Four ways to get writing

I am trying to write my PhD dissertation.

It’s going OK, thanks for asking.  But it’s not going OK all the time.

Some days, I can spend an hour in front of my computer and have nothing to show for it but a lot of purple links on Reddit.

Other days I can literally write, almost nonstop and without distraction, for epic 10 hour sessions.  

So what’s the trick?  Here is my experience.

1.  Deadlines

If you are writing your dissertation, then it’s a safe bet you can meet a deadline.  Be it a term paper, grant application, or conference abstract, my life is littered with deadlines.  And, the week before a deadline, two things happen.  I put down other interesting projects, and I write productively because it has to get done.

But the problem is that a dissertation is such a huge task that it inhabits its own epic time frame.  It will be finished when it is finished, it won’t be shoved out in a week or a month.  But setting reasonable, artificial deadlines for small pieces of my thesis has allowed me to step out of the lab, enjoy some of that deadline-induced focus, and put digital ink to screen.

2.  Write when you can write

Why fight it?  I can’t always write.  If it’s a nice day out and I can’t concentrate, I go out and play. If I can’t write because I’m thinking about my sister, I call her.  If I’m hungry, I eat.

By the same token, sometimes I can write.  On these days, I cancel commitments and appointments.  I live that day as if writing were the only task on my desk.

Rather than seeking to control my productivity, I work with it.

##3.  Write the shitty, plagiarized first draft

I am not  a perfectionist, really.  I’m not even a details person.  But when it comes to writing, it’s really tough for me to get going.  Oddly, the toughest section is writing the introduction (more on that later, perhaps) where what I need to say has already been written, a thousand times.

By blatantly plagiarizing whole sections from other people’s reviews and my own writing elsewhere (and highlighting the sections so I don’t forget, of course), I can move on, revise, and build off of what’s on the page.  I no longer try to rewrite what has been said again and again (a more unpleasant task, to me, than blazing a new trail with new data)- I go with what’s been said, and after things are in place, I reshape it to my needs.

4.  Get active

Seriously.  Go to the gym, go for a run, shoot some hoops.  Sometimes I just clean my house for an hour (in fact, I think my apartment is only clean when I have a deadline looming.  This may not be for everyone, as it’s a trait I share with my mother, but not my father.).  I leave the music at home, and busy my body while clearing my mind.  When I return to my desk, I’m often reset and ready to work.

If you are reading this, then I wish you the best of luck on your project.  Get back to work!  And if you can’t, and you don’t have a real world deadline breathing down your neck, go take care of yourself!  Because you deserve it, and you’ll function better if you aren’t burnt out.