by Scott Rank, Founder, Scholarpreneur.com
From Crippling Writers Block to Finished Thesis in 6 Months
It is possible to finish your dissertation in six months. This is true even if you have not finished your research or do not know what to write.
I know this because I went from crippling writers block to staring at the 430-page draft of my dissertation in half a year. In this blog post I will break down the exact steps I took to get to that point.
I recently finished my doctoral program at Central European University in Budapest. The final dissertation was 470 pages long.
The topic was Christian-Muslim social history of the late Ottoman Empire. During the course of my studies I had to research thousands of pages in the Ottoman Turkish language, a terrible mix of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian.
During my PhD program I also started writing popular history books. This is something I have been doing since December 2012, when I discovered self publishing on Amazon.
Since then I have published 12 books. I don’t say this to brag but I mention it because there were things that I learned while writing non-academic books that helped me start writing my dissertation.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Three years ago I hit a low point in my PhD program.
I was trying to write every day, but nothing came out. Whenever I did get any momentum in writing, I would be sidetracked by other responsibilities.
I would be lucky to produce more than a few sentences an hour. Words came out as quickly as liquid petroleum dripped out of decaying dinosaur bones.
I was not alone – many colleagues spent weeks producing no more than a few pages.
Each idea or turn of phrase was scrutinized, re-scrutinized, edited, then deleted. It went on like this for months.
But what made it truly impossible to write was the mental seminar room that I found myself trapped in. Whenever I tried to type a sentence, I would imagine myself giving a presentation to my professors and fellow doctoral students.
I heard their immaterial selves make interjections – recommending changes here, deleting parts there, or calling a whole chapter’s analysis into question. Doubt plagued every sentence I tried to write.
How the Wisdom of Isaac Asimov and Ernest Hemingway Helped Me to Get Over Writers Block
Asimov wrote in a fast, straightforward style. He attacked his typewriter, believing that output was far better than deeply nuanced dithering.
Asimov also wrote consistently, often working seven days a week. He started between 9:30 and 10 a.m., typing over 90 words a minute until 5 o’clock.
This lunch pail approach to writing influenced his style more than anything else.
Asimov produced words on the paper even if the muse did not visit him, scoffing at the idea of “writers block,” since workers like his shopkeeper father never shut the doors due to “shop keeper’s block.”
Asimov said this about writing:
I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.
Ernest Hemingway had his own tricks to keep up a steady output of writing. His most basic habit was to quantify his progress.
He kept a log on a large cardboard chart. The numbers on the chart showed the daily output of words, ranging from 450 to 1,250. The higher figures were days that Hemingway put in extra work so he wouldn’t feel guilty spending the rest of the day fishing or hunting.
Hemingway wrote without stopping, even if his first draft was terrible.
He figured that he could always go back and correct his writing during the revision stage. Because of this belief, he is thought to have told fellow writers to “write drunk, edit sober.”
Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing.
Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or write, ‘I can’t think of it.’
I realized that I was writing my dissertation all wrong. Asimov and Hemingway never dithered. They favored forward momentum, no matter how ungraceful. The results speak for themselves – Asimov is among the most beloved science fiction writers in history; Hemingway is arguably America’s finest novelist.
I have distilled the wisdom of Asimov and Hemingway into 4 principles for finishing a dissertation.
4 Principles to Finishing Your Dissertation
Principle #1: Don’t Break the Chain
This principle comes from Jerry Seinfeld. He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was more than that. He had a great technique he used on himself. You can also use it to motivate yourself—even when you don’t feel like it.
Jerry revealed a unique calendar system he used to force himself to write. Here’s how it works.
He said to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that he did his task of writing, he got to put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
This is the psychological theory of loss prevention – losing a small thing is more painful than gaining a small thing, even if that small thing doesn’t matter. I’ll explain how to exploit this psychological effect in Step 4.
Principle #2: How to Make it Impossible Not to Write Every Day
The way you do this is to write the first thing in the day. That’s it.
I made a goal for myself to write 500 words a day. This was a difficult habit to begin. Sometimes it took 3-4 hours to finish. On a good day it took less than an hour. But after a few weeks of sticking to this habit, it rarely took more than two hours.
Once I clocked in a few weeks of 500-word days under my belt, my mood changed dramatically. I felt like I was accomplishing something.
Because I did writing first, I felt free the rest of the day. No matter what I did, I was earning bonus points because I did the thing that I was supposed to do.
But how do you keep it up? Is it enough to just record times?
The solution comes from Nike+. Nike + is a sensor system used by distance runners to log in the length of their runs. It has had big results on its users.
Nike has discovered that there’s a magic number for a Nike+ user: five.
If someone uploads only a couple of runs to the site, they might just be trying it out. But once they hit five runs, they’re massively more likely to keep running and uploading data. At five runs, they’ve gotten hooked on what their data tells them about themselves.
This means that if you record your daily writing totals for five days in a row, then you will lock in a permanent habit.
You will become dead set on keeping it going. Breaking the chain may not seem like a big deal if you have only been doing it for three or four days. But something clicks in our brains after five days.
Bottom line – if you can keep up you writing goal for five days, your dissertation is as good as done.
Principle #3: How To Write Even if You Don’t Know Your Thesis Statement
But what if you don’t know the big idea behind your research – the thesis statement? How can you write if you don’t know what you are trying to say? The answer, again, is to write.
When you look at a finished product in an academic journal or book, you do not realize how many terrible drafts went into writing it.
When you write your first draft, the goal is to make a mess, to say anything that comes to your mind, on the subject or or off it, not to worry about whether everything is logically connected.
What is surprising is that when you go back over your seemingly mindless writing, sometimes you will find something interesting that you didn’t know before or even something you didn’t know you knew. Here we see the power of the unconscious mind. In addition, because you are not overthinking every word that you say, your thoughts and arguments are much simpler and clearer.
Writing is a dialectical process. Georg Hegel describes a dialectic as a three-fold process: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction, an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis.
Writing is a process where you discover what you have to say.
Ideas don’t emerge neatly from people’s minds. They rise up in conversation or the act of describing them, and you need to provide the proper medium for them to emerge.
Your dissertation is a synthesis between your ideas and the act of putting them down on paper.
Your writing helps give you ideas about which paths are fruitful and which are not. You control your sources. Your sources do not control you. You create the narrative. You make sense out of the chaos.
Principle #4: How to Get Your Friends To Help You Finish Your Dissertation
This principle is the most fun. You can get your friends to help you succeed, even those who aren’t academics. How? By helping them to punish you.
Let me explain. We are going to get into behavioral science and the theory of loss prevention.When it comes down to it, we are not a rational creatures.
According to the Center for Experimental Social Science at New York University, you would work harder to avoid losing $100 than to earn $100. It’s not logical, but it’s human psychology.
Rather than try to reprogram yourself, use your psychology to your advantage. Use the fact that potential loss is a greater motivator than potential reward to your advantage.
What I mean by this is, if you finish your 500-word daily writing quota, don’t think about rewarding yourself with some fancy dessert. Think about how to give yourself a very small punishment if you don’t meet it.
This is where you get your friends involved. Give them access to your writing data spreadsheet by making it publicly accessible as a Google Doc.
Tell them if you don’t meet the daily writing quota, then you owe them a drink the next time you all go out. Since they have access to your spreadsheet they will keep you honest.
If you want to take this a step further, give them $10 or $20 and tell them to donate it to the student group at your university that runs completely opposite to everything you hold dear.
What group makes your toes curl? Give your friend a check you have already filled out and tell them to deliver it to the group if you failed to meet your daily writing quota.
This principle is based on the work of Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, who developed the now-vs-future-self concept of egonomics.
Do not trust your future self. Prepare for his or her weakness, and set up punishments for your future self in case you fail.
So these are the four principles to finishing your dissertation in six months. If you follow them, you will be done in no time at all.
Scott Rank received his PhD in Middle East History from Central European University, and is the author of 10 best-selling history books that have been translated into multiple languages. He is also the founder of The Scholarpreneur, an information site that helps academics build their careers by taking their knowledge to the open market.
Which of these principles do you think will be easiest for you to implement? Share your thoughts in the comments below