A month and a half ago I started writing my dissertation. What is a dissertation anyway? Google tells me it’s “a long essay on a particular subject, especially one written as a requirement for the Doctor of Philosophy degree.” A long essay is an understatement. My dissertation as it stands is 250 pages long with 30 tables of data and 20 figures representing theoretical models and emergent relationships in my data on the practices of science blogging. How do you write a 250 page document chock-full of data tables, figures and references without your brain turning to mush? Good question. Here are my tips for writing a dissertation without going nuts, pulling your hair out, or throwing your computer over a balcony in a fit of rage. I HATE revising and formatting manuscript drafts. Before I ever started writing my dissertation, I located my graduate school’s formatting guidelines and started a new Word document complete with title page, acknowledgement section, table of contents section, chapter sections, reference and appendix sections.
I inserted Word document page-breaks between each new section and plugged in the proper formatting and font. This way, I won’t have to go back to format my document when I get ready to submit it to the graduate school. Also, lay out an outline of what your dissertation should look like. Is each chapter going to be a separate “study” complete with methods and results, or are your chapters going to be the classic introduction, literature review, methods, results and discussion/conclusion sections? Figure this out early, so you don’t have to spend time at the end moving everything around and filling in the gaps. An unorganized layout can lead to great stress down the road when you have 150 pages to juggle around. Just start writing your literature review or methods section. As soon as you have a solid idea in your head, whether it’s an idea about your theoretical approach or about how the results are falling into place within your theoretical framework, write it down! And your introduction and methods sections should be easy to write even if you don’t have a solid idea of how your dissertation results flow yet.
At some point, you just have to start writing. It won’t be perfect, and you may have to rearrange your sections later, but that’s OK. Seriously, this sounds trite and silly, but it’s far from it. Think about how long you have before a draft is due and what you need to do to get there. Try to figure out how much you need to accomplish on a daily basis to meet the deadline. When I started writing a little over a month ago, I was still coding the 50 in-depth interviews I had conducted with science bloggers for a qualitative research component of my dissertation. To code every interview at least twice over, I figured out at the time I needed to get through at least two interviews a day to finish coding with a couple weeks to spare for writing up the results. So no matter what happened, no matter if I had to stay up until 3am on a busy day to get those two interviews done, that’s what I did day after day. 5 pages a day of dissertation writing.
5 pages of my dissertation manuscript, along with coding and making notes on two interviews, every single day from mid-January to early-March, I could get this thing done. It often became hard to pull myself away from the computer for even a few minutes at a time to grab coffee with my husband during 4-6 hour stents (if not longer) of analyzing data and writing. But I often found that if I forced myself to pull away, take a walk or a ride in the car, I could think about my findings from an “aerial view” so to speak. On one of these coffee runs in particular, I had an insight on how different themes coming out of my interview analysis fit together in a larger over-arching theme which I decided to call The Ecosystem Approach to science blogging. Don’t write your dissertation into fits of disparate findings and arguments. Step away from the computer and think a bit before you throw every piece of data and non-data into your dissertation manuscript. If you are anything like me, writing 10-20 pages at a time is magically easier at midnight than it is at noon.