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My theme this month is a fun one: live the life I want to live.

In brainstorming for last week’s focus, I asked myself two questions:

What do I want? What do I need to do to get that thing?

Unsurprisingly, my answers hearkened back to one of my main goals for The Tending Year

I want to finish my dissertation on time.
I want to write a good dissertation.
I want to write a done dissertation.

And what do I need to do to accomplish those goals?

Write. Revise. Write more.


While “just write a ton” sounds like a good plan in theory, the actual practice of writing such a loooong and important project feels daunting. I felt overwhelmed, so, in true The Tending Year fashion, I did some research.

I found Helen Sword’s BASE quiz, adapted from her book, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. You can read more about the BASE quiz here, but the basic idea is that we each have individual strengths and weaknesses when it comes to our Behavioral, Artisinal (think “craft”), Social, and Emotional writing habits. I got the “Seabird” result of the quiz, which means I felt pretty good about everything except my writing behavior, which I labeled “Unsatisfactory”.


Although the quiz results didn’t surprise me, they did hold me accountable for my lack of regular writing habits, which motivated me to try out a tool I’ve heard other dissertators and writing coaches praise: keeping a dissertation journal. In what follows, I describe the theory behind dissertation journaling, why it works, and how you can do it, with a ton of Takeaways prompts. And even if you aren’t dissertating, this blog post can help you to maximize your writing behavior for any writing project!


What is a Dissertation Journal?

A dissertation journal is a place where you can keep track of your reflections, questions, or feelings about your dissertation and writing process. Most of the sources I read about keeping a dissertation journal praised its abilities to help jump start our brains out of writer’s block and build stronger and regular writing habits. Also, there are different purposes for journaling before, as a quick break during, and after dissertation writing sessions. 


Why Keep a Dissertation Journal?

There are many reasons to keep a dissertation journal, such as:

  • keeping a running record of your progress on key themes
  • asking questions and answering them
  • venting your frustrations, anxieties, or distractions
  • reminding yourself of your strengths and your reasons for writing the dissertation in the first place
  • pulling yourself out of writer’s block
  • practicing writing without revising, which can help break down perfectionist tendencies

Justin Dunnavant shares his experience with keeping a dissertation journal in his Gradhacker article, “Journal Writing for Graduate Students.” I’ve included below two sections from his article that I resonated with, bolding the parts that I think are especially important.

“Looking back on the process, journaling has helped me to understand how much work I can realistically complete in a given day and saved me a lot of time and stress associated with overcommitting myself to too many tasks.”


Setting small goals of a few hundred words per day in a journal can lead to real progress when it comes to writing longer journal articles, grants, thesis chapters, and ultimately the dissertation. I usually begin or amend a journal entry just before I start working on a larger focused writing project to clear my mind of any lingering distractions.

One of the biggest “Why Should I Do This?” takeaways for me was the way journaling helped me to write through my writing blocks. When I’m writing, I tend to write in “____” for difficult or theoretical concepts, with the intention to return later and fill in the blank with a citation or a perfectly rendered definition (an act that I always loathe doing after the fact because I have to re-situate myself and it feels like busy work). Borrowing from my journaling practice, which required me to just write whatever came into my mind without stopping or censoring myself, I forced myself to take a stab at whatever complicated definition, theory, or explanation that I’d usually just write ____ for and skip over. It didn’t have to be perfect, or even good, but it wasn’t a blank. Writing through my nervousness helped me to break out of some perfectionist tendencies that I tend to bring to the first draft process, and it’s going to save me a ton of time and work later when I revise.


Digital, By Hand, or a Combination?

I used a combination of digital and hand written journaling. Each had its specific purpose, but both had meaningful effects on my writing process.

Hand Write: Before

At the suggestion of Liena Vayzman’s article, “Practical Advice for Writing Your Dissertation, Book, or Article,” I started every dissertation writing session by journaling for 20 minutes by hand. I set a timer on my watch for 20 minutes and I paused it if I was interrupted or took a break. I kept writing nonstop during those 20 minutes, moving from idea to idea. If I felt stuck, I tried writing lists, such as “what I love about writing” or “what are the different parts of my dissertation.” I found that journaling was the most productive when I had predetermined questions to answer, so I’ll provide you with some in the Takeaways section.


Digital: During & After

I use Scrivener for big writing projects, and I was stoked to learn that there’s a Scratchpad feature (Window>Show Scratchpad) for taking notes. Whenever I had a side thought or question that was important but not applicable to the section I was on, I’d pull up the Scratchpad and jot it down there under that day’s note. 

I also used the Scratchpad at the end of my writing session to synthesize what I had completed that day, note where I left off and what a good next step would be, and list any questions I wanted to answer or non-writing tasks I wanted to complete (i.e., look up a definition or read an article). This was helpful for three reasons: 

  1. I kept track of my progress (how many words I wrote that day, what sections I finished, etc.),
  2. I could identify patterns for what was going well or not going well,
  3. My end of day notes served as a prompt for my 20 minutes of hand journaling the next day. 

Here’s an example of what my own “during” and “after” notes looked like one day. As you’ll see, I asked lots of questions and explored options:



“In the circulation cycle I need to find a metaphor I can use throughout all of the examples to show how something moves….I was thinking of a national anthem, but what would be another good example? I guess I could also look at the examples from Gries’s new book and see how the different chapters look at something. Or, what about that circulation of hate rhetoric one? Or the bible? What’s a good example—or feminist research—could maybe use Aspasia?”


“End notes for work: I’m over 500 words, which is great, and I’ll see what else I can do but its ok if i can’t, also. I did some great work today on explaining why it matters that popular texts circulate discourse—i think i could even connect this to education if I wanted to??? I’ve started describing the circulation cycle, too. This will be a good place to bring in the literature review notes that I have made in scapple. Perhaps i could try hand writing out my notes on the circulation cycle parts?”

If what I wrote doesn’t make sense to you, that’s okay, because it makes sense to me and that’s what matters! Your own notes should be written in lingo you’ll actually understand, without pressure on spelling, grammar, or professionalism.


Get the Most out of Your Journal

Before Your Writing Session

Use this time to warm up your writing muscles and witness any distractions or emotions so that you can release them and focus on your project. I’ve included some possible prompts for the “before” journaling below.

Prompts for Planning

  • Read your journal entry from the end of your last session and use it to write your plan for today.
  • Are there particular questions or threads that you want to address in this writing session?
  • What is a reasonable goal for our writing session today? What are reasonable goals for the week, or the month?
  • Break your dissertation project down into steps. Try a mindmap.

Prompts to Boost Your Mood

  • Why do you care about this topic?
  • What is your favorite part about your topic? 
  • Describe a writing experience you had that went really well and made you feel great. Write why that experience was so good, and then write down practical ways you can mimic that experience now.
  • Write down a list of your strengths as a writer, including your past successes.


During your Writing Session

If you’re feeling anxious, annoyed, or stuck with writer’s block, taking a short journaling break can help you to release some of your stress, make a plan for problem solving, and inspire you to get back to your writing session.

  • Distracted? Identify your feelings with this Feelings Wheel, then answer these two questions: I feel _____. I need ____. If what you need is a break or lunch or to go to the bathroom or to take the dog for a walk, then do it!
  • If you’re feeling stuck, start writing “I feel stuck because ___” and try to write for a couple of minutes, allowing yourself vent, wonder, and plan. 
  • Try stream of consciousness “Writing Yoga,” a topic that Chris Stawski talks about in the GradHacker article “Writing Yoga: Keeping the Flow Going”:

 “I would lean back, and let my mind wander and my fingers keep typing rhythmically.  After all, the sort of writing that you do for a dissertation is the kind where you write fragmented; meaning you write one sentence, and then stop, pore over articles or look for quotes, and then write another half a sentence before realizing you spelled “analysis” wrong again for the 131st time.  The sort of writing that I like to do is the stream of consciousness, free-writing that helps get your mind and body into a certain flow.  Writing yoga, lets call it.  This style of creative writing doesn’t have boundaries, doesn’t need citations, and won’t get offended by grammar and spelling mistakes.  It is a way to let your mind run around for a little while, after being penned up for so long in the strict confines of the dissertation-style of writing.   The great thing that I found is even while I am writing something else, my mind usually has time to rest and then refocus back on my dissertation.  Sometimes I even have an epiphany mid-sentence during my “yoga writing” session, and quickly move back to my dissertation with a fresh new idea or sentence.


After Your Writing Session

Once you finish your writing session, jot down a few notes about where you’re at so you can more easily acclimate yourself when you come back to your writing later. 

  • What did I accomplish today?
  • What was my biggest success today?
  • What was my biggest obstacle today? How did I deal with it, and what can I do if I run into similar obstacles in the future?
  • What is one thing I learned from my writing session today that I can apply to my next session?
  • Is there anything I need to find or read before my next session?
  • How should I start my next session?


Want More Prompts?

Check out Pat Thompson’s “managing the PhD—keeping a journal” for a list of great questions that can prompt your journaling.

And, finally, I’ll leave you with an important message from Liena Vayzman’s “Practical Advice for Writing Your Dissertation, Book, or Article”:

Allow yourself to type (or handwrite) uncensored, not caring about grammar, punctuation, and so on. This is zero draft writing, a way to dump your ideas to sift and shape later. Articulate inklings of ideas and explore ambivalence or fears about the dissertation process itself. Slowly, you can channel these journal writing sessions into focused freewriting on an aspect of your topic. Nobody simply sits down and writes an article or a chapter from start to finish. Brainstorming comes first, and daily journaling about your project is the structure you use to generate ideas you will organize later.


*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here

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