Fireside Chat: How to Be an Effective Writer and Not Binge

I used to be a binge writer and would write only when I thought I had enough time – which was never. I thought I needed blocks of time – like complete days – or long afternoons.

picture of Dove Raspberry Sorbet with dark chocolate barsFor me binge writing was like binging on sweet dark chocolate – chocolate cake or just plain dark chocolate. My favorite is Dove ice cream – not so much for the ice cream but for the dark rich chocolate coating.

I have learned from experience that binging on dark chocolate can make me feel – well not so good. So, I’ve learned to “manage” my binging and keep the richness of the dark chocolate to small amounts.

As with chocolate, I also learned several things from my binge writing days.  The days when I would sit in the living room writing my thesis.

Coffee cup on table with red blanket and fireplace in background. Writing my thesisA fire was lit in the fireplace on a cold winter morning and I could see my fellow grad student friends walking to class or to the lab while I was inside with my Cup of Joe writing away.

What I learned was this.

  1. I accomplished less overall by binge writing. Writing the thesis/dissertation is a marathon – not a sprint – so I needed to pace myself.
  2. My binging was not sustainable. I just couldn’t do it day after day. What I discovered was I was spending more time re-reading and re-acquainting myself with my topic.  It would have been better to have smaller amounts of time dedicated each day to writing. Not to mention how draining and tiring it is.
  3. I also realized that by expecting too much of myself – I could never achieve my goal. In fact, I learned that it’s best to start with a small goal.  “There’s no such thing as too small a goal”.  What a small goal did for me is to allow me to see my accomplishments and not get discouraged and quit.
  4. What I learned about writing is what I learned from my love of chocolate cake. Picture of rich dark chocolate cate with 3 cherries on topWriting is more than eating the chocolate cake – it’s about tasting the frosting or having one small bite. Writing can be that way as well. Writing can be done in bits and pieces. Having attended several writing workshops, I learned there is so much more to writing.
  5. One key piece is to leave off at a spot where I can pick up – so the idea is not to finish all of it – but to get to a place where I can pick up where I left off last time. Sometimes, I would make a list or an outline of what I would write next and use that to get me started.  That was a big take away for me. I use it today and share that insight with my students.
  6. The other important piece that I learned from writing workshops is that revising/editing, making an outline, checking references are all part of the writing process. So, when I only had 10 minutes, I can revise a paragraph or check the format of references.  Each step gets me closer to my goal.
  7. In a short period of time, I can read my paper and examine my writing from a big picture perspective and ask, Did I make persuasive arguments? or Did I convey my ideas clearly?
  8. Other times, I can focus on word crafting. I learned this from a great teacher – What’s the best word to use here? Do I need a better adjective or fewer adjectives?
  9. Does the paper flow? Does it logically move from one paragraph to the next? Do I have my topic sentences at the beginning of the paragraphs?
  10. Finally, I learned to check for typos and punctuations by reading the paper outload and then focusing on each word to find typos. We all know how self-correcting word processing has-a-mind of its own – it may not be the word we were typing.

To Recap:

  • Avoid binge writing it’s not sustainable
  • Set smaller goals
  • Leave off where you can pick up again
  • There is more to writing than writing
  • Revising and editing are all part of writing

Finally, if I write in long hand first and then type it up, I am more efficient as I am not trying to edit as I go.

Writing is hard work and tiring so it’s important to take resting at ocean shore with ball in mouth. Important to take a break after a hard workout!

Fireside Chat: Are we there yet? Or did we get stuck in the “Mud of Dunland”?

How do you begin to understand the road or journey to research?

While I’ve been conducting research for many years and have mentored graduate students in the research process, I always stop and reflect. I need to remember that first-year graduate students are novices and they are not familiar with journey. Think about the town, village, city you grew up in — you know it like the back of your hand – but to first-time visitors it’s uncharted territory.

student driver learning to drive sitting behind the wheel looking confusedIt is like learning to drive a car – trying to figure out how to coordinate every aspect of moving that vehicle safely down the road to your destination. While I know it’s automatic for me to know the research process, what questions to ask or what methodology to use, it’s not always clear to the beginning graduate student. For the novice, trying to figure out where to begin or what to do can be daunting and as clear as mud!

What is research? I like to think about it as exploration. A journey. A systematic investigation that varies by field or discipline, but in the end, we are asking questions to find answers to problems in a way that others can 1) understand what we did and 2) they can repeat what we did because we provided a clear road map for them to follow.

Picture of a winding road - Research is not a straight pathResearch is not a straight path. It’s not an easy path. The road is not smooth or paved. There are many potholes and detours along the way – that’s why I love doing research. We make choices or decisions and these choices impact and affect the next decision on our journey. It’s discovery at it’s best.

Since this is a journey, we need a plan, we need a map, GPS, Google Maps, or a path to follow. We need to record our journey, so others can follow our path and know where the pitfalls and potholes are. They need to know where we went and how we got there.Shows a map with a finger pointing to a spot on the map. showing we need a map to follow

We need to reflect along the journey. It’s important not to just look forward, but rather, to reflect and look backwards. You can learn a lot from reflection. From reflection comes inspiration. Be careful – you don’t want to drive constantly looking in the rearview mirror.

The research journey starts with a clear problem statement or question. When we start, many times our questions are foggy, not well formed, not concise or clear. This is why I always recommend to my students that they should write their problem statement down and then talk about it. Talk about that problem statement to everyone. Everyone who will listen.

Why do I suggest this to my students? It’s important that we know where we are going. The problem statement or research question needs to be clear and concise. This will assist us to know where we are going and inform others. What my students find out is that by talking about their problem statement to others, there will be questions – many questions. Questions asked of them that make them think critically about their research problem/question. This process assists them to move from fog to clarity. In the end, they will have a problem statement that is clear and concise.Forest with sun rays coming through and shining on path Reflection and Inspiration

Choices must be made along this journey. Just like traveling to an unfamiliar destination, you will have choices to make. For example, which turn to make. Which fork in the road to take. What to do when you approach an unexpected detour?

Research is much like that unfamiliar journey. Your choices will come from many questions and a lot of thoughtful reflection and guidance from your major professor and committee. Such as, what will the experiment or research design look like? How many samples will be needed? What to sample? When to sample? How to sample?

How will you measure your results? What will you measure? How will you collect your data or observations? What empirical evidence will you collect?

What will you do with the information or data you collect? What type of analyses will you do? How will this assist you to the conclusions you can make?

All of these are the choices you need to think about and plan before you begin.

What you will find out is that when you finish you will have the next set of questions to ask. And your journey continues.

In sharing your research, keep in mind the “so what”. So, what does this mean to the public or consumer? How does this contribute to the public knowledge and to the public good? If you can’t explain that when you finalize your project you need to spend more time reflecting and crafting your problem statement. It is key today with funding agencies and the general public that we be able to share the “so why are you doing this?” “Why is this important to me?”

Finally, along the journey, you want to avoid the “Mud of Dunland” where you get bogged down. Mud of Dunland shows feet stuck in gooey mudYou remember the story of a family going on vacation and driving a long distance. Along the way the children kept asking, “Are we there yet?”

Remember it’s a journey. Enjoy it. It’s a process with lots of unexpected turns and outcomes.

Fireside Chat: How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed

Now that you are preparing to write a thesis/dissertation, you may be feeling like I did – overwhelmed.  You may be asking yourself questions. How am I going to do this? Will I ever finish?  Will I have a life other than the thesis or dissertation? What is it they want me to write and what is it I want to write?

Getting started on a thesis/dissertation can feel like you are trying to each a whole elephant in one bite.  No need.  Here are some nuggets that may help you in that process.

Be Clear. Before you begin you need to have clarity.  Why are you doing this?  Are you doing this because you want to gain knowledge and skills?  Do you want to do this because you are passionate about the topic and want to delve deeper into the subject matter?  Are you doing this for career advancement? Are you doing this because someone else said you should?  If it is the last one, you need to think again.  Unless you are passionate about your topic, you may lose steam along the way.  If you are doing this for you, then when it appears that you are overwhelmed and losing steam, you will find the momentum to take the next step to keep going.

Journey. Writing a thesis/dissertation is a journey. I always calm my students by telling them that we are on a journey and I am their tour guide.  I have been there before.  What I know is this; there will be detours and setbacks.  I have taken this route before, so I know what to expect.  The detours and setbacks are just part of the discovery and process.   Getting to that degree is not a straight line, so enjoy and experience the journey.

BIG Decisions. Early on you will be faced with 2 big decisions – selecting the topic and selecting a advisor/chair. Maybe not in that order.  How you select a topic varies by disciplines.  In many disciplines, it’s student led. In my discipline it’s student led so as a grad student, I came up with the topic.  In other disciplines, your topic may be a small part of a larger project.  It could be that your topic may be project led depending on the funding source.

Selecting your advisor/chair can vary by discipline as well.  As I discussed in an earlier fireside chat Dissertation Expectations, you may not have a choice.   In some disciplines, the decision was made as you were accepted into the program and/or based on funding.  If you dohave a choice, choose carefully.   You want to look for an advisor/chair that has expertise in your topic, methodology, and data analyses.  You want them to be able to guide you through the process.  Remember, the journey is not a straight line.

You also are looking for an advisor who can motivate and mentor you.  In mentoring, you are seeking opportunities regarding what conferences to attend, where you should present your work, as well as networking possibilities.

Manage the Process. It is important that you be an active participant in the thesis/dissertation process.  You need to take an active role.  Discuss expectations with your chair/advisor.  Expectations about meetings, how often and with whom. Discuss teaching and industry internship opportunities.  Your advisor/chair may not be knowledgeable about everything; you want them to direct you to where you can seek answers. Select an advisor/chair who will guide you rather than shut down your ideas.

Wrong Direction. There will be times when the research or writing will not go as planned or expected.  Now what do you do? Don’t hide. Don’t be invisible.  It’s key to your success that you raise the issue. Sometimes as I experienced, you may face challenging times with your advisor/chair.  Talk with your advisor/chair.  If you feel the issue is not being resolved, it may be time to seek additional guidance. That is the time to seek advice from the Director of Graduate Programs or the Graduate Coordinator in your program.  Keep in mind your advisor/chair is not your supervisor for life.

Peer mentors can be a great asset and provide valuable insight from their experiences. Their experience can assist you. Remember, you are not the first to ever have challenges with their advisor/chair.  I came before you, and I can tell you from experience, you’ll survive and finish.  However, it’s up to you to take the next step, no matter how tiny that step may be. Take it.

Get Involved. You need a life outside of the thesis/dissertation.  Now don’t go to extremes and make this your #1 priority.  However, you do need to get involved with activities besides your work. Find or start a peer support group.  Go to informal coffees, attend social events sponsored by the graduate student association.  Attend conference or seminars on campus.  They are usually free.  Take time and visit the art museum or go for a walk or hike.  The time away allows you the opportunity to return refreshed and ready to begin again.

Remember you

  1. Need to be clear as to why you are doing this in the first place
  2. Are on a journey that is not a straight path
  3. Have important decisions to make
  4. Need to manage the process
  5. Need to seek assistance when you find you are heading in the wrong direction
  6. Need a life so get involved

Fireside Chat: How Not to be a Centipede

Doing the Dissertation – How not to be a Centipede

Begin Now!Starting is the most important part of writing the thesis/dissertation. Don’t wait for it to be fully formed in your head and expect to write the perfect thesis/dissertation from beginning to end.

You don’t want to be a centipede. The key is to take a tiny step forward each day.  Each step makes a difference and brings you closer to your goal.

“There was a centipede on the road. And when confronted by a toad, Was asked which foot came after which. This worked his mind to such a pitch, He lay distracted in the ditch.”

Keep your focus. Type the questions that will guide your research and put them on your computer, on your bathroom mirror, on the front door. Put them where you can see them every day – to keep you focused. And take a tiny step forward.

It is not easy to write a thesis/dissertation. It takes perseverance. It also takes creativity to write precisely and concisely.  Keep at it.  Don’t quit.

Follow the Leads. I loved looking for names of researchers and authors as I read each journal article and book. Some names will continue to rise to the surface and that may be an important lead. Follow it.  Read further and deeper, but remember you need to stop at some point and begin writing.

One faculty member suggested to her students that they check out book reviews of the books they repeatedly cite.  “Some reviewers will give you intensity and helpful ways to view these books.”

Outline. From an early stage in my career I wrote from an outline.  I know that at times it seemed easier to skip the outline and start writing.  However, in the end you waste more time.  “It’s easier to revise an outline then it’s to revise paragraphs and chapters” was key advice given by several faculty members during a thesis/dissertation workshop. Sharing your outline with your advisor/chair helps them to begin to “own” your organizational plan.  You want their “buy-in”.

Use topic sentences.Start with the big ideas up front. A great piece of insight from a faculty member was, “It is key to state your thesis in the first sentence of the thesis/dissertation.”  I use this advice all the time.  I learned this when I attended a grant writing workshop. For example, “The research problem is …” or “The purpose of this study is …”  Using topic sentences that are precise, concise, and direct make it easier for the readers to understand your message. It also helps you to understand what it is you are writing about.

Set deadlines and be accountable!  It is important to set deadlines for writing each section of the thesis/dissertation. You can be accountable to yourself and/or with other students in a writing support group. Practice setting deadlines.  They will help you finish and get done.  Use your outline to assist you in setting the deadlines. The outline can be most helpful.

Leave a place where you can pick up easily. A faculty member shared this step with students and I learned it in a writing workshop.  I use it all the time. “One suggestion from Hemingway to writers was to stop at the end of a period of time in the middle of an idea and then sketch an outline of the concrete next steps in your writing.”  I find this to be useful in my own writing. It gives me a place where I can start up writing where I left off. It makes it easier to return to my work. I also like to set a timer for 30 minutes and write for that length of time. That is one tiny step forward.

Resist interruptions.  You need to set boundaries. Be in a place where you can put a “do not disturb” sign on your door. Shut off social media. Use your phone and set a 30-minute timer and begin writing.  I found if I hand write and let things flow, it is easier and more efficient. I am not trying to edit or correct spelling as I go. I do that as the next step.  Editing is another step in the writing process. Here again, that you can set a timer and begin editing.  You can check references and format; it’s all editing. The key is to stay focused and you will get done faster.

Use a proofreader.  You need someone in addition to yourself to read your work before you give it to your advisor/chair.  This person could be a friend, a partner, a peer mentor.  They will see spelling and grammatical errors.  They will identify statements that are not clear.  It’s natural for us to read over these as we know what we are trying to say.  We all need fresh eyes to read our work.

It is important that if your advisor/chair asked you to correct something, do it! Nothing annoys us more than to see the same mistakes not corrected after we pointed it out.  As one faculty member stated, “To repeat the mistakes you’ve agreed not to make, is to risk irritating your advisor.”  I have experienced that as an advisor and it is irritating.

Celebrate!  You need to reward yourself as you complete sections and make your deadlines.  We all like rewards.  Including me. It’s a way to encourage yourself to continue on.

 While each thesis/dissertation is unique and original. I hope that you will find one of these, if not all, 12 steps you can use to get the thesis/dissertation started and finished.

Remember, You don’t want to be a centipede!

Fireside Chat: Advice from Faculty About the Dissertation

How do grad students learn about how to write a dissertation?  I thought about my own experience as a first-generation grad student.  There must be a better way to assist grad students.

I found a way. And in this chat I will share the experience of others who successfully completed the process and some who were going through the process. But first let me tell you how I found a way.

I happened to be visiting an experienced Graduate Dean seeking informal mentoring when I was invited to attend a special workshop. This workshop was a Dissertation Workshop for graduate students. I thought, what a novel idea. How can I do something like this for our grad students. And, so I did.

Using that workshop as a model, I expanded the idea to include master’s as well as doctoral level students. The first Thesis and Dissertation workshop was held on my campus in October 2000.  It was a great success.  We had a full house. Faculty from diverse disciplines were invited to serve on a panel and give their best advice to the attendees. They ranged from having just finished their dissertation (newly appointed Assistant Professors) to well established faculty (Professors).

The students asked lots of questions.  One student captured the experience of attending the workshop as follows.  “This is the first thing like this that we have had as graduate students.  It makes me feel like I am part of a community of scholars.”

The Faculty shared great wisdom and I have the luxury of having saved my notes and am able to share their insight with you here. Much if not all of what they said holds true today and my hope is that you will find one nugget that will be of value to you.  You may want to read the fireside chat on Dissertation Expectations.

Preparing the Way. Faculty had much to say about how important it is for you to get started right away. Do not let the first semester slip by without you taking action. They recommended that you:

  • Attend dissertation proposal meetings and defenses in your program right away.
  • Select a topic you like, and feel is important.Sometimes that topic will be selected for you by the funding agency, if not, you will want to be passionate about your topic.
  • Explore several possible dissertation questions.
  • Consider multiple designs and don’t prematurely foreclose on your topic.

One faculty talked about how important it was to prepare. He said the following. “If you don’t prepare the way – set the stage – you’ll end up like I do on Saturdays.  I spend the day going back and forth to Lowes rather than making a planning check-list and making only one trip.”

Advisors. Selecting your faculty advisor is a major commitment. You may want to read the Fireside Chat A Mentor Saved the Day and do better than I did.  Sometimes you may not have a choice in that your funding is tied to a faculty advisor. Be mindful. Everything is rosy during the honeymoon or early phase and it can get difficult during the middle of the process. You don’t want to divorce your major professor as I did (that’s for another fireside chat) or have them divorce you.

  • Choose an advisor with great care.
  • Expect some bumps in the road in working with your advisor.
  • Consider the advisor’s work load and promptness in reading and providing feedback.

This faculty member says it like it is. “At times during the dissertation process, you won’t like your advisor.  I pride myself on not hating anyone, but I hated my advisor at times. Now that I’ve graduated, I don’t hate him.”

Committees.  Think about committee membership in several ways.

  • How academically helpful will they be?
  • What is the social/political make-up of the committee?
  • What scientific paradigms do they represent?
  • How liberal or conservative are they scientifically/methodologically?

Never forget that there is a standard unspoken protocol. It is this. “Committee members usually defer to the dissertation advisor. That is the way the system works.”

Process.You will find that you are excited to begin. Your family will keep asking you, “When will you be finished? What is it you are working on?”  The dissertation process is different from anything you have done in the past. As one professor stated, “The ‘bells’ that have rung in your past will probably not ring for you when you do a dissertation. You are largely on your own.”

  • Be proactive, not simply reactive during the process.
  • Remember that the dissertation process is a tutorial one – you and your advisor.
  • Map out the entire dissertation and then break it down into smaller subparts and tasks.
  • Set short term goals relative to the dissertations subparts and hold yourself accountable.
  • Identify technical and emotional social support assets.
  • Get by with some help from your friends.

One doctoral student in attendance summed up her experience and how your mindset makes a difference.

“As a doctoral student at the dissertation stage, I’ve discovered two attitudes among students. 1) This is what I have to do, and 2) This is what I chose to do because I have a passion for it.  What a difference it makes to have the second attitude!”

Fireside Chat: Dissertation Expectations

Everyone has expectations – your professors, your committee members, even the Graduate School.  Expectations about your dissertation.

The most important lessons are the following.

  • You are not in Grad School to get tenure.
  • You do not have to win the Nobel Peace Prize for your dissertation.
  • That Big idea you have will last you a life time so, just do a small piece of it for your dissertation and graduate.

You were selected and admitted into the program because faculty and the Grad School saw promise and potential in you. You do have outstanding qualities.

Graduate School.  The Grad school has its own expectations of you.

  • To exhibit and practice only the highest and ethical research standards.
  • To create new original and independent knowledge.

In the process of doing your dissertation, you will enhance your critical thinking skills, be able to critique and transfer knowledge.  The one thing that is different today is that the “Ruler Lady” is no longer employed to measure your margins, so your dissertation can be bound.

Today everything is electronic, and the format can be quite different.  For example, in some disciplines 3 publishable papers or a more creative format may be used in place of the old standard format. A standard format may consist of an introduction, literature review, methodology, results and discussion, conclusion and implications for further work.

Advisors.You may be wondering about the expectations of your advisors.  They want you to be independent, take responsibility, ask questions, and transition from novice to peer and be able to take the lead. It’s also important that you be respectful of their time.  Your dissertation is not the only one they are supervising.

Questions you should ask.

  • What should the dissertation look like? Are there chapters? If so, how many? It is a collection of papers that you co-author with your major professor?
  • Who owns the data you are collecting – you? The funding agency? The Industry sponsors? What implications does that have for you to publish your work?
  • Will your prospectus/proposal for the dissertation be agree upon by all committee members? By the funding source?

These are important questions to explore with your major professor and confirm by looking at other examples of recently “published – on-line” dissertations in your program.

Management of Your Dissertation. Your expectations for the management of the dissertation should be clear.

  • How will the drafts be handled?
  • Will the entire document be handled by your advisor before it goes to the rest of the committee? Will it go chapter by chapter?
  • What is the amount of lead time you need to give the reader(s) to review and give you feedback?

It’s unrealistic to expect that if you turn the material in today, that it will be read in two days.  You need to ask what the appropriate protocol is for your program. Keep in mind, the committee and/or your chair have other responsibilities besides your dissertation.

The Chair. It’s important that you as the student have regular meetings with your chair.  Be sure to be prepared.  Come to each meeting with an agenda and leave with clear action items.

Questions you should explore with your chair include:

  • How will meetings be scheduled in advanced?
  • How often will I meet with the whole committee to provide progress updates and receive feedback?
  • What can I expect at those meetings?
  • Will I be meeting one-on-one with committee members? If so, how often and for what purpose?

You want to be very careful as to who you select for your chair.  Sometimes, that decision is made for you by the funding source (your chair).  If that’s not the case, do your due diligence and ask your peer mentors for advice.  Be sure to check out the chair’s completion rate and the median time-to-degree to finish for their students. The same can be said for committee members. You may want to read Fireside Chats: A Mentor Saved the Day; Preparing the Way.

Resources. There are resources to assist you. You do not have to blaze the trail by yourself.  Most Graduate Schools have workshops that can be a great value to you. But, you need to make the effort and get to them.  You probably have found numerous on-line resources on “How to write a dissertation.”

Most importantly, get a support system-group in place now! People who can encourage you as you go through the process. People who understand what you are going through. People who can celebrate with you at the finish line – graduation.

You may want to hire a professional editor. Especially if English is not your first language.  I always used an editor as I prepared my grants and manuscripts for publication.

There are writing and thesis institutes where you can spend a focused week on writing.  Attend workshops on writing.   Take advantage of every available learning opportunity even if you have to sneak out of the lab.  They will be valuable to you as you proceed through the process.

Imagine.  Finally, before you begin, Imagine.  Imagine yourself at the end defending a successful dissertation. Finished!  Just defended your work. You are now preparing for graduation and the celebration that follows.  Feel what that feel like.

Now, remember that feeling and go there every time you hit a brick wall, face a hurdle or challenge.  Keep on going. Go over, under, around, and through the challenges to your goal. That feeling and how you saw yourself as graduating…that will assist your spirits and help you to stay on task.

I always tell my students, “Never in the middle ask why am I here? Remember you goal and what it’s going to feel like when you finish.”  You will get there!