8 Academic/Long-Form Writing Tips (aka how I wrote a 50k+ word PhD dissertation)



As I’m nearing the end of my dissertation process (just down to the defense, final revisions, and omg the formatting) I thought it might be helpful to sit down and write up the most helpful tips and tricks that got me through the drafting process. I spent months working on my dissertation. I started drafting it in June and had a complete draft of all the chapters by January, so all in all, the drafting process took me 8 months. Which felt like forever, but really wasn’t that long for cranking out 7 chapters, each one 7-10k words (dissertation chapters are hella long).

Being a PhD student is hard. But let's not make it harder. There were definitely things that got me through the drafting stage and the first couple revisions and made the whole process a lot easier. So here we go, my 8 tips for academic or long-form writing (I’m talking to any of you fiction/non-fiction writers out there) that get help you get from 0 to 50k+ words faster than you think.

1) Motivation
The fact that I get to read books like this was just
too much fun. Read to the end for a fun fact
about Diana's wedding gown.

You have to remind yourself why you’re doing/writing what you are, don’t think along the lines of “I’m just a student and I’m writing because I have to.” Yes, writing a dissertation is one of the many hoops we have to jump through to get our degree. But it should also be the most fun hoop of all of them. This is when you finally get to show what you know and really drill down and focus on a topic you should love more than anything else you’ve studied. If you don’t love it that much, you really should have chosen a different diss topic. I’m not saying you have to love your project all day, everyday. It’s natural to fall in and out of love with it as you sail through the easy parts and struggle over the sections that just don’t want to come together. But you’re working on this project for a reason.

For me, it started out of a fascination with certain fashion icons and the question of what makes them iconic. I mean, why are we still fascinated with Jackie Kennedy or Princess Diana all these years later? Sometimes I struggle with making sure I’m theorizing my ideas enough and really proving the importance of my work, but this is a project I truly believe in, one that allowed me to travel to London and present at an international conference, and one that I will be continuing beyond my PhD completion. Most dissertations eventually get published (usually after massive cutting and revising) so my motivation isn’t just to finish it so I can finish my PhD. In a sense, the PhD is just a major workshop, fine-tuning these ideas before I take it to a potential publisher. That’s a huge motivation, knowing that one day, if I work hard enough, this project will turn into something even bigger.

So, identify what your main motivation and/or goal for your project is and keep that in your mind while working. Especially on the days when it’s all going wrong and you just want to throw your laptop out the window, and you worry it will never work out.

2) Create a routine

Having a basic writing routine will really help you in the long run. You don’t have to stick to the same routine every day, I certainly didn’t (the joys of having a chronic illness), but I still had a basic routine that I could fall back on each day. For me, I set aside time, usually in a 3 hour block, every day. I did additional work outside of that time, but I always knew that 3 hours every day would be spent on my dissertation. As a PhD Candidate, it’s really easy to let teaching and committee responsibilities take over your time, especially since those usually have more immediate deadlines.

If I wasn't writing at home, you could usually find
me in a coffee shop. Particularly Press Coffee Co,
where Sephora is conveniently located across the
street for a special, end of week treat/reward for
reaching my word and time goals!
I always had 12-3pm blocked out on my calendar and I didn’t schedule anything else during that time. For me, mornings are really hard, especially if I don’t sleep well, and fatigue is a serious issue. Later afternoons are also bad because I’m usually getting really tired by 4pm. So 12-3pm was the sweet spot where my brain was functioning at its best and I could handle the task of reading and writing. But I also would set aside the first hour that I was awake as writing time. If it had been a bad night I wouldn’t always do this, but if I woke up and felt ok, I’d grab my laptop and just spit out text for an hour and then go get breakfast. It was sometimes easier to write in that time when my body was awake but my brain was still starting up. My brain would still be too tired to second guess myself, so I could just get a lot out and then edit it later.

I always worked either at my desk, in my bed, or at a coffee shop. I can’t write in my shared office at school or at my parents house, too many distractions. So, find some blocks of time in the day and a couple locations you know you can work, and carve out that time and space for your writing and research to create a little routine. It will help train your brain into knowing it’s time to work now. Keep things nearby that will help you, I always had lip balm, hand cream, would have a mug of coffee and some snacks, and a cozy sweater in case I got cold. I tried to have everything I needed to work so that I wouldn’t be constantly finding an excuse to get up and walk away from the desk. I would also keep any books or articles that were relevant to the section I was working on close by so that I wouldn’t be constantly getting up to go to my bookshelves.

3) Set both time goals and action goals

My trusty bullet journal. Always had time blocked out in
 the day for writing, as well as space to record my time
target and word count each day.
It’s really important to set realistic goals but also to challenge yourself. For me, I found that by setting both time goals as well as action or task goals, helped me stay realistic about what I could do so that I could make progress, but also allowed me to push myself. For example, I would say, “I’m going to work on my draft for at least 3 hours and I’m going to try to write at least 1000 words.” I always knew I would get my 3 hour block, so my time goal was a realistic one. And in 3 hours, some days 1000 words was a big challenge, other days I’d hit 1000 words after 1 hour, so if I kept going I’d end up with over 2000 words within my 3 hour time block. If you set 1000 words as your only goal, you might stop as soon as you achieve that. But if I knew I still had another hour or so of my time to fulfill, I could usually surpass my word goal or my task goal for the day. Or, you could also have a time goal of 3 hours, and a task goal of 500 words in Chapter 2 and outline Chapter 3. I would also set goals of working on or completing certain sections. Once you get into it, you’ll know how much time it takes you to complete certain tasks. So set goals that are always just slightly more challenging, that way even if you don’t fully complete it, you’re a lot closer than if you set a lower bar for yourself. Side note: I love using my bullet journal to help me track all of this.

4) Small steps 

Hitting my word goal always felt great.
Exceeding it felt even better!
When you’re writing, especially in the beginning, just getting started each day feels like a challenge. So break things down into small steps. I never set a task of “write Chapter 4” on my list. It was always more like “work on Analysis 1 of Chapter 4” or “write bio for Chapter 5.” Break things down into manageable chunks of like 300 words. For example within “Analysis 1 of Chapter 4” there would be a description of the dress I was analyzing, the context of the event it was worn to, quotes from scholars and designers that supported my analysis, and my analysis itself. So even if my task for the day was “work on Analysis 1 of Chapter 4”, that would be broken down further into “draft the basic description” or “introduce the event” and then by the time I got through those easier aspects, the rest of it started to feel a bit less difficult. So start small and start with something that’s less overwhelming and then build it step by step. And when in doubt, give yourself permission to go back and work on your notes or reread a chapter from one of your sources to give yourself inspiration. Or (my personal fave) take out a pen and paper and just start writing down whatever pops into your head. Sometimes you just have to get those ideas out of your brain and onto paper to figure out what to write next.

5) Remind yourself of your success 

A lot of people, but grad students in particular, can be very hard on themselves. I tend to be my own worst critic and nothing I do ever seems “good enough.” I used to think any compliment I got was just someone being nice or was just a random coincidence, but not an accurate reflection of my work. It’s taken me years to acknowledge that I am good at what I do and that I’ve had my share of success. And it’s helpful to remind myself of those successes every now and then, especially when that negative/critical voice starts making me doubt my work.

Don’t just think abstract affirmations like “I am enough”—but you totally are, just so you know—also remind yourself of specific successes, "I passed my comp exam", “I got that book review published”, “my professor gave me really positive feedback”, “Prof. So and So praised me in front of other professors at the social.” For any grad student reading this, believe me when I say, you wouldn’t have gotten into your current program if you weren’t already good at what you do. So ignore the voice of the imposter syndrome and focus on the identifiable proof that you are good enough.

6) Be organized

Gosh, outlining Chapter 3 feels like
a lifetime ago. But working in Scrivener
made that process soooo easy!
It really doesn’t matter how you do this, but find a method and/or software that works for you. Long form writing projects like a PhD dissertation can get massively long. I have a main folder on my laptop’s desktop/main screen, under that I keep the top few documents I’m currently working on (like the current chapter and work notes and Scapple file, which I’ll talk about next). Then inside the diss folder I’ll have other folders for each draft of the diss (all first drafts together, all first drafts with comments, all second drafts, and so on). You don’t have to copy my organization method, but find one that works for you. Especially if you’re going to draft entirely in MS Word. But I also highly recommend a program called Scrivener. 

A fellow PhD colleague who was a year ahead of me recommended it and I’m so glad I got it. Best $45 I spent. It’s available in the App Store for Macs but there’s also a PC version. It made the initial drafting process so much easier and has a nifty function that lets you set a deadline to finish and a word count and then gives you daily session word targets. Every time I would post a pic of those on my Instagram stories I’d have other grad students DM-ing wanting to know what program I was using. There are way too many features and reasons why you should check out Scrivener for me to list, but definitely look them up if you are still in the early planning stages of your project (fyi, it’s also excellent for novels, blogging, and course/lesson planning as a teach, I use it for all those purposes as well as my dissertation).

Whether you use Scrivener or something else, just make sure you come up with a system that works for you for keeping it all organized. And don’t forget to back it up frequently!

7) Using Pinterest, Scapple, vision boards, or any other visual aid/idea organization tool

My biggest Pinterest board, I've been adding to it for over five years, since this project
started as a seminar paper during my Masters degree. If Jacqueline, Diana, Michelle,
 or Catherine wore it, there's a picture of it on this board.

One of my "vision boards" made in Scapple for my chapter
on Princess Diana.
I’m a very visual person. Text on a page can often be very distracting for me because the words all blend together and I can lose sight of what I’m trying to accomplish or argue. Throughout my dissertation (and my MA thesis) I kept Pinterest boards for my project that I could hold all my visual research. This was especially important for my project. As I narrowed down which garments I would specifically be analyzing in my dissertation I created vision boards/mind maps in Scapple. This was great for when I was writing, I could just have that chapter’s Scapple board open on my extra monitor and be able to see the things I was talking about. If you’re not a visual person like me, vision boards or mind maps might not be useful for you, but if having the visual aid helps, definitely take the time to make one.


8) Don’t give in to writer's block

Sometimes going back to pen and paper is best for
combatting writer's block.
Finally, don’t give in to writer's block. We all have those times (minutes, hours, days, weeks even) when the words just won’t come. Those are usually the time when I create a vision board or mind map, pin some more things on Pinterest, go back to my books and reread pages I flagged and sections I highlighted, or asked a friend or one of my committee members to meet up for coffee to chat about my project and have them ask me questions about it. Seriously, chatting about your work can be so helpful. Every single time I’ve been talking about my work and said something just casually and thought, “that needs to go in the diss.” Talking to people, especially those who aren’t fully knowledgeable about your subject, can be so helpful.

But also don’t be afraid to just step away completely. If I’d been working for a couple hours and the words just stopped coming, I’d spend another hour or two reading or going over my notes and then come back to it the next day. Never sit there just staring at the blinking line on the blank screen. You will drive yourself mad and it won’t make you know what to write any faster. Just step away, go for a walk, read a novel, watch some Netflix, anything. And then come back the next day refreshed. 90% of the time, after you take some time away, when you come back the words will be there. So don’t feel defeated. Your brain just needs some extra time.



Overall, long form writing, such as a dissertation, can be incredibly daunting and overwhelming, and there will definitely be roadblocks and a bit of stumbling in the dark. You have to learn to embrace that as part of the process and learn to trust the mess and the chaos. Don’t fight it, you won’t win. 

What are your tips for big writing projects? I’d love to hear in the comments below. And if you found this helpful and think your friends/colleagues would benefit, please share this post. Thanks for reading! Happy writing! 

Until next time,


Andrea xo

P.S. Did you read last week's post about how to enjoy the present moment? If not, catch up here

P.S.S....Fun fact: Princess Diana's wedding gown was completely made in the UK by British artisans and designers. Only the raw silk was imported. The raw silk was then woven into meters of fabric to make the dress, which was entirely constructed and decorated in the UK. The reason the raw silk had to be imported? The English silk worms couldn't produce enough silk for the dress in the time the Emanuel's had to create the dress! But they were able to get enough English silk to create the veil. How about that? The more you know. ;) 

Comments

  1. Thanks for the advice!

    One thing that helps me is being very intentional with my actions. So if I am sitting down to write, I have something specific I am going to do, and then I move on to the next thing with intention. But I think it’s most useful when thinking about breaks. I agree that staring at a blank page is a waste. I try to be intentional about breaks—when to take them, how frequently, why—in ways that reflect my values. So taking myself to a movie to do something fun or enjoy a great film, getting a massage or meditating to help me relax, exercising to make sure I’m taking care of my health, and most importantly spending time with people who I care about. I find that I’m having the most trouble writing when my life gets out of balance with these priorities, so I try to plan my breaks to keep that balance in check as best as I can.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! Balance is so important. And I like what you say about being intentional about actions, that's such a great way to think about it. :) Thanks for reading!

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