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!