Dissertating: Five Fast Ways To Get Five Hundred Words Drafted

As doctoral candidates, we can find ourselves in a bit of a bind: we are supposed to be devoting all of our time and energy to our dissertations in order to make good progress toward the degree; and yet, sometimes, the writing just isn’t happening.

Maybe we’re also responsible for other university or department duties, like teaching, and/or serving as a graduate assistant in an office, and/or working as a research assistant for a professor. Maybe we have family obligations. Maybe we have outside work responsibilities. Maybe we just get stuck and can’t think of a way out of the corner we’ve researched and written our way into. Maybe we’ve been struck down with a major case of Imposter Syndrome that has us avoiding the project for fear of exposing how bad it actually is. Maybe we’ve just gotten into procrastination mode and are now in a rut. Maybe all of the above. For whatever the reason, other things encroach on our time and suddenly, working on the dissertation gets pushed into a tiny corner of the schedule–or maybe, off the schedule entirely.

And that’s when the guilt moves in, with the little voice in the back of your head insistently harping on your failure to work on this thing you’re meant to be working on: you’re suppose to be DISSERTATING, you’re not a good GRADUATE STUDENT, you’re never going to FINISH, you’re never going to successfully DEFEND, you’re never going to GRADUATE, you’ll never get a JOB…..

Yeah, if you’re reading this, you know that voice. I don’t have to tell you. I am preaching to the choir. And ye gads, I certainly know that voice. I defended my prospectus in March, and I’ve manged to eke out one chapter draft and about three thousand words of the second chapter draft since then. I expected to be farther along by now in terms of the initial drafting stages. I had a well-defined project, I had the literature review well begun, I had lots of support. What I did NOT have–was a lot of time. This is an issue I continue to run into even now that the spring term is safely concluded.

This time problem is entirely of my own doing. I agreed to teach an extra course in the spring term (because, money) and I agreed to teach an online course for the first summer session (because, again, money). I did a Folger seminar that had me out of town 3-4 days a week, every week, over the course of the spring term (because, the Folger!) I traveled to the International Congress of Medieval Studies for five days of pure, unadulterated and unfiltered scholarship and collegiality. I agreed to organize several conference sessions for a variety of academic organizations to which I belong (because I love a conference, and I feel very strongly about the topics for these sessions as a scholar, and I understand and want to do my part in terms of the responsibility we have as scholars to help shape the conversations in our fields through conference activity). This same desire to help shape and influence the conversations in my field is what led me to accept the co-editor position for Hortulus, the Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies, and we just put out our spring issue–which for me, included a crash course in html coding for web publishing. I’m also co-editing a collection of essays on the Melusine legend and…..well, I’ll stop there. That’s more than enough to convey that I have stretched myself thin in terms of commitments–and those are just the academic commitments. Never mind the “real-life” things that eat away at my 24 hours each day, whittling them down to a scant 4-5, sometimes 6 if I’m really lucky.

I genuinely love everything that I do, but I also definitely do too much. Suffice to say, I completely understand the time crunch, and having experienced a recent bout of near  burn-out because I overstretched myself, I am only now returning to my neglected project. Getting back into the swing of things has meant investing some good time into reading through my prospectus and initial notes, reviewing the working bibliography to re-familiarize myself with what I’ve looked at so far, and thinking about where to go from this point in order to have the best chance of hitting my writing goals for the summer.

What I’ve concluded is the same thing every expert in the matter is going to tell you: writers write. If you want to write a lot, you have to write.

The question of course is, how do you get started back into a major writing project after you have taken some time off (whether planned or unplanned)? For me–and hopefully, for some of you, since I’m giving advice about how to do it–the best answer is a pool metaphor: if you know the water’s cold, and you know you’re going to get water up your nose, just jump feet-first into the deep end and get it over with fast. Because, once you’re actually in the pool and the initial shock of the cold and the initial burst of water up your nose is over with, the swimming is deliciously wonderful, right? So, for me, is working on my dissertation–once I’m back into it. It’s the initial re-entry that’s hardest.

So, I’ve done my research, and tried things out, and come up with five fast ways to get 500 words drafted. This is my writer’s version of jumping into the deep end of the pool–they’re not permanent solutions to a slow writing schedule, just jump-starting techniques to get you writing more, and more quickly, when you find yourself stalled in the process. None of them takes a substantial time investment, which is important when you are coming back to a project after neglecting it because you don’t have time to work on it (whether that lack of time is real or imagined is a moot point–if you didn’t have time to work on it, you didn’t have time to work on it).

I have found that using one or more of these methods a few times a day even for just a few days can substantially ramp up my word count–but, more importantly, it can get me back into writing mode after a hiatus, and once I’m back into my project more regularly, I usually find myself establishing a more consistent pattern and can put these quick-drafting strategies away until I need them again. Remember–this is just to get back into writing. You might, or might not, actually use the writing you produce here in your project draft, and if you do, it likely will not be in the form it presents in these exercises–the purpose of this drafting is to think your way back into the dissertation.

And, here they are: Five Fast Ways To Get Five Hundred Words Drafted

1. Without consulting your notes or any other aspect of your project, write a one-page summary of your dissertation. Anything you’re not sure about or have questions about? Just write “I’m not sure about this thing” or write out the question that came up, right alongside everything else that’s coming out (20 minutes)

Why bother? Because over time, even when you aren’t exactly working on it, your project is still percolating in the back of your head, your brain is still working on it, thinking through it, trying to put the puzzle pieces together. Sometimes, your brain is doing things to your project that you didn’t expect. Sometimes, that’s a good thing and leads to important shifts in the overall dissertation. Sometimes, it’s a rabbit hole that needs to be addressed. If you’ve been gone from the project for a while, this exercise will ensure that you know where you are coming from now, will bring up anything you’re still not sure about or questions that have arisen since you first started the project, and can help you get back on track with your thinking towards the overall project.

Variations: this one is endlessly re-usable–you can write a one-page summary of the chapter you’re working on, a one-page discussion of the book/article/website you just consulted, a one-page explanation of a primary source you plan to use and how you plan to use it–the key is not to look at anything while you are writing it. When you find that you actually CAN write the page or so without consulting things, you’ll feel more confident in your knowledge base and preparation for the project, and that will in turn increase your desire to work on it. You can often use some of the drafting from this kind of activity in the dissertation itself–portions of your discussion of source or secondary materials, for instance, or a new way of wording an argument you’re making.

2. Make two lists–one of the primary source materials you are using for the current chapter you’re working on, and one on the secondary sources you plan to consult. Working randomly, choose one source per session, and write a page explaining why you chose it for your dissertation, what you plan to use it for, and how you plan to use it. (about an hour to compile the lists; 20-30 minutes per writing session)

Why bother? Again, over time, projects change. You may find that you are holding onto primary materials you thought you were going to use, but in fact don’t need. You may realize as you are writing about a text that there’s another one you know about that would do a better job of helping to convey your argument. As you are researching you are finding more secondary materials and some of these may be more current or relevant than those you initially started with. After you have been out of your project for a while, this kind of activity is invaluable for re-situating your argument in the conversation you are trying to enter. It can also reveal any gaping holes in your project literature that you need to fill with more research or other source texts and documents.

3. Write the argument you are making in the current chapter or section of your dissertation that you are working on at the top of a piece of paper. Then, freewrite your thinking about the topic for the next ten minutes. Take five minutes away from this, and come back to it. Read through what you wrote, and make notes as to which texts or source materials you could use for each point you bring up. Then, on another sheet of paper, try your hand at incorporating discussion of some of those texts into your freewriting. (40 minutes to an hour)

Why bother? This activity helps you develop your argument into a chapter summary that you can then build into a chapter in stages. It’s especially good when you’re stuck, because it forces you to articulate your argument and the materials you are using to make it, which in turn forces you to determine whether or not it’s working. If it isn’t, you can use this exercise as a blueprint for what you need to do in order to develop an argument that will work.

4. Write down what you would say if you were describing your project (or a chapter or section of the project) to someone with no background in the subject. (20 minutes)

Why bother? First, because in order to write this thing, you need to clarify what you’re doing for yourself. Second, because this activity will help you pinpoint areas that need improvement in terms of clarity, which will help you figure out where to start writing and rewriting. Third, it will help you figure out what parameters and definitions you need to include in your project to aid readers in following it, which will help your project develop in a more organized and logical way. Fourth, you’re going to have to be able to do this when you’re on the job market, so practicing now and throughout the writing process will help make that easier for you.

5. Pomodoro your way through the chapter or section you are working on

If you know what you’re doing, haven’t been out of the project for that long, and are just looking to make some progress on your current draft but feeling like you have no time to work on it, the Pomodoro method is a really great tool. In essence, you set a timer for 20 minutes, and then you get writing. When the timer goes off, you stop writing and do something else. Generally, I find I can get at least 500 words in a 20 minute session, although of course that depends on what I’m working on (crafting footnotes, for instance, requires more time for fewer words). You can do one Pomodoro session, or a series of them, over the course of a day. I find that if I do several sessions over the course of the day, it builds my desire to work on the project, because the timer always goes off when I’m finally getting into something, and then I WANT to work on it. At that point, I make the time to work on it. It’s a really good motivator for those of us who SWEAR we do not have time to work on the dissertation, because you can always find twenty minutes… and then, twenty more minutes, and then, twenty more minutes, and then, an afternoon…….. !

What about you? What are your quick-drafting techniques? Have you tried any of these? Let me know if they work for you!

About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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2 Responses to Dissertating: Five Fast Ways To Get Five Hundred Words Drafted

  1. Jaleta Clegg says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It came at just the right time. I’m neck-deep in writing my thesis and struggling to find the motivation to get it done. I’ll definitely be trying your techniques soon.

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      I’m so glad you are finding it helpful. Let me know what you try and how it works for you!

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