Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing Your Dissertation

If you know me, you know I am not normally a big "self help" literature fan. But over the summer, as I set out with a goal of writing my first two dissertation chapters, I felt I needed some advice managing such a big and emotionally draining project. Several other current or recent dissertators suggested the following three books, which I have found incredibly helpful:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Thanks to Andrew Case for recommending this.)

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (And, thanks to Christine Manganero for recommending this.)

Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker (Thanks Lynnette Regouby for lending this to me for so long awhile back. I'm now hogging the library's copy, but all of you should feel free to recall it!)

Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones are both directed at fiction writers, but much of the advice still applies. The practical and psychological issues around creativity, self-doubt, and discipline apply equally to fiction and non-fiction writers. Both of these books helped me feel like a writer, not like a person who had to produce a dissertation.

Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day is more obviously and directly relevant to the specific process of dissertation writing, from choosing a topic and selecting a committee, to finishing and publication. But this is a book by a psychologist, and it's at its best when confronting the emotional aspects of the process––including sections such as "On Ownership," "On Dissertation Paranoia," and "About Creating a Writing Addiction."

The only drawback of these three books is that they are getting to be quite a bit old. They don't discuss software, like Scrivener for example, that can help organize notes and "shitty first draft" writing. Nor do they address the specific problems of internet procrastination (including wasting time searching for new "productivity" software!).

Nevertheless, they still get at the heart of the writing process and can really help you avoid, or at least deal with, some of the roadblocks you encounter when setting out to write. And, in spite of their very different styles, all three books have the same core message: Make writing a part of who you are. Make it part of your day, every day. If you do this, you will have before you not one huge insurmountable task, but a daily practice (or addiction even!) of writing.

Do you have any other reading suggestions for writers?


  1. p.s. I did actually just finish those two chapter drafts yesterday. Sept. 13 isn't exactly the end of the summer, but its not bad, either.

  2. Thanks so much for this post, Megan! It's really helpful for me to get this sort of advice from someone in the same process but slightly ahead of me. So far, the only "self-help"ish writing book that I've read is "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes A Day," which I also liked/found "Writing Down the Bones" based on your recommendation. Hopefully, I'll read them too :) More recs welcome!

    I'm particularly interested in Scrivener (maybe someone could write a post on this?) and want to try it out, but also dislike the time investment in trying out productivity software.

    On that note, I tried MindJet a "mind-mapping" software, which I was not impressed with. I prefer using a pen and paper to "map" my ideas. Perhaps, Andrew Stuhl or Dan Liu might consider writing a post on organizational software?

  3. I might be able to pull together a Scrivener post.

    Mapping: I agree. I haven't found any software helpful for that. Pen and paper, or a white board, is best. After wasting too much time looking for good software, I went out and bought a whiteboard. Helped a lot for ch.1, but I should probably use it more.

  4. Thanks Megan for putting this together. I'm just about to get started on writing my first dissertation chapter (which I think is actually chapter 3) and I've been wanting to seek advice from writers--it is good to have a few trusted books to seek out.

    I've heard of Scrivener and I think Andrew Case still uses it. Other than that, I don't know of any organizational software for dissertation writing. We had a chain of emails a while back about finding notes/files on one's computer, with some helpful pointers about how to label files and how to use special folders on the Mac for that.

  5. Yes, Case got me hooked on Scrivener, too.

    You know, I realize I ought to have added the AHA's series :"Notes to Narrative: The Art of Crafting a Dissertation or Monograph." I found this helpful at the beginning of the process.