I haven’t met many Ph.D. students who don’t like to write. Some may like writing more than others, but most enjoy writing—or, at least, the satisfaction of having written. Wherever you find yourself on the love-for-writing spectrum, a dissertation awaits completion, and you must finish. Here are a few tips to help you.
1. Write sooner. The dissertation writing process can quickly become paralyzing because of its size and importance: It is a project that will be reviewed rigorously by your advisor and your committee, and your graduation depends on your successful completion and defense. Facing these realities can be daunting and tempt you to wait until you can determine that you’ve researched or thought enough about our topic. Yet, the longer we put off writing, the more difficult it will be to actually start the process. The answer to your paralysis is to start writing. Are you unsure of your argument or not fully convinced you have done the requisite research? You may be right: your argument may not be airtight, and you may need to do more reading; but you will be able to determine to what degree these problems need attention when you start writing. Productivity begets productivity, and you will be amazed at how arguments take shape and the direction of your research is forged as you write.
2. Write continually. So, don’t stop writing. Of course, you need to continue to read and study and take notes—I will talk about this more in a moment—but it is best if you keep the gears from grinding to a halt. Keep your mind working and your project moving. Your assignment is not to turn in a hundred pages of notes to your supervisor—you must produce a dissertation with complete sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Keep writing.
3. Write in order to rewrite. Writing sooner and writing continually can only happen if you aren’t consumed with perfection. Some of us are discouraged from writing because we think our first draft needs to be our final draft. But this is exactly the problem. Get your thoughts on paper and plan to go back and fix awkward sentences, poor word choices, and illogical or unsubstantiated arguments in your subsequent drafts. Knowing that rewriting is part of the writing process will free you to write persistently, make progress, and look forward to fixing things later on.
4. Spend adequate time determining your thesis and methodology. This probably could fit in the #1 slot, but I wanted to emphasize the importance writing right away. Besides, you might find that you modify your thesis and methodology slightly as you write and make progress in developing your overall argument. Nevertheless, the adage is true: form a solid thesis and methodology statement and your dissertation will “write itself.” Plan to spend some time writing and rewriting and rewriting (again) your thesis and methodology statements so that you will know where you are going and where you need to go.
5. If you get stuck, move to another section. Developing a clear thesis and methodology will allow you to move around in your dissertation when you get stuck. Granted, we should not make a habit of avoiding difficult tasks, but there are times when it will be a more effective use of time to move to sections that will write easy. As you continue to make progress in your project and get words on paper, you will also help mitigate the panic that so often looms over your project when you get stuck and your writing ceases.
6. Fight the urge to walk away from writing when it gets tough. Having encouraged you to move to another section when you get stuck, it is also important to add a balancing comment to encourage you to fight through the tough spots in your project. I don’t mean that you should force writing when it is clear that you may need to make some structural changes or do a little more research on a given topic. But if you find yourself dreading a particular portion of your dissertation because it will require some mind-numbing, head-on-your-desk, prayer-producing rigor, then my advice is to face these tough sections head on and sit in your chair until you make some progress. You will be amazed at how momentum will grow out of your dogged persistence to hammer out these difficult portions of your project.
7. Strive for excellence but remember that this is not your magnum opus. A dissertation needs to be of publishable quality and it will need to past the muster of your supervisor and committee. But it is also a graduation requirement. Do the research. Make a contribution. Finish the project. And plan to write your five-volume theology when you have 30-40 more years of study, reflection, and teaching under your belt.
8. Take careful notes. Taking careful notes is essential for two reasons. First, keeping a meticulous record of the knowledge you glean from your research will save you time: there will be no need to later revisit your resources and chase bibliographic information, and you will find yourself less prone to the dreaded, “Where did I read that?” Second, and most importantly, you will avoid plagiarism. If you fail to take good notes and are not careful to accurately copy direct quotes and make proper citations, you will be liable to reproducing material in your dissertation that is not original with you. Pleading that your plagiarism was inadvertent will not help your cause. It is your responsibility to take careful notes and attribute all credit to whom it is due through proper citation.
9. Know when to read. Write sooner, write continually, and write in order to rewrite. But you need to know when you are churning an empty barrel. Reading and research should be a stimulus to write and you need to know when that stimulus is needed. Be willing to stop writing for a short period so that you can refresh your mind with new ideas and research.
10. Establish chunks of time to research and write. While it is important to keep writing and make the most of the time that you have, it is best for writing projects specifically to set aside large portions of time with which to write. Writing requires momentum, and momentum gathers over time. Personally, I have found that I need at least an hour to get things rolling, and that three to four hours is ideal.
11. Get exercise, adequate sleep, and eat well. Because our minds and bodies are meant to function in harmony, you will probably find that your productivity suffers to the degree that you are not giving attention to your exercise, sleep, and eating habits. Like it or not, our ability to maintain long periods of sustained concentration, think carefully over our subject matter, and find motivation to complete tasks is dependent in a significant sense upon how we are caring for our bodies. When we neglect exercise, fail to get adequate sleep, or constantly indulge in an unhealthy diet, we will find it increasingly difficult to muster the energy and clarity with which to complete our dissertation.
12. Stay on task. Completing a dissertation, in large measure, it not so much a feat of the intellect as it is the result of discipline. If you are able to set aside large chunks of time with which to research and write, make sure that you are not using that time for other tasks. This means that you must strive against multi-tasking. In truth, studies have shown that multi-tasking is a cognitive impossibility. Our brains can only concentrate on one thing at a time. When we think we are multitasking we are actually “switch-tasking;” rather than doing several things at once, our brains are constantly toggling from one task to the other (listening to a song on the radio to reading a book, back to the song, etc.). You will be amazed at how much you can accomplish if you give an undistracted 60-90 minutes to something. Stay on task.
13. Don’t get stuck on introductions. This is a basic writing principle, but one that bears repeating here: write the body of a given chapter or section and then return to the introductions. It is usually easier to introduce something that you have already written for the simple fact that you now know what you are introducing. You might be tempted to write the introduction first and labor to capture your reader with a gripping illustration or perfect quote while refusing to enter into the body of your paper until your preliminary remarks are flawless. This is a sure recipe for frustration. Wait until you have completed a particular section or chapter’s content until you write introductions. This practice will save you time and loads of trouble.
14. Use a legal pad. There’s nothing magic about a legal pad; my only aim here is to encourage you to push back from the keyboard occasionally and stimulate your mind by sketching your argument and writing your ideas by hand. I have found my way out of many dry spells by closing the laptop for a few minutes and writing on a piece of paper. I might bullet point a few key ideas, diagram my chapter outlines, or sketch the entire dissertation with boxes and arrows and notes scribbled over several pages.
15. Go on walks. It has been said recently that walking promotes creativity. I agree. Whether you like to walk among the trees or besides the small coffee shops along quaint side streets, I recommend that you go on walks and think specifically about your dissertation. You might find that the change of scenery, the stimulus of a bustling community, or the refreshing quiet of a park trail is just the help you need.
16. Make use of a capture journal. In order to make the most of your walks, you will need a place to “capture” your ideas. You may prefer to use the voice memo or notepad feature on your smartphone, or, if you’re like me, a small 2.5”x4” lined journal. Whatever your preference, find a method that allows you to store your ideas as they come to you during your walks or as you fall to sleep at night. I wonder how many useful ideas many of us have lost because we failed to write them down? Don’t let this happen to you. Resolve to be a good steward of your thinking time and seize those thoughts.
17. Talk about your ideas with others. When you are writing your dissertation, you might be tempted to lock away your ideas and avoid discussing them with others. This is unwise. Talking with others about your ideas helps you to refine and stimulate your thinking; it also creates opportunities for you to learn of important resources and how your contribution will affect other branches of scholarship. Also, as people ask questions about your project, you will begin to see where your argument is unclear or unsubstantiated.
18. Learn how to read. Writing a dissertation requires a massive amount of reading. You must become familiar with the arguments of several hundred resources—books, articles, reviews, and other dissertations. What will you do? You must learn how to read. Effective reading does not require that you read every book word-for-word, cover-to-cover. Indeed, sometimes very close reading of a given volume may actually impede your understanding of the author’s argument. In order to save time and cultivate a more effective approach to knowledge acquisition, you must learn how to use your resources. This means knowing when to read a book or article closely, and knowing when to skim. It means knowing how to read large books within a matter of an hour by carefully reviewing the table of contents, reading and rereading key chapters and paragraphs, and using the subject index. If you want to finish your dissertation, learn how to read.
19. Set deadlines. Depending on your project, you may have built in deadlines that force you to produce material at a steady clip. If you do not have built in deadlines, you must impose them on yourself. Deadlines produce results, and results lead to completed writing projects. Set realistic deadlines and stick to them. You will find that you are able to accomplish much more than you anticipated if you set and stick to deadlines.
20. Take productive breaks. Instead of turning to aimless entertainment to fill your break times, try doing something that will indirectly serve your writing process. We need breaks: they refresh us and help us stay on task. In fact, studies have shown that overall productivity diminishes if employees are not allowed to take regular, brief pauses from their work during the day. What is not often mentioned, however, is that a break does not necessarily have to be unrelated to our work in order to be refreshing; it needs only to be different from what we were just doing. So, for example, if you have been writing for 90 minutes, instead of turning on YouTube to watch another mountain biking video, you could get up, stretch, and pull that book off the shelf you’ve been wanting to read, or that article that has been sitting in Pocket for the past six weeks. Maybe reorganizing your desk or taking a walk (see above) around the library with your capture journal would be helpful. Whatever you choose, try to make your breaks productive.
It is my hope that you find encouragement in these few ideas to help you complete your dissertation. If you have other ideas, please share them. Most of these principles can be applied toward any writing project, and I would value your insight in this regard as well.