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TSS: This one’s for the grad students

July 25, 2010

The Sunday Salon.comHappy Sunday, all! I am currently writing this while sitting in the Philly airport; I’ve got a conference this week with unknown internet availability, so there’s a good chance that I will be even worse than usual about approving/responding to comments, etc.

So, I purged one of my TBR books this week: Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. While I didn’t read it, I did skim it (and feel obligated to point out that Bolker admits in the introduction that the whole “15 minutes” thing is a marketing ploy, and that at that rate your dissertation will never get finished). Since I know many of you are currently in or thinking of starting grad school, in lieu of a review, I thought I’d present my own version, fresh from the trenches.

How to Write Your Dissertation in Three Months

1. Don’t. Seriously. Listen to your committee when they’re like “well, you’re a few years from finishing, but you could go ahead and write your introductions and methods now.” Give yourself more time, but if you do have to do it in three months, the “I’ve got three data chapters, so that’s one per month” approach works well to keep yourself on schedule, until you remember that you also have an introductory chapter that will get written “sometime.” Also, editing takes longer than you think it will; don’t plan to finish the first draft of your last chapter three days before deadline.

2. Write every day, but not too long. My brain turns to mush after too much writing, so about two hours per day is all I can handle. So, every day (except occasional Sundays off), I wrote for two hours, first thing in the morning – once I had hit my two hours, I was done for the day and could do other stuff. And I mean two hours of actual writing: no write-a-paragraph, go check e-mail, write-two-sentences, see what’s new on Facebook. My method was to turn off everything except Word and iTunes, unplug the internet, set up a playlist of classical music that was two hours long, and write until the music stopped.

3. Write crap. Once I’m writing, I avoid anything that breaks my flow, so my first draft is filled with notes-to-self (bolded for later finding and fixing) that say “citation here” or “better transition” or “is this true??” If I’m struggling with a way to say something, I write it in the least formal, most imperfect language I can (a la “So there’s this theory, and a lot of people still believe this theory, because they’re all dumb. And I’m going to tell you why they’re wrong and I’m right.”), bold it, and move on. Once you’ve done your two hours a day, you can spend the afternoons going back and adding citations and fixing little blips.

4. Back up, back up, back up. I have one back-up hard drive at work in case my house burned down, one at home in case my one at work got stolen, and Mozy will do automatic online backups for free up to 5 gigs (which is plenty of space to back up your “dissertation” folder). Also, make a new Word file for every day you work (and date them accordingly) – this limits the damage if one file gets corrupted, and if you delete a paragraph and then later decide that you need it, you can recover it quickly.

5. Make little goals, and make yourself accountable to someone else. No putting “Finish Chapter 3” on your to-do list (although man did that feel good to finally tick off). Always have a goal for the day, a goal for the week, and a goal for the month. And don’t have the goals just for yourself; tell someone else about them (doesn’t have to be your advisor), make yourself report back to them, and ask them to yell at you if you start falling behind. The desire not to have to say “No, I didn’t do it.” out loud can be a pretty powerful motivator.

6. Hie thee hence to a support group. If your university has a dissertation support group system established, join up. If not, start one, or at least grab a few people who are also writing and so know what you’re going through, will help with the rough patches, and will agree to meet regularly to help kick each other’s asses over the finish line (see point #5.)

7. Give yourself a break. This is *hard*. If you need an evening off to pick up a comfort read, then take it. If you really just can’t write any more and need to get up and take a walk, then do it. Sleep and exercise as often as you can manage. Say no to as many other obligations and responsibilities as you can. It’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to feel like crap, and it’s okay to be a little bit selfish.

Extra Credit. Ph.D. Comics

What say you, readers? Anyone got any tips that I missed? And if so, where were you five months ago?

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2010 11:03 am

    Fabulous advice! I did the “write crap” suggestion all the time. In fact, I do it with almost every paper I write. I’m no good at outlines or planning what I’m going to write, but that is a kind of outlining that works perfectly for me. Unfortunately I was the only Spanish major writing a thesis (much smaller than a dissertation obviously, but all these rules apply), so I had no support group!

    • July 25, 2010 1:46 pm

      Lu – The dissertation writing group I go to is organized by the university health center, so it’s people from all departments… most writing problems are universal. :)

  2. July 25, 2010 5:12 pm

    Write crap is great advice to anyone writing anything. My favorite phrase for a first draft is “vomit on the page”. You can’t do jack until you’ve got some to edit and fix and all that lovely stuff.

    • August 3, 2010 9:20 am

      Omni – Agreed! And at least in my case, a lot of the stuff that felt like wordvomit when I was writing it actually wound up being useable.

  3. July 25, 2010 6:04 pm

    I can’t do the “write crap” thing. It’s better for me to break my flow than to put in placeholder text. Once I’ve put in placeholder text, it takes me an unbelievably long time to think of something to replace it with, when I go back and look at it again.

    • August 3, 2010 9:22 am

      Jenny – To each their own! One of the things I like about placeholder text, though, is that I can hand it to someone else to edit and let *them* come up with something better. One of my favorite placeholders was “OH GOD THAT IS THE WORST SENTENCE EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WRITTEN LANGUAGE BUT I CAN’T COME UP WITH ANY WAY TO MAKE IT BETTER PLEASE HELP.”

  4. July 25, 2010 11:06 pm

    Excellent tips. Why is it so difficult to get going?

  5. July 25, 2010 11:12 pm

    Those are really good tips for writing in general. i do the “write crap” thing all the time, just putting in XXXXX or something else in all caps to go back later.

    • August 3, 2010 9:23 am

      Kim – I’ve been known to leave the “BRILLIANT THOUGHTS GO HERE” in a draft when I sent it to my advisor for editing.

  6. July 26, 2010 5:48 pm

    I love this post! I will have to bookmark this for if I ever get back to school.

  7. July 26, 2010 7:17 pm

    This is all brilliant advice. Would that I had thought of any of it myself when I was writing the diss….

    I particularly love the idea of setting up a two-hour long playlist, and not letting up until the music stops playing. I am going to try that out this very week.

    • August 3, 2010 9:25 am

      Ariel – It probably wouldn’t work so well if you’re one of those people who has to have absolute silence to write, but it’s great for me. Plus, two hours is about the length of two movie scores, which are my preferred writing music.

  8. July 29, 2010 8:25 pm

    I love this too! I already do most of those, but it’s always refreshing to hear tips from another student! I’m not yet in grad school, but I’m doing the honors program this year in preparation for it. I will certainly bookmark your post and keep it for future reference!

    • August 3, 2010 9:26 am

      kay – Well, I think most of us that have come out the other side are always willing to share our hard-earned battle tactics (read: yammer on endlessly) with anyone willing to listen.

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