Over the summer, I wrote my master’s dissertation and, oh boy, was it tough. Writing a 16,000 word paper is one thing, but to do it basically on your own was certainly another. I’ve always struggled with setting my own deadlines and sticking to them, so this was like self-discipline boot camp! I finished the whole thing in late August and I learned so much about how to accomplish long-term writing projects and picked up some tricks that helped me along the way.
Since I know many are in the throes of thesis writing season, I thought I’d share what worked for me in case that might be helpful to anyone out there. And to those taking on a thesis – you can totally do it! I never thought of myself as a serious writer, but I just took it a day at a time and worked hard and was so proud of myself by the end. You’ll get there, I promise!
1. Start somewhere. I’ll admit it – I can be a little bit of perfectionist. But this can be so paralyzing when you’re starting a longterm writing project. I often feel like if it isn’t just right, I can’t write anything! But take a step back and remember it’s easier to edit something that already exists than think of something completely new. Also, a glass of wine helps if you need to relax.
2.Don’t fight your work habits. I’ve always heard that writing in the morning is the way to go because you’re distraction free, but I’m a huge night owl and could never get myself motivated in the morning. I was always beating myself up if I didn’t write right away or I couldn’t focus first thing. Eventually, I let myself fall into writing at a later time slot, which comes more naturally to me, and felt sooo much better. Don’t believe the hype – you do you.
3. Set boundaries for yourself. This became really important towards the end of my dissertation when I had an endless list of edits to make. I was driving myself crazy with guilt about leaving things undone. So I started setting myself boundaries: when I was done for the day, I was done. I would turn on Netflix, cook dinner, have a glass of wine, and let myself relax. As my advisor said, “There will always be changes”, so give yourself some time off too.
4. Get an editor. I had a really great experience doing this in undergrad because we had a Writing Center (which I actually worked at, too). I had an awesome tutor (thanks, Mary!) who I met with every week who read through my work, gave me feedback, and helped me talk through my ideas. It was seriously the best thing I could have done – it held me accountable for working between deadlines, allowed me to express any frustration, and generally improved my writing a ton.
5. Time yourself. This is an exercise I started doing whenever I was just not feeling it: set a timer for 30 minutes and set yourself a small goal, such as “find quotes to substantiate this point” or “edit your introduction”. Setting myself smaller goals and feeling the pressure of being timed helped me get the ball rolling and more often than not, I found myself working past the 30 minutes and really digging into whatever I was doing.
6. Plan out tomorrow before you finish today. Because my paper was so long, I always found myself struggling with picking up where I left off the day before. What argument was I trying to make? What edits did I need to make to this paragraph? So, I started making myself a to-do list for the next day before I finished that day’s work. I would include specific notes or short outlines to help ease myself into the next day. It was hard to push myself that last bit everyday, but it made me so much more efficient.
7. Use online resources. Two electronic resources that are invaluable: electronic copies of your most used texts and the Self Control app. I had both a physical and digital copy of my main primary source, so I could jot down notes while reading and search for quotes that I couldn’t quite put my finger on (lifesaver). I also used the Self Control app, which puts certain websites on a blacklist for a length of time, so when I was doing my 30 minute timed exercises I couldn’t just troll Facebook or Pinterest, instead. It’s a great tool for those addicted to social media, like me.
8. Talk to your classmates. This is particularly important if you are not in class while you’re writing – go get a coffee or a beer with your classmates and vent. DO IT. Even if you don’t know them very well or you’re exhausted from writing all day, just go. Isolation can become a major problem for long term writers so go be amongst other people who really get what you’re going through. It will help so much.
9. This project doesn’t define you. This is probably the most important one. This project isn’t you or your self worth, it’s just a project. I know it can seem like the biggest thing in the world (because it is in your world), but remember that it will end eventually and you will still be the amazing, intelligent person that you are, no matter the result. Just focus on your own personal growth and be proud of yourself for even taking it on. Let the rest go.