The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation

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As a former journalist, assistant professor, and seasoned dissertation-writing-workshop coach at New York University, I can promise you there is only one fail-safe method, one secret, one guaranteed trick that you need in order to finish your dissertation: Write.

That’s it. Seriously. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there are no magical shortcuts to the production of prose, academic or otherwise. If you want to complete your dissertation in a reasonable amount of time—and trust me, you do—you must learn to prioritize the act of writing itself and write every day. Writing must become a non-negotiable part of your daily routine.

Here’s the basic, scalable program that I recommend: Sit your butt down in a chair, preferably in a quiet and distraction-free room. Disable your internet and turn your phone on silent. Come into your writing space having already done the research you need for that day’s writing task. You will not be researching or looking anything up during your writing time (research and editing are discrete tasks, believe it or not, and should be done in separate blocks).

Don’t do “poms”—timed sessions of 25 minutes with five-minute breaks in between—for writing. They work well for other discrete tasks, like research or formatting or getting your bibliography together, but not here. Instead, try to write for a longer, uninterrupted time. In NYU’s workshops, we write for 50 minutes straight, with 10-minute breaks, for 4 hours daily. That might not be feasible if you work or have young children, but plan on writing five days a week, no matter what, for a minimum of two hours each day. It’s doable, I promise.

Here’s the rationale for writing every day: Writing is thinking. It takes time and it’s supposed to be challenging. The biggest mistake I’ve seen most graduate students make is to mythologize what I call “the moment of genius.” Because writing is thinking, brilliant thoughts do not just appear on the page after long hours of arduous musing on a subject. In my experience, the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself—usually just at that moment when you’ve run out of steam and are staring down a seemingly intractable problem, desperately wanting to quit. These are the breakthrough moments. When you’re writing a dissertation, one of the most difficult intellectual tasks a person can do, commitment to the writing process is far more important than genius. If the smartest person in the world cannot learn to write, then she won’t be a successful academic. Period.

In the past year, I’ve coached over 60 Ph.D. candidates from diverse departments—from computer science to French literature, from anthropology to political science. And despite the differences in discipline and style of writing, the process and my advice remain the same. Everyone struggles with similar technical and emotional issues: procrastination, distraction, anxiety, structuring an argument, finding their voice, integrating theory and evidence. It’s very hard work, this writing-your-dissertation thing. The trick is to not make it even harder by avoiding the work itself.

The greatest obstacle to any dissertation writer, by far, is the all-too-common tendency (conscious or not) to try to avoid the negative feelings associated with the difficult stages of the writing process. If you make writing a part of your work-week routine, there will be good and bad days. On the good days, the prose will flow out of you at a rate that you didn’t think was possible. Or you’ll finally figure out how you want to argue your main point. Or you’ll realize that what you thought was one chapter is actually two or three different ones. On the bad days, nothing that you write will seem good enough. You’ll hit the backspace and delete keys so much that they’ll start sticking. You’ll move the same paragraph five times before you delete it out of frustration. The trick is to go with the ebb and flow of writing, to ride out the bad days.

I often advise the students in my workshops to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” Very often in the writing process, you will feel shitty. You will write shitty first drafts. You will wrangle with disparate sources, gargantuan amounts of data, and difficult theoretical concepts. You will often feel lost and frustrated and tired—uncomfortable. The successful writer knows that feeling lost, frustrated, and tired is just a part of the process of coming up with something great. Writing is thinking, and good ideas take time. There are bound to be a few false starts and dead ends along the way. If you feel shitty about the writing and force yourself to write anyway, you will not only finish your dissertation, you will allow yourself the opportunity to work through complicated arguments and say something interesting or even something pretty great.

All professional writers know that good books and interesting articles are the product of several drafts. So is your dissertation. In fact, the dissertation is better thought of as the lousy first draft of an eventual book. No one but you expects your dissertation to be perfect. What advisors want to see is honest effort and interesting thinking on the page. Trust me, most of us remember all too well what our dissertations were like (mostly terrible: just ask your advisor if you can read a copy of hers!), and we can empathize with your struggles. But we also know that the only path to a completed dissertation and a blossoming career is through writing—putting ideas down on a page, and wrestling them into shape.

And, finally, I’d advise anyone writing a dissertation to shift her thinking. You are no longer simply a graduate student; you are a Ph.D. candidate. As such, writing is part of your job. In fact, it’s the most important thing you can do for yourself and for your future. Get into the habit of daily writing now and you will have a prolific career. But you have to start today. Right now. So stop reading this and get to work.

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39 Comments
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  • I needed this! Thanks for the "pep" talk.

    Carolina Lam
    Carolina Lam
     
  • that's a really great piece of advice... it really made me get serious about my dissertation writing :)
    thanks for that

    Muhammad Raza
    Muhammad Raza
     
  • I'd say from experience that short sprints are still very useful for getting started, either when you're tempted to procrastinate or restarting after a break -- it's much easier to commit to writing for 25 or even 15 minutes than 50, and after a couple of sprints I often find myself writing for hours without a break.

    Kate Blackmon
    Kate Blackmon
     
  • I remember giving myself the daily task of writing two pages; that was it -- two pages - every day! Some days the ideas flowed and it seemed like I barely got through a cup of coffee before I had my two pages. Other days multiple pots of coffee were made as I struggled to get my two pages. But the commitment to write every day and the ability each morning to see the incremental progress that was made the day before was the key for me.

    Jack Geller
    Jack Geller
     
  • This is great advice. I am in the process of beginning mine. Although I am pursuing an Ed.D., the information that you provide is still helpful. In my coursework, I remember one of my professors saying, "Writing is thinking." As I embark on this journey, I will keep this in mind.

    Dyron Corley
    Dyron Corley
     
  • Thank you Theresa for this reminder, as I come close to completing my second doctorate.

    James Hoelscher
    James Hoelscher
     
  • My perspective has shifted...thanks! (Of course, now I feel kinda guilty taking this moment to read this article...but I am still "writing " this post regarding dissertation writing...)
    Haha... Back to work...

    BEST WISHES to each scholar in active pursuit of his/her Ph.D.

    Kecia Waddell
    Kecia Waddell
     
  • Excellent piece. I am not only make sure it gets copied to graduate students, as a retired guy with time and intent, I'm going to internalize the advise exactly as presented and do it.

    Paul Deputy
    Paul Deputy
     
  • Thank you very much for the article. I will defend my dissertation this summer '14 and I feel completely alone writing it. My advisor lives in Spain and we do not communicate frequently. I am also writing it in my third language (French) so it puts another layer of difficulty to the task. I appreciate when you say, "In fact, the dissertation is better thought of as the lousy first draft of an eventual book." Seeing it as a graft puts less pressure on the work itself.

    Jean Hernandez-Lopez
    Jean Hernandez-Lopez
     
  • goood advice

    FRED NYAMZ
    FRED NYAMZ
     
  • It's the same for tenure. Sit your ass in a chair and write. Aim for revise & resubmits! I wrote my dissertation in one year while working as an instructor teaching 5 classes each semester. Taught on MWF and wrote on T, Th, and Saturday. I used a kitchen timer, set it to between 6 and 8 hours and stopped the clock any time I stopped work on the dissertation. Published 2 articles out of it when I was on the tenure track. Writing isn't always pleasant, but it's rewarding to see your stuff in print, especially when people start citing your stuff.

    Lynne Cooke
    Lynne Cooke
     
  • Revision is always easier than creation. Get something down and then go back and clean it up. Making the wrong decision on which way to go with an argument is far better than sitting there dithering. It is better to get it wrong and plausible than to merely wait in hopes of insight leading to brilliant decisions.

    In theoretical mathematics, the work and the thinking go into the proofs and the arguments before you ever start writing up the results. The need to stay on task is real and you have to keep trying arguments all day every day, but there are far more definitions, theorems, lemmas, drawings and sketches than there are sentences written in words. For three years, I thought in two two-hour blocks morning and afternoon separated by 15-30 minutes to read poetry, novels, and fantasy literature as a complete break. Once the thought is done, then the task of writing sentences and paragraphs follows and may take a month or two.

    Interestingly, we face the same challenges with our undergraduate honors students. The director of the program demands an abstract to start the thinking process. Our discipline writes the abstract as a summary after all of the thinking is done. So, we have the students create an abstract consisting of a flight of fancy, in which they are reluctant to engage because for us, it feels like deception.

    GREG CROW
    GREG CROW
     
  • Theresa, thank you for your perspective. I am just starting my dissertation and this is the best advice I have had so far. I have never thought about it that way. I always want to take my time thinking so that I can write more perfectly! Whoops! I just need to start writing everyday:-)

    Kirk Campbell
    Kirk Campbell
     
  • great advice!

    Lola Miller
    Lola Miller
     
  • I particularly liked the statement that research and editing are discrete tasks and should not be considered within the "writing" realm. Great article. Thanks very much for sharing this advice.

    Kristine Farmer
    Kristine Farmer
      -1
  • Wonderful advice. I am dreading writing my master's thesis and the dissertation that will follow in a few years. Thanks!

    Anita O'Pry
    Anita O'Pry
     
  • Its an excellent piece of advice for improving writing skills. I am very glad to have come across your blog. I hope, I would take it seriously and embark upon learning and improving my writing dexterity. Thanks a lot.....

    Nitin Kabir
    Nitin Kabir
     
  • Procrastination and just writing it has become my greatest setback. I need to make it routine in my daily activities. Thank you for your wisdom and guidance. This is the kick in the butt I needed to get moving on the dissertation!

    Dr. Brian Cook
    Dr. Brian Cook
     
  • This was wonderful. Thanks. Would you be consider coaching or at least giving advise via e-mail? I could really use a good interlocutor to get my disertation done and over with (that is expected to happen by the end of this year anyway). The point I needed the most was "No one but you expects your dissertation to be perfect. What advisors want to see is honest effort and interesting thinking on the page." Letting go of the spiration towards perfection is really tough, especially when aiming for sufficient rigor. Thanks.

    Cobi Stein
    Cobi Stein
     
  • When I was writing my dissertation over twenty years ago a colleague of mine told me that ABD stands for "all but discipline." I worked full-time as a school system central office administrator, served in the Air Force Reserve, Boy Scout Leader, husband, and dad in the five years or so I spent in my doctoral program.
    A book came out during my writing time titled "Surviving Your Dissertation" so I bought it. The author's thesis was that writing a dissertation brings out every inferior feeling you have about yourself. Her dissertation was coincidentally for a Psychology Doctorate and her research was on why people don't finish their doctoral degrees. She found that doctoral candidates start convincing themselves that they aren't worthy of this high honor. In other words, we psyche ourselves out.
    I agree with the suggestions listed here: write two pages a day, do it in solitude, do reading and research separate from writing, if you're hot some days write until you run out of ideas (my wife would come in our den at three in the morning and ask me when I was coming to bed!), and just get started.
    I've got some suggestions that may also help: Once you read some research keep notes (I typed mine in the PC). Reflect on what you read and where it supports your thesis--make notes. Get ideas down that can be organized later; your brain may suddenly reflect on something totally remote to what you may be looking at at the moment. Sometimes the ideas come in disjointed or fleeting moments.
    Another person in my doctoral cohort knew what she wanted to research when she was a master degree student. She did all her courses' research papers around her topic, if she could. More or less, she bit off small pieces of the bigger research project (the Ed.D) as she went along. When she began the doctoral program she continued the same process. When our cohort finished our last course in the summer of 1992 she had done most of her research for her dissertation. She was finished by Christmas that year. Most of us don't have that much forethought about what we want to research. I proposed three different topics before landing on one my committee would support.
    Most important to remember is that this is the biggest research project of your life but it’s still just another paper. It's your academic "coming out" research that shows why you are worthy of that PhD. We're only human so we tend to doubt our own abilities. Once you finish it you'll be proud and wonder why you doubted yourself. It's all in your head...if you don't mind it doesn't matter (mind over matter).
    Your research doesn’t have to be perfect. You are for a short time an authority on one specific research topic that adds to the universe of knowledge on that subject. The best dissertation is the finished one. Good luck—you can do it.

    James Thomas
    James Thomas
     
  • This is all completely true. Writing is the hardest part of the job for me. I had friends who loved to sit down and write to sort out their thoughts, but I prefer to talk ideas out before committing them to paper and so the writing became more and more difficult and more and more paralyzing, to the point of avoidance at all costs and panic attacks when up against a deadline. I wish I had mastered the discipline sooner rather than setting it up as some super-scary mythological terror. What finally worked for me was the discipline--deciding to write every day. I found a few places to work (alone in my apartment was the worst), a regular routine, soft clothes, a music playlist, and an internet blocker that allowed me only 5 minutes of internet/hour during my peak writing times. Lots of days I sat down to write, cried for 5 minutes, and then got to work.

    It's still my least favorite thing to do, but now I know it won't kill me and the sooner I do it, the sooner it's done.

    Marianne Eileen Wardle
    Marianne Eileen Wardle
     
  • Thanks excellent post :)

    Nivi Nair
    Nivi Nair
     
  • A very nice piece of advice...

    Piet Ntema
    Piet Ntema
     
  • I have assisted several hundred doctoral candidates in many disciplines plan and write dissertations. Neither the idea that a first draft is a final product nor the lack of a rigorous writing schedule constitutes the biggest obstacle to overcome in completing a dissertation. In fact, doctoral candidates begin the dissertation process lacking writing proficiency and adequate preparation to conduct research. A cursory examination of the course syllabi and handouts of professors reveals why students don't write well. They seldom, if ever, see a model of effective writing. Seldom do these papers conform in style to the format required in dissertations, often APA or MLA. If spending more each day practicing golf ensures my ball-striking skills, I should have joined the PGA tour a decade ago.

    Hugh Glenn
    Hugh Glenn
     
  • Amen!

    Keisha N. Blain, Ph.D.
    Keisha N. Blain, Ph.D.
     
  • Starting to write each day is the hardest part! Once I start, I can go for hours.

    Darlene Howard
    Darlene Howard
     
  • This was a great piece. It validated many of the processes I've developed and the feelings I've had as I've been writing my dissertation for the last 6 months. I concur that writing every day is the best thing you can do. It's a matter of developing the habit, of getting into a routine, a groove, and then just doing it every day. The more you write, the better you become at it, and the more natural it feels.

    I also find that when I'm away doing something else, I have ideas swirling around in my head, and I'm plotting to get back to the computer. Invariably I find my way back and begin to write. In a way, this two-step process is valuable-- you write for a while, step back, and while you're away, ideas occur to you that draw you back to the dissertation, and you get back to the dissertation to write them down. It's a necessary cycle, I think.

    I admit that I've burned the midnight oil way too often over the past 6 months, and my wife and kids wonder if I'll ever be around again. I'm grateful for their understanding. In a way, though, I've found that this extra time invested in writing was necessary. Without it, I don't think I would have developed a writing flow, and it would have made it much easier to rationalize not writing. And I did plenty of that, because I was daunted by the task. But I found that once I started writing, it got easier. It's just getting past that initial sticking point.

    In a way, this concept is familiar to me. Writing is not a new process, because I'm a musician, and composing is something I've been doing for 30 years. In that time, I've learned not to procrastinate but to follow inspiration and get write to my instrument to work out ideas and then to put them down on manuscript paper so I don't forget or lose them. (I've learned that lesson the hard way). And whether I'm writing for my own enjoyment or writing as part of my job, I simply start out with one note and follow it with another. I may not like what I've written, but at least I've got something on paper. Then later, I can go back and refine and reshape it into something I do like. And that's what I tell my students, too. You've got to start with that one note. And I've found that writing my dissertation has been the same. You've just got to start with one idea, and from there you edit and write more and edit and write more...

    I just finished my last chapter, and I'll be working on revisions next. I'm on track to defend this December 2014. As I've heard so many times, the best dissertation is a done dissertation, and I'll be looking forward to the day when I can speak to that from experience. ;-)

    Mark Tonelli
    Mark Tonelli
     
  • Everyone works differently. For example, I research and write at the same time. I spent a lot of time at archives prior to writing and transcribed most of my sources before writing, but I do still refer back to them. Likewise, I edit while I write. My system works great for me. Your system works great for you. There's more than one way to skin a cat, just as long as the final product is the same!

    Kelly Chaves
    Kelly Chaves
     
  • I agree, but for me the "no Internet" clause does not work. I am constantly double-checking quotes and citations by pulling up articles and books from the cloud. Also I tend to work better in noisier environments such as coffee shops. But prioritizing writing every day is a MUST.

    Steven Black
    Steven Black
     
  • Before I began, my dissertation director sat me down and said, verbatim, "Listen. It's not the smartest people who finish a dissertation--although some are very intelligent. It's the ones who won't f****n give up!"

    They were prophetic words to live by during that challenging time.

    Alonso Quijano
    Alonso Quijano
     
  • This is RIGHT on time! I really appreciate this article! In fact, just this weekend, I thought I had worked out the perfect writing strategy, but your tips make perfect sense and are much more feasible than trying to spend one day a week in a marathon writing session! Thanks!!

    Myeashea Alexander
    Myeashea Alexander
     
  • Really well put. The only way you get any piece of writing done is by starting - even in a rough form - to tell yourself what's at stake and start to organize your thoughts. Writing is thinking!

    And just a heads-up: A certain Slate writer, no fan of t/t faculty, seems to have spent the better part of her day slamming this piece on Twitter. Go figure.

    At some point you can't let your writing projects turn into psychological dramas. It's part of the job, so you have to plant yourself in a spot and get it done. Doesn't matter what time of day or what tools you use or where you are. You just have to start, build a rhythm as best you can, and keep doing it until you're done.

    I come from a journalism background too. People used to just put on headphones or earbuds and slap a sign on the back of their office chair, and get it done. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

    Brian Murphy
    Brian Murphy
     
  • I'm twenty days to my final deadline. I should have read this article earlier but I guess better late than never! Thank you so much for the article.

    Joshua Ng
    Joshua Ng
     
  • Thank you!  Your words are very profound.  I just have to write no matter what!!


    rowena stevens-ross
    rowena stevens-ross
     
  • this post is amazing. I though I am the one who is struggling and everyone else is lucky and may be they do not have to struggle in wiriting their research dissertation. This post has prived i was wrong. I love this piece of information. I had fear of faliure and for that I have this prob of Procrastination. I was in to habit of delaying my assignments and all...your post has really pushed me and I feel great and motivated. Most of all....I feel I am not alone ....there are millions of ppl out there struggling and working hard for their PhDs. I love the pharase "get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable" I definately know what does that mean. When i study and write I go thorough fear and Pain...Pain is not the "pain" but its some type of feeling uncomfortable!!! I LOVE THIS POST. Thank You so much for posting it!! YOU HAVE REALLY MADE MY LIFE...GOD BLESS YOU!! <3


    sadiya zaheer
    sadiya zaheer
      -1
  • Dear Theresa:


    thanks for the advice on writing a dissertation. I would like to know how you do your reading and when you you use your reading while writing. Is the writing separate from what you are reading? As a non-native writer of English, I find it difficult to separate the two and the spectre of plagiarism is haunting me when am writing using my reading. So, any advice on how you plan to write a section of your literature review, for any instance, would be highly appreciated. thanks to all.


    meriem sahli
    meriem sahli
     
  • I really enjoyed your article, thank you. Although, I found the last bit to be a little sexist. I have a penis and therefore would respond to the pronoun 'his' rather than 'her'. A gender-neutral audience is a gender-neutral audience, haha. I did gain a lot from your writing :) Cheers.


    Eric Nolan
    Eric Nolan
     
  • Need to complete by the end of Auguest, 2015.  Any suggestions can you give?  Thank you.


    chen fang
    chen fang
     
  • Such a great advice. I'm going to work. Thank you.


    Felipe Caldeira
    Felipe Caldeira