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Keeping perspective while writing

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Finishing your thesis or dissertation, or being a faculty member with publishing responsibilities, requires a lot of time and energy spent writing (among many other things). Indeed, it is a big part of being in the academy, and it can also be a difficult process. The plethora of “how to be more productive” blog posts out there just goes to show how much we fixate on writing, as that’s a key indicator of productivity for graduate students and faculty alike. And hearing the phrase “how to be more productive” can just make you feel like a paper mill whose main goal is to churn out final projects, taking the joy out of the process.

What’s often lost is some perspective on why writing matters and why we write in the academy. I would argue that remembering why, and also being a bit more reflective by thinking about your writing, would help many people have a better relationship with the process and help them to actually finish those writing projects they are doing. Stick with me:

Why do academics write?

To paraphrase Garvey (1972), communication is the essence of academia (and grad school). Yes, you are engaged in research, hopefully research that you really enjoy doing. But, you don’t just work in the lab or do textual analysis — you write about what happened during your research and what you discovered for an external audience beyond yourself. To adapt a common phrase: “If you don’t publish it (or defend it), it didn’t happen.” But you don’t write because you have to write up the results of your research. We write theses, dissertations, and journal articles because we have learned important things and made critical connections that are valuable for other people to know about. (Who, or how many, can be debatable, but at the very least, if you’re doing it, then it should be something worth knowing for other people.) We don’t write for the recognition, to prove how smart we are, or to churn out work not worth anything. We write for an audience who relies on what we are doing; we write to help build an informed citizenry; we write so that others may build on our work. All of these things means that we must be writing about what we are doing as academics.

Keeping Perspective

So, then, do you think about this when you sit down to write your thesis, dissertation, or journal article? Or do you sit down and write and instead think of how difficult it can be to type the right words and finish the project? Next time you have a writing session, start by thinking about why you are writing what you are writing. You don’t have to dwell on it for a long time, but acknowledge your purpose. For example, if you are a doctoral student, keep some perspective on the process. Yes, it is a required document, and when you finish, you will earn a PhD or EdD. But you are really writing for a couple of key reasons that aren’t just about finishing. One, you are earning an entry ticket into a research profession. This means that your goals in writing are to demonstrate to a small group of people with strong research credentials who are tasked with determining that you have what it takes to find research problems, design methods for solving it, conduct research, and see a large project through to completion. As such, your dissertation reflects this — you write chapter summaries in your introduction, you use transition paragraphs to explicitly link one chapter with the next, or one section of literature with your choice of methods, and so on.

The other thing you are doing in writing a dissertation is you are contributing to a field of research. So, you are writing about how the things you’ve been doing for the last year (or two or four) are things that other people who are interested in your topic should know about. Information they could use in future research. Information that builds on a long line of studies on a topic. Information that has determined the best method for approaching a problem. And so on. You have valuable things to say to a community of people interested in your area, and without finishing a dissertation, they can’t know what you’ve done.

How can you do this?

I think keeping perspective in your writing can easily be done with a little knowledge of your genre. Why are people interested in the kind of writing that you are doing? Keep them in mind while writing. Don’t think about how you have to churn out five more pages and your chapter or article will be done. Instead, think about how you can best tell your readers what you have done and found. If you are writing a research article, then one of your goals is to communicate what you’ve done in a way that clearly connects to work already accomplished in the field. Your readers are going to be other researchers and graduate students, but you might also be surprised at the broader audience you might have — the rise of science communication, for example, means that well-educated writers may adapt your article for broader publics and in a variety of venues. So, when you are writing, think about how you can best share what you know with the people who want to know it. Keep the perspective. Don’t “churn out pages” or have a “binge-writing” session. Be thoughtful and purposeful, and I bet things will go more smoothly.

Questions to ask to help you keep perspective:

  • What is the main purpose for writing this piece?
  • Who is interested in the information I have to share?
  • What organization and ideas will best communicate this to them?
  • What am I contributing to the field by writing?

 

This post was originally published on my personal blog, meagankittleautry.com. It was revised and republished on Academic Consulting and Editing on October 7, 2015. 

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Need to finish your writing project? Protect your time!

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A while back, I tweeted: “An important lesson for #diss writers: Protect your time. Others don’t care if you finish. But it matters if you do!” The tweet quickly received some retweets/replies and seemed to resonate with folks, and rightly so. Time is one of the greatest challenges for doctoral students, and really all academic writers. There’s never enough of it with everything that competes for your time (lab work, more articles to read, extracurriculars, family, teaching, conferences–the list is long and different for everyone).

So how do you finish? Protect your time. Easy to say, but harder to do. Completing your degree or research article is more important to you than anyone else. That is, others will ask you for your time, need you to do things, assume you have some availability, etc. They won’t first think: “Well, so-and-so needs to finish her dissertation or latest article.” That will NEVER happen.

People will always be asking you do things. You will always need to do many things. But you need to put your writing first. A dissertation requires many hours. One dissertation guide (Foss & Waters’ Destination Dissertation, 2007) estimates 1,078 hours. That’s nearly 7 months of working at it full time (40 hours/week). Not many doctoral students can dedicate that much time a week for a dissertation. At 10 hours/week, that means it would take over 2 years to complete the diss. Maybe you’re aiming somewhere in between? Then you need to find about 20 hours per week to work on your dissertation. Between lab time, teaching, department meetings, and job applications–20 hours can be hard to find.

Or can they? The key is not to have to FIND time. The key is to PROTECT your time so that you always have 20 hours per week (at least) available to work on your dissertation. Here are some strategies for doing this:

Schedule out your working hours for the week, including writing time. Twenty hours per week is 4 hours each weekday. One strategy would be to block off all your mornings each weekday for writing. Block it off in your Google Calendar. Close your email. Turn off Gchat. Be dressed, have coffee in hand, and ready to go at 8am. Work until noon (with bathroom, snack, stretch breaks, of course). Don’t commute to school during this time. Don’t meet a colleague for coffee. Use all four hours. Do this every day you have it scheduled, and you will be incredibly productive! Having a habit means you’ll be ready to write when it’s time. No “waiting for inspiration.” No one has ever finished a dissertation or research article using the working method of “waiting for inspiration.”

Writing time is for nothing else. Block off your calendar every weekday from 8am-noon from now until Christmas. And stick to it. Meetings, student conferences, fun time, anything else that you have to do must be scheduled outside of your writing time. Do not give in! Don’t attend that job talk at 9:30 am in your department. That’s your writing time. Don’t meet with a student at 10am. That’s your writing time. This is what it means to protect your time. Other people will not know it is your writing time. You do. Ask for meetings in the afternoon. Schedule office hours in the afternoon. Whatever it takes!

People will understand when you tell them. They know it’s your job to finish your dissertation, or publish your research! But there’s no way for them to know your schedule. So when something comes up at 10am, just decline with a friendly note that you have a writing session that day and time. It is your right to do this. It is your job to finish your writing project. Stick up for yourself! Protect your time. No one else will do this for you.

Occasionally things will come up. That’s OK. But making exceptions to your M-F, 8am-noon working schedule (or whatever hours you’ve chosen) should be an absolute exception and not the norm. You might have a Skype interview and the faculty can only do it in during your dissertation session. That’s OK. But then you need to make up for the time that’s lost: where can you get back the 2 hours that you were doing other things? Add it in somewhere else, even if that means turning something down in a generally open time. Dissertation time comes first.

Weekends will be nice rewards–or bonus working time. If you put in all your 20 hours during the week, weekends can be a restful, relaxing time without worrying about making progress on your dissertation, because you’ve done that all week! The end of your degree can be a stressful time as a graduate student: finishing a diss, applying to jobs, teaching, caring for family, etc. So it’s important to take care of yourself and give yourself a break, such as on the weekends (or even just on one weekend day). Alternatively, if you’ve gotten on a roll during the week and want to do more, then weekends become bonus time where you get additional work done (and possibly finish your dissertation sooner).

Now, I realize these suggestions (or at the very least, the example of 20 hours per week) probably work best for full time students. Part time students who work a different job full time may have fewer hours each week to work on their dissertations, but the concept of protecting your time still applies. Maybe even more so. The time that you do get for dissertation work, even if only 1 hour per night and a few hours on the weekend, becomes critical for you to use and to protect. Carve out that time on your Google calendar, and apply the same ideas: protect the time. Only very rarely allow exceptions. And make up for lost time when you do.

Protect your time and you will have the time to finish your dissertation. That’s your number one goal as a doctoral student, so why let other things derail that progress?

What strategies do you use for finding time–making time–to complete your writing projects? Share in the comments!

 

This post was originally published on my personal blog, meagankittleautry.com. It was revised and republished on Academic Consulting and Editing on September 21, 2015. 

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Great links: All the best dissertation writing advice in one post!

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Most of the search hits to this website are related to finishing thesis and/or dissertation writing. There are many great authors and bloggers out there sharing great advice for dissertation writing (along with other graduate student issues, too). I thought it would be useful to aggregate what I think are some of the best pieces of advice out there, so that it could all be easily accessible in one place!

*Note: all links to external sites will open in a new tab or window.

Understanding the dissertation genre

Demystifying the Dissertation” blog post series from Inside Higher Education, written by Peg Boyle Single who has an excellent book by the same title

On the different types of literature reviews: “Not all literature reviews are the same,” via Pat Thomson, doctoral writing expert and book author

Six steps to writing a literature review by Tanya Golash-Boza

Writing your dissertation conclusion, Part 1 and Part 2, via Pat Thomson (two excellent posts on this difficult part of your dissertation!)

How long is the average dissertation? by Marcus Beck — scroll to the bottom of the post to see the average length in your field!

Writing tips and strategies

Using a spreadsheet to keep track of your writing progress via yours truly

How to deliberately practice your academic writing with some great advice on how focusing on verbs can help you improve your academic writing via The Thesis Whisperer blog

How I wrote my PhD thesis in 3 months by James Hayton

Top 10 Tips for Fast Thesis/Dissertation Writing by James Hayton

10 Ways You Can Write Every Day by Tanya Golash-Boza

A faculty member’s advice for finishing your dissertation via Claremont Graduate University’s Dissertation Bootcamp blog

Five time management ideas for part-time students, by part-time students via The Thesis Whisperer blog

Dissertations and baseball: You’ve got to “live to fight another day” from Jim Brown

Dealing with your committee

Are you on the same page as your supervisor? Some advice about how to talk to your chair and committee members about the type of writer you are and the feedback you need to success via The Thesis Whisperer blog

How to communicate effectively with your thesis supervisor by Dora Farkas

Dealing with negative face-to-face feedback from your committee – great tips for handling a difficult situation, via Pat Thomson

Blogs dedicated to graduate student writing

The archives of these blogs are a treasure trove of information and advice for thesis and dissertation writers. Bookmark these and search them when you need to!

The Thesis Whisperer by Inger Mewbern

Patter by Pat Thomson (She’s currently [as of March 2014] writing about her book writing process – this is a fascinating series for anyone who is thinking of writing a book from their dissertation or after the diss process)

James Hayton (Formerly “The Three Month Thesis”) by James Hayton

Finish Your Thesis by Dora Farkas

Explorations of Style – A Blog about Academic Writing by Rachael Cayley

What’s missing?

If you have a favorite post or blog that I’m missing from this list, let me know!

 

This post was originally published on my personal blog at meagankittleautry.com. It was revised and republished on Academic Consulting and Editing on September 10, 2015.

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Using a progress tracking spreadsheet for your writing

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Project management is an important component of dissertation writing, as is accountability. A common struggle I see is for students to really “see” the progress they make on their project. A dissertation is so large that they often feel that they did not move the whole project forward despite spending several hours working on it. One way that I recommend writers of all kinds can hold themselves accountable for a project while simultaneously seeing progress (and thus feeling motivated to continue) is through a progress tracking spreadsheet. Below, I describe how I’ve used this in the past for my own writing.

What it is

When I was a doctoral candidate, a colleague and I created a progress tracking spreadsheet to hold us accountable for the work we accomplished on our dissertation. Our tracking spreadsheet was a Google Docs spreadsheet that we created to share our progress and to help keep each other on track. Each of us had our own sheet to keep track of our individual efforts toward our dissertations. My spreadsheet was divided up into weeks and days. The rows represented all of the weeks between January 1 and August 31, and the first seven columns were one for each day of the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc.). At the end of each day, in the cell that corresponds with that day, I entered in the number of words I wrote toward my dissertation. I counted only words that made it into the dissertation document and no brainstorming, outlining, or references. While these items all count toward dissertation progress — and indeed are important steps toward completing! — I wanted to keep honest track of much writing toward the final product I was doing. I could often read, browse, and crunch data all week, but when it came down to it, I also needed to be putting words on paper (well, on the screen) to finish my dissertation in a one year period (which ultimately ended up only taking 8 months!). In the columns after the days of the week, I totaled the number of words I wrote for that week in one column and had another with the total number of words I set for my goal to write that week.

Dissertation spreadsheet
The first portion of my dissertation spreadsheet with rows for each week and columns for each day of the week. See the “Chapter 2 done” date? I’ve actually beat that deadline!

On motivation

Overall: I loved the spreadsheet. People who know me know that I am by nature highly-organized and goal-oriented. This spreadsheet allowed me to be both in dissertation writing: it forced a daily attention to the spreadsheet, constant tracking of my progress, and allowed me to celebrate little victories when I met the weekly goal that I set. I am eternally grateful to my colleague Ashley for introducing this to me and for coming up with the idea for us to use this to track our progress and keep each other motivated.

I realize this might not be a good idea for everyone. This spreadsheet worked particularly well for me and my working personality: I looked forward to the end of the day (or my writing session) when I would eagerly input my total word count for the day and watch the numbers add up for the week. It was like a little shot of confidence that I could do this big, HUGE project because I’m making real, visible progress one small chunk at a time.

Identifying my weaknesses

The spreadsheet highlighted for me the days and/or times that I struggled to write. You’ll notice that I had a big fat “0” for three of the four Thursdays in January. Well, that’s because those days I taught and had planning meetings for an international conference we hosted that spring. These two things end up taking up most of my day, and by the end, I didn’t have the brain energy to tackle my dissertation in any meaningful way. I identified that quickly with the spreadsheet. But I also had an entire semester’s worth of Thursdays I needed to make productive, and I couldn’t afford to not write at all on those days if I was going to finish in my desired timeline. So I decided to make Thursday my “clean up” days: Any new references that I need to put into my bibliography, I noted them all week, and on Thursdays, I formatted them properly into that document. Bam – I can APA format articles in my sleep, so that was perfect for Thursday. Most importantly, I never lost an entire day work day: I made my tasks work best for my schedule at that time.

I also made an effort to insert comments into the spreadsheet when I had particular thoughts about the day that I wanted to remember, such as a day with a low total word count in my document but during which I had completed the entire IRB application for my dissertation — a big, important step.

Timeline planning

After using this spreadsheet for the first month of the year, I did a little thinking about the timeline that I was on for writing and how well I was able to meet my daily and weekly writing goals. It gave me the confidence to up my daily writing goal by 82 words, taking my weekly word count goal from 1946 to 2450. This resulted in an entirely complete first draft of my dissertation much sooner than I initially thought. Ultimately, I wrote my entire dissertation beginning on January 1, 2013 and turned in the defense version to my committee on July 17, 2013 — a 250-page dissertation written completely in seven and a half months (including data collection). It can be done!

Do other folks use a system for keeping track of progress on big projects, like a dissertation? If so, what do you use? How does that work for you?

 

This post was originally published on my personal blog, meagankittleautry.com. It was substantially revised and republished on Academic Consulting and Editing on August 31, 2015.