A blog called The Thesis Whisperer was recently pointed out to me. I haven't looked at it closely, but I'll be reading it regularly for a while before I recommend it. I'm sure it's a good place to go to discover that you're not alone, especially when you're struggling with your dissertation. One post caught my eye immediately. It suggested that writing a thesis is not a sprint, it's a marathon.
As a metaphorical adjustment to a particular attitude about writing, it's probably going to help some people. But if we think it through, it's not really a very good analogy. No one is really a "sprinter"; and writing a dissertation is nothing like running a marathon. Importantly, for a metaphorical purposes, very few dissertation writers actually do either (sprint or run marathons). So to say that writing a dissertation is "like" these things is really to compare something writers (presumably) have a distorted view of with something they know very little about. It is true that Haruki Murakami runs marathons and that he compares running to writing, but he does not say that writing a novel is like running a marathon. What he says is: "Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day" (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p. 69ff., my emphasis.)
Here's Ben's explication of the analogy at the Thesis Whisperer, which seems initially plausible.
...writing a dissertation is a lot like running a marathon. They are both endurance events, they last a long time and they require a consistent and carefully calculated amount of effort to complete them and not burn out.
But writing a dissertation is a not a single "event" and really doesn't require "consistent" effort. Certainly not the kind of effort that you have a finite amount of energy for at the beginning of the process (which is what it is: a process not an event). It's a long term project that you work on in bits and pieces, in fact, one paragraph at a time. It doesn't really take endurance because you will be taking regular breaks and you'll be recharging your energy every day. Consider: in order to run a marathon safely you have to be in good shape when you begin, but when you begin to work on your dissertation you can be as out of shape as you like. If you do it right, however, you'll be in shape when you finish. If you run a marathon without being in shape, by contrast, you're likely to hurt yourself.
Writing a dissertation, then, is, if anything, like training for a marathon. And here's the good news. As some fitness experts will tell you, running a marathon is not actually healthy. It's the preparation for the marathon, the regular training, running up to a half-marathon that actually improves your health. It's not actually an "endurance event". A little bit of work every day will do. Running the marathon itself wears you down; it makes you less healthy. There is an episode in Murakami's book when he's running an ultra-marathon that makes this point. I'll write about that on Tuesday.