7 Tips for Starting to Write the Dissertation

You’re ABD and you should start writing your dissertation. But how do you get started? Overwhelmed? Anxious? Confused? Don’t worry, I have 7 tips to help you get started.

Some Disclaimers

Dissertations are usually very specific and very personal. My dissertation was in anthropological archaeology so I am speaking from that experience. To my fellow archaeologists, expectations and requirements vary by department, committee, and advisor. There will always be differences in our experiences.

What I outline might not work for you, but I hope it helps you find a way that does.

Tip #1: Figure Out Your Tools

The dissertation is a large piece of work. It might be tricky to change certain tools you use halfway through. The following are 4 tools you should sort out when you start writing:

  1. Reference Manager: Most dissertations end up having a fair number of citations. Using a reference manager can make citations and bibliographies much easier. If you already use a reference manager, check in with yourself. See if you are happy to continue using it or if you want to change to another one. Check out my post on tips for organizing sources for more information on reference managers.
  2. Word Processor: Even though Microsoft Word is the most popular word processor (I used it), there are other options for writing your dissertation. I have friends who wrote their dissertation in other programs like LaTeX, Scrivner, and OpenOffice. Check out this GradHacker post for a quick summary of MS Word alternatives.
  3. Calendar: No matter your organization methods, having some type of calendar (I use Google Calendar), or another tool, that you can you refer to for major deadlines or milestones is essential.
  4. Backup Measures: It’s a good idea to think about how you will save all your hard work. Some options include external hard drives and cloud storage. Check to see if your college or university offers some type of cloud storage if you are considering that option. A combination of backup measures is a good idea.

Check out my post on my top 3 dissertation management tools.

Tip #2: Get a Handle on the Bureaucracy

The dissertation is not only specific and personal, but the process can be quite bureaucratic. Often you have to submit paperwork regarding your dissertation to various administrative bodies. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get a hold of a master checklist. In many cases, you have to do the research yourself. Recent graduates are a great resource if you get stuck or confused. Also, your director of graduate studies (or a similar person) could be helpful.

I had to submit paperwork to my department, the larger graduate school institution, and my university. The deadlines and paperwork for each administrative entity were not in a single location. Also, the same piece of paperwork was required by different administrative bodies with different deadlines. Taking the time to figure this out early on definitely helped.

Getting a handle on bureaucracy also helped me during the early stages of writing. My university has very specific formatting guidelines and yours might too. Adhering to formatting rules early on definitely saves a lot of pain and frustration later.

Tip #3: Create a Reference Collection of Dissertations

You might not know what a dissertation is supposed to look like. If that’s the case, I highly recommend creating a reference collection of dissertations. You can start this collection by finding 1-3 dissertations in each of the following categories:

  1. Recently Defended in Your Department: This will give you an idea of the general current expectations in your program. Also, you might know the authors and they could be a helpful resource.
  2. Supervised by Your Advisor: This will help you get a handle on your advisor’s expectations (especially if they are not clear to you).
  3. Recommended by Your Committee: Your committee (including your advisor) has expectations of what constitutes a solid dissertation. Ask them and add these dissertations to your collection.
  4. Similar Geographic Area, Methodology, and Theoretical Approach: Find dissertations that share at least one trait as yours. I doubt there will be one dissertation that covers all three areas, but that’s a good thing!
  5. Award-Winning: Awards can be given out by departments, universities, societies, etc. It’s interesting to see what award-winning dissertations look like. These can be a bit hard on the ego, but I have learned a lot by looking at the SAA Dissertation Award winners.

I understand that seeing a bunch of finished dissertations might make the task of starting to write one even more daunting. However, I urge you to use this reference collection as a tool to help you get over certain writing obstacles. I found my collection really useful when I got stuck on structuring certain chapters. It was very helpful to see various examples of what others had done.

Tip #4: Create a Table of Contents and Get Feedback

Creating a draft of a table of contents really helped me get started on writing my dissertation. Using my reference collection of dissertations, I started charting out what my dissertation could look like.

In my initial versions, I included my chapters and larger section headings. Including larger section headings helped me figure out the general content and scope of chapters. This was especially useful when deciding whether to create new chapters or consolidate certain parts.

Then, I immediately asked for feedback. Eventually, your advisor should see this, but if you feel more comfortable first seeking feedback from a colleague who has completed a dissertation or is well into the writing stage, then do that. Getting helpful feedback can be a great motivator to start writing in general.

Nonetheless, creating an initial draft of your table of contents will help you think about your dissertation’s structure. Don’t worry if your chapters or sections change. That’s perfectly normal and part of the writing process. The important thing is to have an initial structure to work from, which will help you start and continue writing.

Here is a copy of my final table of contents. It includes my chapters and larger section headings. It changed as I wrote, but it helped keep me organized throughout the process.

Tip #5: Fill in Sections

You are not starting with a blank slate. You have written aspects of your dissertation before. Are these items perfectly polished and seamless? Probably, not. However, they will help you get started.

Copy and paste parts of your previous work in the relevant sections outlined in your table of contents. Since I wrote my dissertation in Microsoft Word, I had a separate document for each chapter so I pasted previous work in the relevant chapter document.

No matter what word processor you use, pasting in previous work will accomplish at least three things. First, it will give you a good idea of what you have already said and how you said it. Second, it will help you figure out what sections need more work and which ones have a content you can work with. Finally, it will give you something to start with. Check out these texts to help you fill in sections:

  1. Coursework: You might have covered some aspect of your dissertation in a term paper or presentation (e.g. geographic area, literature review, methods review, etc.). Check to see if anything you produced in previous coursework can be used.
  2. Comprehensive Exams: If you took comprehensive exams, there might be usable content in there. Especially, if those exams are mainly written and/or tailored to your topic.
  3. Grant Applications: If you won a grant or applied for one, there might be useful content there. I found previous grant applications quite helpful when trying to create a succinct, but descriptive abstract.
  4. E-mails: Often we have e-mails that describe parts of our dissertation. I had e-mails detailing my methods when I approached labs for partnerships, descriptions of my fieldwork when requesting permits, and some results (usually surrounding my confusion) when I asked colleagues for help. Such e-mails could have usable parts.

Pasting in content definitely helped me get started on certain sections. It helped to know that I could use or modify things that I had written before.

If you find yourself a bit overwhelmed after filling in sections, check out my post on dealing with chaotic writing drafts.

 Tip #6:  Find Colleagues Who Are in Similar Stages of the Writing Process

Having a community of colleagues who are in a similar stage of the writing process can be very helpful, especially when you start writing. I had a virtual writing group as I wrote. This was helpful for me, but there are other ways to build a helpful and positive community with your colleagues, such as:

  • weekly meetups (or Skype calls) to check in and talk about the writing process
  • arranging times when you sit and write together
  • setting daily, weekly, or monthly writing goals and keeping each other accountable

The important thing is to make sure the exchange is reciprocal.  Sure, there are ebbs and flows. Overall, the exchange should be helpful for everyone involved. For example, this means not only asking for feedback, but giving useful feedback as well.

Tapping into this community can be very helpful throughout the writing process. Especially when you get stuck.

Tip # 7: Experiment With Ways to Make Writing a Habit

My last tip is a response to some good, but not concrete, advice: Make Writing a Habit!

This is good advice. I got into the habit of writing almost every weekday. This really helped make writing more manageable and moved the dissertation along. The problem with this advice is figuring out how to make writing a habit. It can be hard. How did I do it? I experimented with different productivity measures.

Check out the post: 8 Productivity Methods to Try Out

In the beginning, I alternated between setting up word and time goals. For example, I would tell myself that I write 500 words or write for 2-3 hours in a day. That might not sound like a lot, but these were manageable measures for me. They were challenging in the beginning, but doable, and I was able to stick with it.

Check out the post: Words, Pages, or Hours? How to Measure Writing Productivity

Also, I only wrote in lab in the beginning. I found myself to be more focused and productive there. It helped me set boundaries with my writing and allow mental breaks. When I was in lab, I wrote. When I wasn’t in lab, I didn’t write.  Having a physical space that was (mainly) devoted to writing helped make it a habit.

Throughout the writing process, I also tried different productivity measures depending on my writing goals and my mood. For example, when I knew what I needed to write, my writing goals changed from word or hour measures to finishing a specific section. When I was not in the mood to write, I tried revising sections, outlining upcoming ones, or writing as I read sources.

I urge you to experiment with different techniques that could help you make writing a habit. Try something out for a few days. If it works, stick with it as long it works for you. If it doesn’t work anymore, try something else. Nonetheless, keep experimenting and writing!

If you are starting to write your dissertation, I hope you found some helpful advice in this post. The important thing is to start and keep writing. You have already done a lot of great work. Now it’s time to package it in a way where you can get your PhD (or Masters) and we can read about it. Good luck!

What’s the best advice you received about writing? Are there any productivity measures you want me to elaborate on? Let me know in the comments section below! 

Thank you to Zenobie Garrett for providing feedback on an initial draft of this post

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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