Writing the dissertation requires preparation - of both the content and the writer. You must gather your ideas together, organize them, and be able to transfer your multidimensional intimacy with your topic to the one-dimensional framework of the computer screen or pad of paper. This is often one of the most difficult transitions to make, for you must first build up a structure and then tear it down and separate it into parts to make it fit the prescribed structure of an acceptable dissertation. Most graduate students are synthetic thinkers; that is, they are prone to thinking about the big picture. They love to roll ideas around and find all sorts of connections and combinations and links within the seemingly limitless realm of thinking. Generally, it is neither as interesting nor as easy to transfer the unlimited potential of your thoughts to the realm of words on paper.
When you are preparing to write a chapter or section of the dissertation, there are certain processes that can make it easier to begin and keep working:
1) Follow your own style - it's worked so far. Follow your own natural style of organizing information, within reason. Your usual style of reading, studying, and integrating information has served you well up to this point in your academic career. Now, in the home stretch, is not the time to radically change your organizing and writing style. Use what works for you and stay focused on completing this project as quickly as possible. Some graduate students view the dissertation as the time to rid themselves of all their bad work habits to finally reach the exalted place they've always aspired to be.
Allow me to suggest that you save the self-exaltation for after you obtain your Ph.D.
Until you have been awarded your degree, stay with what has worked well for you in the past. If you read best in bed at night, by all means keep doing that. If you write best first thing in the morning, keep doing that. If you like to have the radio on while you're piecing out a complex train of thought, leave it on. The dissertation is the time to keep on using what has worked for you so far. It's not the time to try to change yourself drastically
2) Get rid of negative feelings before you write. It's crucial that you've attended to any negative feelings and gotten them out of your way before sitting down to write. If you are feeling tired, depressed, angry, anxious, or upset- DO something to alleviate these feelings first so you can then have a more successful writing experience. One technique that I use quite often is to write a journal entry for about ten to fifteen minutes before starting to write. I find that this helps me dump out all my thoughts, worries, and mental wanderings, clearing my mind so there is space to focus on the writing task at hand.
3) Take time to review your notes before you start. In preparing to write, it is a good idea to take some time to review your notes and what you are planning to say. I suggest doing this for about fifteen to twenty minutes before your official writing time. If you work in the morning, for example, you might sit at your desk at 8:35 a.m. and read over your notes until 9 a.m. Then you'd start your official writing time, which might last until 9:30 a.m. After this, you might take a break for a few minutes, walk around, stretch, and then precede your next writing burst with a brief period of reading and reflection. When you are first sitting down to write, schedule shorter writing periods especially if you find writing to be difficult) and gradually work up from there. Remember, more hours spent in front of the computer do not automatically make the finished product better. If you can get a focused block of writing time and use it well, you can accomplish a great deal in smaller blocks of writing time, even fifteen to thirty minutes.
The longer you sit at the computer without writing, the more likely it is that your internal critic is censoring you. The more your critic censors you, the more difficult you'll find it to write. So if you're having problems finding the right words or nothing is coming out, shift your focus for a few minutes and then try again. There is nothing to be gained in focusing on how you should be writing something when you know you're not.
4) Start with what you know. Try starting with the section or idea with which you feel most comfortable. In every writing session, aim to draft at least half a page, no matter how terrible that half page might be. There is value in writing for the sake of writing, especially at first, and you might create nuggets that can be expanded in later sections.
5) Stay focused on what you've planned to work on. When you begin writing, stay focused on the section or chapter you're working on, and try not to get derailed by too many thoughts about random ideas. Having too many good ideas about the parts of the dissertation you're not currently working on might be an avoidance technique. You might want to keep a note pad by your computer so you can jot down your ideas and file them away for use later. Unless you are absolutely compelled to switch focus and move to a new topic or section, try to adhere to your original plan. Inspiration does strike, and should be welcomed. But overall, the main progress of the dissertation will often be more plodding and methodical.
6) Use visual aids and outlines to assist your writing.
Make use of your visual aids to assist in writing. If you made a Mind Map or outline of your section, go back and fill in as many details as possible. Refer to this map or outline periodically and aim to end each writing session by reaching a defined goal. The clearer you are about where you're going, the easier it will be to know when you've reached there.
7) When you're writing, just write.
I find that when I get into the writing zone, the words keep coming out of me and they flow easily. When I start to edit and revise in mid-sentence, the writing zone quickly disappears and is difficult to find again. I must stress that when you are writing, write! Aim to write as much as you can as fast as you can. When you are editing, edit! Do this carefully and thoughtfully. You will know the difference because the writing will flow more easily and you will be almost continuously typing when you are writing, *just* writing. When you are editing your writing as you write it, your time at the computer or desk will be marked by long pauses; little output; and a growing feeling of anxiety, worry, and, sometimes even dread. Remember: you cannot write quickly and edit at the same time. Writing and editing should be considered to be mutually exclusive for your purposes. Create a psychological or emotional writing space that allows you to explore your ideas without feeling they always have to lead to perfect, well-defined end points. If you have read enough and prepared an outline or map for your writing, sometimes you just need to step aside and allow the writing to come. The writing is not going to show up when your internal critic is judging every word you type. Writing is a creative process, and creation is often messy. The more you can allow the writing to be messy, the faster you will move to the place of a more refined product.
8) Leave your last sentence unfinished. Leave your last sentence unfinished so you can more easily pick up in mid-thought when you next return to writing. Most ABDs find it much more daunting to start on a new page or with a new paragraph compared to finishing up one they had already been working on. Each time you sit down to write, aim to work for at least ten to fifteen minutes at a time. If you think this doesn't sound like much time, you're right. But if you write - *just* write for the whole ten to fifteen minutes, you can easily write a page or more within that time frame. Then you can go out and do other things.
Remember, the dissertation is just a long paper. The more you can chip away at it by writing a little each day, the sooner you will get to the finish line.
9) Think less and write more. Rather than taking up all the valuable real estate in your very expensive brain by charting out the perfect pathway to a perfect dissertation that may never get written, why not do a bit more and think a bit less? When you're writing the dissertation, your main goal should be to fill as many pages with as good quality writing as you can, as quickly as you can. If you can't write fast and well, then at least write fast. Writing fast often turns out better than we expect, anyway. If you have taken the steps to outline your thoughts and you have read enough on the topic, the only goal you should have is to get as much of your knowledge out onto the screen or paper as quickly as you can.
10) The first draft need not be a masterpiece. Remember, the dissertation is not a masterpiece in the first draft. And it's not a work of pure fiction (we hope), so you don't have to worry about snazzy plot lines, intriguing climaxes, or the ideal amount of tension between your characters. Since the dissertation is a piece of formal academic writing, you will need to follow the style and form of this genre, and this rarely requires the amount of pre-thought that most ABDs put into it. The first chapters of the dissertation are the most difficult to write because you are becoming accustomed to a more scholarly style of writing. Once you have the basic format defined, you will want to use a similar template for each of your subsequent chapters. And one last thing: remember that a small amount of consistent discipline and regular focus will get this project completed faster than anything else. Your dissertation process does not have to be painful to be meaningful. Now, get down to writing, and good luck!