The completion of a dissertation often coincides with the beginning of a career, a daily grind. When they hand the thing in, dissertation writers have often just managed to learn all the bad habits they need to make them completely unsuitable for working life. Don’t let that happen to you.
"Call Jonah the model of the poet who fails of strength, and who wishes to return to the Waters of Night, the Swamp of Tears, where he began, before the catastrophe of vocation." (Harold Bloom)
To write, said Virginia Woolf, a woman needs money and a room of her own. Needless to say (I hope), that’s not just true for women. All writers need to secure both a space and a time for their writing (a room is a space, and time, of course, is money). Here is a way to think about this problem in relation to longish writing projects like a PhD dissertation.
First, don’t write onto a blank page or out of inspiration. Write to a thesis in an outline. Before you go to bed at night, you should know what you are going to write about (if not exactly what you are going to say) in the morning. If you are struck by inspiration, jot the idea down in a notebook (always carry a notebook) and take it up in your next available writing session.
Second, don’t write on a “free day” or in a “spare moment”. Write at a specific time in a specific place that has been determined at least 12 hours in advance (with an intervening period of sleep). More ideally: plan when you will write over a period of months, and plan to write every day—but take weekends off. Write for at least 30 minutes and no more than 4 hours. (Feel free to push that envelope at either end, but just demonstrate to yourself that you can keep it up over the long term.) Looking back to the first point, as much as possible, let your writing schedule include particular tasks and topics.
Third, don’t write without an audience in mind. An “academic” audience is defined by what they know and by the fact that they share much of that knowledge with you. An academic writer writes for a reader that knows a great deal about the subject but needs to be informed about particular details or corrected on particular issues. You should know the names of at least a dozen of your potential readers, not including those you know personally. You should also be familiar with what they have written about your subject.
Obviously this mostly applies to the “writing phase” of your research project, i.e., after you have made the decision to “get the thing written”. At that time, following these three simple rules will keep your writing process orderly. It will constrain your project in time and space and keep your work from being too much of an “open site” onto which anyone might walk and disturb your thoughts.
Your room and your calendar are the means by which you protect your writing process from the rest of your life and, not incidentally, the rest of your life from your writing process. Book your writing self into your life; show up on time to write and leave on time to do other things. Don’t let your writing self get irritated by his or her surroundings, and don’t let him or her become a bore to your non-writing self, your friends, family and colleagues.
Your outline and a good schedule of dissertation-related tasks are the means by which your writing process effectively leverages your intellectual energy. When planning, work backwards from the universal, predictable chores you will have to do at the end (checking references, proofreading, fixing the layout). Just before you reach that stage you will have to have a last look at the introduction and conclusion. Before that, you will have to make sure there is consistency between theory, method, and results. And so on. Your outline will help you to think of things that will need to get done, but it should also be sensitive to your research results. As your outline changes, make sure the related tasks are modified accordingly.
Your room and your outline define the spatial dimension of your writing process. They ensure that your dissertation does not intermittently look like a blank white page in a wide open space. You always know where you will be sitting (in your room, behind a closed door) and where the words will end up (in a part of the dissertation, specified by the outline).
Your calendar and schedule of tasks can help you control the temporal dimension. At some point you will have to write a first draft of the introduction and at another point you will have to proofread the final manuscript. These tasks, and all the other tasks, can be predicted and assigned a finite amount hours between now and the deadline. How many hours you have all together can be seen by looking at your calendar. Sometimes you will be working with rough estimates, but there is no point in agonizing over the first draft of introduction beyond the, say, three hours you’ve given yourself to write it. Spend those three hours trying, and then move on to the next task. Move on when you calendar tells you to do so. Book time to return to difficult passages.
Unfortunately, the completion of a dissertation often coincides with the beginning of a career, a daily grind. When they hand the thing in, dissertation writers have often just managed to learn all the bad habits they need to make them completely unsuitable for working life. Don’t let that happen to you. See the completion of your thesis as a work process like any other. I promise you, not only will you be happier for it, you will have learned more along the way. The image of the isolated, struggling scholar with nothing on her mind but the dissertation is a myth. These writers just need a bit of money, and a room of their own.