Most doctoral students know what it takes to write. They would not have reached the doctorate level if they didn’t. However, too many students get stuck at certain points. This is absolutely normal and, in fact, this is the case with just about all professional writers.
Whether you’re stuck in certain places or just want solid advice to get ahead, this article gives 12 valuable tips gathered over the course of two decades in the dissertation consulting and PhD field. I hope you enjoy the tips and please feel free to comment at the end of the article.
The Twelve Tips
1. Just write – All doctoral students understand that the dissertation writing process is intimidating and can become incapacitating especially since a dissertation is so huge and important. Indeed the entire fate of graduation depends on successfully completing and defending a dissertation. Knowing this, many doctoral students become hesitant at starting the writing process too quickly, thinking it would be better to wait until they’ve conducted extremely thorough research of the topic. Don’t make this mistake. You must understand that the longer you wait, the more difficult it will become to write.
The solution is to just start writing. You may not be entirely sure of your argument. You may not be convinced that you’ve conducted enough research. And you may be right. But you will not be able to know the degree of these problems if you don’t start writing. Moreover, writing begets more writing and you will simply be amazed at how your arguments take shape and how your research will be formed if you simply start to write!
2. And keep writing – Once you start writing, don’t stop. Of course you must continue to take notes, read, and conduct research. However, you must not stop writing. This way, you will keep your mind moving and your thoughts fluid. Your dissertation will not be a simple listing of notes. You will have to write, so keep writing!
The key at this point is neither to think about the structure of what you write, nor about spelling or grammatical errors. You simply want to provide a channel for whatever is in your head to get out on paper. I like to call this a sort of ‘freewriting’ since you should focus on nothing except getting on paper whatever is in your head about your topic.
3. Don’t write for perfection – To expand on the last point, the best way to start writing your dissertation is when you are not obsessed with perfection. I’ve seen way too many doctoral students get discouraged from writing since they have this innate idea that their initial draft will be their final draft! This is the number one problem and obstacle to writing. Stop worrying about the persuasiveness of your ideas. Stop worrying about grammar and sentence structure. Stop worrying about vocab choice and the coherence of your argument. You will have a lot of time to rewrite your draft to take care of that perfection later. Again, at this point, the important thing is to get your thoughts on paper.
4. If you’re stuck, just skip to another section – I must mention at this point that having a clear understanding of your thesis and methodology will allow you more room for flexibility when you’re stuck on certain areas. This doesn’t mean to avoid the work when the going gets difficult, but there are ways you can make more optimal use of your time by moving to other sections that are easier for you whenever you find yourself stuck on a certain section. The point is not to stop and to keep continuing to write.
5. Fight those urges to stop writing when it gets tough – Here, I am not talking about the times where it is clear you need to do something else like conduct structural changes or do more research on a topic. Instead, I’m talking about those moments where you arrive at a tough spot where writing will require some persistence and tough mental work. At these trying moments, just sit at your chair until you make some kind of progress. You will be shocked at how fast momentum can build from your stubborn persistence.
6. Make blocks of time to write – Although it is important to continue to write and to make the most of the time and resources at your disposal, it is wise for large writing projects like your dissertation to put aside blocks of writing time. To illustrate further, writing needs momentum to be built, and to do this requires time to block those inner thoughts and eliminate innate hesitancies. To unlock this momentum, you need to write for some time during one sitting. Out of personal experience, I have discovered that I need at least 30-45 minutes of continual writing in order to start building that momentum.
7. Take notes very carefully – There are two important reasons to carefully take your notes. First of all, they will prove immensely useful later on when you need to refer back to things you read (without the trouble of having to go back to the original source). This will save you lots of time when you start thinking to yourself, “Where did I read about that?” Secondly, and even more importantly, taking good notes will help you avoid plagiarism. If you don’t take good notes (and don’t copy direct quotes & make citations carefully), you will most likely produce plagiarized material. It does not matter that it was inadvertent and, at this academic level, telling your dissertation committee or adviser that it was a mistake will not help. It is your responsibility to take down careful notes and give credit to whom it is due.
8. Know when it’s time to stop writing and start reading – Start writing soon, keep writing, and put blocks of time aside for writing. However, sometimes you may simply not have enough thoughts about a subject. This is when it’s time to stop writing and start reading and research. Keep in mind that reading and research in this case should be focused on providing a stimulus for your writing. Therefore, be able and willing to stop writing at times for the purpose of refreshing your mind with new ideas and insights.
9. Exercise, sleep well, and eat well – I simply cannot overemphasize how important good exercise, sleep, and dieting is. Exercise is proven to give you boosted energy and reduce stress, clearing your mind for the dissertation tasks at hand. If going to the gym every day is not possible, go a couple days a week. You can also take walks or go swimming to boost the endorphins and reduce the amounts of cortisol (the chemical source of stress) in your body. Click here for more comprehensive information on how to reduce PhD stress. Good sleep is also a necessity and recent studies suggest that 6-7 hours of sleep a night is ideal. An important factor is trying to sleep and wake up during the same times everyday. This will keep your circadian rhythm healthy and boost your creativity and energy during the day. Lastly, a good diet is a must. The old saying that ‘you are what you eat’ is a principle you should stick to. While writing, try snacking on fruits or vegetables. This will keep your energy levels up and help you avoid binge eating which is typical for stressed doctoral students.
10. Focus on one task at a time – A vital factor in completing your dissertation is not so much intelligence as it is self-discipline. This means that if you set aside certain time to do research, reading, or writing, make sure you stick to the task at hand. This means you should not multi-task during periods you set for particular things. I understand there are exceptions but especially in today’s world of mobile phones, social media, and so many other close distractions, it is imperative you focus on a certain task you set time aside for. This is a principle you should follow in general and not only for your dissertation.
11. Do not start writing introductions before your body – I see too many doctoral students begin a section or chapter by writing their introduction when they still don’t even know what the complete substance of their chapter will be! Even if they end up churning out an interesting introduction, they will certainly go back and modify it after they write the rest of the chapter since writing means change and flexibility. Many points they planned to include may be modified and new interesting things may emerge they didn’t expect. So, don’t waste your valuable time. Write the body of your section or chapter then write your introduction since, at this point, you actually know what information you are introducing.
12. Spur creativity by going on walks – It is scientifically proven that taking walks will promote your creativity. Also, if you look at history’s best and brightest minds, you will find almost all of them loved taking walks and would find many of their greatest inspirations come while walking (e.g. Beethoven, Goethe, Steve Jobs, Dickens, Darwin, and more). Although it certainly helps to walk somewhere you enjoy, it doesn’t matter as long as you are thinking specifically about your dissertation topics. You may find the change of scenery, the bustling city streets, the picturesque view, or the isolating quiet of a park just what you need. Oh, by the way, don’t take out your phone and start surfing the net while walking.
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