Writing a dissertation requires realistic scheduling and project management. In this section we focus on the workflow of the writing process. Writing can be both satisfying and challenging, it can lead to meaning and insight or be experienced as a waste of time. In most PhD-projects, both aspects will be present from time to time.
On this page you learn about
- the writing workflow of a PhD project
- practical tips for the writing process
- forms of collaborative writing and sharing of results
- useful resources in order to reflect on and improve your writing workflow
Writing process and workflow issues
The scientific workflow for the majority of empirical studies, starting with a predefined research question and proceeding with a systematic literature search and review to production, analysis and discussion of the research data, does not fit in with work progress in other disciplines, such as the humanities or social sciences. Here the research process runs simultaneously with the writing process: the research question might be developed and redefined in the course of the project. Searching, reviewing literature and writing are most often intertwined activities throughout the whole period of a dissertation, and they have a strong influence on the redefinition of the research question. Relating to previous research is not only a matter of the literature review, but a crucial part of analysis and discussion throughout the dissertation.
Some practical tips for the writing process
In the beginning of a dissertation, most PhD candidates start with great optimism, eager to realize their project and not always aware of possible difficulties that they might encounter in the course of their work. However, unforeseen problems are a part of any dissertation, and they can be handled if the workflow is managed diligently. Writing is a very individual activity, and there is no one method that fits all. In the following section, we do not wish to suggest general solutions, but offer some food for thought and practical advice.
"It may be one of the popular misconceptions of writing that, once started, it all 'flows', and that those who do not 'flow' must have something wrong with them. (Murray, 2017, p. 191) "
HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR WORKFLOW
Your writing workflow is not least a question of attitude; it can be worth reflecting on your concept of writing and your time management when doing a dissertation.
- When planning your workflow, focus on writing time, not on product. If you tell yourself that you will take a break only when the current chapter or paragraph of your text is finished, you might not be able to keep your word. Organize your working day with a clear time structure and defined writing sessions and breaks in order to ensure a balanced workflow.
- Use an app like Pomodoro (working packages of 25 minutes, then a five-minute break)
- Do not think that you have to get it perfect or in a final form right from the start. Scribblings and preliminary texts can be a very effective starting point for your writing the next day.
- Instead of experiencing difficulties as personal failures, accept them as a natural part of the work process. Share your writing experience and working plans with others and discuss your working strategies explicitly in order to get new ideas and try out new practices.
- Storing references and notes and building a collection and structuring it are necessary parts of any dissertation, but do not let them become an end in themselves. Keep notes short, always keep in mind their specific function for your text. Preferably use your notes as soon as possible in the practical work on your text. "Building your collection" should be a part of your daily writing routine rather than a separate activity.
HOW TO DEAL WITH BIG AMOUNTS OF LITERATURE?
When the search is done, you might be confronted with a large amount of literature. In order to limit the amount of evidence, you should consider the following points:
- Reconsider your research question and thus your searching strategy or be more restrictive regarding inclusion and exclusion criteria.
- Start reading the most recent contributions and observe which are the older standard works that contemporary scholars regularly refer to.
- Read selectively and write with research literature. Do not use notes and excerpts to keep information on the research literature you have read. Always try to write about a relevant article or book as soon as you have read it, in order to add elements to your dissertation early in the work process. Your reading will become more focused, you reduce the likelihood of forgetting, and after the first year of work, it will probably feel better to have fifty pages of imperfect text than to have nothing but notes.
- Use a reference tool in order to keep track of relevant literature.
Be aware that you can optimize your reading only to a certain degree: it is not possible to avoid reading a lot of literature during your PhD that will turn out to have been “unnecessary” to your work in the end.
HOW TO DEAL WITH WRITER'S BLOCK?
Writing blocks, doubts, lack of faith in your project and a feeling of not being adequately informed are all quite common in the process of writing a dissertation. Regularly presenting pieces of text to others will allow you to discuss your writing and your work. To be in continuous dialogue with others about your writing can decrease stress and alleviate the impression of being lost in the writing process.
Be aware of your writing workflow and reconsider your concept of writing:
- Do not make up a list of imaginary requirements you need to get started, like inspiration, a good atmosphere, having slept enough, etc. It is always possible to write even if it is not your best day.
- Instead of regarding the writing process as a series of challenges or even as a fight (and your thesis as an enemy), you can try to view it like any other everyday work, like a daily workout or practising a musical instrument.
- When you get stuck: tell a friend who is not an expert in your field about what you are planning to write. The process of telling another person will make your thoughts clearer and force you to break the complexity down to some main points that anybody can understand.
- When you feel you can’t concentrate on writing because you have so many other thoughts and problems in your head: take a five-minute break and clear your mind: write down everything that is worrying you/occupying your mind (like in a diary), and then start the actual writing in your dissertation.
Read more about dealing with writers' block in Nygaard (2015) and Murray (2017).
HOW TO DEAL WITH SENSITIVE RESEARCH DATA?
Check the FAIR guiding principles for scientific data management and stewardship and read more about data management here. Note that rules and regulations may vary in different countries, and make sure to comply with the guidelines and standards to which you are committed.
To be a PhD candidate is often a long and lonely journey towards a goal. It could be both fun and useful to share and discuss your work with peers at your institution, or collaborate with them in writing.
OFFLINE NETWORKING - WRITING TOGETHER
Writing can be fun, and it can be challenging. Sharing writing experiences can improve your insight about your workflow, and writing together can be motivating and disciplining.
Shut up and write! is structured writing in group sessions of 45 + 45 minutes, where writing is supposed to be fun and relaxing. Some examples of institutions in Norway offering an arena for Shut up and write!
- Norwegian University of Science and Technology (the University Library in collaboration with the Centre for Academic and Professional Communication)
- University of Bergen (the University Library)
Can you find somebody to proof read your text or at least parts of it?
- Share your writing results with other PhD candidates and look out for writing support services at your university or library. It can be useful to have one or more readers and their comments on your text, and the perspective to share your text with others can motivate your own writing.
- Discussing and commenting on others' texts will also be useful exercise in reading academic texts critically and providing fair responses, which again can sharpen your attention to textual problems and their solutions in your own dissertation.
- Reading each others' texts can be an inspiring practice in professional editorial procedures and prepare you for the process of publishing research results.
- Do not wait to share until you think the text is "finished" or "perfect"; find someone you have confidence in and share drafts with this person at a very early stage. It is easier to work on comments at this stage than later on.
Casanave, C. P. (2014). Before the dissertation. A textual mentor for doctoral students at early stages of a research project. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD : How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Murray, R. (2017). How to write a thesis (4th ed.). London: Open University Press
Nygaard, L. P. (2015). Writing for scholars. A practical guide to making sense & being heard (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage
Nygaard, L. P. (2016). On writer’s block. And how to prevent it through teaching academic writing. Presentation at the conference "Akademisk skriving og dialogisk rettleiing i høgare utdanning", Western Norway University of Applied Sciences Library, November 10-11 2016.