Stop Confusing the Dissertation Process with the Product

Open notebook with several pencil shavings covering it

There seems to be a universal confusion that bedevils students’ ability to make real writing progress on a daily basis. This confusion is understanding the difference between the process of writing a dissertation and the final product that is created by virtue of that process. The process of writing a dissertation involves many steps including activities such as research, reading, taking notes, outlining, drafting, revising (often many times), analyzing, interpreting, copy editing,  and incorporating the feedback of others.  At the end of that writing process, the product of your dissertation is created.

The difference between process and product may seem obvious on paper yet in the practice of writing, students often confuse the two. One of the main sources of this confusion is that we rarely have the opportunity to view how writing actually occurs for other people. When you read someone else’s dissertation, published journal article, or book, you only see the end product without bearing witness to the false starts, rough drafts, feedback from others, and many rounds of revision that occurred. Nor do fellow students or faculty generally share their struggles and writing difficulties with much candor. There just aren’t that many opportunities to view the evolution of writing as it is in process along the way to becoming a product.


I wrote a book, Finish Your Dissertation Once and for All (Miller, 2009) and the experience of writing the book taught me a lot about having a process-oriented vs. product-oriented approach to writing.  For the first six months after I received the book contract from the publisher, I wrote nothing. And I mean absolutely nothing at all. Yes, you can laugh at the irony, given that a key focus of the book is about overcoming psychological obstacles to doing a dissertation (including procrastination).  Even once I got started, I wrote haphazardly for several months never fully committing to writing. Eventually, I got it together and wrote the book. I even ended up enjoying the process, especially revising the book after I received feedback from my editor.

What happened? Why did I wait so long to get started?  And how did I eventually get going?

Even though I had made it through the process of writing a master’s thesis and dissertation, the prospect of writing a book seemed daunting, and I got caught up in avoidance mode. I was required to go through peer review once I wrote the book, and based on my prior experiences with that process, I feared snarky comments and harsh criticism. Most of all, I  fundamentally feared that I would fail to produce a text my publisher would find worthy of publication.  I also knew my book would end up on and other websites where people could write reviews, and that prospect terrified me.  There were other distractions in my life as well — I had a baby, a five-year old daughter and a busy coaching practice, so carving out time to write was a challenge. But it was my own fears that posed the biggest problem. I was locked into a holding pattern where I contemplated getting started while I waited for more time and confidence to magically appear. In the meantime, I made lots of work plans but not much progress.


During a lunch with a good friend, who had previously written a book, I recognized how I was not practicing what I preach. I realize this seems very obvious, but somehow, during the months I put off writing, I turned a blind eye to reality.  I lost sight of the difference between the process of writing and the end product.  I was so focused on the product and whether it would meet expectations that I had forgotten to engage in the actual process of writing. The part of me that worries that “I’m not smart or adequate enough” wanted to skip the process and create a high quality product without a lot of effort. Of course, that is an entirely unattainable goal that only served to paralyze me from writing.

When I recommitted to the process of writing and let myself just write without considering what others would think, I had a breakthrough. I opened myself up to the idea that there were likely many ways I could approach writing the book, and I would use this experience as an opportunity to discover and create my own writing process. Letting go of the desire to bypass the process (which I let go over and over again) helped me develop a fruitful approach to writing.

Here is how it went for me: First, I created an outline of what key points I wanted to make in each chapter that evolved and developed as I wrote. Second, I refined the list of points, so that I ended up with a more detailed informal outline. Third, I wrote a really rough draft longhand, one point at a time.  Fourth, I typed up my handwritten work, editing frequently as I typed. Fifth, I printed the typed writing and edited it on paper. Sixth, I entered the editing, printed up the revised version, and edited it again on paper (repeating steps five and six many times).

Sure there were times when I got stuck and began avoiding my writing, but overall, I was better able to write page after page. A good deal of the initial writing I did was never seen by anyone else and required a great of editing. But I was finally engaged in the process of writing and moving toward creating the product that would eventually end up in the hands of others. In truth, there is no written product without a writing process. No dissertation, thesis, journal article or book was ever written without a process to create it over time. You may already be someone who is quite comfortable with the process of writing, and if so, this is an asset, but even if you are, we all still get stuck sometimes. When you find yourself fixated and being overly product-oriented, we encourage you to adopt a process-oriented approach to writing.

What steps can you take to help yourself be more process-oriented? What steps do you think your writing process might be missing?

5 Comments on “Stop Confusing the Dissertation Process with the Product
  1. Misti

    Thank you! I have been stuck for weeks. I’m going to try this.

  2. Steve

    I’m an undergraduate student who’s currently writing my honors thesis (or something of the sort, I’m a 3rd year student in canada). I’ve been putting off writing for some time, although that’s likely in part because of the *interesting* data set I have. I’ve spent tons of time however, trying to think about how to write my paper, without just getting down to the grindstone and doing it. Then after doing it, going back over it, again and again until it looks great. Then going over it some more. Funnily enough, I love to play music, and when I learn new songs I do the same thing, learn the song bit by bit, then practice until it sounds just the way i want it to, then add my own touches here and there. Maybe I should start applying this tactic to my writing!

  3. Tammy Roberths

    I’m a Masters student in the interdisciplinary field of Theology & Psychology. I’m based all the way in South Africa. Iv been through 2 honors degrees & mini thesis, yet writing my Masters thesis has seemed like the toughest journey ever. I’m onto my final chapter this month & I’m still confused and unsure, despite the fact that my research supervisor is the most supportive human being on earth. I could TOTALLY relate to the whole “ I’m not smart or adequate” syndrome holding one back. However, thank you for reminding me that writing is process-based and not just product-focused. I truly enjoy academic writing but nobody EVER shares about the self-confidence you need in order to flourish in academia. Being self-confident is also noooot found in a book or journal, which I believe makes it difficult for many academics.

  4. Rhonesha Blache

    As an educator who has successfully taught youth how to write with confidence by engaging in each step of the process and being associated by my students with the term “process” as a daily mantra, I am sitting here shaking my head as I read this. I’m smiling too at the irony. I was just saying to myself these past two weeks that I needed to go through the steps as I would teach others to do and could not afford to skip it, but a dissertation is much more intense. The time I spent focusing on the product was painful as I quickly forgot about the process. No matter that I’ve taught others to write, I realize I needed a coach. Fortunately, my heart to heart talk with myself reminded me to seek out and follow the process. Writing my dissertation serves a purpose much greater than just earning my doctorate. It’s part of my blueprint for my long term goal, which I have been working on for over 20 years. My career path has been part of my process toward this goal. Yet, I was actually trying to rush through the steps and just flow with the most intense piece of writing I’ve ever attempted. I realize that not many advisors directly engage in the process with you, but only speak of the product and maybe what it looks like. When asked “What do you need from me?”, I have been unsure of how to answer that as I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I bumped my head trying to figure that out. At the same time, I felt bad for not already knowing some of the things I guessed I should have already known to get to this point. Unfortunately, by the time I went through several books, articles, and trials to figure out what I do not know, it was already time to deliver the product while I’m still or just (re)implementing the process. I now associate my hesitation and lack of motivation with a lack of know how. When I know what I am doing or feel confident that I’m doing what I should be, I can be very productive in a short amount of time, but being unsure of how to proceed is stifling. Especially when writing at a higher level for a greater purpose, it feels overwhelming. Thank you for sharing your story as a reminder to enjoy the journey. I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to know myself and developing my voice along the way. Cheers to inevitable success for those who are dedicated to the process.

  5. Phyllis

    The outline process is a bit of a pain for me. I am better at writing freely. The citations and references are what irritate me the most however. Having to ensure the formatting stays the same while typing is the most tedious of all.

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