How To Finish Your Dissertation

October 15, 1999

So you're finally ready to write your dissertation. But you're not sure you're ready for such a massive task, and every time you sit down to work, you're seized with "writer's block."

If you're like most people, you probably have a romantic image of the writer as someone who writes during spontaneous bursts of creativity. Unfortunately, few writers write only when they feel inspired. And waiting for inspiration is impractical when you work on long-term projects like dissertations or books. If you work on your dissertation only when you feel like it, the project will never be completed.

That's why you need to become acquainted with "The Clockwork Muse."

While it may run counter to our vision of creativity, effective planning is the key to gaining better control over one's writing. Organizing our time makes writing far less stressful and helps us actually accomplish goals we might otherwise consider out of our reach.

I first became aware of the useful link between scheduling and writing when I was about to begin writing my own dissertation, a 300-page document that I was determined to finish before I would become a father and start my first full-time job. I began experimenting with schedules and timetables, and ultimately I was able to complete my dissertation a few weeks ahead of schedule. The system I developed -- planning my writing times and sticking with the schedule -- became the basis for my work ever since.

By providing this essentially amorphous process with some structure, timetables make writing more predictable and therefore less intimidating. By allowing us to pace ourselves, schedules also help reduce the pressure associated with deadlines as well as the tendency to procrastinate. Setting a schedule helps integrate your writing into the rest of your life, as well.

Here are the basic principles for an effective writing schedule:

  • Make a list of your regular activities, and within that context, decide how much time you wish to devote to your writing. If you've never tried a weekly schedule before, be open to adjustment. Try to create a balance between writing and other activities.

  • Determine the length of your writing sessions. Try to get a sense of your ideal writing session, considering how long it takes for you to get into a creative mode. If you need it, build in 15 or 20 minutes of warming-up activities -- checking your e-mail, making yourself a cup of coffee -- so you can clear your mind for actual writing. Make sure the session is not too short or so long that your productivity lags.

  • Identify the times and days when you are most productive and least likely to be interrupted. For example, if you know you are tired in the afternoon, don't schedule your writing times then. Find your ideal time slots that can become sacred for writing.

  • Figure out how to maintain your momentum, especially if you are working on a long project. Be sensitive to the "flow" of your writing. With large projects, try to minimize the number of times when you have to interrupt your writing for more than a day at a time. If you have 10 hours devoted to writing, for example, choosing to write every morning rather than on Mondays and Fridays will save you the time you would probably need to recapture your state of mind you were in three or four days earlier.

  • Identify times for making progress on other important tasks related to your project, such as writing footnotes and a bibliography, that do not require the intense concentration of your writing. When conditions are not ideal for writing, such as waiting for a doctor's appointment or while commuting -- you can still work on more mechanical tasks.

Working on books and dissertations entails ample opportunities to doubt whether you can actually complete them. Intimidated by the great distance from their goal, many scholars break down and never complete their dissertations.

Yet even the most "impossible" tasks can be managed if you break them down into several smaller (and non-intimidating) tasks. Setting smaller benchmarks along the road to your ultimate goal helps you proceed one step at a time, while alleviating the tremendous pressure of having to constantly grapple with your entire project.

Think of your project as a "mountain with stairs" -- a set of smaller steps leading to the top. For example, if you organize your book or dissertation in seven chapters, each of which is subdivided into four sections, and write three drafts of each, you actually have eighty-four goals to meet (and 84 opportunities to feel accomplished.) Having divided your book or dissertation into smaller segments, you can plan how long you need to spend on each segment and project when you might complete your entire manuscript, which you need to do when applying for jobs or signing a book contract.

It is important to set a comfortable, relaxed pace that allows you to avoid pressure. The best way to maximize your sense of accomplishment and minimize your experience of disappointment is to set goals that are definitely within your reach; for that, you also need to build into your timetable some slack time for when you are sick or overburdened with unanticipated commitments.

Moving along slowly should not prevent you from being prolific. Even days when you write only one page ultimately add up. Like piggy-bank savers whose pennies eventually become dollars, writers who proceed slowly do end up with completed manuscripts. (A relatively slow writer, I myself have written seven books in 21 years. Normally I write about two pages a day, but I still prefer to plan my writing on a schedule, when I "pace" myself at only a page and a half a day.)

The secret, of course, is perseverance, which is much more important than speed for completing projects. Indeed, it is often slow-but-steady tortoises rather than speedy hares who actually complete books and dissertations.

Be sure to have a deadline for your project. Setting deadlines is the most effective way of closing open-ended tasks that lack inherent limits and thus resisting Parkinson's Law, whereby work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Most students may not realize that getting an "Incomplete" often traps them in a vicious circle that may prolong their assignments indefinitely. In helping overcome indefinitely receding horizons, a deadline is a writer's best friend.

It certainly requires some self-discipline to always be ready to write on certain days whether you feel inspired or not and to stick to self-imposed deadlines. Indeed, you may very well miss not having around you those professors who always insisted that you hand in your papers by a certain date no matter what. Yet the right plans and routines can make self-discipline an extremely easy thing to establish.

Eviatar Zerubavel is professor of sociology at Rutgers University and is the author of several books on cognitive sociology and the sociology of time. His latest book, "The Clockwork Muse," is available from or Barnes and Noble.