Posted on 04 February 2011

Earlier today, I attended an excellent workshop by Dr. Rachna Jain on writing the dissertation. About 150-200 students attended. Here is some of her advice.

Writing Strategies

  1. Writing is not revising. When you are writing, just write! Don’t stop, don’t backspace, don’t correct. Keep moving forward. Forward, forward, forward. Revise later. Perfectionism is your worst enemy, particularly at early stages.
  2. Write in layers. First, crude main ideas. Then, fill in the gaps. Finally, citations.
  3. Start with what you already know. “First drafts come from the heart.” In verbal conversation, you effortlessly tell the other person what you already know. When writing, pretend to tell someone the story. Then write the story. You may actually find it useful to record your own voice as you tell yourself the story so you can play it back as you write.
  4. Write at least one page of your dissertation per day. Often more, but at least one page. And it doesn’t have to be in order. Any one page is fine.
  5. Allow rough drafts. Launch quickly and iterate rapidly. The rough draft should be very rough. Don’t worry about errors. Just write, baby. But also turn around revisions quickly.
  6. Use an outline. It helps keep a coherent flow throughout your dissertation. Try constructing a mindmap — a “tree” of ideas with the core (root) idea in the center and branch ideas around the root, and so on.
  7. Powerpoint” your ideas. Then turn your slides into prose.
  8. Seek feedback regularly. Feedback helps turn revisions around quickly, too.
  9. At first, ignore your audience. Write for yourself, first. Then, once you have written a fair amount, consider your audience, and revise. Write outward, not inward.
  10. Writing out of order is fine, perhaps even preferable. I made the mistake of writing my early research papers in order from introduction to conclusion. However, research is always so unpredictable and amorphous that the important middle sections would always change. Subsequently, so would the introduction and conclusion. Now, I begin the middle sections first, then write the introduction, conclusion, and abstract last.

Goals and Planning

  1. Set many small goals. Break writing tasks into small sections. Incorporate transitions later.
  2. Use organic goal setting. Only set goals for each week. Believe it or not, do not set rigid goals for a long period, e.g., semester. Shifting the finish line is deadly. Shift it once, and you get comfortable with it.
  3. Set specific, measurable goals. “Finish dissertation” is too broad. “Finish chapter 1″ is still too broad. “Write five pages of subsection 2.1 from 1 pm to 1:45 pm” is better. Think in terms of pages per chapter or pages per section.
  4. Plan your progress. Keep track, e.g., with a calendar.
  5. Time yourself! You can use website timers. I am timing myself right now. I started this article at 8:53 pm and completely ended it at 9:39 pm. (Small typo corrections came after.)
  6. The optimal chunk of time for contiguous writing is 45 minutes.
  7. Aim for 5-7 hours of writing on a writing day. Do not exceed 7 hours. And not every day should be a dedicated writing day.
  8. Take fifteen-minute breaks. Get up and walk around. Observe your surroundings. “To be a good writer, one needs to be a good observer.”

Environment

  1. Work in a sparse, uncluttered space. Visual clutter tends to clutter the mind.
  2. Write as early in the day as possible. That is when you are freshest. If you must procrastinate, do not, under any circumstances, do it in the morning.
  3. Prepare the night before. Set your goals for the next day. That will make the following morning more productive.
  4. Change physical environments. I have heard this advice often. Sometimes, after working in the same place for so long, you grow too comfortable and complacent around it. Try the library or the cafe. Be around others who are also working. Of course, avoid areas that are too disruptive. Classical or soft instrumental music is fine. Music with words is naturally distracting to humans, whether we consciously realize it or not.
  5. Write with others. Being around others united in the same general goal is energizing. That type of work ethic becomes contagious.
  6. But don’t compare with others. Focus on yourself.

Internal Attitudes and Self-Improvement

  1. Write something every day, even if it is not on the dissertation. Every skill takes 10,000 hours to master. That includes writing. Writing is like exercising a muscle. You only get good at it through practice. That can include a personal journal, emails, a blog post like this one, etc.
  2. Feel good first. Then write. A burdened mind is an unproductive mind. Negative thoughts are blocking. Get everything else in your life in order to the greatest extent possible. Think positive. Then write.
  3. If you cannot get started, write about what troubles you. Notice what you keep thinking about.
  4. If you still cannot get started, ask yourself, “Why did I care?” What made you start this project in the first place? Writer’s block comes from a lack of emotional engagement with one’s work. As time passes, it is natural to become more emotionally detached from the work. Step back, and remind yourself why you care and what makes your project so awesome.
  5. Reward yourself. Reward positive behavior. Reward your accomplishments, but only when you actually reach a milestone. Otherwise, don’t. (I asked, “But when I have momentum, I hate to disrupt my momentum with something frivolous like a reward. Is that okay to skip rewards?” Her answer: “No.” Because if you rely on momentum, then something must be wrong with the system. Therefore, improve the system. Ask yourself why you are so reliant on momentum in the first place. Otherwise, writer’s block will inevitably occur again.)

… and a final reminder

  1. Activity is not necessarily productivity. Output is what counts.