A few days ago I defended my dissertation and received the glorious green light for graduation. Here are 12 practices I employed while writing it. They may not work for everyone, but I benefited from them.
(1) Keep organized notes as you research. Have an ongoing set of Word documents, or have a file in Dropbox ready and waiting, or use some other method, but be as organized as possible from the get-go. Work within categories that make sense to you and that you can navigate when it’s time to relocate that important sentence or source.
(2) Develop a thorough but flexible outline. Thorough, to me, means having not only the chapters in mind but also their divisions–at least with main headings. The rule of thumb is: know where you’re headed! If you have an outline, you can stay the course. For my prospectus, I only had the chapters named and listed. But when it came time to write each dissertation chapter, I developed as detailed an outline as I could. I put all the headings (main and sub and sub-sub) in the document and then filled them in as I wrote. Be flexible with your outline, though, and reorganize or purge as necessary.
(3) When possible, write chapter drafts (or at least chapter chunks) before incorporating secondary sources. Ability to do this may vary with topic and focus. Some parts of my dissertation (such as the survey of research) had to engage with other sources constantly, so citing while writing was required. But I really wanted to develop the arguments of my chapters as much as I could using my independent voice. Most sections of almost every chapter, therefore, came together before footnoting secondary sources.
(4) Find a writing routine and strive to maintain it. At the beginning of the writing process I pulled out my calendar and determined how many pages/words I should pursue each week. This set my pace. I knew I wouldn’t be able to write every day, but most days I managed to get something done. I seemed to work best early in the morning and late at night. During the day proved a challenging time to write, for various reasons. So some days I was up early at 5 am, and other days I was writing late until 2 am. You have to do what works best for you, of course, but disciplining yourself for a routine is the way to keep your writing pace.
(5) Seize unexpected opportunities for more writing or editing. Sometimes an afternoon, or even a whole day, may open up for you to write, so don’t squander unexpected opportunities. Press on and press through! Some paragraphs of my dissertation were written in a moving van (while I was in the passenger seat), and some were written out of state. When I knew I’d have opportunities to sit somewhere and read, I’d bring printed copies of sections to read, edit, and think more about. Make the most of your time! Don’t drive yourself crazy though. Sometimes when time opens up, you need to go with your spouse to the store, build a lego tower with your kid, watch a movie, or read a Harry Potter book.
(6) Write down good thoughts instead of thinking you will remember them later. Sometimes you’ll think of just the way you want to say something, but you’re nowhere near your computer. Prepare for such moments by keeping a piece of paper and pen with you. “I’ll remember that idea later,” you may think, but you may not. Do you have a Smart Phone? Then use a voice recorder for impromptu thoughts, trails to pursue, or other details you won’t want to rack your brain for later.
(7) Keep an up-to-date bibliography. If you use a program that automatically inserts your citations into a Bibliography, then great. Otherwise, you need to keep track somehow of your citations. They are a mountain that grows, and you need to climb it as it does, not wait until the end when you have to wade through your footnotes. I kept a separate document with my developing sources. When I cited something new, I updated the Bibliography. This may be an outdated way of updating a Bibliography, but I didn’t take the time to learn any new tricks (which I probably should have!).
(8) Format major style stuff along the way. I know people may disagree with this and encourage post-writing style adjustments. But notice I said “major style stuff.” What I hate is having to correct something that I did wrong on many pages or even throughout many chapters! So from the beginning I paid special attention to margins, footnotes, proper citation form, and the way headings were formatted. For those things I would rather get them right the first time and thus get them right every time. The more attention you give to style and formatting issues, the less time you will spend reformatting and correcting after the Defense is over. I consider this a good investment!
(9) Read books on writing while you’re writing. Does this seem like a strange suggestion? I benefited from thinking about the craft of writing during the dissertation process. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence. These writers primed the pump. Don’t think of a dissertation as a box you want to check at the end of a program. Give care to its design and flow. You want to be clear and compelling, and reading about writing can help along the way.
(10) Dialogue with others about your topic. We can have goofy thoughts and draw silly conclusions about things, and the sooner someone points that out to us, the better. If you imagine the dissertation process as a conversation, then include trusted dialogue partners. Send them an argument or an excerpt, and be open to feedback. Perhaps no one is better suited for this role than your doctoral supervisor! My supervisor provided timely and thorough feedback on each chapter. For the writing process, no man should be an island.
(11) Read your work aloud. What makes most sense in your head may make less sense in your document. When you’re writing, trust your ear. Don’t just be satisfied with how a chapter reads; be satisfied with how it sounds. Sometimes I’d type something and later ask my wife, “How does this sentence sound to you? What do you hear me saying?”
(12) Allow a time gap between edits of a draft. If you give yourself a time-gap between edits of a chapter, your editing will be more effective. When you finish a draft, let it sit a while (a few days? a week?) and then return to it. Between edits, occupy yourself with other work and writing. This is your brain’s best chance to process your previous writing with a “fresh” read.
Any other writing practices you’d recommend for a dissertation?