No, You Don’t Have to Write Every Day to Get Your Dissertation Done

April 5, 2023


If you’re doing any sort of long project like a dissertation, you’ve probably heard the advice to write every day, and with good reason. Writers who write regularly do tend to produce more work than those who don’t. There’s no denying that writing regularly just makes it easier. As Robert Boice reminds us in Advice For New Faculty Members, the fewer the gaps between writing sessions, the fewer interruptions in our thought processes and the easier it is to get back into the work after a break.

But what if writing daily or near daily is just not possible? What if life circumstances just don’t allow it?

Good News

The good news is that dissertations, novels, and books do get written, even when the writer is not writing every single day. In fact, at The Dissertation Coach & The Academic Writers’ Space, we’ve seen a variety of writing schedules over the years, and none are exactly alike. There was the student who only had 9-10 pm every night to make the work happen, and did so, every single night. There was the community college professor who only wrote on Tuesdays and Thursdays because the rest of his week was packed with teaching and meetings. There was the parent who worked a demanding job at a K-12 school and could only write two evenings a week, and on Saturday mornings before everyone woke up. There were the “weekend warriors” who mostly wrote on Saturdays and Sundays, and occasionally stole a few quick sessions during the week to prepare for the two-day push. Guess what? In all of these cases, the work happened, and the dissertation got done.

The keys to this success are intention and consistency. When we look at the spirit behind the advice to “Write Every Day,” that’s what’s really behind it. If we look a little more deeply, there are two basic components in “Write Every Day.” The writing part and the everyday part. Let’s first look at the writing part.

Writing is More Than Writing

When most people think of writing every day, they think this means that new words have to hit the page every day. But the work of writing involves more than just new words. The work of writing may involve pre-writing, planning, outlining, research, restructuring, line-editing, and proofreading. Since the writing process is so iterative, a writer may be doing any one or all of these activities in a given week, and maybe even more than one of them in one single day. When you think about beginning a practice of writing regularly, decide what that means. Do you want to write new words on a regular basis? Or is the intent to engage in your work almost every day?

For most writers, new writing is a fraction of the work needed to complete a draft. If you’ve found yourself editing a draft for a couple of sessions instead of creating new work, that’s fine. You can count that. You can also count work that you do at the beginning of the project, like writing an outline. What counts is what moves the work forward. Unless you’re in a situation where words and pages need to accumulate quickly, your work sessions are most likely going to include other tasks than just writing. And that’s okay.

Manage Time and Energy

Now let’s examine the “every day” part of the advice. Write EVERY day. We can only work with the time we have. So, decide when you’re going to work and then protect that time fiercely. You must set aside time on your weekends if that’s when it makes the most sense to work, and if you’re giving yourself every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before noon, then you must get up in time to get the time in and not let anything else get in the way. The more scarce your writing time is, the more you have to protect it.Sometimes it’s important to experiment with your schedule and find out what works best with your current situation. I had a client with a demanding paid position during the work week, and she had negotiated to have Fridays completely off so that she could work on her dissertation Friday – Sunday. When Friday came around, she was too exhausted from fitting the rest of her work week into four days to make a big three-day push. I suggested that instead of negotiating for a full day off on Fridays, she takes two half days instead, and work 2-4 hours each of those days and a few more hours over the weekend. That ended up working so much better, because she wasn’t as tired when those half days rolled around, and she didn’t have to jam so much dissertation work into the weekend.

Time management is less about managing time and more about managing energy. If you are making the space to work on a long-term project like a dissertation, it’s important to think about the other areas of your life and what you are willing to sacrifice. You need not work every second of your life or your discretionary time to make real progress.

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary)

So, the short answer to the question “Do you really need to write every day?” is no, not really. The deeper answer is that we need to look at the spirit in which this advice is given, and then think about the reality of our lives at the moment and the versions of ourselves that are showing up on a regular basis. If we are depleted for any reason, our needs may vary, and so may our capacity for getting the work done. That’s okay. We just have to own it. Just remember, the writing life is not a one-size-fits-all life. It’s definitely a YMMV (Your mileage may vary), and the good thing is that you can control how far and when you drive.