The end is nigh. Well, not really

It is beginning. Earlier this week, I downloaded Scrivener and yesterday, I started outlining my dissertation. I still have a lot of time to finish — I am currently planning to submit early next year and defend in spring, though that might change — but I think it is a good idea to start now. Why, you ask?

Screenshot 2016-02-10 15.42.23
The dreaded blank page.

First of all, this is the longest, most complex piece of writing I ever set out to write. Sure, I had to write a bachelor and a master thesis but those two combined are probably shorter than my dissertation will be. It will therefore take more time to write. And it is better to start early and have plenty of time for edits than be chased by deadlines.

But more importantly — and perhaps paradoxically — I am starting to write now because I am not done researching yet. Just recently, I finished a project and am about to start a new one. What will I do? I DON’T KNOW. And that is exactly my point. This is the right moment for me to stop working on my own projects and publications and look systematically and in detail at the work of others. Then, I can better judge which open questions I can tackle. And it is only natural to write what I learn and turn it into the introductory parts of my dissertation.

Connected to both these reasons to start so early is a third one: Because not all my work is done and because the writing will be so complex, I need not only to write what I intend to but, first of all, figure out what it is that I want to write. And for that, I need to keep track of all thoughts and ideas that come to me and organise all the material I plan to use. This is a task that goes beyond what standard LaTeX editors (I used to date) can do. Therefore, I need to find a platform that can take care of that and become sufficiently familiar with it.

So far, Scrivener seems to be a good choice to do that. Not only can I use it to work on my draft but it also helps me to keep any notes and further materials at the same place as the dissertation draft. I have to look into it in more detail to find out how to best use all these features and that will need quite some time. But if all goes as smoothly as it seems it will, the writing itself will then be relatively easy.

Since I started so recently, I did not manage more than briefly outline the first half of my dissertation. And yet, it already helped me realise how much I still do not know about the basics that will form the foundations of my dissertation. If that happened with a deadline looming above me, it would mean a serious complication to my plans. Now, I can simply go and read on the stuff I still need to learn.

Quite naturally, this approach also has its disadvantages. How am I supposed to write the introductory chapters presenting the knowledge I am building upon if I still do not know what I will do during the last year of my PhD? My choice of the next project is simply constrained by that. This situation is not that much different from what I would experience anyway — my next project should, in some way, be related to my previous one. I might then need to rearrange the introductory material a little but it should not need any complicated redrafting.

In the end, this approach will probably save me a lot of binge writing. By the time my last research project is done, I will have, ideally, written most of my dissertation already; it will only remain to write about my last project and make sure the whole text is coherent. Finishing my dissertation will then be just a matter of a few weeks and not several months.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some writing to do…

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