Part the First: You Are A Good Writer

Those of use who make our living by writing seem to love nothing so much as talking about how difficult it is to make the words go.

If you are ABD in the humanities then you have likely written a research prospectus, your prelim exams, several seminar papers, and dozens of papers for your undergraduate course work.

It’s likely that many of the things you wrote were quite good. Good enough for a professor or two to look at undergraduate-you and ask, “Have you considered going to graduate school?”

Good enough for an admissions committee to say, “Yes! We need this person to be part of our program.”

Good enough for your seminar professors to pass you and good enough for your committee to declare you done with All But Dissertation.

So, then, why on earth would you need advice on how to write? Not only have you written quite a lot but it’s all been good enough to get you here.

Be that as it may, almost every academic I have ever met has an unhealthy relationship with writing.

There is a reason this is one of the most popular images in my academic social media:


The hell of it is, the writing process described in the graphic works for an awful lot of projects. It’s possible (not advisable, but possible) to get through one’s MA thesis and prospectus this way.

It is not, however, possible to get through a dissertation this way.

Part the Second: But That Doesn’t Mean You’ll Be A Good Dissertation Writer

You know what I really, really, really hate?

I hate when people say that life in academia isn’t real life.

I wish I could say that I only hear this malarky from people who don’t work in academia but that’s just not true. I’ve heard it in near equal amounts from people who work in academia as those who don’t.

I once had a newly tenured professor tell me that graduate school is an extended adolescence.

With all due respect to that person: LIKE HELL.

In graduate school I: was diagnosed with a new mood disorder, was diagnosed with autoimmune disease, ended a long-term relationship, got married, buried my stepfather, and sat by my mother’s hospital bed when she almost died–twice.

Real life doesn’t magically stop for you just because you are in graduate school. Life continues to happen and through it all (unless you are on fellowship) you are not only expected to work for your graduate stipend but to write a book in an extremely specialized genre on top of it.

In addition, dissertating is a fundamentally creative process. And, like many creative endeavors, it can be difficult (almost impossible) to draw firm limits between what is work and what is life.

I can tell you with 100% confidence right now that every humanities graduate student I have ever talked to is doing their dissertation because it is deeply related to their personal life in some way. Sometimes the connections are obvious: I grew up adjacent to evangelical purity culture and I wrote a dissertation on virginity. Sometimes the connections are a little deeper such as someone writing about a favorite childhood comic or working on something related to a disease a family member had, but if you scratch the surface those connections between the scholar and the scholarship go deep.

Which is why, one of my favorite cartoons describing life, also very accurately describes what it’s like to write a dissertation:


Part The Third: Momentum

So, what can you do?

The writing skills that have gotten you so far can’t take you much further and real life keeps happening with no respect for your dissertation deadlines.

In addition, the nature of writing a dissertation is completely different from all of the writing you’ve done up to this point.

When writing papers for your course work, or even your prelim exams, there was a recommended amount of pages that a complete work should be.

That doesn’t exist with a dissertation. It needs to be thorough and well-argued and it takes as many pages as it takes. The most concrete advice I ever got in the way of how long a dissertation should be was at an after-hours event where a faculty member confided that they were reading a dissertation which had seven chapters, one of which was 100 pages long. “Don’t,” they said while looking at me very seriously, “ever write a 100 page chapter. That means you’re doing it wrong.”

And that was it. That was the most concrete advice I got on page length from faculty.

Much more helpful was when I asked recent graduates in my program, via a general Facebook cry of desperation, how long their chapters were on average. (The answer, if you’re interested, was 40-50 pages which I thought was very intimidating at the beginning and not quite long enough by the time I was done.)

Moreover, your other writing projects have had a firm deadline. Even if you could kind of fudge those deadlines, say, by getting a seminar professor to extend a deadline for a paper or taking an incomplete for a class, there was still a finite point by which the thing must be done.

That simply doesn’t exist with dissertations. It never has to end. As long as you can keep paying the school to stay registered for research hours and any fees associated with staying on the rolls you can dissertate forever. (Let me tell you right now if you want to dissertate indefinitely then this site is not for you.)

Last, but not least, for the reasons mentioned above and others, dissertating is significantly less structured than the types of writing you’ve done previously. Your committee likely will not hound you and that’s not because they want to see you fail but because they are people in their own right with busy lives and a lot going on.

What’s a grad student to do?

You can’t think of writing a dissertation the way you would think of writing a seminar paper or your prelims or your prospectus. So, how can you think about it?

Momentum is the answer.

Thinking in terms of page limits or deadlines isn’t helpful for many people because it’s difficult to enforce those on yourself and, at the dissertation level, no one else is going to enforce them for you.

On top of that, there are so many parts to doing a dissertation that don’t neatly fall into the traditional category of writing as sitting down at a desk and writing.

The advice to write every day is good advice, and you absolutely should write most days. However, I noticed early on for myself that I couldn’t write for half an hour if I hadn’t given myself at least 2 hours to read, an hour to type up my notes on the reading, lunch, and an hour to just kind of process things. That’s about 5 hours of stuff that genuinely contributes to the dissertation but is not writing, per se, for every half hour of writing.

Instead of writing every day I believe that people should focus on maintaining momentum every day.

Momentum can be a lot of things. Momentum can be networking at a conference, reading, typing up notes, organizing notes, formatting, editing bibliography, searching for a book/article. Momentum can even mean taking a day off for your overall health and sanity.

I believe that the concept of momentum is what people are really getting at when they track their overall word count. Even if it goes down on some days when you cut chunks the overall word count goes up over time showing that you are maintaining your forward momentum.

I would encourage you, dear reader, to set aside questions such as: did I meet my word count today, am I on track to my deadline, did I do enough, what is enough, etcetera.

Instead, replace them with two simple questions you can answer at the end of every day: Did I maintain momentum on my project today? And, how can I maintain my forward momentum tomorrow?

Pro Tip: I would often start the day with a list of three things I could do to maintain momentum on my dissertation. That way if my plans do to one thing, like write 200 words, didn’t pan out I could shift gears and focus on one of my other options, like editing the appendix, to increase my odds of having a successful day.

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