Write Your Dissertation Like a Baby

December 11, 2018

Writers are often encouraged to get past writer’s block by writing very rough drafts. In my book, Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All, I referred to these rough drafts the way Anne Lamott does in Bird by Bird, as “shitty first drafts.” For years, I told my clients to practice writing “shitty’ or “crappy” first drafts. One day a client of mine said, “I’m tired of calling my work shit and crap, so instead I’m going to call my initial drafts baby drafts.” As soon as she said that term, I was smitten with the idea of the baby draft. Consider that before you will have an “adult” draft, you likely need to start with a “baby draft,” a draft that will develop and change and necessarily have some growing pains. And that’s okay!

So What is a Baby Draft?

It can take many forms, but fundamentally, it’s a draft where you write without considering your audience. Don’t worry about things like grammar, spelling, flow, organization, sentence structure, or what anyone else will think. Just write the basics of what you’re trying to say, even if at this point, the writing is very disorganized and unclear. Baby drafting is getting something rough down on paper so that you can shape it into writing you would consider letting someone else read.

If you’re not used to writing this way, it can feel uncomfortable or even frightening. It may not even be possible to let go completely of your standards or of worrying what others will think.  But it’s possible to get better at writing with lower standards. And relax; just remember that you can raise your standards later before you let anyone else read your work.

Consider the “Volume Dial” Technique

Imagine you have a volume dial in front of you that goes from 1 to 10, but represents the standards for quality of your writing instead of the volume of sound. At “1,” you have extremely low standards whereby stream of consciousness writing is acceptable.  At “10,” you expect your writing to be polished and of high enough quality that it is ready to be defended before your dissertation or thesis committee.

Students don’t usually realize they have a choice about where they set the “volume” dial when they write.  The volume dial has a tendency to creep up towards 8, 9, and 10 when we feel stressed, doubtful or overwhelmed. In fact, many students write as if 8, 9, and 10 are the only acceptable or available options for writing.  It can feel safer to write with higher standards. as it gives you the illusion that you can avoid the critique of others or the frustration of having to revise and rework your writing.

Students often raise the volume on their standards for quality and quantity of writing as a way to jump start productivity, especially following a period of procrastination. However, this approach usually backfires as the “volume” is just too high (the standards are unachievable).  Thus, the very strategy students devise to increase productivity creates anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed. These feelings lead to even more procrastination.

If you’re someone who tends to write on “high volume,” be honest with yourself. Is writing this way effective? Is it really working for you? If you aren’t pleased with your writing progress, you procrastinate a lot, or you generally disdain the writing experience, it is likely you would benefit from “turning down the volume” on your standards and expectations.

Start by Picking a Narrow Writing Focus

A small subsection of your literature review; the measures section of your method and then imagine yourself turning the volume down. You are letting go and choosing to trust that if you write a “baby draft” with lower standards you’ll be able to turn up the volume and create a product that will earn you a PhD or master’s degree.

If you have little idea how to approach the section, turn down the volume to a 1 or 2 and just let yourself put some ideas down on paper without worrying about writing complete sentences. I often encourage students at this point to focus on identifying key points they want to make but not worry about getting them right. Just do your best and if you stay engaged and persist, you will be able to articulate the key points over time.  Once you are clearer on the points you want to make, you can turn the volume up a little and start writing sentences and paragraphs.

You may be thinking that this approach to writing is inefficient or going to take a long time. In practice, however, students find writing actually moves more quickly when they stop obsessing over sentences, using the Thesaurus, and engaging in other writing behaviors that slow down the writing flow. They become much more efficient at baby drafting because they don’t lose momentum or sight of the big picture of what they are trying to convey. They also start to realize that often the only way to figure out what they want to write is by writing.

Dialing your first dissertation draft down to a “1,2, or 3” can be a way to free you from the bonds of high standards, perfectionism, procrastination, and writer’s block so you can get a baby draft down on paper.  Then, with time, effort, revision and the input of others, your draft will grow up into writing that makes you proud.