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Tactics for effective dissertation writing

November 12, 2007

If you clicked on that post title from somewhere else and thought you might be getting a thoughtful and comprehensive post filled with tips and advice about effective writing…well, sorry…

I am getting so close to the deadline of having to hand my dissertation into my committee. Close enought that I don’t even want to mention it. I am finishing up the Discussion section of the only remaining chapter. The other sections have been or are in the process of being reviewed by my coauthors. The figures and tables are done (except for a nifty summary figure that is still in my head).

So…the Discussion section. You know, this is the fun part, right? This is where you can leave all that anal-retentivity behind and freely postulate outrageous things! Well, not quite. But, it is certainly more interesting to write about implications your results may have than writing the bland (yet extremely important) descriptions of rocks, plots, cross sections, maps, and so on.

Being more interesting, however, is typically more challenging. I find myself sitting looking at the dang Word document staring right back at me as if to say “c’mon…do it…whaddya got?”

Here are a few of my tactics for effective writing:

  • Jump around wildly from one sub-section to another with no apparent plan (see a previous post of mine about that method here).
  • When you can’t think of anything to write but feel way too guilty to check your email or … gasp … post on your blog, futz around with your Acknowledgements, figure captions, or other such thing. Then it feels like your still working even though you’ve accomplished nothing.
  • Look at the calendar again just to make sure you correctly counted how many days until the deadline. Depending on your emotional state (and caffeine level) this can lead to semi-severe panic, or it can lead to a moment of knodding your head and saying to yourself “this is easy, no problem, I’m so on top of this” … (it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe that, it’s all about survival now).
  • Finally, at this point in the game, the deadline is so close that I simply cannot be separated from my computer. It is actually fused with my lap now. If a good idea or way to phrase something pops into my head, I need to be with the Word document ready to record it. If that window of opportunity shuts…that’s it. Gone.

These are just a few…i’m sure you all have your own tactics for effective writing. Feel free to educate me.

[image above from here]

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2007 12:08 am

    Outline and flowchart your ass off.

    Outline for everything you need to say, where it derives from, and who the important refs are, what the arguements and counterarguments are.

    Flowchart for all the procedural crap that comes with chapter ending (figure integration, spell check, caption positioning, etc) so that you only do those things on schedule, and not as a procrastination.

    -The guy who put everything together the night before, only to realize he forgot to write the abstract.

  2. November 13, 2007 1:05 am

    The thing that I remember about by dissertation-writing was the almost imperceptible transition from there being an overwhelming amount still to do from only having a few niggling things to finish off. Not that that helped to improve my stress levels, of course…

  3. November 13, 2007 6:36 am

    I’m no good at understanding the deadline pressure. I walked into my committee meeting in the middle of my fourth year, showed them the two papers I had drafts of, and asked them what to do.

    They said “finish.”

    I thought I needed to write at least another chapter, and that I needed to do more research to give the dissertation more oomph and completeness. But in the end, that was it: two chapters, and an unpublished section discussing the questions that the dissertation raised.

    I wish, actually, that they had pushed me harder, and hadn’t been satisfied with what I had finished already. It’s weird not trusting my committee’s judgment, because they accepted a dissertation that I thought wasn’t good enough.

    (I still spent six months fiddling around with figures and tables to get everything into the right format, and revising things one way and then the other as the committee members disagreed on how I should say things.)

  4. Bill permalink
    November 13, 2007 8:32 am

    Outlining/Flow Mapping –
    Definitely agree – helps with clarity of thought and to take the thought to at least current understanding.

    Anxiety brought on by caffeine and fear –
    1.) I used/use a counter-chemical approach; beer and/or wine to sedate, but not disable.
    And/or…
    2.) Take 10-15 minute walk(s) to “smell the roses”; the reminder that there is a world beyond the document helps me minimize the writing and, thus, makes it achievable. In fact, for me the writing becomes just an annoyance that I’d much rather be done with and go on more walks, hikes, or whatever is next.

  5. annejefferson permalink
    November 13, 2007 8:45 am

    You forgot formatting references and figures to agree with the arcane dissertation style-book for your university. That took me weeks!

  6. November 13, 2007 8:54 am

    excellent…thanks for the comments…this is definitely a topic many who read this blog know about!

    lab lemming: what’s a flow chart? that sounds very organized.

    ChrisR: i’m looking forward to that transition (days away).

    Kim: i’m satisfied with what i’ve produced, although this last chapter may not be as ‘tight’ as the others (I guess there’s always a last chapter)

    Bill: both #1 and #2 have been employed…and yes, blogging too (which is kind of pathetic that a “break” means still typing on my computer)

    anne: yes…I get to do that after the defense…I’m actually looking forward to the point where formatting is my main worry…right now it’s still science!

  7. November 13, 2007 11:33 am

    B – Just remember that if ne’er do wells like myself can get through, you are going to be fine.

    Is the date anytime near AGU? If so I’d love to be in the audience.

  8. November 13, 2007 2:37 pm

    I’ve never written a dissertation, but when I have to fill a blank spot my solution is to just blurt stuff out on the page. Actually, I’ll throw stuff into that blank section while I’m writing the other parts. They act as seed crystals. You go in, ponder and finagle them, add and subtract, and eventually the whole mush sets up firm with its hypidioblastic texture and everything.

  9. November 14, 2007 4:43 am

    A flowchart is an outline with boxes and arrows so you don’t forget where to go after too many sleepless nights.

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