Hello readers! I should start off by saying that I don’t think there’s any one correct way to write a dissertation. One of the more fascinating parts of attending graduate school is getting to pick the brains of my fellow students. For every person I’ve asked about the writing process, I’ve received a different answer. So this post is not a step-by-step outline of how to write a perfect dissertation. It is a collection of some general advice on how to approach writing. Seeing how other people approach the dissertation helped me, so I hope it will help you!
I Have to Write How Much?
Dissertation lengths vary quite a bit by discipline, so it’s important to keep in mind that my advice comes from my experience writing a dissertation in the humanities, and in history in particular. “R is my Friend” wrote a blog post about average dissertation length based on the data available through the University of Minnesota library system. Here’s a graphical representation of that research:
As you can see, the humanities pretty much all hang out at the top of the graph, meaning dissertations in those disciplines tend to be the longest. And there’s history, right at the top. Before you panic, however, keep in mind that dissertation length is influenced by a lot of factors, including your topic, your department’s expectations, and your advisor’s expectations. This is all to say that writing a dissertation is probably the most productive when you take it one day and one word at a time. In that spirit, here are some bite-sized pieces of advice to help you tackle what I lovingly refer to as “The Beastie.”
- Pay attention to what works, as soon as you start graduate school: You will be taking lots of notes – from your reading, from seminar, from meetings with your advisor – in graduate school, and you’ll be writing a lot of papers. Take note of what works for you and what doesn’t. I, for example, digest books and other material best when I can write directly on it as I read. It helps me to process everything before I sit down to discuss the book in seminar or write up paper notes. This might work for you and it might not, but keeping track of those trends, particularly when you’re writing a research paper, is a good way to do some early planning for how you’ll tackle your dissertation.
- Be flexible: While you want to keep track of what works and what doesn’t, keep in mind that it might change as you move through graduate school. This applies not only to the process of writing, but also to what you’re writing about. I was convinced I had to have a fully-formed dissertation project within my first semester of grad school. It’s a good idea to have some vague notion of what you’d like to do, but the nice thing about being lucky enough to attend grad school is that you can explore your options. You might find that this changes even as you research and write (in fact, it should), so be open to it! Is a certain note-taking style not working for you anymore? Switch it up! Are you finding lots and lots of interesting stuff about a topic you thought was tangential to your initial direction? Talk to your advisor about exploring other paths! This is your project and your contribution to your field – you should feel good about how it’s proceeding.
- Form a Dissertation Group: This can be a group of people from your department, or a cross-departmental gathering. However it’s populated, having a dissertation group can be a great resource. The one I was in met pretty infrequently – usually when one of us had something in particular we wanted to discuss – but it was nice to sit with a group of people going through the same thing I was. We were able to talk about our projects, about our struggles with research and writing, and bounce questions off of each other about a variety of topics. Everyone needs a community, and once you enter the strange and wonderful world of being ABD, a community tailored to that particular identity can be really helpful.
- Have a Dissertation Buddy: While having a dissertation group can be helpful, it can also be useful to have a dissertation partner – someone who is willing to read drafts of chapters, who will answer emails filled with self-doubt no matter how many you send, and who is available to just generally be your partner in the dissertation process. My dissertation partner is intimately familiar with my project and has read drafts of every single chapter (sometimes more than once!). She knows my project probably as well as I do, and she usually knows what I mean to say even if I don’t. How your relationship with your dissertation partner functions will vary from person to person, but the important thing is to find someone you jive with. And you should of course be willing to reciprocate.
- Build a Schedule: It’s fairly common knowledge that one of the hardest things about writing a dissertation is having the motivation and self-discipline to do it. It’s easy, most days, to skip writing for a Netflix binge or to let the plumber in or go grocery shopping. So my suggestion is to make yourself a schedule – long and short term – and stick to it as closely as you can. At the beginning of each month I lay out what I want to accomplish that month, and then at the beginning of each week determine what I need to accomplish in the next seven days to get closer to that goal. You know your own writing speed, style, and process better than anyone, so it’s best to create your own schedule. I, for example, write very fast, but then spend a lot of time editing. I also find it’s best to build in time to let myself walk away from chapters – it’s always easier to see your mistakes or where you need to improve when you’ve had some time away from what you’ve written. As long as you’re creating a schedule and keeping to it, it doesn’t matter what the schedule itself actually is.
- Write every day: I was lucky enough, pretty early in my graduate career, to attend a lunch with Eric Foner before he gave a talk on campus. I was just barely through my Master’s program, and so when someone asked for advice on writing/finishing a dissertation, I didn’t think it would really help me at all. But Dr. Foner gave a really thoughtful response that has stuck with me: to finish a dissertation you have to write. Every. Single. Day. But you don’t have to write pages and pages at a time. If you write one page every day for a year, you’ll have 365 pages. That’s a dissertation.*
- Give Yourself a Break: If there is someone out there who can do the writing and researching and unnamed and underappreciated work of thinking about their work every single day without a break, I want to meet them and shake their hand. The truth is, if you work continuously without a break, you’re not going to produce your best work. This isn’t to say that there won’t be times when you’re down to it and really have to give yourself completely to what you’re doing. It is to say that building breaks into your schedule – for dinner with your partner, for drinks with your friends, for game nights with your family – is healthy and good for you and your project.
*Anne Lamont is a fiction writer, but her book, Bird by Bird has some great advice about the writing process. My advisor gifted me a copy once I became ABD and it was a great way to start that phase of my career. I also return to it from time to time when I need a boost of inspiration. And how can you not love a line like “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people,” especially when it’s so applicable to a dissertation?