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Stripping Down the Writing Process

The hardest part about sitting down to write is the actual beginning of making the clackity sound on the keyboard. I can get myself in the chair. I can turn on my machine. I can cruise around on the Internet, and type up a blog post or two about being in graduate school. But when it comes to getting into the nitty gritty of writing the dissertation, starting is the hardest part.

March 11, 2012


This is a GradHacker post by Terry Brock, PhD candidate in Anthropology at Michigan State University, @brockter

The hardest part about sitting down to write is the actual beginning of making the clackity sound on the keyboard. I can get myself in the chair. I can turn on my machine. I can cruise around on the Internet, and type up a blog post or two about being in graduate school. But when it comes to getting into the nitty gritty of writing the dissertation, starting is the hardest part.

I think this happens for a couple of reasons. First, the dissertation is a big, daunting thing. It stands there, glaring at you. It's that awful To Do list item that, each day, says, "Write Thesis". That's a tall order, when sandwiched between "buy milk" and "do laundry". Second, I am easily distracted. The tiniest thought, whether it's a pang of hunger, or a buzz on my phone, will send me off on a tangent that will keep me from starting. Next thing I know, hours have past, and I still haven't started working.

So, I've employed a couple of strategies to help me strip away the distractions and high expectations that are loaded on each writing session.

The Tools

Since I love tools and gadgets, it took me a while to find a piece of writing software that helps me focus. I used to use Scrivener, a powerful writing and organizing tool, but I recently discovered that instead of writing, I would spend too much time playing with all the bells and whistles that Scrivener has to offer. Instead of helping me write, it was standing in my way. So, I switched to Write Room. This app works across all your desktop and mobile apple platforms, and does one simple thing: it creates a distraction free writing space. A full screen, black background, and a blank white sheet of paper. No bells and whistles. No outline tools or toolbars. Just a blank sheet of paper that you have to fill up with words.

Two other tools I use help me block out those external distractions: Freedom and Concentrate. Both serve as tools for blocking out distracting applications, such as social media sites, email, and so on. MacFreedom does the simplest way, by shutting down your network connection for a certain period of time. The only way to get it back is by waiting out the clock, or by restarting your computer. Concentrate is slightly different, in that it provides more detail: you can block certain websites and applications for a set time period. This is nice if you need to use the Internet for some research. Either way, they are helpful in keeping you from "Aimless Searching".

Citation software is another nice tool to have on hand. Just recently, I've started messing around with Papers, and for one major reason: Magic Manuscripts. This lets you insert citations into your document as you are typing by hitting the control button on your keyboard twice. A window appears, you type the citation you're looking for, and it is inserted into your document. After your finished, Papers will format your internal citations, and then create a bibliography. For distraction free writing, this is useful, because it means you don't have to leave your document to find a citation. It  can all happen from within your writing software.

The Process

Of course, just having tools that block out distraction still doesn't help you start making the clackity sound: you need a process that will help you use them. And even then, when they're on, you still have to TYPE. Just because you have a distraction free writing space doesn't make "Write Thesis" any less daunting. To mitigate that, I try to set smaller, more obtainable goals for each day, a strategy adopted from David Allen's Getting Things Done. This may be as simple as "write for two hours" or "finish section". Breaking the dissertation into smaller, bite-size pieces makes it easier to digest, and helps to build momentum: at the end of the day, you know that things were accomplished and tasks were completed.

I have found that staying within the writing software as much as possible helps me maintain focus, which is why I like Papers for citing. Even when I'm in the writing groove, though, I occasionally come across a point where I'm not sure if I got a fact right, or there's something I need to look up. Instead of breaking my momentum, I've simply created a code that I type, jot myself a quick note, and then keep on typing. I use "TA" for "To Add". This way, I can always do a search at the end of the day and look up these things that need to be corrected, instead of breaking my momentum to go scrounge around in a book I read three months ago.

Lastly, I have taken to writing a daily research log to warm up for my writing sessions. I start each writing session by turning Freedom on for fifteen minutes, opening a blank document in WriteRoom, and typing about what I want to work on that day. This becomes a workspace for me, where I can throw ideas around, ask myself questions about my work, and draft outlines. It's a lot like warming up your throwing arm before the baseball game starts: I am giving my fingers a chance to get comfortable on the keyboard, and my brain an opportunity to start thinking about the task at hand. Slowly, the distractions start to filter away, and by the time the fifteen minutes are up, I am warmed up and ready to tackle the actual document.

In all, building these strategies have been very helpful in helping me make the clackity sound and pump out some words almost every day. It's not perfect: I spend more time not working on my dissertation then I'd like, and there is no tool or process that is ever going to make opening that document happen automatically: that still comes down to your own desire to make something new.

What types of strategies do you employ to strip down the writing process? How do you maintain focus and gain momentum? What tools do you employ to get your writing done?

[Image by Flickr User TerryBrock used under Creative Commons License]



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