These are the steps that I have found productive in my personal dissertation-writing experience so far. While mostly basic and unoriginal, the tips below are tried and true in my experience. They may not work for everyone, but they are working for me, and so I’ll (re)share in the hopes that someone else finds them helpful.
1. Write every day.
Or almost every day. As regularly as possible. I’ve discussed this in a previous post, with links to other sites that offer similar tips and discuss daily writing specifically. When I wrote that post, I was just about to begin my trial run of daily writing.
Like most graduate students I know, I was previously a binge-writer, setting aside large amounts of time to write a lot all at once and then taking some days off. Although it has taken me several months to get into a daily (or almost daily) writing groove, it truly is amazing how much more productive I (feel I) am. Regularly working on my dissertation has also the side benefit (other than the main benefit of progress) of reducing my stress and guilt. Moreover, I can still binge-write; some days I might only write a sentence or paragraph, plan an outline of the direction I plan to take next, or read and take notes in preparation of writing the next day, while other days I will sit down for 6-8 hours and write.
But it’s important to note that by “write every day,” I do not necessarily mean WRITE. Perhaps work would be better, but writing is such a major component of the process that I think it needs to be emphasized. Once a complete draft is written, reading and incorporating secondary sources as well as revision are equally productive and necessary tasks. I therefore might not actually “write” anything that day yet I have prepared for the next day’s writing task.
1.2. Write every day even while teaching.
While I must note that my productivity has increased a lot since I began my fellowship and have not had to worry about teaching preparation and grading at the same time, it is also important to find ways to prioritize writing and research while teaching, especially because the final goal for most of us is to find a academic position that will require research and teaching.
One way I incorporated my own productivity into my composition classroom is through a Daily Writing Challenge. Basically, students could earn some extra credit points by posting daily writing (related to the course, such as paragraphs or outlines for writing assignments, reflections on or plans for progress in the course, etc.) to our course’s Blackboard Discussion Board. I posted as well, and if I did not meet the 6 out of 7 days a week goal I set for my students and myself, students earned freebie days they could skip as well. (So if I posted 5 days one week, students only needed to post 5 days to earn bonus extra credit points for completing the challenge for the week). Knowing I’m not helping my students progress by handing out unearned points motivated me to prioritize my own daily writing practices even while being busy teaching.
HabitRPG (discussed previously here and here) has also proven an excellent tool to encourage my own daily writing.
Moreover, Gregory Semenza just wrote on the benefits of writing in short 10-15 minute bursts throughout the day, in “The Value of 10 Minutes: Writing Advice for the Time-Less Academic;” these daily writing bursts can take place in between classes or any time some spare time is found.
2. Have a comfortable and dedicated writing space.
This really helps the writing process as I know when I sit down at my desk (or stand at my desk…more on that coming soon), I am preparing to write. Sure, I end up playing online games and checking out Facebook or Pinterest, but more often than not, writing occurs without me forcing myself to do so. A thought will pop into my mind that I begin to work out in writing, or my notes will catch my eye and inspire a new direction or nuance that I’ll want to immediately begin to record.
But comfort is also important, and the more you write in your dedicated space, the more you’ll realize what adjustments can and should be made to improve productivity. For instance, I purchased a separate keyboard a few days ago after becoming frustrated at how high my laptop sat on my desk; with the separate (and wireless) keyboard on my desk’s keyboard shelf, I’m sitting in a much more comfortable and natural writing position, without the edge of my desk digging into my wrists or my back aching from leaning forward.
3. Know your writing process.
This may seem basic but it is important, and if you don’t already know your writing process, you probably will by the time you’re halfway through your dissertation. This knowledge will certainly prove useful as you try to optimize your productivity.
I know my process begins with marking up the primary source, followed by drafting, researching, incorporating secondary sources, revising, and proofreading. I know that researching before I write my analysis usually leaves me confused and overwhelmed. I also know that I will inevitably write more during the drafting process, followed by less writing while I research and read secondary sources, followed by a final return to the writing process. Because I know this, I don’t worry when I’m not making visible progress on my written draft when I hit the secondary source stages; progress is still being made even if concrete evidence of it cannot be seen, and the bulk reading and note taking (or rather, quotation flagging) will pay off in a quicker incorporation and revision process.
4. Plan your writing projects strategically.
By this I mean that you don’t necessarily have to write your introduction first, followed by Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. I began with my middle chapter first because I felt most confident in the argument being made in it and I already had ~40 pages written on the topic from my Master’s Essay. I chose my next chapters based on scheduled conference presentations related to the topics, as well as based on which chapters had the most written on the subject from previous term papers and presentations. I know I’ll be leaving the introduction until the end, and I’ve also decided to wait to work on one of my chapters because it easily drops out of the project if I run out of time to complete it and defend in order to graduate in May 2015 (my current plan involves an intro, seven chapters, and a coda and therefore more than meets any length requirements even with one chapter dropped).
I’ve also allowed whim and muse to play a role in my writing process. If I’m trying to decide what chapter to work on next, and I’m not particularly interested in the subject at the moment, I choose a subject and chapter that does interest me. Writing about something I like and care about at the moment only increases my productivity and has me still loving my project even after several months of writing.