For many students, the act of writing a dissertation or thesis can seem like climbing a mountain, with the peak a distant, possibly unattainable goal. Both require a great deal of patience, unflagging determination, and a sound step-by-step approach. Just as the climber who has not planned properly in the face of a looming peak will soon find herself back in camp, the dissertation writer who simply begins to write on the topic without a strategy will also find herself returning to the to the beginning of the process.
In mountain climbing, scaling thousands of vertical feet can feel like an impossible task. But the climber who limits her attention to next ridge, the large rock above her, or the next footfall will put together these smaller goals and eventually end up on top. Apart from the thin air and the muscle strain, writing a dissertation is no different. Narrowing the focus to what’s in front of you is the key. By concentrating on each chapter’s relevant parts, the dissertation changes from being a 300-page Everest to a combined series of “small papers.” Questions such as, “How am I going to write Chapter One?” or “How am I going to write 25 pages on my topic?” become, “How am I going to write a one-page Nature of the Study section?” or “What should my list of defined terms include?” The tasks become easier to handle.
Luckily, an organizational guide has often been already provided for the graduate student. It’s called the chapter outline. Many programs have strict guidelines as to what kind of sections go into each individual chapter. Even if they don’t, the student can always find a good outline by following a dissertation he or she likes. By treating each section in the chapter outline as a “the crest of that next ridge,” the student avoids the pitfall of approaching the project as a daunting mass, which can potentially lead to a serious case of altitude sickness – I mean, writer’s block.
The section should be the focus. Visualize it as short paper, ranging anywhere from half of a page to a few pages in length. The goal is simply to tackle “the paper” according to a deadline you set. For example, take “The Problem Statement,” a section usually found in Chapter One of a dissertation. After reading a few examples, understanding the purpose of a problem statement, and thinking about the student’s research in relation to the type of information a problem statement should contain, the writing task should become, if not easy, at least doable. By combining a series of these “papers,” the student has effectively taken steps up the writing mountain. Before long, Chapter One will be complete and she’ll look back at what she accomplished. She’ll then turn toward the summit with renewed confidence and again put one step in front of the other.