan and stick to it, even if it is “eight hours a week.” This will help you to not feel guillty all the time that you are not working, and also get you in a routine. I know that many are in academia to avoid treating life like a job, but treating my dissertation like a job helped me tremendously. I eventually settled on a schedule of working at least five hours two days in a row, taking the third as a break. Sometimes I worked more then this, but this was my minimum.
  • Write, Even if you have nothing to say: Early on I spent time trying to write a whole chapter cleanly, start to finish. I thought I had to write the introduction, then the first section then the second . . .and do this by writing the first chapter then the second. Forget it. Just write. Later in the process I learned that what helped was just to start to write anywhere. I didn’t write the chapters in order (I wrote #3, #1, #4, #2, intro, #5), and the later chapters I didn’t even write within the chapter in order. That is, in a particular chapter I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say but I knew I was going to talk about a particular moment in Lolita or Patchwork Girl, so I just started writing. Sometimes you just have to write to figure out what you want to say. This means that you will probably scrap a lot of your work, or rework it, and you will have to organize it, but this is better than trying to write 50 pages in order from the start. (I know someone who writes everything three times-complete rewrite each time.) Rachel even mentioned that she had a long chapter which she eneded up cutting into scraps and organizing onto a poster board. Me, I like the giant whiteboard, with colored markers, but whatever works. I wrote about this before, when I discovered Scrivener. On a related note, I think blogging helped as it gave me writing to do that was less demanding, a sort of warm-up exercise for the day.
  • Read Other Dissertations: Shealeen mentioned this, and I wish I had though of this sooner in my process. Go to your Graduate Library (or where ever the dissertations are kept) and read some. Particularly read ones that were supervised by your committee, this will give you a sense of the expectations and the genre. Many schools and committees have specific expectations that if you discover early will help you.
  • Read a Book: When I was struggling with what I wanted to write, I read, even if what I read was only tangential to what I was writing. I found that this helped to get me thinking, and often I found inspiration in the strangest of texts.
  • Talk to Your Committee: Set up deadlines, let them know what chapters are arriving when. This will not only help you work to a timeline, but also insure that you are giving them time to work on the material. Giving them a chapter in the middle of grading, or when they have just been given three other chapters by other students, will probably slow down your feedback
  • Editing and Writing are Different: I know a lot of people disagree, but for me this was true. I wrote, global edited, and configured as one step, let the chapter sit for a while, and then returned to it to edit much later.
  • Do Something:If you are tired/exhausted and feel you cannot do any more work for the day, but still have hours left, do something simple: Spell check (surprising how long this process can be for a 40 page document-especially if you are me), run down a reference, format your bibliography. There are many mind numbing steps to the process that you can do even if you feel like never seeing another word about Thoreau (assuming you are writing about Thoreau).
  • Write What You Teach: Under the category of two birds one stone. This goes along with the bit about writing out of order. I was teaching a class, several weeks in fact, on House of Leaves. In my dissertation I have a whole chapter about this book, but it is late in the dissertation. Still when I was teaching it during the week it was easier to write about. I didn’t finish the chapter in those weeks of class, but when I did go back to that chapter over the summer I had some substantial work done, some of it as a result of class discussions. Bonus: Also made me more prepared to teach class.
  • Get Office Space, or go the Library: There is only so much writing one can do in one space. Sometimes shifting venues helps. I was surprised out how just the act of going to the library would help me to get work done.
  • Get Good Tools: Seriously some days you are going to spend six hours or more at a computer screen. It’s worth it to invest in a good/large monitor so you don’t get headaches and eye strain. Writing for that long can be exhausting. Along with this consider different word processing programs, honestly it helped me.
  • Back Up Your Writing: You never know when your computer will decide it doesn’t like you dissertation and delete it (especially if you are running Windows). Back-Up. I kept everything on my home computer, a copy on a flash drive, and a copy on a remote server (you can email yourself a copy of what you are working on occasionally).
  • Get a Life: Do something that has nothing to do with academia. Hang out with people who have no idea what MLA or APA or Chicago Style means. Do something that requires no books, no libraries. For me this was running, but whatever it is, do it.

Or you could just get this book, somehow I think it is not the easy.