Feb 20, 2017

Writing a Strong Dissertation & Saying Goodbye to the Dissertation Blues

Wordvice HJ

When you first started writing your thesis or dissertation, you were probably excited. “I’m going to do this!” you told yourself. As time passed, however, you started losing steam. You might have even gotten frustrated and wanted to toss all your hard work into the trash.

Guess what. You’re not alone in this process! Thousands of students experience the dissertation blues midway through drafting, and we know how rough it is to spend hours working on the same paper, day in and day out. Trust us; we’ve been there, too! We can clearly recall those moments of self-pity and the OMG-my-writing-sucks phases. Writer’s block is probably the worst kind of torture on someone pursuing a PhD!

So, what can you do when you’re feeling down or stuck in the writing process? We’ve prepared a little “care package” just for you! The following list is divided into two sections: (1) tips on writing techniques, and (2) advice on preparing yourself mentally (mental hacks). You can also download the graphics version of this list by clicking the attachment link above.

Becoming a Stronger Writer: a Dissertation Care Package For You!

 Writing Techniques

  1. Writing Order. No matter what type of writing we do, most people will agree that the opening lines are the hardest. So, here’s a simple solution: write your introduction last! Start with the easier sections like Methods and Results (where applicable), then tackle the Discussion and Introduction together. Here’s why:
    • Your introduction and conclusion should take your readers on a full-circle journey. The opening paragraphs set the rules by which your readers should understand your work. It primes your readers’ minds to arrive at the conclusion you deliver at the end while the conclusion recaps the significance of your research and answers the “so what?” question.
    • Writing the beginning and ending of your paper together will help make sure they are consistent, and it will also help you discover any illogical kinks in the progression of your dissertation argument. If you create too rigid an introduction before you had the chance to develop the more analytical portions of your paper, you might find yourself limiting the interpretation of your analysis and discovering that the body of your paper does not support the claims you make in your introduction.
    • Don’t worry if your response is, “But I need a starting point. If I don’t have one, my paper will ramble!” You don’t need a fully-developed introduction to begin your dissertation. A brief sketch that clearly states the question or problem you will investigate is enough to guide you. Use the skeletal outline as a placeholder until you return to it as the last step of the drafting process.
    • Start with the Methods section, because you should have already written the heart of it when you proposed your project to your department! Elaborating on a part you’ve already started will give you more traction. You’ll be able to check this item off your to-do list quickly, giving you the energy to tackle the remaining hard parts.
    • Once your Methods section is done, the Results section should also be easy since you are describing your findings.
  2. Writing Style. Organizing your dissertation or thesis is extremely important. You want every word to add value to your paper, and your readers should be able to quickly grasp the significance of your research by skimming your document. Here are a few points to keep in mind:
    • Don’t pad your writing. Remember the adage “quality over quantity.” You don’t want your readers wading through fillers and irrelevant information. Your paper is being assessed for its intellectual merit, so be concise. For tips on editing for wordiness, see the following articles:
    • Each paragraph should be complete and summarizable in one sentence, the topic sentence, which should be near the beginning of each paragraph. Theoretically, a reader should be able to read the first lines of each paragraph and easily understand the flow of your argument.
    • Use clear headings and subheadings to guide your readers. This will also help you while you write.
    • The content you include, particularly if you are writing a science-related dissertation, mirrors what you would find in a journal article. Here are a few links to some tips and hacks we’ve written regarding the various parts of a research paper and ways to avoid critical mistakes:
    • If you have questions about which verb tense to use while drafting, check out these resources, including this infographic!”If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Albert Einstein
  3. Lock Up Your Inner Editor. Who’s your “inner editor”? It’s that irritating voice in the back of your mind telling you to fix every typo and mistake along the way. Tell your perfectionist self to zip it (at least while you’re writing your first draft)! If you constantly stop to re-examine every word you write, you might find yourself getting nowhere. The point is, as Jodi Picoult said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
  1. Do the Unusual When Editing. Let’s face it, reading the same words over and over for months on end causes us to easily overlook our mistakes. We can no longer remember what version of the manuscript we’re looking at or recall if we’ve made the changes we intended. The best way to catch our mistakes during the editing process is to:
    • Read your manuscript in reverse order. “What?” you ask. That’s right, we said, “Read each line from the very last to the first in reverse order.” By doing so, your brain does not automatically expect the next line or recognize the document anymore, particularly since the flow of your sentences would seem illogical when reading your draft backward.
  2. Pace Yourself. This point sounds obvious, but many of us forget this. Dissertation writing is not akin to running a sprint. Procrastinating on a document that could be upwards of 300 pages would be foolish, to say the least! A specific method that we recommend is the Pomodoro Technique. For some of us who do writing sprints for events like National Novel Writing Month, this time-management method does wonders! Here’s how it works:
    • Set a timer for 20-25 minutes. Each block of time is called a pomodoro.
    • Start the timer and write without stopping. Ignore the typos and any background distractions. This 20-minute block of time is all about getting words on paper. If you are interrupted by an urgent matter (and it better be urgent), address the issue and quickly return to the task at hand.
    • When the pomodoro is over take a five-minute break. Stretch, hydrate, save your file, etc.
    • Rinse and repeat.
    • After four pomodoros, you can take a longer break (15-30 minutes). Go for a walk, watch a few funny videos on YouTube, nap, snack on something you know you shouldn’t, or chat with a friend.
    • We recommend doing about two cycles of four pomodoros a day. That’s two hours of 100% focused writing a day

“You can’t think yourself out of a writing block; you have to write yourself out of a thinking block.” — John Rogers

Mental Hacks

  1. Find Your Writing Spot. Designating a space as your “writing spot” will make your brain associate that space with writing and help you when you’re not feeling motivated. We recommend choosing a place that requires you to leave your home or at least the comforts of your bed so that you don’t fall asleep!

“It’s no secret that the best place to write, in my opinion, is in a café. You don’t have to make your own coffee, you don’t have to feel like you’re in solitary confinement and if you have writers block, you can get up and walk to the next café while giving your batteries time to recharge and brain time to think.” — J. K. Rowling

  1. Find a Writing Buddy. There’s no great motivator than being held accountable to someone else. Find a fellow dissertation writer or someone who has some other kind of long-term project. Schedule regular meetings (at least once a week) to hammer out some words together. Reward yourselves with a bit of socializing afterward.
  2. Find Your Optimal Focus Time. Some of us are night owls. Our best thinking happens when the rest of the world is getting ready for bed. Others of us are early risers; “sleeping in” isn’t in our vocabulary. It is important to know in which camp you fall because statistically, we are more efficient when we do challenging work during our brain’s peak performance times. Apparently, most people focus better before noon, but if you’re a true night owl, you might want to wait until after 4 PM to start writing. We have some bad news for you early birds, though. Your efficiency decreases as the day progresses, so you’d better get your writing done as early in the morning as possible (within the first three hours of your day)!
  3. Think Happy Thoughts. This might seem easier said than done, but researchers claim that maintaining a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions improves your ability to focus. Surf YouTube videos or follow social media accounts that share comical memes to help you crack a smile when you’re feeling down. Reward yourself when you accomplish your daily or weekly goal. Remember, the more positive you are, the more energized you will feel.

No matter what approach you take to writing your dissertation or thesis, we’re sure that the above tips will help alleviate your dissertation blues. We are confident that you will get through this process, so remember to take it one word at a time. And before you submit your dissertation or thesis to journals, be sure to receive proofreading and editing to ensure that your work is polished and at its absolute best. Happy writing!