I have a confession to make.
I don’t love writing my dissertation.
In fact, there are days when I open documents on my computer and start to cry. I am, at times, filled with an overwhelming anxiety, and there are moments when even thinking about my dissertation makes me want to throw my computer out the window and join the circus.
But every day, I do a little work, and I come a little closer to finishing.
Despite my anxiety, my frustration, I am able to keep writing because of a list of advice to myself that I have printed out and stuck to my wall. It helps me keep going when all I want to do is give up.
And I am sharing this list with you.
This advice has been collected slowly, throughout the past year or so, from a number of diverse sources. I hope that it might help you as you work through any long-form project, from theses to dissertations, from articles to books. Print it out, stick it on a wall, and get writing.
1. You are not alone.
Nothing I am feeling is unique to my situation. Almost every academic has felt anxiety over their projects, and many people before me have felt the urge to quit. It is perfectly normal to hate my dissertation at some point, and to feel hopeless. It doesn’t make my frustration any less real, but it does acknowledge that the feelings are normal, and that they will pass.
2. You are not alone.
This one bears repeating because it is true in another sense. Writing can be horribly isolating, and it is easy to lose sight of all the people and support you have around you. My director and committee are never farther than an email away, many of my colleagues are feeling the same frustrations, and I am surrounded by people who are willing to commiserate, to listen to me whine, to read my work, and to buy me a beer when I need it. Even if I write by myself, I am never alone.
3. It’s just half an hour.
Following the advise of many different academics, I got myself a small egg timer, and I work for half an hour each day. Even when I feel like setting fire to my research, I know that all I have to do is work for half an hour. That’s an episode of The Simpsons. I tell myself that I can stop when the buzzer goes. There are days when I do stop, I close my computer and walk away. But many days, I get lost in the work and keep going. All I have to do is half an hour. I can do that. I can.
4. Doing anything is better than doing nothing.
It doesn’t matter what I get done, how big or how small, as long as I have done something that day. Even if all I do is edit one page, or write three words, or fix a citation, I have done something, which is always better than nothing. Which leads me to my next point:
5. Write just one sentence. Just one.
This advice comes from Karl Stolley, who says that “You don’t need to write your dissertation, or that chapter. You just need to write something toward your degree today”. (As an aside, his whole article is full of fantastic advice, and should be read immediately if you haven’t already). I have a tendency to focus on the big picture, to think about writing a whole chapter at once, and I get overwhelmed. Reminding myself that I just have to write something helps keep me from thinking too big. I can write a sentence. And when that is done, I can probably write another one. I don’t need to write a whole chapter. Just a sentence.
6. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done.
My director has said this to me over and over again, and I am still trying to get this to sink in. The only good dissertation, he says, is a finished dissertation. I tend to get stuck on phrasing, or working through a single paragraph, willing it to be perfect before I move on and write more. I get trapped in a quagmire of language, and it holds me back from finishing. I just have to keep reminding myself that perfect can come later—I can edit to my hearts content after I have written the prose.
7. It’s not a race.
I tend to focus on the end goal, DISSERTATION written in red flashing lights in my brain, and I want to “win”, to cross the finish line of writing and get my degree as the prize. I have to remind myself to slow down, that I am not competing against anyone, and that working a little bit each day will get me to the end. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
8. Focus on today.
One of the problems of being thisclose to finishing my degree is that I have to start thinking about the future. I have to prepare for the job market, for moving, for starting the next phase of my life, and it is so easy to get caught up in what will be that I lose sight of what I am doing now. I need to remind myself to take things one day at a time, to think about what I can do right now, today, and to focus on what is immediately in front of me. Write that one sentence.
9. Stop talking and WRITE.
Like many procrastinators, I spend much of my time talking about writing instead of actually doing writing (this phenomenon is mentioned in this Chronicle article). I have to remind myself that telling everyone I am writing a dissertation means nothing without a final product to back it up.
10. You can do this.
I’ve made it this far. I can keep going. I can do it.
So can you.
This post is written with grateful thanks to Drs. Brian McNely and Jackie Grutsch McKinney for patiently providing me with much of the advice above.
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