Things I learned from Joan Bolker
These are a few of the ideas that I've really taken to heart from Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. I thought some of these loose thoughts and quotes from the book might be useful to other dissertation writers out there. And honestly, these suggestions are as relevant for anyone who writes I think.
Did any of these ideas work for you? Let me know in the comments!
- Do not “talk away your ideas or lose them in mental gymnastics”
- If you have an idea, write it down, even before talking to someone about it.
- “Write first” (Ruth Whitman): “make writing the highest priority in your life . . . write before you do anything else in your day.”
- Remember that “[t]he answer to the question: ‘What's my question in this dissertation?'doesn't get settled for good in your thesis proposal, in your outline, or the first time you begin your writing.”
- Don’t be “concerned about ‘getting it right’.”
- Try out answers to your question: “there is no one right answer, and you can even come up with diametrically opposite answers to the same question” since you’re the only audience to your early drafts.
- “Writing takes stamina.”
- Have a diary with dated entries where you freewrite every day. This is the start of writing.
- Why it’s good? It keeps “track of of the flashes of insight you have that are spurred by your reading, as well as any serious misgivings you have”
- Don’t think of research as pain or not pleasant. Instead:
- Research is “active inquiry into a subject in order to work on it using the singular quality of your own intelligence”
- Research is not passive “accumulating data that you then swallow” but an “active engage[ment] with the material" where you "ask it questions, and act upon it in such a way as yo change the material—and, incidentally, yourself”
- You need to learn to become a scholar, to own your writing and your ideas.
- “Your major audience is often yourself.” Until you present it to others, when it “can produce a powerful difference in your writing, as you struggle to make [yourself] clear.”
Strategies to keep in mind when you sit down to write
- Make a mess or build a mud pie. (Play with the subject: what is it that it says to you; what do you want to say to the subject; or about the subject?)
- Try setting a timer to ten minutes and write to answer the question: “What am I really trying to say in this argument/chapter/section?”
- Keep going: Don’t let anything get in your way.
- “Put down whatever is in your mind . . . The only requirement is that you never stop.” (Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers)
- Set realizable goals for yourself. (Don’t assign to large pieces of work.)
- This is very important (and something I’ve done wrong for years): “If you set yourself up to fail, you will soon discover that you’re writing less. And less. And still less.”
- Start by writing ten minutes a day. It works quickly and gets you on track. “Anyone can write for ten minutes a day, particularly if one is free writing.”
- Change this goal using one of three methods:
- The “sit there” method: set a time and write for that fixed amount every day. (Recommended: no more than 2h/day.)
- The “inspiration” method: “plan on writing each day until you come up with one or two decent ideas”:
- The “many pages method”: write the same amount of pages every day. (Recommended: 3-6p/day; try to end every day with an unfinished sentence or a plan for how to continue the next day; take one day off per week)
- Get addicted. Try to find the pleasure in the writing, and reward yourself in order to get there.
- Don’t concern yourself with matters of truth: as you write, you will deal with “questions of truth, with the trade-offs between pure ‘story’ and the artful creation of the ‘plot’ that make for a coherent narrative.”
- Acknowledge that “you can’t always say everything you want to say.”
- Acknowledge that “you will never reach the perfect text you’re striving for, because it exists only in fantasy.”
If you’re setting yourself up to fail
- Understand why:
- Are you sleeping enough? Are you eating enough?
- Are you drinking and partying too much?
- Have you “been grandiose in your estimate of how many other jobs you could do while writing your dissertation”?
- Are you “being too generous, or too masochistic, and are letting other people distract you”?
- Are you too social?
- You can (and are allowed to) become “selectively antisocial” during your dissertation writing: don’t answer your phone; set an auto-response on your email.
- Let your partner know that “your dissertation is your top priority—not forever, but for now.”
- “Don’t use other people’s needs as a way of acting out your ambivalence about completing your thesis.”
- You are “entitled to finish your degree.”
- What in “the atmosphere in which you’re trying to work is preventing you from working”?
- How much time are you actually spending on your dissertation? When do you sit down to write? Are you trying to write a “final draft each time you sit down? Is it working?”
- Remember that “you are entitled to put your dissertation first,” and remember that “it’s time you stopped asking other people’s permission to do so.”
- “Cultivate ruthlessness (which is not the same as irresponsibility or cruelty) while writing a dissertation. If you’re planning on finishing your degree, you have to focus on your own work, to times to the exclusion of the rest of the world.”
- Don’t suffer, “do something about what isn’t working.”
- If you are a free spirit: Even you have to make yourself “more organized (at least temporarily) for the sake of not getting in [your] own way during this complex process.”
- Don’t think that you will be able to read everything in your field: “Relax. You’re sure to miss something, and it’s very unlikely to matter much.”
- Are you suffering from the “Penelope Syndrome? (I know I am.)
- Do you “write a few decent paragraphs, and then a day or a week later [you] decide that what [you] have written is not any good at all, and . . . toss it”?
- Then you’re maybe “overly perfectionistic”: “Ask someone else to help you look it over later and make some suggestions for revision.”
Strategies for dealing with a “thinking block” (not a writer’s block)
- “I can write about any other things for the first five minutes of my writing time, but then I have to gold myself to writing primarily about my subject.”
- Have “a conversation with your advisor , or with someone else you can understand your topic.”
- “[Try writing about what there might be in the knotty place you've reached that's troublesome to you: Do you worry that your advisor won't like it? Or are you uncertain if you believe what you've argued? Or is there something in the material itself that disturbs you?”
- Write as fast as you can for 10 minutes about a select part of your argument/theme/thesis or whatever it is. (The topic can be “sloppy” but pull the focus from anything—in free writing—to something particular here.)
- Still, importantly, keep going: do “not worry if your thinking is divergent” since that is “what will ultimately produce some of the most interesting ideas in your dissertation.
If you can’t meet deadlines
- Remember: “Dates in the calendar may be closer than they appear.”
- “Pay close attention to who you are, not who you might like to be.”
- “How can you learn to use deadlines to empower yourself, and exert control over the dissertation process, rather than to scare yourself into paralysis?”
- Understand the difference between external deadlines and internal deadlines.
- “[T]hink about times when you've met goals in the past, and what the circumstances of those projects were.”
- Set up deadlines that can “involve rewards, not punishments” and make things cushy for you. Don’t think you’re superhuman.
- If you miss a deadline:
- Get back on the horse!
- Make a new deadline that you know you can make.
- Be nice to yourself—leave plenty of cushy room.
- Do you not like control and authority? (Even when the one controlling or exerting authority over you is yourself?)
- If it’s not severe: ask yourself “Whose dissertation is this, anyway?”
- If it is severe: get professional help.
Don’t forget strategies of self-care
- Get help with structures for “ongoing support”: cooking, cleaning, doing laundry.
- Reward yourself for making deadlines: pick something you really like. (Make and keep a list!)
- Build into your schedule “times when you can relax and times when you can undo the tension that comes from spending hours each day sitting still and concentrating hard.”
- Gym, yoga, swim, meditate, listen to music, read a book, nap.
- “Don’t skimp on healthy food.”
Learn to recognize “interruptions from inside”
- Ambivalence: you will feel ambivalent about finishing your dissertation: “Every major life change destroys the equilibrium of our lives . . . even if the new self is better, we feel some sadness at leaving the old one.”
- “It is absolutely possible to want very much to write your dissertation, and also to want very much not to—and if the forces are just about equal, you will end up in the seesaw position with a lot of tension and no motion.”
- “recognize it”—“feel, laugh at, your own ambivalence”!—and “then push off from the ground again”
- engage “a friend as a cheering squad”
- ask “your advisor to set you frequent deadlines”
- list “explicitly for yourself all the reasons it would be lovely to be finished with your degree.”
- Static: “unrelated thought feeling, and other distractions that pass through your mind while you’re writing or trying to write.”
- “Insidious” form of static: “thinking about, rather than thinking in, your dissertation.” = “vampires” (see [title of show]) and thoughts on how foolish your work will seem or how stupid you are.
- “instead of trying to push it out of your mind, try writing down whatever is in your head.” You can either write it down in a separate place or in your main text, inside of brackets, if you want. It may surprise you “to discover that there is indeed a method to your seeming madness.”
- use mindfulness and meditation to pull “your thoughts back to the topic at hand” (“the Buddhist way”)
- Terror: There are internal and external reasons for “why thesis writers get scared,” which stops them in their writing.
- “learn how to write despite your anxiety”: “listen to it . . . investigate it” in order to learn how to be a better writer.
- write down why you are scared and “pretend you’re giving advice to one of the student you may have met”
- “try mantra . . . magic charms . . . and rewards for times when you write through your block.”
Preventing getting stuck:
- “Create and care for your writing addiction.”
- “Always park on the downhill slope.”
- “Write first.”
- “Don’t cry over . . . unwritten pages.” “Write one day at a time”: don’t worry about “next week’s writing or about yesterday’s.”
- “Remember one of the best rewards of all: the writing you hold in your hand”: print what you have and feel impressed.
Strategies for when you’re stuck
- “Go back and reread a few days’ worth of writing from the last time you did manage to write anything in your dissertation, putting check marks next to interesting, or incomplete, passages.” Are you able to use any of those as a stepping stone into writing?
- “Return to free writing with a vengeance.”
- Choose another form to write in: haiku, dialogue, poem, email or letter.
- “keep writing” — “try writing about why you think you’re stuck.”
- Drastically limit your writing time: “Pick a length of time—it can be as little as ten minutes a day—that you are absolutely certain you can manage.”
- Think of “something youreally want to do . . . tell yourself that you can only do that thing after you’ve written some reasonable amount for the day.”
- Remember that your goals matter: “Unreachable goals kill motivation.” And: “Each day that you succeed will make it easier for you to write the next day.”
- “Be a blatant behaviorist and bribe yourself shamelessly.”
- Don’t be afraid to remove your words: “there are more where those came from.”
- You need to feel comfortable “mak[ing] yourself very vulnerable."
- “revising means rethinking and rewriting, again and again, until you feel like you’ve gotten it right.”
- “When you revise, imagine yourself as a reader, instead of the writer.”
- (Concrete strategies, see pages 120-122)
Strategies for inviting new readers of your work
- “Be quite careful . . . which others you invite to read your early writing.”
- “Think very realistically about what you want from your reader.”
- Make sure your advisor responds “to your changing needs as your project changes,” from “listen[ing] to you as you try to clarify your arguments" to "stand[ing] in for the harder critics out there in the world.”
- Perhaps have a dissertation support group (see pages 104-115)