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My dissertation is going well.
Actually, it’s going incredibly well. I’m averaging around 1,000 words an hour, and I’ve already beat my own goals for where I wanted to be by early February. Plus, I’m currently only working on my dissertation a few days a week, for a few hours a day.
I asked on a recent Instagram story if anyone had questions they’d like me to answer about my dissertation writing process, and I had a few great submissions. I want to answer three of those questions in this blog post, along with adding a postscript pondering about a repeat question I received.
Question 1: I’m struggling to write, my inner critic immediately hates everything. How do you navigate?
I think that even very talented writers (and if you’re in a PhD program, you’re definitely a talented writer!) struggle with the obstacle of inner critics. Hell, I think anyone who is trying to do something new, challenging, scary, or high stakes deals with inner critics. I wrote a whole post about how limiting beliefs keep us from maximizing our potentials because we fear what bad things could happen if we grow beyond our comfort levels.
Here are some of the practical ways that I ask my inner critic to step aside so I can manifest writing success.
- I use the Pomodoro method to force myself to write for short, focused periods of time. I focus each pomodoro session on something small and intentional, such as a drafting one supporting example in my analysis section. I like the pomodoro approach because it helps me to focus (against the rules to check my email when the pomodoro timer is on!) AND it gives me the option to set boundaries around how long I should spend on a particular task at a time, like “only one pomodoro on tweaking the way I phrase this paragraph.” I find Anne Lamott’s One-Inch Picture Frame method helpful to this approach. Here’s a blog post on the One-Inch Method, and here’s a blog post on the pomodoro method.
- I use a journal to record any negative feelings I have towards my writing that are distracting me from actually writing. I’ve used a handwritten notebook, a GoogleDocs memo, and Scrivener notepad to get my concerns out of my system with phrases like “I’m worried about…” or “I’m not sure if…” Once I record and thus witness my concerns, I’m usually able to dive back into writing.
- Once I have some content on the page, I ask a good friend, or my partner, or my dissertation advisor to read through my writing and help me pick out the quality threads to use in revision. I expressly tell them what I want feedback on, and what I don’t want feedback on. An added benefit of this is that I get to step away from this part of the chapter while they review it.
- When I’m struggling to write prose, I turn to my favorite part about writing: mind and concept maps. I value outlines and maps as much or more than a prose draft, because they are where I develop my ideas and my argument. I also think they’re incredibly fun, which I talk about in my Enjoy the Process blog post.
Question 2: How’s your mental health?
This question was SO kind and also SO important! It’s easy to feel isolated as a graduate student, particularly when graduate school pushes a narrative that we should all be workaholics (I write about this problem in depth in my blog post “Workaholic Tendencies”).
As blog readers know, in addition to researching and practicing productivity, I’m commited to personal development and slow living, so I have a big toolbox when it comes to my approach to work. In addition to this, I have a phenomenal support system, including a therapist whom I see weekly, friends who remind me that life is about more than grad school, and a partner who is my biggest cheerlearder and who always calls me out on negative self talk. I have a vibrant and nourishing connection to my spirituality, I take supplements, tinctures, and medications that regulate my nervous system and adrenals, and I soothe my mind/body/spirit connection with meditation, yoga, massage, and craniosacral therapy. Finally, my coaching business is growing and totally lighting me up because I’m feeling so incredibly in my purpose!
All that being said, I sometimes still struggle with comparing myself with authors, creatives, and successful business owners—even though I strive to inhabit an abundance vs. scarcity mindset!—because there’s so much I want to do that has to wait until I finish my biggest priority right now, which is the dissertation. I’m also healing from a fractured sacral bone, which means I can only sit for so long without pain. I sometimes feel overwhelmed, but when that happens, I choose to turn to my mental toolbox, my journal, to text a friend, or to say “fuck it” and quit working for the day and take the dog for a walk.
Question 3: What is your first draft writing process like?
My personal first draft process is a result of years of experimentation and honing to what works best for me. I hope that some of it that may work for you, too, but please feel free to take what works and leave the rest!
- I almost always start with a skeleton outline. I use Wendy Belcher’s outline for Humanities articles from her book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (here’s a PDF of the introduction from the University of Chicago Press website). I actually used this outline when I wrote my article for the Journal of Lesbian Studies, “’The third sex is here to stay’: Rhetorical reconstructions of lesbian sexuality in Vice Versa.” (It’s behind a paywall, so email me if you want a copy of the PDF.) Additionally, I’ve made Madlibs-esque reverse outlines of old papers I’ve written. A note here: be careful not to plagaiarize the exact structure of your or anyone else’s writing.
- Next, I read sources and materials and start generating ideas about how things might fit together in my draft. Here, I’m working on the idea level, so I code things based on keywords, using highlighters, GoogleSheets, and sticky notes. Remember—this is labor, even if it doesn’t seem like “writing.” Count it as such!
- While still working in the realm of ideas, I use outlines and mind and concept maps. Doing this helps me to see how certain examples or ideas relate to one another hierarchicically, which helps me to develop thesis and topic sentences and to draft my takeaways for my analyses sections. You can read more about mind and concept maps in this blog post.
- I give myself permission to write a shitty first draft with full knowledge that it should be messy and full of underdeveloped ideas and choppy syntax. I remind myself that the function of this draft is to get stuff on the page.
- Also, I don’t get tripped up about being precise or detailed at the drafting stage. I actually write “___ ” when I know I want to go back and fill in the blank with something more developed in revision, or I include notes to myself when I can’t think of a precise word due to brainfog. This helps me to stay focused on generating content versus getting tripped up on revisions. The goal of my first draft is to do a good job at writing a first draft.
- If I’m going to be sending my draft to my advisor or to a friend to read and give me feedback, I include direct questions and notes to these people via the comments function. I ask things like “Should I say more about this?” or “Should this be a footnote?” or “I know I need to add more here; I’ll do that in revision.”
- Finally, I reward myself for completing drafts—first, revised, or final. This could be a new makeup product, a new piece of clothing, a trip to the hot tubs, or some other treat. I feel extra motivated to complete my drafts when my Sweetie offers to get me a small or big gift to celebrate completing a draft, because it heightens the accountability, so sometimes I straightout ask her if she will get me a reward when I finish a draft!
Bonus Question 4: Everything!
Multiple people asked me to share suggestions on “Everything!” I thought this was a simultaneously funny yet incredibly relateable request! If I had to identify a handful of things that have enabled me to have a smooth and efficient writing process, they would be using pomodoros, focusing my work sessions, setting actionable and achievable goals, using accountability to others as a motivator, and aiming to do a good enough job. We have all heard it: a good disseration is a done dissertation. I’m aiming for a done dissertation.
Finally, when all else fails or I’m feeling bored or stuck, I literally ask myself “How would Sherlock Holmes approach this problem?” and I pretend that I’m a detective looking for evidence, probabilities, possibilities. Have I seen everything from every angle? What have I missed? If you want some Holmes inspiration, here’s one and another list list of quotes: My favorite is “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Maybe you’re not a Holmes lover like me, but is there another talented thinker whose lens you can try on for a spell?