Dissertation Advice: Write Something

It’s easier than you think to get started writing, though it isn’t always easy to see how you will finish. In the summer of 2007 I began setting up my dissertation based on Princeton University’s formatting guidelines, and I had a pretty clear idea of how the title page, abstract, acknowledgments, bibliography, and so forth would look.

Visualize the Finished Project

The screenshot shown below is from a sixteen-page document titled “prospectus 5.doc” that I created on June 5, 2007. As you can see by the date on this cover page, I had already abandoned the timeline I had made just a month before! Of course, the actual dissertation I wrote turned out to be a lot different, and it took much longer than I thought it would (August 2013), but thinking concretely about the timeline enabled me to see where I stood with the project, where I needed to go, and how I could get there.

Seminar Papers

Seminar papers can be a great opportunity to move forward on your dissertation. I treated a state-of-the-field essay I wrote for one of my first courses (History 500) as the initial draft of the “Introduction” for my dissertation, and papers for other courses as “Chapter 1” or “Chapter 2.” In the end, the research that did make it into the dissertation had to be significantly reworked, but having the dissertation in mind while writing them helped me to stay focused.

For the work that did not make it into the dissertation, I thought of the seminar papers as initial forays into the topics, and I figure it was better to learn about the dead ends sooner rather than later. I also found it helpful to review them over the years to see where I had started, how far I had come in my thinking, and possible avenues for future research I might want to pursue.

Daily Writing Strategies

I have tried all kinds of writing strategies, but I have to admit that I never encountered a magic formula. The Pomodoro Technique probably worked the best for me. In my case, I think it was effective mainly because it helped me to establish a routine.

Making my writing goals public helped me as well. I let my friends know what I was planning to do each week, and they kept me on track. The Grafton Line would have been great fun if I had known about it in time for my dissertation. I think joining the PhinisheD discussion boards and sharing your goals could be helpful too.

The most important thing is to experiment with a lot of techniques in order to find what works best to keep you writing something every day. Here are a few helpful resources.