Postgraduate students, you are outstanding over-achievers. Don’t let writing a dissertation hold you back.

“I wish I could just sit down and write it! I planned to finish this year but now I have to re-register next year! My research is done. I need to write.”

You have gotten this far. You know that the only way to get your master’s or doctoral degree is to finish your dissertation, but even putting the first word to paper has completely drained you.

You are not alone. Nearly half of postgraduate students on doctoral programmes in South Africa do not finish their degrees. One reason is that writing their dissertations is simply too daunting a task.

Me, a procrastinator?

A key issue is procrastination. But why procrastinate when this document stands between you and your qualification? Perhaps there are several answers to this. Maybe you don’t enjoy working alone for long stretches, or you are tired after working all day and looking after your family. Possibly as an overachiever you have started to doubt yourself, or it is simply that you struggle to make your words say what you mean them to say.
What now? Stop. Breathe. Prepare. Think. Plan. Start.

Stop the spiral

Stop spiralling into self-doubt and resistance. Walk away from your computer. Take many deep breaths, help your mind to slow down, perhaps even have a good long sleep as if you have nothing better to do. Catching up on sleep is far more beneficial than sitting around worrying about not starting.

Prepare yourself

Here you need to ask the critical question: “What do I need to do to make myself and my life situation more conducive to writing my thesis?” Have a realistic discussion with your boss about working hours. Ask your spouse for assistance with the kids. Rearrange your physical space. Move your desk to face a less cluttered bookshelf or just switch on the radio to drown out distracting outside noises. If your isolation is overwhelming, rent shared office space, not for the distraction of a busy coffee area, but to be inspired by the productivity of peers. Last but not least, put your support team together to help you succeed. Your team might include your boss, one or two colleagues, your supervisor, motivated peers, an editor and proofreader, your partner and childminders. Take away your excuses for not progressing.

Think through your plan

It is said that failing to plan is planning to fail. Think about what you need to do to accomplish the task. Plan your document in bite-sized pieces. Put realistic dates against your plan and communicate this to your supervisor and to your support team so that several people can hold you accountable. Speak with your supervisor early in the process if you are unclear about what you actually need to do and to submit. Know your criteria.

Write a detailed outline

Then take a few more relaxing breaths and start. It is time to show that not only do you understand the content but that you can structure good arguments too. Start by writing a detailed outline. Look at this and see if the flow makes sense. Can you understand what you are trying to say? Is the information being presented in the correct sequence?

Add substance

Now that you know where you are heading, begin to add details, facts and reasoning to substantiate your arguments. Keep checking your logic. In fact, build in time to check that your outline is being reflected in your writing. If not, check whether the outline needs to be updated with new information or whether your flow needs to be amended to suit the outline. Carry on.

Ensure that you and your support team hold you accountable to your plan. Of course, you can run behind schedule – if you have underestimated your process and not due to resistance to progress. Quickly amend your schedule, communicate changes and move forward.

Also remember to celebrate mini successes along your journey such as the completion of your literature review. These iterative successes build momentum and encourage progress. They also build a mindset for progress and success.

Edit! Then edit again

One day, you will put in your last full-stop. First draft done! Now it is time to edit. This is not an easy task and cannot be done overnight or by someone else. The first editor is you. Go through your document section by section. Check that the essence is there. Check your facts and references. Rework where needed.

Then, when you are ready, have someone else look at your work. A thesis editor can provide substantial assistance with style, format, readability, references and flow of arguments. Then, as a final step, a proofreader should your check spelling, grammar and formatting of your dissertation. Do not skimp on editing – we are all blind to faults in our own work, especially after repeated reading. Remember, you will never produce a perfect document on the first draft. You will need several iterations but the logic and perfection you seek will be more apparent with each draft.

Breathe in. Breathe out. The hard part is over. Remember that not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it.

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