Dissertation writing: Holding a writing group for accountability

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January 1, 2013 marked the first day of my dissertation writing. New year, new project, and new work habits to help me accomplish the final and largest hurdle for my doctorate. I am currently starting the 6th semester of my 8 semesters of funding (middle of my third of four years), so I have approximately one year and a couple of months to write, revise, and defend my dissertation. Challenge accepted.

I’ve asked a lot of others about their strategies for writing, researching, and overall finishing their dissertation and am using several of these strategies with my own writing. Here’s what I’m trying my hand at:

Daily writing goal 

One of the greatest challenges to writing a dissertation in 12 (14?) months is the sheer volume of writing and research that has to be produced to even generate a full first draft, not to mention a final version that the school’s ETD system will actually accept. So, my New Year’s resolution was that every day — every day — I would do something toward my dissertation, specifically enough work that would generate one page’s worth of words for my first drafts of my chapters. So, my daily goal is to write 278 words toward my dissertation (the approximate number of words I chose to represent one page’s worth of writing, since I don’t always just write one page straight through, but jump around between sections). So far, of the 12 days of January, I have missed my goal one day, so the system isn’t perfect. (Would anyone be surprised that the day I didn’t meet that goal, I was teaching and had meetings to plan a conference we’re hosting?) But otherwise, I’ve been steadily writing my chapter, and in a week and a half, I’ve made a lot of progress. So far, this is working really well for me, but obviously, as the semester progresses, this may change.

Accountability 

Along with my daily word count goal, I have a layer of accountability. It’s no secret that Ashley and I work together on a lot of projects, and in the dissertation writing stage, we are trying to support each other’s writing experiences so that we can successfully finish. We hold each other accountable to our daily writing goals through a shared spreadsheet that is set up as a spring semester calendar with daily and weekly writing tallies. Each day after I’ve completed my daily writing, I put into my sheet in that day’s cell the number of words I wrote (today, 484). Ashley has her own sheet, also as a calendar set up with a cell for each day, that she also puts her daily writing totals into. Having a shared document with our own writing tally sheets means that we can see what each other has done — and in many cases, seeing Ashley’s daily word totals has motivated me to write for another 30 minutes to get just a little bit more done. Later into the process, it might help us identify when the other is struggling, which will also be helpful for us to be there for one another.

Writing group

Finally, we have a small writing group of peers who are also working on their dissertation. We meet weekly to discuss our progress and to do peer review of each other’s work. Three or four days we meet, we exchange drafts electronically, and then the day that we meet, we discuss what we thought about each other’s work, suggestions, etc. We review a range of each other’s work, too — whether it be chunks of a dissertation chapter, grant applications, journal article manuscripts we plan to submit, proposals for new courses in the department, etc. The feedback from writing group participants has been so helpful, and I’ve learned a lot not just from what they’ve said about my work, but also from me reading theirs. I have some very, very smart colleagues. Not to mention that having a group of people who expect something from me every week is pretty good motivation for having substantial enough material for them to review.

What else?

Obviously, there are just three strategies that I’m attempting, and this is only the very beginning of my dissertation writing process. I’d love to know what other strategies folks have used to help them power through this and finish — please share!

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