Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

This Book Taught Me How to Write a Dissertation

There came a point after I defended my prospectus where I realized I had no idea how to write a dissertation. Not so much the subject matter - I was confident that I would figure out what to say - but how to say it in a cohesive, book length argument was a huge mental block. I went to lots of workshops, tried writing chapters like conference papers strung together, and eventually someone recommended this book to me: Demystifying Dissertation Writing by Peggy Doyle Single, PhD. Here are five takeaways from the book in the hopes that you might find them useful as well. 

  1. You do not need large blocks of time to write. I imagined that my dissertation writing process would involve me, sitting at my desk in the morning, working diligently to track down obscure references and capture complex thoughts, and emerging at sundown surprised that a whole day had passed in such a pleasant manner. If this is your experience, more power to you, but I rarely had four or five hours at a stretch to write, and if I did, I would get totally restless and waste the whole block of time. The book walks through specific strategies, both in terms of organizing tasks and completing them, to help you be productive in smaller chunks of time. 
  2. You do not need to have all the research "done" before starting to write. Especially for those of us with archival based methods, the temptation can be to get all the pieces lined up before starting to write. Dr. Single really advises that you research and write concurrently, so that you can tailor your research to the writing, and not get stuck closing all the loops when you might not need to, or will need different answers.
  3. You might not know how to read or take notes most effectively for your project and your brain. As far as I can remember, I have not been formally taught how to take notes outside of my high school experience. I can't even remember seeing anyone else's note-taking style, and marginalia can often turn into more performance than effective memory technique. I greatly appreciated the chapters on reading and note-taking, if only for having more models to refine my own. 
  4. There is a way to make the writing process streamlined and predictable. Dr. Single proposes a writing process that starts with a "focus statement", short outline, long outline, and then prose writing. The difference in time from start of chapter to polished draft when I followed her system was almost half than when I tried to go it on my own. 
  5. This isn't a theory book - it is practical, quick to read and easy to tailor. My biggest reservation to the book was that it would take forever to read, and be so broad that it didn't apply to me. I skimmed the book the first time, and then continued to reference certain sections as they came up in my own process. Not every suggestion was perfect for my project, but overwhelmingly, the techniques and skills were helpful for what I imagine is a broad range of humanities and social science projects. 

A book isn't going to take you from zero to writing a chapter magically. But it can help to fill in the gaps that so many of us have when making the jump from seminar papers to book-length projects. Plus, it's got a jammin' cover that will jazz up any bookshelf!