Dissertation Writing: Tools and Work Habits

As many writing instructors like to say, “writing is a process.” For the graduate student writer, the process of dissertation writing is new and strange, dramatically unlike writing seminar or conference papers, and well beyond the dreaded 10-page research paper of our undergraduate years. It’s something we’ve never done before and for which we (usually) haven’t been formally trained. There are lots of resources of course, books and websites and blogposts, but often our best practice–our process–comes about through practice, discovery, and trying lots of new things.

My process has been a long one (and I’m not done yet). I’ve come to realize that I need to pause in my writing and research. I need time and space to think without writing. I need to take my time to reflect and discover. Unfortunately, though, I also need to write. So here are some of the tools and tips which have helped me to streamline my process.

  • I use Zotero to manage my sources. I love that I can archive websites and pdfs, add notes and tags, and sync across different computers. I tend to “collect” articles and book titles in open Firefox tabs or unread messages in my inbox. Zotero has made my life much easier; I can collect my sources and citations right in my browser. (Zotero can also generate bibliographies, although I haven’t tried that yet.) I exceeded the storage capacity they offer for free, but I am happy to pay the small annual fee to support this project. Zotero works really well for me, but there are other ways to manage sources and citations, such as EndNote or RefWorks. (My university offers students free RefWorks accounts–check your library!) There is usually a bit of a learning curve when you first start using source management software, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
  • I use Googledocs for notetaking. I started using Googledocs when preparing for my exams; I created glossaries of key terms and concepts for my historical and conceptual fields, and then generated tables of contents and linked to my reading notes. It was a very clunky way to keep track of reading lists, but it’s a great way to take notes. I use Zotero now for my sources, but I still use Googledocs for reading notes, mainly because it’s so easy to find forgotten quotes and references by using the search function.
  • After seeing several students lose work on broken laptops, I started using Dropbox to back up my work. (I had been emailing my work to myself, but that is still pretty risky as a back up system.) Because I work from several computers, I really like web-based applications, and Dropbox is fantastic. I installed it on my home laptop, but I log in via the web from school. After writing sessions at school, I upload my draft(s) to Dropbox via the web login; once I get home and turn on my laptop, Dropbox automatically syncs the new documents.
  • I just started using a 3-ring binder. I often used binders to organize course materials and recipes at home, and I thought it would help me organize my writing. I have a section divider for each chapter, into which I’ve inserted chapter outlines. So far, I like being able to glance down at the overall plan as I draft the chapter draft; it’s a good way to keep my writing goals in sight (literally) without having to stop the writing, scroll to my outline, or open (yet another) file on my computer. They’re not there yet, but I also plan on filing “active” material there as well; the drafts, notes, and printed articles that are usually spread all over my desk now have a home.
  • I also use markers and highlighters to help with revision, especially re-organization. I print the current draft, and color-code highlighters to specific ideas or concepts. Once I’ve marked like ideas (or differentiated between background information and my own claims and analysis), I have a good visual picture of my draft, and it’s much easier for me to improve the structure and organization. I either start making changes in Word or (and this way is usually more fun) use scissors on my paper draft, cutting out errant paragraphs and taping sections into their new homes.

17 Responses to “Dissertation Writing: Tools and Work Habits”

  1. 1 Nik February 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm


    We’d be interested in your feedback on a tool we’ve written for helping with your dissertation / PHD:


    Take care.

  2. 2 savasavasava February 12, 2011 at 8:43 am

    I’ve heard good things about scrivener for writing. haven’t tried it fully myself, but a friend used it to write her MA thesis and said it was very useful. there is a free trial period (that I finished) and I’m considering purchasing… let me know if you use it/what you think.

    and good luck!


  3. 3 Ian Robson February 12, 2011 at 9:01 am

    It’s really useful hearing about other people’s strategies: this is really useful.

  4. 4 Anne Marie Cunningham February 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    I like using the free Foxit reader to annotate pdfs… my tip:)

  5. 5 LeRoy Hill February 12, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Nice entry I too use Zotero and I particularly like the cite while you write plug-in for word. I also use dropbox but prefer sugar sync…I like the comfort of being able to save my files while I am working. Drop box seems to upload the files only after I have closed it. If you like you can use this link
    I will get some extra space for referring you.

    • 6 alternativephd February 12, 2011 at 6:41 pm

      I’m not familiar with sugar sync–thanks very much for the suggestion. I agree that being able to save while working would be an advantage.

      • 7 LeRoy Hill February 12, 2011 at 6:44 pm

        Sugar sync works much like dropbox what I did I copied my drop box folder into my sugar sync …so it gets backed up using both tools… but I much prefer sugar since it allows me to save while I am working on the file….you can receive up to 10 GB if you refer friends.

  6. 8 alternativephd February 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    @savasavasava: Ah, yes, Scrivener! I’ve heard of it, but haven’t tried it myself and I don’t think I know of anyone who’s used it–but thanks for the reminder.

    @Ann Marie: Great tip! Thank you. I’ve also just heard about Diigo, which lets you create highlights, sticky notes, or regular notes for individual webpages, and share them amongst groups.


    (I haven’t tried that yet, either.)

  7. 9 Anthea February 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    I like Dropbox too and Evernote whch is really useful. I loathe Zotero..and I use Biblioscape which is fantastic. But when I wrote my thesis I didn’t use any of these technologies. I used EndNote and Word and my usual data analysis crunching software.

  8. 11 Advocate February 16, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks so much for the blog. Working on this prospectus has been a very lonely process, so it’s nice to know there are others out there. =)

    I’m actually loving Microsoft’s OneNote at the moment. I have a notebook for my study, with a tabe for each chapter. Within each chatper, I have a page (and sometimes sub-pages) organized by the themes I’m reading around. I can post PDFs, screen shots, tables, voice recordings, and damn near just about everything else I could possibly need right there. Plus, I can share the notebook with professors when we meet to discuss my progress. The only thing I don’t like is the citation features– it’s a pain to export them in APA format into Word docs. Oh, well. No body’s perfect.


    • 12 alternativephd February 16, 2011 at 9:50 pm

      Wow, OneNote sounds great! Just being able to collect things from all different media sounds really cool. Another thing for me to check out!

      And yeah, prospectus writing is no fun. I just filed mine; it’s been more than a year since my exams, and I’ve written many drafts. For me, things didn’t really start coming together until I jumped ahead and started working on a chapter, but that seems a strategy perhaps unique to the humanities…?

  9. 13 The Plath Diaries February 27, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I’ve tried to embrace Zotero etc, but maybe I’m just old fashioned and need to hand-write all my references, photocopy and print out my journal articles and physically hold and read them otherwise I can’t take in the information!

    Really enjoyed stopping by this blog, I’ll be back!:)

  1. 1 Tweets that mention Dissertation Writing: Tools and Work Habits « alternative phd -- Topsy.com Trackback on February 11, 2011 at 1:22 am
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