Post Academic

Dissertating and writer’s block

Following up on reader SH’s wish list of topics (Thanks, SH!), I’m tackling the issue of how to deal with writer’s block, particularly while you’re dissertating.  It’s kind of a timely topic too, since some of you are dreading dealing with the tangled mess your research has become as the summer progresses.  I’m not going to be able to give you a magic bullet or anything, since I was hardly efficient in finishing my diss and everyone works differently.  But I’ve come up with some tips from recalling some of the pitfalls I encountered, as well as looking around the corner at some logistical things that get obscured by the intellectual project that tends to come first and foremost.

"typewriter typebars" by Mohylek (Creative Commons license)

Know Yourself: Like I said, I don’t have a magic bullet for how to finish the manuscript, because everyone writes differently.  I’m not gonna give you a gimmick that writing 15 minutes a day will yield you X hundreds of pages over X period of months.  It worked for some people I know, but I never tried it and all the time it would take me to convert to that mindset would take a lot longer than 15 minutes a day.  Instead, I was the sort who needed huge blocks of time to go with the flow of my research and writing, which really only the summer could provide.  Some days were not very productive, while some hours more than made up for the lost time.  That’s just the way I worked, and I’m using my own personal, idiosyncratic approach to say that you should do what you need to do.  By now, you know how to write and you know your habits, so don’t change when you’re in the home stretch.

In short, go with what brung ya: If you can pace yourself, that’s great.  If you need to sit in front of the computer all day to get a few good hours, that’s fine, too.  If you need a block of time to crank out as much you can, make room in your schedule.  If you need carrots or sticks or both, do what it takes to fool yourself into writing a little more than you planned to.  If you write best under pressure right at the deadline, why change now when you’ve only got one really, really big paper to finish?

More advice, after the jump…

External Forces: Nothing is more motivating than external forces, especially when they have to do with real life.  Even when you go about writing your dissertation your own way, there are things out of your control that it would be wise to take into account.  In my case, a baby was on the way, so I had a relatively important due date to get out in front of–which, by the way, I didn’t because said baby came a little early.  So I adjusted to life and to writing, and was able to get it done as fast as I could, because dragging it on wasn’t really an option.

Even if you don’t have that kind of all-encompassing external force to give you some sense of a schedule, there are all sorts of logistical matters that can impose some structure.  In some cases, it’s money, not just the money you’ll make if/when you get a job because you’re done, but also the money you’ll lose if you have to pay more fees and tuition just to keep dithering and finetuning your dissertation.  Consider how much better it will be for your prospects–and, potentially, your pocketbook–if you have a relatively hard-and-fast completion date that you can back up when asked about it, as you gear up for the winter academic job interview gauntlet.  Work how you work, but don’t let time slip away from you too fast either.

Don’t Go Underground: It’s easy to go into a self-imposed exile over the summer, especially when you feel some unnecessary sense of shame that you haven’t been able to hit all the marks you set for yourself with your advisor and your committee.  One reason not to feel the guilt: No matter how great your advisor is, it’s likely that s/he just doesn’t care as much about your dissertation as you do and won’t feel the pangs you do so acutely.

Still, that’s not a reason to completely drop out of touch with your powers-that-be.  Forcing yourself to give them a brief update at the very least or even try to meet them when they’re around will force you to get your act together a little bit.  The less you feel bad about the dissertation and the less you want to hide because of it, the easier it will be to get past your writer’s block and your mental block.  Keeping in touch with your faculty members can help, because it forces you not to be too self-involved and solipsistic.

Don’t Be a Perfectionist: This is your last paper as a student and you want it to be the bestest, greatest one, too.  And at this point of your academic career–hopefully, nearer to the start–it’s the biggest thing you’ve got to your name.  Just remember that the dissertation isn’t the end-all, be-all thing you’ll do.  If you’re on your way out of academia, get it done cause you don’t have any more pressure than getting your committee to sign off on it.  If your prospects are better, the diss is only a finished rough draft of your first book, if that.  That’s not to say that you should be sloppy and turn in a messy piece of crap that you’d otherwise be embarrassed about.  Of course, you’ll want to edit and proofread it carefully–plus, the last line of defense at the library won’t let you turn anything in that’s not properly formatted anyway.  But it’s healthy to keep in mind that you shouldn’t add more weight to the baggage you’re already carrying doing the dissertation in the first place.

Those are the things I’d consider dissertating and trying to deal with writer’s block.  And readers, have at it, whether it’s telling me I’m full of it or offering up some of the tricks that have helped you finish your dissertation.

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