Our faculty speaker at this year's Summer Dissertation Boot Camp was Prof. Tarek Azzam from the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences.
Seated around Grove House’s comfortable living room, we spent a very productive hour listening to and talking with Prof. Azzam. Here are some highlights from our conversation about the writing process and completing dissertations.
Pay attention non-judgmentally to discover your optimal writing patterns.
This was a running theme through Prof Azzam’s talk.
Writing processes are unique to individual contexts and writing styles. There is no single approach or tactic. Therefore, paying attention non-judgmentally to your process, habits, and environments helps you find strategies that build motivation and productivity. Controlling the environment you write in begins by, first, knowing yourself and your patterns, and the patterns that impinge on you.
- Track your productivity in a non-judgmental way for a week and then reflect.
- Identify the typical patterns in your days, what environments make you most effective or ineffective, what really gets you engaged, and what interrupts.
- Noticing your patterns is the first step toward controlling your writing process. You can then plan to actively do more of what gets you engaged and less of what frustrates you. For example, I might like writing in the morning, and my friends are productive writing in the morning, but with children and other routines in my morning, that did not work for me. So, switching over to writing at night when I was not distracted, and I didn't have to keep telling the children “no” worked.
Track your productivity as a way to motivate you to write.
Goal setting can be hard: Our goals can be too big. Or, too small. We set goals that are just right when we set them, then life happens and we miss our targets. This can be very frustrating and demotivating.
Instead, record what you do each day or part of the day. In a week, you will have a list of things you’ve done, rather than a list of near and entire misses. So much more motivating!
Paying attention to what you're tracking might reveal useful patterns about where and when you were most productive and what kinds of settings that happened in … and you can try and do more of that.
Prioritize your writing to help you make conscious choices to persist
Prof. Azzam’s response to a question about the characteristics of a PhD candidate who is on track: PERSISTENCE.
The first two to three years in course work with external deadlines are easy. The hard part is when you must drive the process; no one will tell you what to do. So, whether you are dissertating or writing to publish, no one makes you write. Deadlines are generally up to you. YOU must choose to write, and build in the structure and processes that help sustain your writing.
- Learn to be fully aware of your situation so you can make conscious decisions. When YOU do the choosing – to write, to take a break – you are more in control, more motivated, and more persistent.
- Choose to write. Stuff is always going to happen. We can accept that, observe what happens, and find ways to take control and make the dissertation your priority. It’s easy to continue in existing patterns of work and life. But you have to make a choice.
- Plan time dedicated to writing. Look ahead, look for opportunities, then make them concrete by structuring time for writing. This works better than just thinking generally that you’ll try and write this weekend. Making specific plans to block off time for writing is a mental and emotional commitment. Alerting people to your plans and taking concrete steps to structure your time, builds in a social and physical commitment. You are more likely to write!
Prof Azzam shared his experience of planning ahead to dedicate a month and a-half for writing his dissertation. He alerted family and friends of his intentions, set an auto-response for email, and sequestered himself to write. In that time, he just focused on writing, balancing that against reading fun things related to the dissertation. At the end of this time, he had a first draft of his dissertation and as he put it, “It was terribly written, but man, what a confidence booster! It’s very satisfying to have a draft to edit; then, it’s just fun.”
Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to get going. You have to get really angry or passionate about getting done. “It’s all about being stuck, wanting to move on. I became really uninterested I being a student… I was done being a student. I felt stuck at the end of a year doing nothing.”
JUST WRITE! Keep editing and revising OUT of the writing process to move your work ahead.
Prof Azzam spoke about the importance of giving yourself permission to “just write,” without worrying about how the sentences sound, whether the argument works, and whether your grammar is perfect. These are things you do later when editing.
Often, we approach writing with some anxiety because we feel we need to write at a certain level. Anxiety is very counter-productive; we get stuck, and feel less motivated because we feel we must sound good and write at a certain level. Some ideas on countering this anxiety.
Do the easy, pleasurable parts first to build confidence and motivation.
- Write out of order if you must; you do not need to begin with the introduction.
- Do the easy parts; reduce anxiety.
- Make writing as pleasurable as you can when you begin each session. That way you are likely to stay at it longer, which means you produce more, and that builds confidence …. it’s a very productive positive reinforcement. For example, if the methods section is fun and easy for you to write, start there. This builds your confidence, gets you into the flow of writing, and then you can move on to other parts.
Give yourself permission to write what and how you like.
Acknowledge and embrace limitations; set your intentions to deal with the problems later. This helps you generate material more easily. As Prof. Azzam put it, “There is no way I am going to write perfectly so I just ‘talk’ to myself; it’s a written narration of what’s going on in my head, what I want to say."
Write first – edit later. Prof Azzam shared a study by Mike Rose at UCLA which compared the creativity and productivity of those who edited as they wrote against those who only edited at the end. He found that the latter group’s writing productivity was better.
Here are some tips on how to avoid breaking the thinking-writing flow:
- Do not interrupt your process of generating material to go back over a section, paragraph, or sentence to “fix” anything. When you’re stuck, too attached, or feel you have to nail this paragraph down – move away and write something else. In fact, by doing something else one is likely to trigger other others that might actually help with the section one was stuck with.
- Keep editing for “down” times, when you’re too tired to focus on creating material, but you can re-read and fix grammatical or content glitches. Prof Azzam shared that he tries to write for publication in the summer when he knows he has time for generating material, and then spends the academic year, when he’s busy teaching, editing his work and responding to reviewer comments.
Understand the necessity of slow movement and mess as groundwork for productivity.
We become discouraged if we move slowly and are not so productive in some parts of our writing. Being discouraged – leads to frustration – frustration takes away energy – and lack of energy depletes motivation. And so the writing peters out.
But, change the way you think and you will change the effect on your writing. The slow and messy parts are all part of building a foundation of thinking and writing so that further along, you work faster and better. Again, paying attention to the patterns of your writing process will help you remember this and prevent you from feeling demotivated when writing slows down. Trust that you will gather momentum and accelerate if you can shift your thinking to understanding and accepting this process.
Have a ready-to-hand “parking place” for ideas to prevent writing flow disruptions.
When writing, we often get good ideas that are related but not essential at that very moment. We are tempted to break the flow and go look things up, and find ourselves suddenly off in a tangent.
Even if things that occur to you are relevant, you have better control of time and mental energy if you jot them down in a separate document to come back to and deal with later. This way, you maintain control of your writing process and can keep building momentum in your writing. Also, you avoid fragmenting your thought process, which also aids in building and maintaining your energy for writing.