Whatever form of writing you’re engaged in, including the complex task of writing a doctoral dissertation, there are some general rules (A.K.A. gems of advice) that are worth repeating and heeding.

Frank Bruni, long-term cultural, social and political critic for The New York Times, published responses he gave to an interview about the art (and task) of writing.

“Keep sailing” past the first draft.

Bruni reports that the greatest lesson he’s learned as a writer is that your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. (Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did.)

A first draft can feel so blob-like: awkward, amorphous and misshapen. It’s often enough to stop us in our tracks, as we jump to premature conclusions about our abilities.

“This isn’t good enough.”
“This is a bad idea.”
“I can’t write.”
“I’m missing the point…”

Bruni encourages us to write through that self-pitying, drowning-in-doubt phase. Good writing is found in revisiting, rewriting and editing, not in that initial dump of thoughts we put on paper.

Unpredictable output is to be expected.

When asked about the “biggest surprise” Bruni experiences as a writer, he responded:

“The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: ‘I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!’ Then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume.”

It’s crucial to give yourself time for your dissertation to unfold. You will have good days and bad days…and bad days tend to mean less output! Quality writing just cannot be predicted or forced.

As Bruni points out, flow can come and go. (Remember: he’s a professional writer who has decades of experience – and he still experiences peaks and valleys.)

Step away from the computer.

When asked about the best piece of writing advice Bruni had been given, he replied that when hitting a wall or feeling blocked, it’s best to “step away from the computer.”

This advice will come as no surprise since we’ve discussed it so many times on this blog. Flow simply cannot be forced. It’s often better to walk away from the computer and engage in just about any other activity so your mind can take a break and reset.

Activities to refresh and reset the body and mind include walking (a well-known mental recharger), running, reading something in a totally different genre, listening to a podcast…just about anything that takes you away from the dissertation process. Give your brain a rest!

To put a finer point on it (from Mr. Bruni):  

“No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end.”

If you’re stuck in backspace mode, reach out to me. I provide personalized dissertation services that provide brass tacks academic and emotional support to get you to the finish line.