My Writing Workflow: Dissertation Dispatch

I was too lazy to find a real image. Too busy writing.
I was too lazy to find a real image. Too busy writing.

Writing is happening. I am currently plugging away at my dissertation proposal. I know this varies from department to department, so I will quickly give the run-down of what I understand to be the expectations of my department, adviser, and committee for this document. In terms of length, I’ve seen a big variation with the lower end running 60 pages and the upper to 120. My current draft includes the first four chapters of my dissertation: 1) an introduction to the study, 2) a lit review 3) A run-down of my proposed study (aka method goodness) 4) Everything else: significance, limitations, ethical issues, etc. Plus a whole batch of appendices.  So that’s what I have drafted in various stages of completeness at this moment. I still have at least a few more weeks of writing and revising, but I am still hoping it will be all defended this semester and I’ll be collecting data in January (wish me luck!).

But this post is really to catalog for myself and others the way I am handling my workflow through this process. Anyone who has read me at Gradhacker knows that I am a sucker for a good workflow. I have generally maintained my lit review process, but I’ve found even more fun ways of hacking my writing workflow to make it feel more fun and seemingly more efficient. I’ve been tracking my word rate, so I eventually should have some data to support my general feeling that I’m faster (even without that, I’m definitely having fun writing, so there’s that.).

Writing tools: Scrivener, Mendeley, Timer, Random Number Generator, Study app (links below)

  1. Start with an outline. I am back to Creswell’s Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed-Methods Approaches for help with making sure I’ve included all of the parts I need to specify the study. At this point, I’ve read and participated in enough research that it feels all very familiar, but I was glad to have the Creswell nearby to be sure I’m including everything.
  2. Write in chunks. I am a HUGE Scrivener fan. I tell every new grad student I meet to immediately buy this program and learn how to use it before the time crunch of proposal writing happens. I am lucky that I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month–coming up soon in November!) my first year of Phd school and used a trial version for free. It was a great, no-risk way to learn the program and it has saved me time and again. I use Scrivener’s interface to scaffold each section, header, and sub-header into it’s own discrete chunk of writing. I then number these chunks. This is important because…
  3. Get random with it. Once I’ve layered in my writing for each section, I find I run out of steam. I need to say more, but I don’t want to. Thus, the random writing strategy was born. After I numbered all the sections that needed work, I turned to a random number generator to tell me what I should work on next.  I work on that section until I can’t think of what else to say and then return to the generator to get my new number. Thus I am forced to work on sections I would avoid until the bitter end or I get to rejoice when I draw a section I am excited about. It also ensures that sections I’ve labeled as ‘finished’ get another read in the midst of fleshing out ones in need of work. For some reason, it feels like a game to me and I get a little jolt of excitement each time. I also spend a lot less time hemming and hawing about which section to tackle next.
  4. Get a timer. I am a product of the Red Cedar Writing Project at Michigan State and was, once upon a time, the co-coordinator of our writing marathons.  In our writing marathon tradition, we warm up with a ten minute writing session followed by sharing, then fifteen, then twenty, and so on, working up to longer and longer time periods. When the timer goes off, it’s always in the middle of a sentence which just makes me want to get immediately back to what I was writing. I do the same thing for my personal writing sessions. I start each session with a ten minute free-write on whatever is top of mind for the project at hand. For the following writing sessions, I use the random number generator to guide where I’m writing. Using the timer ensures I’m taking breaks, keeps the writing fresh, and is a favorite technique of lots of writers (also check out the pomodoro technique, which many people swear by).
  5. Turn on the white noise. I am not easily distracted when I’m in the writing zone, but there is some pretty compelling evidence that ambient noise really can foster creativity.  I use (I like the coffee shop one) or I have the Study app going to keep me focused and productive.

So that’s it: the method to my madness. I’m resolving to also blog some of the actual content of my proposal in the coming weeks as I work through my study design issues and lit review.



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