Last updated on November 22nd, 2022 at 02:17 am
"Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on."
- Louis L’Amour
This past summer I became an “all but dissertation” (ABD). That's a fancy name for a doctoral student who has come to a point in their Ph.D. journey where the only thing that stands between them and being hooded as Dr. So-and-so is a dissertation defense.
Honestly, I should be proud to have made it this far in my academic journey after 9 years of hard work, but I am still learning to celebrate as I go.
Celebrating also seems a little far-fetched once reality sets in and I realize that I still have a WHOLE dissertation to finish. I imagine that the process hasn’t been as stressful as it could’ve been, because I have an amazing and supportive advisor and am really passionate about my research, but I still feel overwhelmed sometimes.
In this blog post, I want to share a few strategies with you that have helped me overcome overwhelming moments during the Ph.D. thesis/dissertation writing process. Although this post is about thesis and dissertation writing, I also used these strategies when writing my first best-selling book, Crystal Clear: A Journey of Self-Discovery (From Public Housing to Ivy League).
Keep reading to find out more helpful tips!
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Writing Tips that are sure to help you succeed!
1. Ask other people for help who are a few steps ahead of you
No matter the goal I set for myself in life, I always make a point to seek advice from someone who has walked the path before me. By using this technique, I found that more people are willing to talk about their experiences than you may think.
Do not be afraid to ask for help
People are willing to help you, but you must be willing to make those connections and ask for help.
We often feel that we have to do everything alone, but I can assure you that that is not the case. In academia especially, it may feel as if asking for help makes you look incompetent but trying to do everything alone is actually a sign of incompetence.
When you can collaborate and network with individuals (a skill you will need whether you are a student or employee), it shows high levels of emotional intelligence and indicates that you are smart enough to save time by learning from others.
2. Organize your thoughts with visuals
I am not sure when I began incorporating visuals into my writing process, but things started to become much clearer after I did.
I use free tools like PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Canva (paid version available with more features) for this part of the writing process.
Outline & visualize your work before diving into the writing process
Before starting any writing process, you want to make sure you create an outline for your work. Instead of using Word or Excel to create my outlines, I just use PowerPoint or Canva. That way I can add graphs and other visuals to my outlining process.
Also, I usually have to create presentations when describing my research to my advisor or peers, so I just do it at the beginning instead of waiting until the end.
3. Keep a daily log
Keeping a daily log of your writing process shouldn’t feel like a chore. Think of it more like a journal where you discuss the highs and lows of what you are going through while writing your thesis or dissertation.
I got this strategy from the book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis, and it has truly been a helpful habit to add to the practice of organizing my dissertation writing.
Most days my log entries look like this:
I was able to revise the first paragraph of Ch. 1. of my dissertation. That was nice.
On other days it looks like this:
I cannot believe that I actually signed up for this :/
Some days are better than others but keeping track of what you are achieving (or not achieving) on your dissertation writing journey could serve you later on. It is also nice to see where you are mentally after each writing session.
Self-reflection is a very good skill to build as a writer.
4. Attend writing sessions/support groups
As a college student, you have access to so many amazing resources around your college campus! Usually, your program or writing center will offer workshops for students who are working on thesis or dissertation writing projects.
Sometimes you will receive emails from your department about writing sessions or other relevant groups, but often you will have to search for these resources on your own.
I recommend looking for workshop dates at the beginning of the academic year, that way you can plan accordingly.
You are not alone in this!
Attending dissertation writing workshops allows you to enter a space where students are facing the same kind of circumstances that you are. Just hearing someone discuss their writing process offers more clarity than I can begin to explain.
The writing sessions and support groups become safe havens, and I am usually pumped to start writing again after each meeting.
5. Save drafts to an online drive
Knowing that your writing is saved to an online drive is probably the biggest habit you can develop in the writing process.
You can use tools like Box, iCloud, or Code42 for automatic or manual saving
I have heard many horror stories about computers crashing and students losing hours, sometimes MONTHS of writing. Thankfully, you can avoid this nightmare by investing in an internal or external drive to save all of your amazing work!
Sometimes schools offer free online drives like Box and Code42 if you search the department’s website or ask around.
6. Get feedback as early as possible, even when it is a work in progress
Getting feedback on working documents wasn’t always easy for me during the writing process. However, I started to realize very quickly that I couldn’t wait for my work to be perfect to start sharing it.
Perfect writing doesn't exist
In fact, if I was waiting for “perfect work” to manifest, then I would NEVER share because there is always room for improvement.
When you can collaborate with others in your space, it becomes easier to understand which direction you want your writing to go in.
Obviously, not all feedback is constructive. Developing the ability to take what is helpful to your writing and maybe save some comments for later revisions is a skill you must cultivate for yourself.
Sharing your work as early and often as possible will only serve you and your overall writing process. Trust me.
7. Create weekly/semester goals for the writing process
I could give a 3-day workshop on the importance of goal-setting, and how to set effective goals, but ultimately, learning effective goal-setting is a skill developed through practice.
When you are clear on your goals, then you have a target and a reason for all the work that you are doing.
Always have a target for your writing goals
I recommend starting with your long-term, or quarterly goals, then setting weekly or daily goals that are relevant.
For example, if you plan on having the discussion section of your thesis or dissertation written by the end of the semester, then you might have to think about which short-term goals you need to set to reach that milestone. One short-term goal might be to have the outline completed for your discussion section within the next week and send a copy of that outline to your advisor.
No matter what the goal is, ALWAYS write it down and put a date on it. This process holds you accountable and keeps you on track, continually pressing toward the mark.
The best dissertation is a done dissertation
No matter what happens during this writing process, understand that this is an opportunity for you to GROW as a writer and researcher. I have to remind myself of that truth constantly.
Your thesis or dissertation may not be the best piece of work you will ever write, but it will serve as a foundation for the future work that you complete.
And like someone much wiser than me said, “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.”
You got this!