The world of graduate writing tends to be a lonely place. Graduate research and writing is not often taught explicitly, tutoring support seems more often aimed at undergrads, and a functional dissertation group seems harder to find than a tenure-track job. Of the grad students I know that have left their programs, 3 out of 4 left during the dissertation-writing stage (for a host of reasons unique to each individual, but still). Of course, there are shelf-loads of books devoted to not only writing, but actually “surviving” the dissertation, but everyone hates to tell a grad student to read just one more book. So, here are some things I’ve been experimenting with in my quest to Finish. This. Damn. Dissertation.
Goal-based writing sessions with other people.
This is a new model of writing group for me. In the past, I’ve tried diss writing groups based on peer feedback. We had a group of 4 grad students and each week (or every other or so), someone shared a piece of writing, and everyone else responded. This was the classic model in our department, but it didn’t work that well for me. I clashed with some of the other personalities involved, and the pace was too fast–I needed longer periods of ME-time in my writing process before I wanted to know (or cared) what readers thought. Responding to other people’s work so frequently was also time- and energy-intensive.
My new model of writing group is completely different. Four of us (2 grad students, 1 lecturer/PhD, and 1 Assoc. Prof) meet twice a week to WRITE. We don’t read each other’s work, we don’t respond as readers, we’re not even in the same disciplines. We come together ready to write, and begin each session by stating our goals for that writing session. We sometimes ask questions or pushback during this part of the session, if someone’s goals aren’t clear, don’t sound productive, or their rationale isn’t clear or convincing. Then we sit and write. At the end of the session (1-2 hours, sometimes more), we check back in with the group about our progress.
Having this dedicated time and space to write has been great–I’ve never skipped a session, it functioned as a real obligation in my calendar (unlike solo writing sessions, which are all too easy to cancel/postpone/schedule something else during), and the group created a sense of both community and accountability.
In addition to discussing my writing goals with my group, I’ve also started to keep track of my progress in a writing journal. (Okay, it’s just a googledoc, but “writing journal” sounds way better.) At the end of each session, I record how many words I added to my draft and write a quick self-assessment about my work, ideas, research, process, progress, and/or goals for next time.
Stop working at a certain time and/or don’t work on certain days. Have a hobby. Be a real human being, not a grad-student drone. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and while it’s certainly true that maybe I would have been one of those superstar students out of the door in 5 years (I think maybe one person has done this that I can think of), but I like living a fuller life, feeling human, and to be honest, my brain absolutely need breaks from my work. My work suffers or stagnates when I’m mentally exhausted anyway, so I might as well be smart about how I’m expending my energy.