Monday, April 7, 2014

Binge or Balance: Strategies for Writing Up the Dissertation

Writing Upby Nick Blackbourn:

I’m in the middle of the dreaded ‘write up’ phase.

No, I didn’t leave all the writing to the end, but it’s still a massive undertaking to whip everything into shape.

It’s one thing to have developed ideas with examples and citations on the page, it’s another to hone the expression so that the reader can understand them and be guided through the dissertation.

As with many other final year postgrads I’ve spoken to, life has become messy as I finish up (writing! jobs! money! where to live!). And there’s still submitting and the viva to worry about.

I want to write a good dissertation - while guarding against perfectionism, I’ve spent over three years on this and I want the end result to be quality - but I need to submit something sooner rather than later so I can move on.

How are things messy? I’ve made a fundamental change in the dissertation’s structure, which was a much bigger task than I thought (all the paragraph linkage breaks, etc.). Then I moved across the Atlantic. Twice. Ouch.

I’ve also been trying to get ready for post-PhD life, but preparing for when I’m finished doesn’t actually get me closer to finishing, which is annoying.

Because I want to finish soon I constantly have the urge to binge write so I can get the thing done. But it doesn’t work like that. My mind turns to mush after three hours in Word (I know that because I monitored my work habits with a bit of software called Toggl). 1

It seems that my best writing strategy, even at the very end of the dissertation, remains the ‘balanced approach,’ which I wrote about here last summer.

I have decided that if I spend three hours in Word and run for 5km then it’s automatically a good day. I wish I could go faster (writing, not running) and get more done each day but I can’t; I end up needing to re-read sentences, I miss obvious errors, and sometimes find myself forgetting what my dissertation is even about. At that point it’s clearly time to step away from the screen and work on the bibliography, etc.

Burnout is real and so those three hours are important to get right. Yet ‘write for three hours’ is not a very useful goal. What does that actually mean? Generate text or edit? Work on one chapter or one specific section?

The answer is daily goal setting, which is a difficult task for me. I try to to sit down with my trusty notebook and take time to really think about what I’d like to get done for the day.

This is quite hard because: 1) every morning I have to think about what is wrong with the chapter/ section as it is written and what I specifically need to do today to improve it, and 2) there’s the urge to simply get going (“just write already, you’re procrastinating!”) even though the planning is probably the single most important task of the day.

And so I trudge on, taking things one day at a time and hoping for consistent incremental improvement in the context of a series of false deadlines.

On false deadlines: A one-week-one-chapter strategy has been quite productive for the last few weeks. My dissertation has switched to a chronological structure, a chapter for each year 1976 to 1980.

To push the restructuring project forward I declared last month ’70s month’ and spent a week working on each year’s chapter. I listened to some music from the corresponding year and watched a couple of movies - anything to make the editing process more engaging!

This worked really well. A series of false deadlines with themed entertainment. It’s geeky and silly but makes the slog of finishing up slightly more fun. So let’s see how this continues. I’m hoping to finish late summer …


1. By ‘in Word’ I literally mean the time that I spend hacking away at the keyboard in the programme itself. Anytime there’s a break, or a switch to another programme – like DevonthinkScrivener, or Notepad - that time isn’t counted.

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