While I still have a long way to go, I want to share some of the things I’ve learned about writing productively from the process of doing my dissertation proposal (which for us is chapters one through three of the dissertation).

  1. Set deadlines for yourself – even artificial ones will keep you moving forward.  These deadlines should be realistic but not lazy.  For example, I gave myself a set deadline for sending copies to my chair and then worked to hit that and send him SOMETHING.  It’s way too easy to see time as infinite and never actually finish what you’ve started if you don’t give yourself interim milestones.
  2. Outline – organize your thoughts as outlines or bullet points.  Then write within those sections when you are ready.  This helps you to never face a blank page and always have an idea of where you are going.  You can move things around later if you need to, but that starting point is invaluable.
  3. Keep it focused – One of the hardest things for me to get my hands around was staying tightly focused.  It’s really easy to wander off into side topics and marginally relevant information.  Remember that your goal is to finish what you are doing, and that means staying focused on that end result.  Particularly in the literature review, keep asking yourself “how does this relate to my research questions”.  If the answer is that it doesn’t directly relate, it’s time to redirect yourself.
  4. Keep it succinct – While most are, dissertations/thesis don’t HAVE to be painfully long.  Don’t mistake length for clarity.  Clarity comes from short, focused phrases, using the active voice and avoiding excess descriptive or weasel-words.  I recommend Economical Writing.  While targeted for economists, it can help any academic writer avoid the traps that lead to lengthy, confusing documents.  More important, it’s short thereby modeling the behavior.
  5. Find out what the required format is and use it from day one – Every university has a format they want dissertations to be submitted in.  Look that up BEFORE you start writing, create yourself a template in your chosen word processing software, and then use the template.  The result will be a LOT less work later.
  6. Make use of appendices – The goal of the main text is readability.  Huge tables of numbers hurt that goal.  Use an appendix.  My dissertation already has two; the first will contain the list of fields I am using from the data set, including their definitions and possible values.  It may also include comprehensive descriptive statistics for those fields.   The second will include the detailed statistical tables of my results.  In line with the text will be just the key statistical elements needed to make my argument.   This will make the final document both easier to read AND easier to convert to a series of journal articles when I’m done.
  7. Create a writing schedule that works with YOUR life – One of the most common pieces of advice you hear is “write every day”.  That is the entire point behind the Academic Writing Club is to do just that, and its great advice.  But it may or may NOT work for you.  If not, find a schedule that DOES work and stick to it, whatever that schedule is.  If you can only write for 8 hours a day saturday and sunday and not think about it during the week, then do that.  Just make sure you are consistent and include any limitations in your deadlines (point 1).
  8. Read a few other dissertations from your university – Focus on recent ones on related topics and ones that your advisor has been chair on.  This will help you get a strong feel for the style and quality you are shooting for.  This is important, because most of what we read (peer-reviewed journal articles) seem far beyond what we are capable of right now.  But no ones dissertation is at that level.  Those are the best work of experienced academics; the dissertation has been rightly called “the worst piece of research you will ever do”.  No one expects it to be at the level of papers in the top journals.  You will find writing much easier if you have a better idea of what the real target is than if you keep comparing yourself to the pros.  Your dissertation’s job is to show basic competence and promise to eventually reach the pro level, not that you are there now.
  9. Write from the very beginning – One mistake I made was thinking I needed to read first, then write.  There is some reading that needs to be done first to ensure that you have the background, but at some point you need to start organizing and writing as well.  Start with writing your outline; model your document on the studies you are reading and use their organization as a way to begin yours.  You will almost certainly end up moving things around, but you would be amazed at how helpful getting something started is for moving the project forward and helping you  understand where the gaps in your knowledge are.
  10. When in doubt, just start writing anything – Write about how you don’t know what to write, then write about all the thoughts swirling around in your head.  Write about your fears and worries.  Get them out.  You may find that the process helps you organize your thoughts, figure out the gaps and help you move forward.

One more thing related to but not specifically about writing:  Work WITH your advisor – It is reasonable to ask your advisor to review your work and give you feedback/direction.  It is not reasonable to either pester them every day or to behave as though you are begging for their time/attention.  Mentoring you is part of their job; holding your hand/doing the work for you or ignoring you is not.  Find a balance.  For example, when I send off a chapter/chapters to my advisor I ask for an estimate from him of when he can respond.  I don’t expect it on my time frame, but I do want to know his so I can plan my work accordingly.  The first time he got back to me on my preferred time frame and I went back to work. The second time he was unable to do that.  KNOWING when I would hear from him let me decide how to allocate my time better and make forward progress.  Communicate what you would like (for him to review by X date) and what you need (to know when the review will be done regardless of whether it is X date or later) and be respectful of his time.  By acting like a professional, you will encourage him to treat you that way as well.