In our writing projects—dissertation, article, book, presentation—after the first brilliant idea or paragraphs of exhilarated creation, our enthusiasm may turn to mud. From my own experiences with tortured writing and those of my academic coaching and editing clients, I recommend the following six techniques, with credible rationales, to help you work more efficiently and write more productively.
1) Make Separate Files
As simplistic as it seems, start by making separate files for each part of the work—prefatory pages, introduction, chapters, sections, reference list, appendices. Refer to your university handbook, journal specs, or publisher’s requirements to construct your file in the correct format. If a template is provided, use it. Later, you’ll combine all files for the finished work.
Rationale: When you separate the work into manageable chunks, you get a better handle on it. Acting on this task enables you to feel like you’re really writing something, even if only a title or section, and you’ll see the work taking shape. Moreover, when a fabulous idea occurs to you for a section you’re not in, the files you’ve made will facilitate a quick click to that other section and typing a note for later development.
2) Start With What’s Obvious or Easy
For trouble actually starting to write, begin with the easiest subtopic or section. Choose something straightforward, like participant recruitment or your data analysis methods. Despite the King’s advice to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, you don’t have to start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end. Linear can be overrated.
Rationale: You actually begin writing the meat. Warming up, you’ll produce more, arrive at new insights, and gain more confidence and comfort in the writing.
3) Tame Your Inner Judge
Don’t give that bully any power. You can shout it back down, but you may have to bellow a lot. A better way is to jot assuaging notes to yourself as you go. When I’ve just written a particularly loathsome sentence and the Judge rages, I type right after the offending passage: “FIX.” Noticing heinous repetitions, I blast “REP!” If a phrase is too weak or flowery, or I’m trying too hard to be literary or cute, I add “GET BETTER!” If you must know, my first draft of this article was littered with such notes.
Rationale: Your notes help keep the Judge at bay. You’re saying you do know that the current writing can improve and you’re returning in the next draft to FIX, delete the REPs, or GET BETTER.
4) Save It
As bad as you think a draft is, before you start refining it, save it in the original form. Save and back up all your drafts, electronically and/or printed out, whatever makes you feel most secure. With two external backups for everything and cloud storage, I sleep soundly at night. You can always delete later—after graduation or publication.
Rationale: When you remember some particularly gleaming phrase or insight from a previous draft, you can retrieve it easily. And multiple backups enable you to defend against electronic catastrophes. You’ll sleep better too.
5) Keep All Your Literature and References
Sounds like a silly reminder, but keep all the pdfs and print versions of your literature and references. This practice will save you hours of frustrated searching. When in doubt, or you think you’re finished, keep it all anyway. You can always purge later, much later.
Rationale: Even if you have to paw through stacks of stapled articles, you’ve got them. Or if you need to use your computer “search” function and scan through 500 pdfs, you’ll eventually find what you want. Additionally, as you’re hunting through the literature, pertinent articles you hadn’t noticed or striking passages may catch your eye. Make a note of them; they may be perfect for your current project or a later one.
6) Trust Your Inner Mentor
The opposite of the Inner Judge, your Inner Mentor (IM) has been called your intuition, internal guidance, inner voice, spirit, higher power, soul, even your heart or gut. It’s more powerful than your chair, the dean, the journal editor-in-chief, and even the guy who issues your annual parking sticker. Trust your IM to supply ideas and sequences. Describing the writing process, the American novelist E. L. Doctorow understood this trust: “It’s like driving a car at night; you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Access your IM with a little meditation—two minutes, thirty seconds. Ask, listen, and then do what you hear or intuit. You can make the whole trip. Trust it.
Rationale: You develop confidence in your IM and the habit of turning to it, and you may find it strangely reliable and comforting. Reliance doesn’t mean you skip the research, reading, underlining, outlining, cogitating, and all the other intellectual footwork needed. Your confidence does mean you can turn to your IM at any point and be assured of answers.
For every writing snag, use these six pointers. As you do, you’ll likely find you’re less anxious about the writing. You’ll start and continue more smoothly, and sooner than you imagined—creative miracle!—you will finish the draft.
Excerpted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
© 2016 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and emotional counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.