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Overcome Stalling and Start Writing Your Dissertation

You’ve reached the first dissertation milestone—approval of your prospectus. Great! You couldn’t wait to plunge into the next step, writing the proposal. But now that you’re here, somehow it’s not working. With all the best intentions and surrounded by all your scholarly materials, you’re spending long fruitless hours in your study or the library. The days are slipping away, your friends are out eating pizza, and your family wonders what you’re really doing for all those solitary hours. You feel paralyzed.

To cheer yourself up, remember that the proposal becomes the first three chapters of the real dissertation. But this fact probably offers little consolation. Your completed proposal seems like a sky-high wall with not even a step stool in sight. Where is that danged first step?

Break the Rules

Here’s one remedy. Contrary to 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. If you follow this dictum, you may only increase your panic, tremors, and paralysis.

In my academic coaching practice, I advise clients not to start at the beginning, that is, with Chapter 1, the Introduction. Why? This chapter requires a concise overview of your topic and the literature. You must be highly familiar with both. But many students don’t get to know what they’re really writing about until they’ve been living with their dissertation for several months.

How to Start

So, the first trick to break your standstill is this: Make separate files for each chapter. Simplistic, maybe. Effective, definitely. Use the university’s requisite chapter names and headings (from your university’s dissertation manual or handbook), or the templates in the dissertation section of your university website. Once you create the files you’ll feel more organized. You’ll also gain a sense of accomplishment. You can keep throwing notes into these files as new materials surface and brilliant thoughts burst through for each chapter.

The second trick: Start writing by choosing something relatively straightforward. No doctoral divine lightening will strike if you start in the middle, or later.  I often recommend that students start with Chapter 3, Methods. In this chapter, you describe who’s in the study, how you will study them—your population and sample, and what you’re going to put them through (experiments, questionnaires, interviews). Your writing style here should be direct, with precise descriptions of the steps you’ll take to gather information for your later chapters. No perplexing summaries, syntheses, or conclusions. Instead . . .

Dissertation Brownies

It’s kind of like a recipe for dissertation brownies:

First, I will create a flyer for recruiting students to complete my questionnaire on their most successful study habits. Then I will seek permission from the Office of Student Affairs to post the flyer on campus bulletin boards. When students respond to my contact information, I will send them the letter of introduction to the study and the informed consent for them to sign to participate. Next, I will . . . .

What you write may not be the final draft, and shouldn’t be. Accept this. In the margin of a paragraph like the one above, a student’s chair commented caustically, “What’s your authority for bypassing the university’s institutional review board?” The student hastened to add the procedure in the next draft.

The Advantages

Let’s not lose sight of our aim—You’ve written something! Writing anything loosens your fear-frozen mind so you think more creatively about, in our example, where to recruit, who to recruit, when, and many other considerations. As you visualize the actual steps, again referring to our example, think about what your recruitment flyer and letter of intro to the study will look like and contain. This is a great opportunity to draft the flyer (so on the bulletin boards it catches attention), letter (so it thoroughly explains the study to prospective participants), and informed consent form (so it outlines participants’ time and protections). You’re going to need these documents as appendices.

As you see the paragraphs building, you feel greater confidence to keep writing. A few days after I guided my client Rod with the advice to start with his third chapter, he emailed me:”I finally got a double digit page number written! A miracle!”  I congratulated him for reaching page 10. Practice makes progress.

Keep Going

Once you keep going, you’ll likely find that related ideas pop up. Say your approved proposal is on the study habits of red-headed students over six feet. You suddenly realize that additional research could be conducted on the study habits of red-headed students under six feet. Here’s where you click to your largely empty file of Chapter 5, Discussion and Conclusions, and type the new idea under the subhead of suggestions for future research. You’ve written more!

Starting your proposal with something easy isn’t a black mark on your moral fiber.

It’s simply a way to get moving. So choose a section or subsection that feels doable, even simple. Tell yourself, “It’s all got to get done anyway.” And you’ll find that one chapter and section leads to the next and your pages will mount. Now . . . start writing.

© 2024 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 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. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at