Motivation and Encouragement for Dissertation Writers Across Disciplines

Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page

Guest Post: Breaking the Writing Block

In Uncategorized on October 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student in Education at The Centre  for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that doctoral students use when describing their research and other matters related to their studies. His profile is at

Not being able to work is the curse of the PhD student. And writer’s block is one of the worst to deal with. We all get it. Usually, there’s no reason apart from the inability to settle down and work. My supervisor told me that the way to beat not being able to write is to follow the ‘take one small step’ procedure. She told me that to get myself writing again I should take one small first step. This method works in breaking through writers’ block and similar problems. I know because I’ve used it.

The first step might be something simple such as opening a Word file ready to write something, but without actually doing any writing. Once the first small step is accomplished, take a short break. Have a cup of tea. Then, take another small step. This one might be naming the file or putting in a temporary title. Have another break for a few minutes and then take another small step such as writing a rough abstract. And so on.

Eventually, the small steps will add up to something useful and you will have got started. Having done something useful you will be encouraged to do more. Then you can stop taking small steps and start taking larger ones like writing the first draft of the whole of a chapter, revising it and finishing it. The larger steps will follow naturally from the small ones if you take enough small ones. The important thing is to recognise that you are making progress with each of the small steps and should continue on with more of them. The many small steps will build up to a big step which will help to overcome the urge not to work and break through the block.

Sometimes, you can only take the first small step. Doing any more is just too stressful. That’s alright. Take a break for a few hours and then take the small step again. This time you should persist and be able to do a little more. Don’t get stressed. If the next step is too much, then stop, have a break and then start again. As long as in each working spell you take at least one more small step than the previous one you will be making progress.

Whatever your problem with starting to write, try the ‘one small step’ procedure. What the small step is to be will depend on what you are agonising about, but should become plain with a little thought. The important thing is to do something. What you do isn’t as important as doing something. Try it – what have you got to lose? Nothing but your excuse to continue procrastinating. Once you have started writing again it will all have been worthwhile.

The decision between writing and not writing is yours to make. Maybe this simple procedure will help you to break the barrier and get something done. Try it – one small step at a time…


New Writing Tools Added

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2011 at 11:47 am

Hi Folks,

I’ve added some new writing tools to the site.  Here’s what you’ll find if you click here:

Writing Energy Audit: Never sure where your writing energy is going?  You may need an audit to help prioritize. 

Project Breakdown Sheet: Overwhelmed by your dissertation?  Break it down into manageable pieces. 

Scholarly Pipeline Visual: I created this for myself and my campus writing group to help keep us on track and to eliminate gaps in our scholarly pipelines.  This one is best printed out on 11 x 17 and can be laminated for several future uses with dry erase markers.  I recommend posting it in your office!

Enjoy and happy writing!

Guest Post: Zombie Dissertation

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2011 at 10:04 am

Ben is a final year PhD student from the UK.  He started his blog to document a steep learning curve on how to write an effective literature review, which he’s always found the hardest part of dissertation writing.  Check out Ben’s blog: Literature Review HQ

Zombie Dissertation: productivity on autopilot?

Some aspects of writing a dissertation are mentally very tough. If you spent half an hour thinking about some of the finer details you would need to lie down in a darkened room for a day to recover. Other aspects of writing are not mentally challenging in the slightest. In fact, far from being mentally challenging, they are so mentally un-taxing that a chimp could do them. Things like looking for journal articles to read, formatting references and doing corrections are really time consuming but are not mentally engaging. You can normally spot the poor souls who have spent their day doing these tasks due to their zombie like appearance.

So what am I getting at? Well I reckon more than half of dissertation writing is made up of this mindless stuff which is actually very handy to know. It means that a chimp could actually do half of your dissertation for you, or you could do half of your dissertation in a zombie like state, you choose.

I have only really started taking advantage of this recently and it pays dividends. Basically, as you get into writing you can identify periods during the day when you are mentally very alert. One of the most productive things you can do during this “alert” time is to set up and plan for things to do in your “zombie” time. Give yourself specific, but boring tasks to do, when you don’t have the mental faculties to cope with any high level pondering.

Some examples of “zombie” activities are:

  • Formatting your references to make sure they are all up to standard
  • Proofreading your drafts to look for spelling mistakes (not for comprehension)
  • Downloading and naming pdf’s of important articles.
  • Inserting references into your text with a citation manager
  • Even doing searching through key words in a database becomes a zombie activity after you have done it many times
  • Most corrections also constitute zombie activities (not re-writes but easy to change words and sentences)

Remember though that zombie activities are personal and can change throughout the course of your writing. It’s important to identify what these are so you know you can save them for a time when you are technically a zombie.

The best thing about zombie activities is that normally you can have a bit of fun while you do them. You can have the T.V. on in the background, listen to some music (Zombie Nation maybe?), or curl up on the sofa with your laptop and relax – whatever you like!

This works! You get absolutely loads done. Firstly, your productive time is focused on doing productive things. Secondly, you spend your unproductive time doing productive things! You don’t even do them slower because normally they are so boring the pace is dictated by something mechanical like typing – in fact, if you had some fast music on you may even do these tasks faster. Another great benefit that I noticed is that you actually have more productive time. Have you ever noticed that if you feel really alert and ready to go, doing a zombie task rapidly begets a zombie frame of mind, which is very difficult to get over. If you forget the zombie tasks until later, this doesn’t happen. What is even more amazing is that because you are being productive on autopilot during your zombie state you become energized as a result! Crazy right, you actually spend less time being zombiefied as a result.

Give it a go, embrace your zombie time.