Getting around to actually writing is often the hardest part of the PhD, especially if you’re working at a part-time job at the same time, and your other commitments are getting in the way. For myself, research is the fun part that lets me travel around the world. I get a chance to go behind the scenes in the most interesting museums and archives across Canada. Now that I’ve amassed all this information, starting the writing has become the daunting part. Writing is when you make connections, when you start to really think about the research you’ve gathered in a new way. Over the last couple of months I’ve been asking for advice from friends and colleagues I know who have successfully completed their PhDs on what got them through, how did they overcome these mental barriers? I found it really interesting that multiple people I talked to would mention one book in particular, explaining how it really helped them with the process – Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes A Day: A Guide to Starting Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis by Joan Bolker. I decided to get myself a copy of the book and see if it would really help.
The author explains that the writing process is not simply when you are transcribing your research into words. It starts at those beginning stages of your dissertation when you have that inkling of your idea, when you develop your research problem, when you begin your research, and goes all the way to the final iteration of your dissertation. Bolker explains that “this book is a collection of successful field-tested strategies for writing a dissertation; it’s also a guide to conducting an experiment, with you as your own subject, your work habits as the data, and a writing method that fits you well as the goal.” The book is about finding the right process that works for you, so the author provides some suggestions, approaches, and ways to imagine your work, and you are encouraged to try them out and see what works best for you. I find this encouraging – there isn’t a one size fits all way to do your thesis, and sometimes what works for someone else (waking up early every morning, sitting at your desk and getting in your 8 hours of solid, uninterrupted writing a day) just isn’t feasible for everyone. One of her key pieces of advice in the book, as you may imagine, is – “Do some work on your thesis every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. (Every day is more important than how much time you spend, or how many pages you produce on any particular day.)”
I’ll admit that I’ve been having trouble lately making time for my dissertation, often forgetting that this should be my priority as opposed to my job or volunteer commitments. So for this new year, I decided to challenge myself to take one this experiment and write 15 minutes a day – my most productive New Years’ resolution. I’d like to invite anyone else reading this to join me in the process! I’ll post an update in a month or so, to let you know how it’s been going. In the meantime, one of the most important things I’ve realized from this exercise that is echoed in this book is that – writing leads to thinking, so write your way into your thesis. Instead of needing to know what you’re trying to prove when you sit down to write, the actual writing process is what leads you to develop those connection and to figure out your argument further. It’s a vital part of the process.
Joan Bolker also recommends keeping a daily journal that records your thoughts, worries, interest in various topics. This is where you can add in your hunches, ideas and questions about the research. You can try to summarize research you’re doing, and as you move on, you can try to write bits of your dissertation and keep track of bits of information you might otherwise forget. Bolker assures you that at first you’ll write in short stretches, but afterwards you’ll soon find yourself writing up to five pages a day. I’ve already been finding that this is true as the more I do the 15 minutes a day, the easier it is to get back into my work as it’s still fresh from yesterday, and it’s less daunting because you can at least do that 15 minutes.
Finally in that writing journal, Bolker also encourages you to take note of yourself as a writer each day. Write about how the work has gone, how you’ve felt, what you did or didn’t accomplish, and what might have gotten in your way. You can add what you need to work on next, how to change your work space, and whether you like your topic that day. Let me know in the comments if you’re planning on joining me in this experiment and good luck to everyone with their writing in the new year!