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Basic "How To" Advice on Writing a Dissertation


This advice is gathered from my own experience with a dissertation and from two of my favorite books on writing (Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird).

I also did an informal e-mail survey of several of my friends (from private and public universities) who recently finished their dissertations in the humanities (and got jobs!!), and I asked them what they thought were the most important things to know about writing (and, even better, finishing!!) a dissertation.

What follows is our advice to you. As you'll see, there isn't anything here that is especially "original" or that you probably haven't heard before, but what is here is what we think are the most useful things to know as you write your dissertation.

Cultivate a writing practice or a set of practices that will help you become the writer-researcher that you hope to be. These practices can and will vary, depending on your semester (and life) schedule, but the important thing is to find a writing practice that works for you and then stick to it.

This disciplined, habitual, focused practice is what will help you most as you move toward finishing the dissertation. Or as one of my friends (who did her Ph.D. at a university in a cold, northern climate and then got a tenure-track job close to the beach, and therefore evidently did something right) states:

My advice to the ABD student is to focus. This is coming from someone who had a one-year-old at home, a spouse awaiting green-card approval, no money while applying for government heating assistance, a broken-down car, job offers to learn to negotiate, battles with committee members -- you name it. Focus on your work above all, no matter how selfish you feel or how disenchanted you have become with the project or life, no matter what great movies are being released, or how much you miss real human contact -- focus, finish, get it done, and then throw yourself a killer party that is so very well deserved.

Write every day (even if only for ten minutes and even if the "writing" is only touching a part of the dissertation, writing in a dissertation journal, or tweaking footnotes and/or bibliography).

This is classic advice, and it is beautifully argued in Joan Bolker's essential guide, Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, a book that I returned to over and over as I did my dissertation (and, to be honest, it's book that I return to even now, as I approach new writing projects and as I revise my dissertation into a book manuscript).

Writing every day will keep you intellectually and emotionally close to your project and, of course, it is through the act of writing itself that you will eventually be able to reach the finish line. Through daily writing, you will develop strength and stamina, and, what's even better, you will free the voice within you to say whatever it is you have to say.

Write first. On those days that you can arrange your schedule to do your writing first thing in the morning, you should do so (and on the other days, squeeze the writing in wherever you can).

By "first thing," I mean before checking e-mail, talking on the phone, reading your favorite on-line blog, watching TV, exercising, or prepping for teaching. Before all those other pressing things that you absolutely need and want to do, put your writing first because the writing is what you truly need to do.

"First thing" for me meant getting up, having breakfast, doing a brief meditation, and then sitting down at the computer to write in my pajamas--without making the bed, washing the dishes, returning phone calls, or doing e-mail. (It's better to fall a little behind on e-mail and finish the dissertation than it is to stay on top of e-mail but never finish.)

Incidentally, I should also say that I doubted this advice to "write first" (since I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a morning person), but I decided to try it. I completely surprised myself by finding that not only could I write in the mornings, but I also did my very best writing and thinking at that time of day.

Sort of hidden but not-so-hidden in this piece of advice is the idea that writing should be central to your existence. Put writing first whenever and wherever you can. This act alone will help you finish since by putting writing "first," you commit yourself to doing it and then somehow you do it.

Lower your expectations. "The dissertation won't be and doesn't have to be perfect," as one of my good friends (recently voted "Professor of the Year" by his undergraduate students) puts it. So free yourself from perfectionism, and just write.

Try writing what Anne Lamott calls "shitty rough drafts" (messy, ungrammatical and often slightly incoherent first thoughts on your topic), and go from there. Get something on the computer screen, revise it, move on to the next chapter, and then finish. Better to have written an imperfect dissertation than to be forever writing and never finishing an imagined "perfect" dissertation (which, I can tell you for a fact, does not exist). As another friend (on a year-long fellowship at a research library in California) states, "The best dissertation is a done dissertation."

Find the right places to write. For me, those places included my desk at home (where I sit as I write this mini-essay to you), a desk on the second-floor of the university library, and a table in the reading room of my main research archive. These were quiet places where I knew I had to sit down and face my project, and usually, when I did sit down, the writing came.

Cognitive research shows that one of the best ways to train someone to do something is to get the person to associate doing a particular behavior with repeatedly being in a certain place. What you want to do is find a place (or places) where you can cultivate a writing habit, even (best case scenario) a writing addiction.

Go to conferences. Whether you go to present a paper or to listen to other papers, just being at the conference will further ground you in your own research (as you think about your work in relationship to and in dialog with others' work), and it will help you further construct (and be comfortable in) your emerging identity as a scholar who has something to say.

It will also give you a chance to talk with other people in your field (whether senior scholars or graduate students) and to ask them for their advice about (or response to) ideas in your dissertation. As an added bonus, you can also ask them about their own experiences with writing and research.

The year before I finished my dissertation, I asked everyone I knew, including very senior scholars, how they went about the process of writing. In this way, I discovered that while everyone struggles with writing at various points in a project, the successful writers figure out strategies to get past the hurdles and just get the article/chapter/book done. As you write your dissertation, you will be figuring out your own strategies, or as my advisor told me, "You are discovering how you go about writing a book."

Meet regularly with your advisors, even when you haven't done the work or even when you feel embarrassed to contact them because you haven't seen or e-mailed them in a ridiculously long time. One of my friends fell out of touch with her advisor for almost two years and her dissertation stalled. However, once she did get in touch with him, she was able to write again and then finally able to finish.

There is something about the act of just seeing the other person (or persons) officially involved in your project that will help make the dissertation feel more "real" as opposed to some amorphous, imaginary thing that may never be written (which is how I felt about my dissertation about ninety-percent of the time). After meeting with your advisor, you will be more energized, focused, and ready to do further work on the dissertation (unless, of course, the advisor turns out not to be a true, supportive advisor and instead is quite the opposite--on this point, see below).

Limit your contact with negative people. Such people can be emotionally draining, and they can stifle your ability to able to think, create, and write (since after spending time with them, you are too worn out to do anything except sit on the couch and watch episodes of the Take Home Chef on TLC).

This advice also goes for negative advisors. If you have a difficult advisor, you should consider finding someone (anyone!) else to work with.

It does not matter how well-known your advisor is in the field--don't pick fame over collegiality. It's always better to work with someone who is invested in mentoring you and seeing your project through as opposed to someone who is weirdly hostile or passive-aggressive or apathetic, which, unfortunately, describes a number of senior and successful people in academia.

Instead, find the person in your department who is known for helping students finish and get good jobs. This is the person you most want to work with and this is the person you should ask (beg even!) to take you and your project on. If he or she is unavailable, ask if he or she could suggest any other collegial people in the department with whom you might work.

Writing a dissertation is one of the hardest things you'll ever do, and you will be much more likely to finish if you work with someone committed to seeing that you and the dissertation make it safely to the finish line.

Find a support group of people to help you get through the dissertation, whether these are other graduate students, friends, writers, a partner, a dissertation coach, a therapist, or a spiritual guru. Find those individuals who will support you in the long, but very rewarding process of writing a dissertation.

Try to do less worrying and more writing. Just sit down at the computer and see what will happen. If you sit down every day at a certain time, when you know you have to write something. . . usually, something will appear.

As Marie Ferrarella (a bestselling romance novelist) observes about writing, "In order for the magic to happen, you have to be there. That means planting yourself religiously in front of your computer and working. If you write it, it will come."

Keep the faith. If there is one thing that I could have done differently as I wrote my dissertation, it would have been this: to have been much more confident in myself and my ideas and to have been much less worried about being "right" or "legitimate" in what I was saying.

I've heard that women tend to be more self-conscious in this regard than men, but I think, in general, that it's hard for all graduate students (regardless of gender) to feel secure in their research and writing since, by definition, you exist in no-man's land at the university--no longer an undergraduate but not yet a professor.

Writing a dissertation always takes longer than you want it to and longer than you expect, but eventually, if you keep the faith and write first, you will finish.

Remember to care for the Self. Do some physical exercise every day. There is something about moving the body (even if it is only for a quick walk around the block) that can help you intellectually move through your writing and your project.

Try to eat a well-balanced diet since nourishing the body will also help you feed the mind. (I found that somehow I always worked better after I had stocked the fridge--so even when I felt super-pressed for time, I found a way to squeeze in a trip to the store or the corner market to grab a few essentials, like espresso and chocolate.) And say "no" (or, at the very least, "I'll have to check my schedule and get back to you," and after that, then say "no") to anything and anyone that might get in the way of doing your writing.

Last, but not least--Remember to try to own your writing and to keep it joyful. If it's not fun, why do it?

Writing a dissertation can involve a lot of agonizing, suffering, anxiety, and worry. However, if you can keep returning to those things/thoughts/ideas/questions in your project that make you happy, curious, intrigued, energized, you will somehow find the most elegant sections to work on and develop. And as you develop and craft responses to these sections, you will be doing the right kind of work, work that will lead you to wherever it is you are supposed to be.

As one of my friends (now teaching at a private Midwestern university and revising his dissertation into a book manuscript) advises:

DON'T tell yourself just to "get it done" and plow through it bitterly, DON'T stick to some sort of rigid 9-5-like schedule. DO try to stay continually in touch with whatever made you engaged with the topic in the first place, with whatever you loved about it. For me this meant talking to people about my ideas, both folks within the profession who could give me specific suggestions, and (more importantly) people outside my field, and even outside academia, who could become excited about the topic if I explained it to them in just the right way. That's what kept me coming back for more, and what makes me keep writing now.

So, go now, and sit down at your computer. Write, write, write, and find the joy.

Catherine Field graduated with her Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland in May 2006. She is currently revising her dissertation,"'Many Hands Hands': Early Modern Englishwomen's Recipe Books and the Writing of Food, Politics, and the Self" into a book manuscript, and she has just accepted a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.


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