How to write a PhD thesis (from someone who actually did it!)

This week’s blog is brought to you by Dawn Sardella-Ayres, who is actually DR. SARDELLA-AYRES now. Which is pretty much all you need to know. 

Entire websites are devoted to the process of writing your PhD thesis. You can take classes on it, both in person or online. There are apps and infographs and programs and color-coded office supplies and organizers. And oh, the Pinterest boards!

What are the tricks? The shortcuts? The magic formula? Where to start it? How to finish it?

I just did it myself. My thesis on Annie Fellows Johnston’s Little Colonel books, a problematic and racist series that hardly anyone has heard of, took two years. It went through multiple drafts, including a white-knuckled complete structural overhaul in its final two weeks. I spent almost six months paralyzed with fear about starting it, and futzed with annotating more critical texts and updating outlines, made flashcards of theoretical terms and compiled themed playlists (which actually did relate to the topic, but still). It was every scary, brutal, exhilarating thing a thesis is rumored to be.

But whether it’s quantitative analysis of a year’s worth of data, or an application of post-structuralist theory of linguistics through a lens of queer studies, there is only one real magic trick to writing your thesis.

Write it.

It’s not a flashy or dramatic mantra, but sometimes those simple, catchy slogans are most effective.

Write it.

Or, like Hem said to Scotty back in 1929, “You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless – there is only one thing to do… and that is go straight on through to the end of the damned thing.”

That and get a decent haircut, because c’mon, F. Scott, look at that mess.

Write it, and keep writing it, all the way to the end. That’s what you have to do to finish a thesis. Or start it in the first place. It is scary and you may cry sometimes, or eat too much, or drink too much coffee. You may have stretches of anxiety and depression, you may be giddy at your own brilliance, you may decide to quit it all. But you have to write.

As we say in our writing group, what has become our official motto, in fact:


Because you can edit crap. You can’t edit nothing.

So I’d write. Sometimes I would set a timer for twenty or twenty-five minutes, sometimes I would go for a vaguely half-hour or forty-five minute stretch, but I would write down words. Even if those words were stupid, I forced myself to write them. I sometimes copied a chunk of text, either primary or critical, and then wrote around it. “I need to say something about how this example reflects the intersectionality of gender, race, and bias, which ties to the tableaux vivants the community performs for charity. Need more crit. sources for that….” Sometimes I just wrote that I had no idea what to write. But that led to what I had to write. “Something is missing here in the middle connecting these two ideas. This chapter needs to end with a wrap-up of how all the mother-like characters have influenced not only the girls themselves, but the idea of what a heroine is. Mention domestic sphere, tie to race and performativity of whiteness, not just gender.” But write. Just write, without stopping to think that this is the wrong word. Or that this doesn’t sound smart enough. Or it isn’t going anywhere. Get those thoughts down, so you can do something with them. Get words on those blank pages. Write the crap, so you can edit it into non-crap. It may take multiple revisions, and you may scrap chunks of it and write it again. But it will get there.

(One bonus is, as you rewrite and edit, you find awesome marginalia and in-line comments to yourself. Some of my most brilliant insights regarding the Little Colonel books included “S-M-R-T. You should totally go to Cambridge, genius,” “Now DO. THE. THING,” “Gee,” and “HOW CAN THIS CRAP BE MORE PROGRESSIVE THAN EFFING FIFTY SHADES OF GREY?!”)

The most helpful thing for me was having a routine. Almost every day, without fail, I was in a chair, laptop opened and — of course — a steaming decaf mocha nearby by 10-10:30 am. I prefer writing in coffeehouses, so that’s where I wrote. I write most effectively in the mornings, so that’s when I wrote. (I also know with many years of practice that I do not function well before a certain time, too, so I didn’t beat myself up that so-and-so was up and writing by seven in the morning.) Instead, I figured out what worked for me, and stuck to it: Write for two to three hours in the morning, in approximately half-hour chunks, with ten minute breaks in between. Take a lunch break away from the computer, and, if possible, change writing locations. Write for two more hours. Afternoons usually involved seminars or academic-related group things, dinner dates with my husband, or, depending on the time of year, episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Evenings = fiction writing if possible.

But writing.

It totally relates to gender performativity, too!

My routine also included daily goals. That could vary from a certain number of words (because if I’m going at a good clip, I average 1500-2000 words a day, in 500-700 word sprints), getting a particular chapter in order, reading a specific section of critical text and transcribing notes, or even just polishing one paragraph. Whatever it took. But I broke things down into small, manageable bits and gave them realistic targets for completing them. When you are dealing with an 80,000 word piece of work that will go through multiple drafts, over a period of years, it’s actually detrimental to try to keep the bigger picture in constant focus. It’s too much. It’s too scary. Getting through a whole bunch of little steps is what adds up to the big ones.

I do not advocate consuming actual elephants during the thesis-writing process. Or at any time, really.

So it isn’t that I wrote 1700 words on a Tuesday. It was that I had three thirty-minute writing sprints that added up.

With a regular routine and smaller goals, it’s easier to target longer-term goals without being too overwhelmed. And when things happen to disrupt your routine, like a nasty case of the flu or a family emergency, or even just needing to not look at your thesis for a few days because you really want to set the thing on fire and dance as it burns, it’s easier to get back to it after without feeling like you’ve lost all control.

But if you do get behind, or overwhelmed, don’t go into full-blown self-flagellation mode. It’s part of the process. Sometimes you can benefit from a little time away… or even a mini-breakdown. If it’s happening too often, obviously, it’s time to talk to your supervisor and/or your tutor and sort some things out.* But a couple of lost weekends or a break with no computers or texts at all is helpful. So is a good cry, or a temper tantrum directed at your piles of annotated rough draft pages, or a full-blown hibernation. So we won’t dwell on the weekend I spent bundled in a down comforter, watching all sixteen episodes of Outlander Season One back-to-back and eating cheese and tomatoes by the slice, will we? The important thing was, after that break, I was ready to get back to the thesis.

I was ready to tackle it again.

Yeah. Something like that.

Finally, have something non-competitive and non-academic that you like to do and are good at, and do that periodically during the thesis process. And do it without guilt. Every second of every day should not be consumed by your thesis… even though it sure as hell feels like it. Get away from your desk and computer and usual work environment beyond the usual daily walks. One friend swore by yoga, another volunteered at a hedgehog rescue center. My favorite non-academic, non-writing-related hobby is insane French cooking, so I’d tackle one of those all-day, multi-step, mince-and-assemble-and-braise-and-reduce-and-brown-then-bake-some-more recipes. And after, I’d have four

The magical red door!

days of leftovers for when I returned to my writing routine the next day.

Writing a thesis is really as simple as that: write. Write as much as you can, until you can’t, and then take a breather, then go back to writing. That’s the only way to get there.

Because I do love a bullet-point list, it looks like this:

  • Write
  • Figure out how you work most effectively
  • Find a routine and stick to it
  • Make small/daily goals
  • Balance it with non-thesis/non-academic things you enjoy

And then, after all that, chuck the thing through the famous red door at Student Registry, and go get a chilled glass of Prosecco!

If you want to share your own writing routines that are most effective for you — or want to hit me with a recipe for Bacheofe — leave a comment.


*Note: anxiety, fear, depression, and insecurity are all realistic responses to academic work at times, but if it is happening too often, or has gone on for longer than a few days, or gets to the point where you’re coping with unhealthy things, please let others know and take some steps to address your stresses. There are resources for helping you develop practical skills to deal with these feelings. And remember, we’ve all been there. You aren’t alone in this.

One comment

  1. Hi Dawn and many congratulations! I just wanted to thank you for writing this. Your heartfelt words connected with me at exactly the right moment for me to hear them and the little details of how you lived your phd and non-phd life were very heartening and with just the right level of encouragement and humour. I wonder what exciting will be next for you?


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