I recently graduated from the Georgia Tech OMSCS (Online Masters of Science in Computer Science) program. It was a great experience, so much so that I considered pursuing a PhD. I was eventually dispelled of this notion, but not before starting to research the effort it might take.
Part of this research was reading this book, Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day by Joan Booker, Ed. D.
Click bait title aside, there is some really good advice. And not just for aspiring or already PhD students, but general writers as well.
The book is short, 10 chapters across 150 useful pages. The 2 appendices are outdated (how a computer can help your writing) and for a different audience (PhD advisors).
The first chapter starts by posing the first questions that should be answered:
Do you really want to do this? A dissertation is a huge undertaking.
What do you want to research and write about? You’re going to be spending a long time with this subject.
Choosing an Advisor
Chapter 2 at first blush has little to do with writing outside of the academic setting. But if you think about it, groups such as writing support groups provide similar benefits as an advisor. Finding someone or some group of people to help you with your writing, and she touches on this in other forms later in the book too.
The “advisor” that you should seek is someone from your intended audience. After all, if you’re writing a dissertation, your advisor is one who you are trying to satisfy. They are the ones who will allow you to bring your dissertation to defense.
Having decided on your resolve and subject, the next step is writing.
Like other books on writing, the first advice is to just start. Spew forth on the page. Let it flow.
But don’t start with a blank page and the title “Chapter 1” at the top. Instead, keep a writing journal. This is just a much looser version of the research phase we were taught in high school. Write freeform, but keep it in a place where it can be organized and searched later.
This is the also phase where you can set up the workflow that works best for you. Experiment. Are you better at writing in the morning, before the day has begun, or are you better during an afternoon break? Almost no one is better at writing in the evening, but perhaps that is the only time you have.
What about your best working conditions? Do you work better in isolation, with absolute quiet, or do you need ambiance, such as a coffee shop? What about meditative music? Can you write yourself into flow, or do you need to discipline yourself with pomodoros?
Collecting your notes and organizing them into some semblance of order is the next objective. It may seem like we’re almost done, but really the work is just beginning.
When writing your free form journal, it’s likely you had in mind what you wanted to write about. Now is a good time to revisit that. Has what you been writing been about what you originally subject, or have you found something that you find more interesting? Is it adjacent, or is it completely different? Do I still believe the original premise, or do you need to pivot to something else?
Satisfied that you still are interested, if not enthusiastic, about your subject matter, arranging and organizing it is the challenge.
Unfortunately, there is no best way to do this. The book gives various tips and strategies, and then presents contrasting styles and lets the reader decide determine for themselves how this this organization and assembly should take place.
Ask yourself questions about the subject, and see if this helps you focus and align the writing you have into some order.
For my part, I find (so far) that I organize best by assembling my quotes and thoughts into an outline form, and then moving those around until I see some order, though I never delete anything. Currently unused thoughts go do the bottom, which I frequently revisit to see if there is anything applicable.
As sentences in the outline become more aligned, these are expanded into paragraphs. It seems to work for me.
Race to the Middle
First draft more or less accomplished (is it ever really done?), we move to that nebulous time between something… and something more cogent.
Your writing process really becomes important in this phase. Here is a questionnaire that the author formulated:
You don’t have to check each of these boxes, but, like scoring your relationship in a Cosmo quiz, it’s best if you can check most of them.
The biggest sign that your process works is that you are making progress on your writing.
(There are a few checklists throughout the book. I like these type of checklists.)
Deadlines, Friend or Foe?
One of the biggest motivations for making progress are deadlines. We hate them, we try to avoid them, but they do serve a purpose. And if the grand deadline terrifies you, try breaking up the deadlines into more manageable chunks. This has a few benefits:
Each chunk should be small enough that you can imagine what it would look like.
Success on these smaller chunks builds confidence so that you can ask for extensions if necessary.
This way you can learn to love deadlines, especially the sounds they make as they go whizzing by!
And don’t forget to take R&R. You need breaks to match your output.
When writing, whether dissertation, blog post, or book, you are bound to suffer interruptions. Especially the closer to a deadline you are, the more interruptions will come out of the woodwork to frustrate your efforts.
The thing to be really careful of are the internal interruptions, interruptions we use as excuses to stop momentarily. These often are a sign of ambivalence and boredom. That is a good indicator that you need an extended break or vacation.
The author gives some good recommendations on how to deal with interruptions, both internal and external.
A good writer will often have a good support group behind them. In a dissertation this is absolutely required. This isn’t your advisor, but usually a group of people who are either ahead or behind you in their own dissertation spells.
This staggering helps you see what you have ahead of you, and advice to help you deal with those challenges, and the opportunity to pay it forward for those coming behind you.
It also provides you with an audience to critique your work, to see if they understand the material and give you experienced feedback that isn’t as biased as that of your advisor.
Non Dissertation Support Group
Not just for academic writing, a writing group can provide valuable support to a writer of any genre. Even experienced writers can use a group as a resource. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis even participated in a writing group, the Inklings.
This is perhaps the most important chapter in the book. If you’re new to writing, then this is something of a revelation. As the saying goes
Writing is rewriting — Richard North Peterson
The biggest temptation in revising is to quit too soon. Revising and rewriting can be boring and tedious, but as you rewrite, your writing will become clearer, and you will make your writing more clear, more coherent, and just “more”.
The author gives lots of good advice, but I think the one that is most important to assume the role of reader. Ask yourself the questions that you think the reader would have? This is hard, but it’s perhaps the second most useful skill after the actual writing.
However useful your own revising is, you will still require outside advice. Your advisor, if you’re doing a PhD, or the aforementioned support group will be valuable here. If you can afford it, hire a professional editor. (Michael Lynch has a great article on hiring an editor for his blog.)
In short, writing is rewriting, and the author gives useful checklists and advice for accomplishing this. But there is so much good advice for revising, and it is a highly personal process. Other books can give you more focused guidance on you’re writing.
As the author concludes, “revision is a search for closer and closer approximation of the truth you seek.”
The Best Writing is Done Writing
While the maxim is true, this section in the book isn’t as applicable as others. This book directs writing for a specific goal, thesis defense, for which there is a built in audience and deadline.
Not all writing has such limits. You can revise writing forever. But to really be of use, writing needs to be published (though cathartic, free form writing isn’t in the same category).
How do you know when your writing is done? It’s largely subjective, but you will hopefully know it when you see it. Outside guidance from your support group or professional help can make this determination for you if you’re really indecisive.
There was some revelatory information here. Perhaps most surprising was the phrase “you may expect that you will feel only relief and pleasure when you [finish your writing], so you may be startled by feelings of loss and sadness.” (Brackets mine).
I was indeed surprised after finishing my degree. I felt a sense of loss of purpose. I spent several days wondering what I should be working on. There was definitely elation when I realized that I didn’t have anything pressing, but the lack of a sense of purpose was surprising.
For shorter form writing, I doubt this very serious, but for longer forms, such as a book or a thesis, or even a series of papers for a particular class, this feeling is real. But that’s okay. It eventually fades and you’re ready to move on.
I liked this book. As I mentioned above, I read this and other material in the goal of researching what pursuing a PhD might involve. Ultimately I decided that a PhD was not feasible (but not because of this book), so I decided to devote my energies to writing in other forms.
Despite not actually writing a dissertation, this book is largely applicable to technical writing specifically and general writing overall.
I enjoyed the voice of the author and the encouragement yet warning voice that she gives. She doesn’t understate the work involved, but doesn’t wallow in the difficulty either. She gives actionable advice, but also allows that the reader will have different experiences.
I would recommend this book for anyone seeking to write longer form technical works, such as a series of articles or a book on a particular subject, if for nothing else than to see the scope of the work before you.
(To complement this, the story of Bob Nystrom writing his book Crafting Interpreters explains the struggles of writing long form really well. Enough to inspire me and also make me question my own sanity. 😇)