In order to move myself forward on this process I have been reading Demystifying Dissertation Writing:A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text by Peg Boyle Single.  This is a different type of book from many of the other dissertation-writing guides out there, in that it’s goal is to present an organized process and tools for getting the dissertation done.  I’ve looked at a lot of these types of books but this one struck me as the most practical.

Let’s start with the bottom line:  Buy This Book.  It provides practical, useful tools and techniques that you can immediately apply to your academic writing, as well as a ton of things to consider as you move through your degree.  It doesn’t matter how early you are in your graduate career; in fact I wish someone had given me this right away.  The note taking method alone would have helped as I went through my coursework, and the thoughts on how to choose a topic and advisor are helpful very early in the process.

The book begins with a discussion of some of the statistics around dissertation completion; to say the least, they are kind of scary.  In the social sciences, only 20% graduate within 5 years and only 56% graduate within 10.  She emphasizes how a writing group can improve both your likelihood of finishing and your time to completion, and makes it clear that she understands the challenges that all too many graduate students face today (like families, full time jobs, etc.)

The second chapter focuses on questions of topic and advisor, and most critically interaction between these two parts of the decision.  Single talks about all the possible considerations in choosing an advisor, putting together a committee and then managing the process.  Her advice here is down to earth, practical, and realistic; a welcome change to many of the more philosophical approaches.  Frankly, I wish I had read it much earlier in my academic career.

The core chapters of the book focus on what she calls the “Single System for Academic Writing”.  It includes 8 steps:

  1. Interactive Reading
  2. Interactive Note-Taking
  3. Citeable Notes
  4. Focus statement
  5. One-Page Outline
  6. Long Outline with References
  7. Regular Writing Routine
  8. Dissertation

The first 6 steps fall into the category of pre-writing.  This is critical in the system because it is hard to know what to say until you’ve completed these steps.   Nonetheless it helped me a lot to hear that so explicitly.  I had been feeling rushed to finish reading and start writing, when in fact it is critical to do the first stages correctly.

She talks extensively about how the point of the reading and the literature review is to enter into the academic conversation, and how part of the goal of the reading is to learn the tone and style of that conversation.  The book provides extensive hints as to what questions to be asking as well as examples of what does or

One of the interesting features of this system is that you begin with the great stack of reading to do, work down to a focus statement of 3-4 sentences, then back up again to the completed dissertation.  Each step prepares both you and your materials for the next stage, although there is some extent to which you can move back and forth between the different steps.

Steps 1 and 2 are covered in chapter 3.  I’ve read it 3 times now and continue to find new nuggets of wisdom.  Single argues that you should read each article once, get the key notes out of it you need and, if done well, never have to go back to it again.  Further those notes should be organized and focused on the major elements of the article like theoretical framework, methods, hypothesis and results.  She also touches on when and how to use quotes.

Chapter 4 moves on to talk about how to distill those notes into usable citeable nuggets that can be used for your dissertation, as well as suggesting that you do this as you go rather than at the end.  Her system for both chapters 3 and 4 are practical, easily implemented and well thought out.  Not surprising since this book grew from her experience teaching a dissertation-writing seminar, which means that many of the kinks have already been worked out.

Chapter 5 talks about creating a focus statement to clarify where you are going.  While I understand why she places this step after the the others, I would advise any person beginning work on their dissertation to at least read through to this point and start to pull together a focus statement early.  You’ll revise it several times, but the process of writing and revising as you read will help you clarify your own thinking about your topic and express it to others.

There is so much great stuff in just these first 5 chapters that I haven’t made it past them.  As I said, I’ve gone back and re-read sections in order to get the steps down.  I can’t even begin to summarize all the nuggets I’ve pulled out so far and the changes it has made to how I approach my reading and note-taking.

The bottom line here is that you should buy this book.  Demystifying Dissertation Writing is about the most practical book on the topic I’ve found, and provides the tools you will need to move your research forward.  Even if the remaining chapters were blank (they aren’t) or advised only writing under the full moon by candlelight, the book would still be worth the money, time and effort to read.  Since a quick scan shows that the remaining chapters are every bit as useful, I can unreservedly recommend this book to anyone involved in a thesis or dissertation.  You will get the skills necessary to be a prolific and ORGANIZED academic writer.