Writing a dissertation

I recently bought Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. OK, so the title is perhaps not quite in accordance with my work ethic, but the book itself is a little miracle.

Bolker is a co-founder of the Harvard Writing Center, and her book is full of really practical advice on the writing process. It says nothing on style, bibliographies, or how to structure your thesis, but focuses on issues such as “getting started writing”, writing drafts, reviewing, and sharing your material with supportive readers. Whenever I feel that I get stuck in the writing process, I browse her book for a little while, and the inspiration returns as by magic.

The book tries to foster a kind of writing addiction in its readers. It recommends you to start each day by writing, but not with the aim to produce perfect paragraphs. Rather, you sit down behind your computer, and just start to write down what you are thinking. Perhaps something about your chapter keeps nagging at you — then write about it, examine what it is that bothers you. Or if you are not sure how to start your chapter, then play around with different ideas, list the pros and the cons (perhaps blogging about such questions is even better?). These kinds of musings will then almost effortlessly produce all kinds of new insights, and sometimes whole paragraphs can be copied into your chapter! And it really works, I can testify to that. In fact, I even miss the free-writing on days that I’m teaching.

Bolker offers enthusiastic and practical tips such as this one on the ebbs and flows of a writing day:

When you’ve hit your natural number of pages, you will experience this sequence: some slowness getting in, for, say, the first page, then the sense that you’ve hit your stride and can just write along for a while, thinking things, following some byways, exploring, maybe even discovering a new idea or two. Then you’ll come to a point at which you start to tire and feel like there’s not much left in your writing reserve for the day. This is the time to begin to summarize for yourself where you’ve been, to write down your puzzlements or unanswered questions, to do what Kenneth Skier, who taught writing at M.I.T. many years ago, calls “parking on the downhill slope”: sketching out in writing what your next step is likely to be, what ideas you want to develop, or follow, or explore when you pick up the writing again the next day. This step will help you to get started more easily each day, and it will save you an enormous amount of energy and angst.

If you think I am a bit too enthusiastic, check out these reader reviews on Bolker’s page


3 thoughts on “Writing a dissertation

  1. I can’t say with any amount of certainty that blogging about writing works better than that book you recommended and I’ve already ordered from Amazon. As you can tell from what I wrote tonight, despite all my efforts at transparency, I’ve managed to unwrite myself into a corner. Since I don’t know whether this box accepts html, here’s a link to what I wrote tonight:


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