OK, it’s dissertation writing time. But how do you get started? Which sections are best to begin with? Are there any steps that should be completed beforehand? Is there any technique that helps speed up the process? The answer is yes, and we are happy to introduce you to ten simple hacks that will help you make major progress with getting your dissertation started.
We know, you’ve come a long way in your PhD study when you decide to finally get started with dissertation writing. It has probably been an exhausting and painful journey so far but now you are committed and want to get this thesis done. You realise that you need to get started now because otherwise you could risk delaying completion of your PhD. So let us suggest here ten hacks that are helpful when you’re really at the beginning and have no idea what to do next or what to write.
1. Identify your dissertation requirements
It sounds obvious, but you better check what you are required to produce in order to say “I’m done with my dissertation”. Are there any specific requirements you need to fulfill? Do you write a monograph thesis or several journal papers? Check out our blog post #6 “Dissertation dilemma? Hand in a monograph or papers?” to understand the pros and cons of both options.
2. See writing as a process
Writing is not an activity you do once and then the text is done. This means when you write something, it will most likely not represent the best version of the written text. So don’t set your expectations too high. When you write something, it is not perfect yet, but it is a start and it can always be improved. To see writing as a process also means that it is fine that you first produce a draft that doesn’t look good and that is not complete or logically organized. The important thing is you’ve written something you can build upon and this is the trick of writing: you need to produce something in order to improve it later.
3. Define your dissertation goal
Describe in a few sentences what the central argument is that you want to make in your dissertation or in each paper. Find in your project proposal or description what you have to deliver or what you promised to deliver. What makes most sense as the overall focus of your work? Write it down in a few sentences and make sure you focus only on this one goal.
4. Start from what you’ve got
Don’t start planning your dissertation from what you want to do in your entire PhD project. This could be far too much. If you wait until everything that you had in mind is done, your funded project time could be over. Instead, focus on what you have already done and try to write about this. It might already be more than enough to get started and you’ll probably realise it is also enough to get your dissertation done. You don’t need to do all the things that you had originally – and with best intentions – in mind. To start, begin with writing what you’ve got rather than waiting for better or more stuff.
5. Don’t wait for input from co-authors
If you want to get your thesis and papers done, you need to lead the writing process. This means don’t wait until you hear from your co-authors or supervisors on what you have written before you make your next writing step. Move on and keep writing. Of course, you want to get feedback from co-authors and supervisors but don’t let this slow you down. Write a section, and while you give this section to others for comments, you continue writing the next one. Show others and show yourself that you’re committed to writing.
6. Don’t wait for all experimental and empirical work to be completed
If you wait for your work to be completed before you start writing, you are slowing down the writing process and you’re delaying completion of your PhD. Start the writing process as early as possible. The dissertation is the main outcome of your PhD and, therefore, the earlier you start the better you will progress. The writing process is a fruitful and creative one, it is not only about reporting what you have done. Writing can also inspire some of the research activities you’re busy with. While you are drafting sentences and trying to make sense out of what you’ve got already, you feed back to the research and bring ideas back to your work. If you can, start drafting sections as early as possible after your experimental work has begun.
7. Get the literature review out of the way
The literature review is the section in any thesis or paper that can be done very early, so don’t waste time and think you’ll do it later. Everything you need to write this section is available to you. It is also a very good section to get into the writing flow as it is not about your own work but about synthesising what is known, what is not known and it gives the context for why your work is needed. Trust us, figuring out what to write here is not difficult. Check out our blog post #50 “Mastering the literature review” for detailed instructions on how to write this part.
8. Read other literature and take notes
Reading other stuff is essential to understanding your own work better and embedding it into a context. But it takes time and in order to save some time, do it as efficiently as possible. You don’t want to have to read a piece of literature several times in order to eventually include it in your dissertation. It would be better if you just studied the literature once. To do this effectively, you can download our literature review notes sheet to help you sort out the literature you review. It helps you to write down notes about a piece of research right away so you don’t need to go back to it several times.
9. Don’t get lost in editing
If it’s your task to get the dissertation started, focus on producing text. Get into the writing mood and surprise yourself with how much you know about your topic and what you can write about it. Don’t let yourself be interrupted in this flow by searching for typos, thinking of better expressions, revising sentences and paragraphs or cleaning up mistakes. Of course, you need to edit your text, this is no question, but first produce the text, the editing can come later. Don’t stop your writing flow.
10. Schedule your writing and don’t get lost in it
If you want to bring your dissertation forward in big steps, you need to take it seriously now. It is no longer a side activity but one of your core projects, thus you better start scheduling writing sessions. Don’t be too ambitious and think you can schedule entire days or weeks for writing – it won’t work out this way because you’ve got other business too. Schedule your writing but also take breaks from writing. Set a time for how much you will write and then stop for the day. You’re done for now and you can continue next time. This will allow you to celebrate the small progresses you make, to reward yourself by having time for something else and therefore keep up the mood for writing.
Congratulations on coming so far that you’re seriously thinking about getting your dissertation writing started. Don’t let yourself be guided by the many myths you hear about dissertation writing but take action yourself. With the 10 simple hacks we presented to you here, you will be able to get started early and get started well. Once you’ve cleared the first hurdle, you will see the writing flow almost automatically. Good luck with your dissertation and check the resources below for further help.
- Worksheet Literature review notes
- Blog post #5: How to get started with writing papers?
- Blog post #6: Dissertation dilemma? Hand in a monograph or papers?
- Blog post #38: Why you need a publishing strategy
- Blog post #47: Plan your project – save your PhD!
- Blog post #50: Mastering the literature review during the Corona lockdown
- Blog post #56: Breaking these 5 habits will speed up your thesis writing!
- Blog post #58: Why you should not leave dissertation writing until the end!
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