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Help! How Can I Begin Writing My Dissertation?”

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Noelle Sterne with a guest post on dissertation writing. Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. In her academic consulting practice, Noelle helps doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion. Based on her practice, her recently published handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle’s first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life, she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

You’ve reached the first dissertation milestone—approval of your prospectus. Great! You couldn’t wait to plunge into the next step, writing the proposal. But now that you’re here, somehow it’s not working. With all the best intentions and surrounded by all your scholarly materials, you’re spending long fruitless hours in your study or the library. The days are slipping away, your friends are out eating pizza, and your family wonders what you’re really doing for all those solitary hours. You feel paralyzed.

To cheer yourself up, you remember that the proposal becomes the first three chapters of the real dissertation. But this fact offers little consolation. Your completed proposal seems like a sky-high wall with not even a step stool in sight. Where is that danged first step?

Break the Rules

Here is one remedy. Contrary to the King’s advice to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, you don’t have to start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end. If you follow this dictum, you may only increase your panic, tremors, and paralysis.

In my academic coaching practice, I advise clients not to start at the beginning, that is, with Chapter 1, the introduction. Why? This chapter requires a concise overview of your topic and the literature. You must be highly familiar with both. But many students don’t get to know what they’re really writing about until they’ve been living with their dissertation for several months.

How to Start

So, the first trick to break your standstill: Make separate files for each chapter. Obvious, maybe. Effective, definitely. Use the university’s requisite chapter names and headings (from the dissertation manual or handbook), or the templates in the dissertation section of your university website. Once you create the files you’ll feel more organized. You’ll also gain a sense of accomplishment. You can keep throwing notes into these files as new materials surface and brilliant thoughts occur to you for each chapter.

The second trick: Start writing by choosing something relatively straightforward. No doctoral divine lightening will strike if you start in the middle, or later. I often recommend that students start with Chapter 3, Methods. In this chapter you describe who’s in the study and how you will study them—your population and sample, and what you’re going to put them through (experiments, questionnaires, or interviews). Your writing style here should be direct, with precise descriptions of the steps you’ll take to gather information for your later chapters. No perplexing summaries, syntheses, or conclusions. Instead . . .

Dissertation Brownies

It’s kind of like a recipe for dissertation brownies:

First, I will create a flyer for recruiting students to complete my questionnaire on their most successful study habits. Then I will seek permission from the office of student affairs to post the flyer on campus bulletin boards. When students respond to my contact information, I will send them the letter of introduction to the study and the informed consent to participate. Next I will . . . .

What you write may not be the final draft, and shouldn’t be. Accept this. In the margin of a paragraph like the one above, a student’s chair commented caustically, “What’s your authority for bypassing the university’s institutional review board?” The student hastened to add the procedure in the next draft.

The Advantages

Let’s not lose sight of our aim—You’ve written something! Writing anything loosens your fear-frozen mind so you think more creatively about, in our example, where to recruit, who to recruit, when, and many other considerations. As you visualize the actual steps, again as in the example, think about what your recruitment flyer and letter of intro to the study will contain. This is a great opportunity to draft the flyer, letter, and informed consent form—you’re going to need them as appendices. When you do, possibly to your elated shock, you’ll have written more!

As you see the paragraphs mounting, you feel greater confidence to keep writing.

A few days after I guided my client Rod with the advice to start with his third chapter, he emailed me:”I finally got a double digit page number written! A miracle!” I congratulated him for reaching page 10. Practice makes progress.

Once you keep going, you’ll likely find that related ideas pop up. Say your approved proposal is on the study habits of red-headed students over six feet. You suddenly realize that another study could be done on the study habits of enrolled redheads under six feet. Here’s where you click to your largely empty file of Chapter 5, Discussion and Conclusions, and type the new idea under the subhead of suggestions for future research. You’ve written more!

Starting your proposal with something easy isn’t a black mark on your moral fiber.

It’s simply a way to get moving. So choose a section or subsection that feels doable, even simple. Tell yourself, “It’s all got to get done anyway.” Now . . . start writing.

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