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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


How to Write Like an Olympian

Enhancing your performance during your dissertation.

September 18, 2016

Shira Lurie is a PhD candidate in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political conflicts over the American Revolution’s legacy in the early republic. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog.




The summer Olympics have come to an end, and with it, the summer itself. A new school year means new students, new goals, and if the commercials are to be believed, new shoes. But the Rio games have got me inspired to treat this semester differently than the last. Grad students train and perform at elite levels, just like Olympians. We work insane hours, make huge sacrifices, and compete with the best in our field. So this year, I’m going to envision myself as a top athlete. I’m going to write like an Olympian.


But competing at the Olympic level takes more than just skill. You need a solid plan. Below are some tips I’ve compiled to help myself and others go for gold.  


To have a shot at the podium, every athlete needs to have the best equipment. Make sure your writing environment is comfortable and welcoming - you should want to spend time there. I recently purchased a new desk chair and it has definitely improved my stamina. Whether it’s a yoga ball, ergonomic keyboard, or a desk lamp, treat yourself to whatever will make writing easier on your body and mind. In addition, it may also be wise to invest in hardware and/or software that will increase your productivity. A new computer or note-taking software can be expensive, but they are both purchases you will use almost everyday for several years.


Of course, Olympic athletes need to stay in shape. While taking time off can be important, an extended break from your dissertation can have you falling out of writing shape in a hurry. In Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Joan Balker recommends being in touch with your project at least once a day, even if it’s just a for a very small period of time. Write down an idea, edit a couple of pages, or simply free write for a few minutes. This will keep your ideas marinating and will ease the transition back to a full work day when your break is over.


Most athletes also credit their success, at least in part, to good coaching. Once you have picked the right mentor, it is important to regularly seek their advice. Better still, amass a few coaches, be them faculty or peers, who can give you feedback on your writing and check in on your progress. Forming a writing group can also be very helpful for providing sustained motivation and support.  


The Olympics only roll around every four years. Between them, every athlete needs to stay focused on her goals. Writing a dissertation can be draining, especially if you’re worrying about a defense that is months or years away. To avoid dissertation fatigue, set short-term, realistic goals that you will feel good about achieving. These can be as small as pomodoros or as big as chapter deadlines. Building off of these smaller achievements will help you sustain momentum and confidence.


And, most importantly, stay hydrated! Studies show even mild dehydration can hinder concentration. So keep a water bottle at your desk and refill it throughout the day. Gatorade is optional.


Now go own that podium.


What do you think? Have any tips for writing like an Olympian? (Besides performance enhancing drugs?)


[Image by Flickr user Shawn Carpenter and used under the Creative Commons license]


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