Finding Ways to Write

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.

Document progress.

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.

Schedule downtime.

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.

3 Responses to “Finding Ways to Write”


  1. 1 pelf January 12, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    I wished I could find somebody (fellow grad students/Ph.D/lecturers) who would join me in a writing schedule. But maybe I haven’t looked hard enough.

    I’m conducting my research in a state away from my university and Supervisor. There is a university in my current state, but I don’t know the grad students because I’ve never mingled with them. And I don’t work in a lab.

    (Yeah, my social circle is that small, heh.)

    • 2 alternativephd January 12, 2012 at 9:48 pm

      Working long-distance from your home institution must be challenging. (It would be for me, anyway!) Is there anyone at your home institution who might join you in a virtual session? I’ve not tried that before, but I imagine it would probably work. In my experience, the most important parts of writing group have been the accountability of other people in the room, sharing writing goals, and asking questions of my group (like when I get stuck). I imagine sometime similar might work via chat, skype, email, etc.

      Any way you might connect with local grad students/academic writers? A grad student at another institution in my area recently emailed me out of the blue about my research interests–they had seen my profile on the department website (which lists our research areas) and wanted to chat. We had a great meeting, and it seemed like an obvious way to network with other grads that I’d never thought of before.

      It looks like phinished.org has some “working boards” with a similar idea–a place to report daily/weekly goals, etc., but I’m not a member and have not used them myself.

      Good luck–and thanks for stopping by!

      • 3 Ben January 25, 2012 at 1:36 pm

        Hi, great post.

        One thing I might suggest is that you don’t necessarily have to connect with local people these days. It is possible to find people doing your subject online, especially on sites like facebook and twitter.

        I read an interesting method for writing in groups on the thesis whisperer called “shut up and write”. Basically it describes the method of group based writing. Maybe more interestingly is that I have tried this technique online via skype and it works really well. Instead of displaying my camera to the other person I displayed my screen. All I could hear was the other person typing away which really inspired me to write myself.


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