Strategies for Writing: Advice from the UNC Writing Center

Ever the connoisseur of writing strategy and style, I have encountered enough advice and discussion that I could probably change my dissertation topic to the analysis of the modi operandi of academic writers.  I’ll stick with my current dissertation topic for now, but some of this advice needs to be shared with as many  interested people as possible, such as that from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The handouts they have created offer valuable advice for academic writers at all levels.  Of the most useful for my purposes has been the handout on writing dissertations, of course.

Receive some enlightening advice after the jump.

The handout starts from the perspective that ABD students have a tough
time getting to work on their dissertations.  Certainly this is not
always the case, as many of my colleagues are so good to remind me, but
for those of us in the ABD inertia boat, understanding why we’re having trouble tackling the dissertation can be the first step in just getting over it and starting to work.  Principally, this handout suggests that the dissertation can be problematic because it’s unlike much of the work a graduate student has previously done in size and scope.  Seminar and conference papers are important and enriching enterprises, but they are no dissertation.  One of the benefits of this handout is that it acknowledges the stress of writing the dissertation, and offers advice on what to do if you’re questioning the whole enterprise of writing a dissertation in the first place (this perspective is missing from much of the internet-distributed advice for graduate students, I find).

The rest of the handout deals with dissertation strategies–managing your topic, your time, your committee, etc.  More generally, the strategy they suggest is built upon the principal of momentum.  If you get used to doing work on your dissertation every day, then it will get done.  So, set a schedule and stick to it.  Even if you find that you can’t write on a certain day, do some kind of work related to the dissertation.  For example, you can work the the usually very specific page formatting, write a letter explaining your dissertation to a friend, or update your citations.  Even for those of you who have minimal difficulty working on this large project, the strategy of creating a momentum behind your work can help you write consistently and get your dissertation done in a timely manner.

Another extremely useful handout from the UNC Writing Center covers advice on overcoming procrastination.  This handout addresses almost every conceivable reason for procrastination, so most readers will likely identify with at least one of these reasons.

Fear:

  • Fear of failure: You can’t work because you are afraid you will do it poorly.
  • Fear of success: You fear that working on a project regularly will turn you into a workaholic with no outside interests. 
  • Fear of losing autonomy: You want to stick to your own schedule and not do work that is due because it feels like giving up your independence.
  • Fear of being alone: You don’t want to spend so much time without the company of others.
  • Fear of attachment: You separate yourself from others and procrastinate subconsciously "create chaos in [your] life."  I understand this one the least, but it seems to relate to the fear of losing autonomy above.

Perfectionism:

Perfectionists tend to procrastinate because they expect so much of themselves, and they
  are scared about whether or not they can meet those high standards. Perfectionists sometimes think that it is better to give a half-hearted effort and maintain the belief that they could have written a great paper, than to give a full effort and risk writing a mediocre paper. Procrastinating guarantees failure, but it helps perfectionists maintain their belief that they could have excelled if they had tried harder.

The writing part of writing: Some people don’t like to write, or don’t like their own writing.

Life intervenes: Some people are just to busy to do their work.  I’m not sure I’d call this willful procrastination until it reaches a point at which someone is creating things to do so that they can avoid writing.

Procrastination is a conditioned response:

Unfortunately, procrastination helps reinforce itself. When we avoid doing something we dread (like writing) by doing something we enjoy (such as watching TV, hanging out with friends, etc.), we escape the dreaded task. Given such a choice, it’s no wonder that many of us choose to procrastinate. 
When we write a paper at the last minute and still manage to get a good grade, we feel all the more compelled to procrastinate next time around.

Once we identify the source(s) of our procrastination tendencies, then the handout gives advice for forming strategies to overcome it.  The two that I find most helpful are first becoming very self-aware of your writing (and procrastinating habits).  Find out when, where, and why  you write the best.  See if you can catch yourself in the very act of working or writing.  Then you’ll be more successful in recreating the scenario in the future.  If you’ve had any drama training–or are a fan of the movie Fame–then this method should be very familiar to you.*  The second piece of advice that I find the most helpful, related to gaining a better understanding of your writing process, is to challenge your assumptions about how you work.  Some people don’t feel like they can work in a dirty office, for example.  But the truth is that unless the mess is actually affecting the functioning of your computer or your ability to sit in front of it, then you actually can write in a filthy office, and you might be using the mess as an excuse for procrastinating.

While their Writing for Political Science handout is directed toward undergraduates who may not be political science majors, the UNC Writing Center’s advice is incredibly useful and worth checking out.

* The paraphrased quote was intentional.

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