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Writing Your Dissertation: How to Get Started—and Ensure You Finish

 

Dr. Zachary M. Wilmot, Associate Editor

July 2022


The successful completion and defense of a dissertation marks the end of one’s graduate school career. The exact form of a dissertation varies by discipline, subfield, and school, but a dissertation typically takes the form of either a single, long manuscript, which is common in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, or a collection of articles that share a theme and are connected by an introduction and conclusion, which is common in STEM and the statistical social sciences.

Where to Start?

Regardless of form, the overall process of completing a dissertation is similar and includes defending a research proposal or prospectus (see LetPub’s tips for writing impactful research proposals), carrying out the proposed research and analysis, writing the results into a manuscript (or several), and then defending it your research before a committee.

For many, writing the dissertation is the hardest part of this process; staring down a blank page in a word processor can be overwhelming. Below are five tips to help you get started, though their usefulness may vary according to writing style, research methodology, discipline, and the form of the dissertation.

1. Identify Your Contribution(s)

One of the hardest parts about writing a dissertation is organizing your research findings. Dissertations often include a massive amount of data, and it can be difficult to connect all components together into a cohesive document. This is true both for manuscript-style and article-style dissertations, and in both cases an effective way to begin organizing your thoughts, and thus your writing, is to identify the most important contribution of your research.

To identify your contributions, think about what it is that makes your research unique; this can be a specific finding, a methodology, or an argument. Consider what surprised or impressed you most in your analysis and think back to your dissertation proposal to see how much has changed and how.

By identifying what it is that your dissertation contributes to your discipline, you will gain a good idea of how to frame and present your data in written form. Writing a paragraph describing what is unique, novel, and groundbreaking about your research is a good way to start thinking about how all of your data fits together and can serve as not only a solid foundation on which to build an introduction (and maybe a conclusion), but can also give you ideas for structuring the rest of the dissertation.

For manuscript-style dissertations, defining what your dissertation contributes can provide an initial blueprint for organizing your chapters: each chapter can explore a contribution your research makes, or if your contribution is a method, how that method is useful in a particular context. For article-style dissertations, identifying your contributions can help you better see the connections between your articles, and thus identify the overarching themes and arguments that connect them together.

2. Break Your Dissertation Down into Chapters

Part of what can make writing a dissertation difficult, especially for manuscript-style dissertations, is their length. Another way to begin writing is to divide your dissertation into chapters and think about what you want each chapter to communicate. If you have identified your dissertation’s overall contribution, this process can be straightforward, as each chapter can be conceived of as making a single point about that contribution.

One concrete strategy for breaking down chapters and getting words on the page is to jot down a list of what you want to accomplish and say in each chapter. Then, you can order that list and turn each item on the list into a section of your chapter. You can then rework each item into the opening sentence of its corresponding section, and from there you can build out your chapters.

Another way to break down your chapters is to write short abstracts for each one that summarize its purpose, methods, results, and conclusions. These abstracts do not even need to be included in the final draft of the dissertation; knowing this can make this exercise a low-stakes way to start writing and organizing your thoughts.

3. Outline Your Dissertation

For a project as long as a dissertation, developing an outline is almost essential. Outlines can take many different forms and are especially useful for determining what order you want to present your findings. Another advantage of an outline is that it allows you to conceptualize the overall structure of your argument and the progression of ideas, and it can be very easy to see when something does not make sense, is in the wrong place, or needs more explanation. It is also much easier to rephrase or move components around in an outline than in a partially written manuscript.

While outlines can be as vague or detailed as you prefer, for writers who struggle to get going or are easily overwhelmed, a detailed outline can make writing much easier. At its minimum, an outline can be a list of ordered bullet points that summarize what you want each section to cover. A detailed outline can include the opening paragraph of each chapter, the topic sentences of each subsection and paragraph, and summaries of each piece of evidence discussed. If you put enough work into an outline, sometimes writing the dissertation consists of turning bullet points into complete sentences and putting them right after another. See Purdue Owl’s breakdown of outline types for more information about how to actually construct an outline, including sample templates.

4. Write, Write, Write!

This tip is not for everyone, nor for all fields of study, but is very useful for manuscript-style dissertations, especially those dissertations in the humanities and social sciences that rely on long, complex arguments. When writing a longer dissertation and working with lots of data, it can be easy to forget the insights you made when working directly with the data. While this can sometimes be avoided by keeping a journal or jotting down notes, it can be helpful to write paragraphs, or even entire sections of your dissertation, as you analyze the data. This way, you ensure that you do not forget the ideas and chains of logic you develop, and that the data are fresh in your mind when writing your first draft.

Writing shorter, bite-sized chunks of the dissertation as you go can also make the writing process less intimidating, and it avoids concentrating the bulk of writing at the end of the project. If you consistently write as you collect and analyze data, by the time you are done with the analysis, you are nearly done with the first draft of your dissertation; all you will need to do is assemble it and add transitions.

Alternatively, if it is not possible for you to write as you go due to the nature of your research or writing style, making a habit of writing can help ensure that you complete your dissertation on time. Setting aside an hour or two every day to do nothing but write can both build a habit that you can carry with you throughout your career and will eventually train you into making steady progress toward finishing your dissertation.

5. Accept That Your Dissertation Will Not Be Perfect

Many academics suffer from some degree of perfectionism, which is one of the largest hurdles to starting the writing process on any project. Perfectionism is one of the main causes for procrastination in academic writing; many academic writers are worried that their writing will not be good enough, and therefore avoid getting started. One of the most helpful and difficult tips for writing is accepting that your first draft, and the drafts that follow it, are not going to be perfect. This sentiment is echoed in the refrain of dissertation advisors across the world: the only good dissertation is a completed dissertation.

To make it easier to begin writing, accept that the words you first write are going to change before you defend your work. Your dissertation committee is almost certainly going to request revisions regardless of the quality of your work, and there is little you can do about it. Editing is inevitable, and if you do not have words on the page, you will have nothing to improve.

This is, of course, easier said than done. One simple way to move beyond perfectionism is to put your project into perspective: for most, the dissertation is not actually the culmination of one’s academic career, but rather the beginning of it; it is the first step in the next stage of one’s academic career. After earning your degree, you will have plenty of time to polish your dissertation.

Another way to defeat perfectionism is to start every writing session with a short exercise: take five minutes to do nothing but write anything related to your dissertation in a stream of consciousness that you will not include in any draft. This can help break through writer’s block, and sometimes you can even pull ideas or phrases from this short exercise to work into that day’s writing.

A final way to accept that your dissertation will not be perfect is to embrace its imperfections. One concrete trick that works very well is to write the first draft of your dissertation in a font that is hard to take seriously, whether it is because it is uncommon, comedic, or bizarre. This can help trick your brain into lowering inhibitions toward writing. The most common font used for this is Comic Sans. The only thing to keep in mind when trying this is that you need to remember to change the font to a more common one before submitting your dissertation.

With these tips, it is possible to overcome writer’s block and start writing your dissertation, bringing you one step closer to earning your degree.

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