Finish your dissertation 500 words at a time

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To follow up on Rex’s “grad school is a marathon not a sprint” posts, I’d like to share the advice I give to students working on their dissertations. It is basically the same method that Jerry Seinfeld uses: “Don’t break the chain!”

The important thing is to do a little work every day. How much you can do will depend on a lot of factors, 500 words a day is what works for me. For some people it might be 250, for others it might be 1000. The point is to figure out how much you can produce if you squeeze every drop out of your LEAST productive days. That is your baseline. You want to do at least that much every day. If you do it, like Jerry Seinfeld suggests, cross a big “X” off on your wall calendar. If after you’ve done that much you feel like you are on a roll, then, by all means, keep on writing till you burn out. But if you feel that it has taken everything you’ve got to give that day, then reward yourself by playing video games, watching a movie, reading a good book, or taking a nap – whatever you like.

And it doesn’t really matter if what you write is good or not. You can revise it later. If all you write is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” that’s OK! Just don’t break the chain. (And don’t hack your family to death with an axe.)

4 thoughts on “Finish your dissertation 500 words at a time

  1. Another benefit in writing everyday is the learning curve. So much of university education is passive: retain the material and spew it out on the page on a set date for 3 hours. But actually knowing the material well enough to apply it in novel settings is another matter, and the physical activity of writing also assists the brain in coming to grips with your material in just this way. It’s one thing to be told about DNA, and another to realize after extracting DNA from an onion in the kitchen, using your homemade extraction kit from detergent, alcohol and the blender, that that sticky mess in the jar is DNA and that whenever you blow your nose, voila, there too is DNA, the same sticky mess. Writing everyday helps form these connections. They may not always be voila moments, but many of them are the necessary building blocks of more developed arguments in your thesis.

  2. I’m only working on my Master’s thesis, but I’ve really been enjoying and appreciating (and implementing!) these tips. Keep them coming!

  3. Excellent advice. That’s exactly what my supervisor told me upon returning from fieldwork. I had limited funds and a limited amount of time to push the PhD thesis through. He event got a calculator and crunched out a number, which, indeed, turned out to be 500 words a day! :) As Fred notes above, getting into the habit of writing a number of words a day places you on a learning curve. Writing is a skill that needs cultivation and practice. When I have since passed on the advice to my students, some have looked at me sceptically. Perhaps it’s not something that works for all. But it worked for me at a crucial point in my career.

  4. My own trick is to keep going is not so much writing a certain number of words per day but rather to produce a new print-off of a chapter/paper/section by the end of the day or morning. If I’m running out of time, I just leave gaps in places that need revision or rereading.

    By ‘new print-off’ I don’t mean necessarily something that’s fully written in my own words. Particularly at the early stages of the process of drafting and redrafting a piece, these documents are likely to be a messy combination of bits of own writing (often in note form and ungrammatical), chunks of copied and pasted texts from my blog, from my files, from other people’s texts, etc.

    By the 4th or 5th ‘draft’ I have a good idea of which materials I’ll be using and which discarding, and in what order. So at the early stages content and organisation are in driving seat, and it’s only later that style and argument take over. I find that if I try to sit down and ‘write’ too early, this slows down the whole process of sifting and sorting through masses of notes, web contents and thoughts. Mind-mapping is a good way of connecting these masses before trying to organise them in a linear fashion.

    One rule of thumb is that you start each new draft with an outline and with a fresh mind (preferably in the morning) and ready to discard any contents from a previous draft that you no longer need, however interesting they may be in their own right.

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