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Alexandra (AJ) Gold is a Ph.D. Candidate in English Literature at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter, @agold258, and check out her website.

I wrote a full draft of my humanities dissertation in a little more than a year. It feels crazy to type that and maybe even crazier to read it, because it’s fast by most standards. The craziest thing of all, however, was that finishing the draft was totally anti-climactic. Sure, I felt accomplished, proud, and definitely relieved, but there was hardly the kind of euphoria or fanfare I had long imagined and anticipated. One day I looked up and it was done.

Shouldn’t I feel something...more?

I’ve thought about this a lot. For one thing, I knew that even if it was complete, the work itself was still very much a draft; a lot of revisions lay ahead. But more important, I finished without having experienced any kind of race-to-the-finish or writing up-to-the-deadline adrenaline rush. By the time I wrote the final sentences of my conclusion, working on my dissertation had become a deeply ingrained part of my weekly routine. So writing those last few sentences was, in fact, totally ordinary. It was just another day.

And this, I think, was ultimately the secret to my success. Early on in the writing process, I made a conscious decision not to view my dissertation as an all-consuming task but as an essential part of my weekly and often daily experience. Doing so, I implemented a set of strategies that could make the work of writing manageable, efficient, and even fun and rewarding without having to give up all of the other “life” (or academic) things I wanted or needed to do.

We are often lead to believe that writing a dissertation has to be an intense, round-the-clock endeavor. How many times have you heard the phrase or told yourself, “You should be writing?” The phrase can easily inspire fear and guilt in the most intrepid of graduate students. And while it is often used in jest, especially in online memes frequently shared by popular social media accounts like @ShitAcademicsSay, the sentiment is funny because it’s true. After all, dissertations don’t write themselves.

Of course, memes are not solely to blame for perpetuating this idea; they merely reflect a broader academic culture that often reinforces toxic norms surrounding “work-life” balance (or lack thereof) and the injunction to “publish or perish.” Nevertheless, I have often heard graduate students say that they feel like they have to give up everything else or shut themselves off in some little corner of the world to get their dissertation writing done.

I want to challenge the narrative that getting a dissertation done (or, at least, drafted) has to mean sacrificing a lot of time and energy, and instead suggest that there are ways to make the process quicker and more practical. While the internet offers no shortage of dissertation writing advice and while no writing strategies are universal across fields, I’m here to offer the best tips I’ve cultivated in my year of dissertation writing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had the benefit of a duty-free or non-teaching year because of the way my university funding structure worked out (and I’m lucky, no doubt, to have a funding structure at all). But I have also had other commitments competing for my attention, including tutoring at my university’s writing center and community volunteer work. I have chosen to commit to working out, spending time with family and friends, watching more bad TV than I’m comfortable admitting, and training a puppy whose adorable face is matched only by his devilish tendencies.

In short, I want to help make the process of writing your dissertation a little more streamlined and a little less overwhelming. And here’s the thing: I didn’t reinvent the wheel. By combining this particular set of strategies - some familiar, some developed as I went along -  I managed to make the writing process accessible, feasible, and, yes, even ordinary.

1. Good Writing Starts with Good Reading

You’ve probably heard that “good readers make good writers.” Not only has active reading helped me formulate ideas in advance of writing, but other writers are a great source for learning about style, argumentative moves, etc. Taking good notes on what you read is not about simply writing down quotes or summaries, but is instead about taking notes on your own reactions to, insights about, or quarrels with what you read that can be incorporated later into structured paragraphs (instant analysis!). It might also mean making a list of rhetorical strategies that are especially striking. Is there a particularly nice sentence? Turn of phrase? Word choice? Make a note. You can refine and expedite your writing by paying attention to that of others.

2. Commit Moderately (Or: More than Tinder, Less Than Marriage)

If writing is a commitment, it shouldn’t be an all-encompassing one (like marriage) nor should it be a short spark (like Tinder). Potentially terrible analogy aside, many people have written about the benefits of writing incrementally and this strategy follows suit. The best thing I have done has been committing to writing often, rather than procrastinating or leaving the work aside for too many consecutive days. This can take two forms:

  • Commit to a daily word or page count: Set a realistic and somewhat flexible goal. For instance, I aim to write 600-1000 words a day. Some days I easily hit that target and keep going, others I may fall a little bit short. Committing to a ballpark figure adds up much faster than you’d think!
  • Or commit to a daily time goal: Though I personally prefer the word count, thinking about the work in terms of hours may be a more efficient strategy for some. Either way, the goal is to aim for consistency. Tell yourself that you’ll commit for two hours a day and stick to it, then do whatever else you need or want to do and come back the next day. I do think it should be at least an hour (rather than x minutes), because you need some time to work into the writing state.

3. Take Breaks!

This may seem antithetical to the previous tip, but it actually works in service of it. While I suggest that you give yourself a time/word metric for the days on which you do work, I think it’s equally important to take breaks. Give yourself a weekly goal (e.g. ‘I’ll write five days each week’). You can be flexible in what days you take off, as long as you’re hitting your target. Feeling like you have to work every single day can be counterproductive and turn writing into a chore.

4.  Beware the Blank Page

Fear of the blank page is real. Getting started on any given day is always the hardest part for me, so before I end a writing session for the day, I always make sure write down a few words, or phrases, or half-sentences about what I want to say next. This is a non-negotiable; nothing is worse than starting all over every day. I also make revising and re-reading what I’ve done the day before a continual habit, because it helps me get back into the headspace of the previous writing day and helps me fall back into my style/voice (which is not my everyday speaking voice).  

5. Keep a Notebook (Real Or Digital) Handy

Inevitably you’ll still be thinking about your dissertation when you are not writing (see tip #3). So this is for the people who have their best ideas in the shower. I always find it’s when I’m not actively working on my thesis that I’ll have the best insight or my mind will sort through a problem I couldn’t resolve earlier. When you have that revelation, write it down!. Despite your confidence that you will remember it later, you won’t – I’ve been there. My “Notes” app is basically a running list of thoughts I have right before I fall asleep – and it’s probably led to one-third of my dissertation.

5. Limit Distractions (Or: Making Technology Work for You)

This is an obvious one, but if you’re only devoting a short amount of time to writing per day, it has to count. Closing your email and putting away your phone are easy first steps. The “Do Not Disturb” feature on iPhone has been a lifesaver, because it allows you to set a priority list for people whose calls you don’t want to miss (in case, like me, you’re prone to anxiety) while muting what can wait. I also highly recommend using a website blocking app – I’ve loved “SelfControl” – which allows you to set a timer and blocks websites you input yourself. Social media will be there for all your browsing pleasure later, I promise.

Which of these strategies might you incorporate into your writing routine? How have you made writing a dissertation an “ordinary” experience?

[Image by Flickr user Markus Spiske Markus Spiske and used under Creative Commons licensing.]