A Guide to Writing a Thesis

This post was written by PhebeAnn Wolframe, PhD. She began her PhD studies in September 2009 and defended her thesis, Reading Through Madness: Counter-Psychiatric Epistemologies and the Biopolitics of (In)sanity in Post-World War II Anglo Atlantic Women’s Narratives , in December of 2013. PhebeAnn also tweets @scriptedskin.

Lisa asked me to write a bit about my dissertation writing process. What makes me qualified to advise on the matter?

1) I completed a dissertation

2) I did it in a timely manner (I finished researching and writing it under 2 years)

3) I often found myself frustrated (as I think many PhD students do) trying to figure out how, specifically, one writes a dissertation beyond the “just do it!” advice that is so common.

Having found a pretty successful method via trial and error, I might as well share it with others, who may find it helpful! That said, there is no one way to write a dissertation and what worked for me won’t work for everyone. You will still go through a process of trial and error in figuring out what works for you.

 You’re probably taking a break from writing your dissertation right now, and are just itching to get back at it (right???) so I’ve tried to make this skimmable, breaking into sections with titles, and highlighting key points.

SOME BROAD STROKES

Timelines

I completed quickly mostly by setting deadlines I was pretty hell bent on meeting. I decided on a date by which I wanted to submit a full draft (leaving time for my committee to provide feedback on that draft and for me to revise again before submitting for external review). Then I looked at how much time that give me to finish. I divided the remaining number of months by the number of chapters. The way it worked out for me, I had six weeks per chapter. I had already written one chapter at that point. In my dissertation proposal, I had envisioned five chapters of 25-30 pages. They turned out to be more like 40-45 page chapters, so I ended up cutting a planned chapter I hadn’t begun yet, which saved some time too. You don’t have to write everything you planned to write! In fact, you probably shouldn’t.

I gave myself one month to read, one month to write, and two weeks to revise for each chapter. I stopped reading and started writing after that month whether I felt “ready” to start writing or not. If I was getting anxious about time, sometimes I’d stop reading earlier, after two or three weeks, once I’d read primary texts and theory. I’d start writing, and then go back later and put in the literature review piece (connections to/debates with preexisting criticism).

Priorities

My priority was to finish my degree within the time of my funding guarantee. My other priority was to have some semblance of work-life balance in the process. In the third year of my PhD, as I was just beginning to seriously work on my dissertation, I was having serious doubts about the whole enterprise. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an academic. (I am still not sure.) I was feeling overwhelmed and burnt out and all I ever did were things that I could put on my CV. I cried a lot and struggled with my decision. But ultimately, I didn’t want to give up on something I’d already invested so much time and effort and money in, I wasn’t sure I wanted to throw in the academic towel quite yet, and I did really care about my project and want to finish it, regardless of where I ended up career-wise.

So, I backed away from all academic commitments other than my RA-ship. No more conferencing, publishing, committee work etc. All of that stuff is great for your CV, and many of my colleagues have graduated with far more impressive CVs than mine (I tip my hat to them). But, many of them also took more time to complete because they were dividing their time among these multiple commitments. Refusing to devote time to other professionalization concerns in my last 1.5 years of my degree cleared my mind and cleared my plate. It’s not the only approach, and learning to balance multiple commitments is important, but it did help me get ‘er done.

I mostly did not work on weekends. I found giving myself a date for completion really helped to push myself to do x amount of work per day during the week so as to meet my goal. And, taking the weekends to do non-academicky things just for me (read, knit, hike, study music etc.) helped me feel more rested and less reluctant to resume thesising on Monday. 

THE NITTY GRITTY

Research: Only Read a Little!

I did not spend a lot of time in research. I found drawing on my committee’s knowledge to help me find one or two theory texts to help ground each each chapter really cut down my research time. More theory went in later as I got feedback and revised, but it didn’t need to happen up front. My committee was probably only going to ask me to change it later anyway! I focused on close reading my primary text(s) through one or two theoretical lenses, and wove in references to a few (approximately 2-10) pieces of pre existing criticism. The number of scholarly articles/chapters I drew on depended on the amount of existing criticism of my primary text(s) and how important that existing criticism was to my analysis of the primary text(s). My literature review was not exhaustive. Though I, as an aspiring thesis writer, envisioned myself reading everything written on my primary texts, I quickly discovered that’s just not practical in most cases. Instead, I used database search functions, google scholar, and works cited pages in books I had already found useful to look for a few examples of criticism of my primary text(s) that closely related to my argument.

If, (inevitably) as I was writing, I discovered I needed more information on x or a way to theorize y I would read a little more on that topic––only enough to make a reference to it in my chapter; it could be fleshed out more later if need be (this often meant finding one book on the topic, and using the index to find a quotation that fit).

If there are holes in your research (there will be) your committee and/or external reviewer will point them out later. That’s normal. This is one project among many and it will always be (like all projects) somewhat incomplete.

On Notes: Organize Roughly as You Go

As I read (both primary and secondary texts), I put what I thought might be key things from readings (quotations, ideas, with page numbers) into a really sketchy outline in my word processor. I would basically just make up headlines as I went to organize information (eg. “Oooh, there’s lots of ghost imagery in both these novels. That needs a heading.”) Sometimes, to help me keep track of the headings (which would get quite spread out in the document as I filed things under them) I would use the bookmarks feature in my word processor.

Screen Shot 2014-01-20 at 4.18.43 PM

Outline for my chapter on Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl and Joan Riley’s The Unbelonging, using bookmarks function in the left sidebar. (PhebeAnn Wolframe)

I didn’t use the information I put under every heading in my outline, but when I was done “mapping” I could at least see what I thought would flow together well for a chapter and lead to a solid argument. At the end of reading and making a rather ungainly outline, I’d decide roughly what order the information would go in, what I would be cutting right away because it didn’t fit, and sometimes what I could sacrifice later if I didn’t have room. This usually meant doing a second outline that was literally just the headings in the order I wanted to talk about them, so I had an easier-to-follow map that helped me navigate the ungainly outline.

The next step was to write a thesis statement in two to three sentences to ground my argument for the chapter. I would put this thesis at the top of my shorter outline (with just the headings) to help me stay focused on that argument as I wrote.

journal 1

Journalling process for my comprehensive exams survey paper. (PhebeAnn Wolframe)

Stumped for an argument? Try  journalling. At times it can be difficult to condense disparate and/or complex ideas into a clear argument. I found journalling really helped in this regard. Sometimes I would write a journal entry––stream of consciousness, and written in very colloquial language––trying to capture in my own words, however casually, what I was thinking about/noticing in my primary text(s), or what patterns I was seeing across text(s). From this rambling, I find a few key ideas tend to emerge. Sometimes it helps me to print the journal entry and read what I’ve written, then condense the key ideas in point form before re-writing those points into a thesis. Writing oneself questions (What interests me in this text? Why is it doing what it’s doing? What am I curious about?) can also help to clarify ideas.

Writing! Making Goals & Avoiding Editing

Once I got going, the writing itself usually progressed pretty smoothly for me, because I was mostly filling in the gaps between ideas/points from my outline. As I went, I highlighted sections in my (detailed) outline that I had addressed, in order to give myself a sense of progress.

The hardest part of writing, as they say, is to write. For me, it was sitting down at my computer and staying focused for long enough to actually do the work that proved the most challenging. I have yet to completely forgo procrastination (has anyone?) but I found that using a modified version of The Pomodoro Time Management Technique really helped me to stay on track.

Rather than a word count goal (which some people do – a solid option) I set myself a goal of how many “tomatoes” (25 minute chunks) worth of writing I was going to do in a day. I usually aimed for about four to ten, which translates to two to five hours of writing in a day, stopping every 25 minutes for a five minute break and sometimes a longer break for a meal or some exercise, depending on when I started working and how much I hoped to accomplish. BUT, I should note, those tomatoes only “counted” and were recorded if I actually wrote for the duration of those 25 minutes. If I veered off into procrastination, I’d “squash the tomato” (as mytomatoes puts it), have a stretch, and start the clock again.

The Pomodoro tracking site mytomatoes.com, which has both a timer and a recording function, held me accountable for how I spent that 25 minutes by making me reflect on whether I actually worked or procrastinated during that time. The timed breaks also encouraged me to be mindful of how long my breaks actually took and think about how I wanted to spend them (sitting at my computer as I’d been doing for the past 25 minutes vs. getting up and stretching, looking out the window, or playing with the cat). There were still days that the thought of writing reduced me to tears, but it’s hard to argue against a paltry 10 or 20 minutes. Even if all I did was 25 minutes of writing and nothing more all day, I’d reason, that was better than giving up in fear and being even more anxious tomorrow because I’d “failed” the day before. Most of the time, once I’d written for 25 minutes, I found the courage to write for another 25.

The other hard part of writing, for me, was not editing as I went. I had a habit I’d established as an undergrad of fussing over each sentence before moving on, and that worked okay when I was writing 10-15 page papers, but less so the longer my assignments became. When I had to write a dissertation, this perfectionism completely clogged up my progress. I had to learn to let go. Just like you can read forever and never start writing, you can keep writing the same thing over and over and never get to the end of a chapter. I forced myself to at least finish each section of my chapter before giving it a brief edit. After the section is done, read each sentence once (twice at the most!) fix as best you can, and move on. When my deadline for the chapter hit, I submitted it, imperfections and all. You don’t need to be embarrassed that your draft chapter is a work in progress. Your supervisor has read (and written) many, many shitty drafts (or as one of my committee members likes to call them, draughty draughts: full of holes). In Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, (which I read towards the end of my writing process – and wish I’d found earlier) Joan Bolker uses the similar concept of the “zero draft”: a fairly unstructured, rambling draft that you later whittle down and shape up. The point is to get the thing written.

After receiving feedback from my supervisor/committee, I took one or two weeks (depending on the extent of the revisions) to revise each chapter. Revising as I went also helped to break up the monotony of writing the first draft and give me a sense of progress.

Staying Motivated and Productive

In addition to recording my progress by using the mytomatoes tracker, and by highlighting my outline, I found it helpful to reward myself after each chapter with a celebration. This usually meant my partner and I going out to a fancy-ish dinner and/or a show of some kind. Once we spent a weekend away in a bed and breakfast in a nearby town. I’d always make sure to take a photo of us to mark the occasion, too. Dissertation writing is so isolating, and there is so little to show, tangibly, for all of the work you do. Especially compared to the many years of coursework you’ve undoubtedly trekked through, where you had grades and credits along the way to mark your progress, dissertation writing (a marathon, not a sprint) can really feel Sisyphean. I found it helped to create some benchmarks (ie. chapters or sections completed), and corresponding rewards along the way. It’s hard work and real work; pat yourself on the back now and then!

Wishing you all the very best of luck with your writing process.

In solidarity,

– PhebeAnn Wolframe, PhD

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