Daily Writing: A Research Log

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The month of October was an unexpected writing month for me. I was supposed to be completing work in the lab, but an unfortunate run in with both the Virginia DMV and the Michigan SOS left me without a driver’s license (I didn’t break any laws, just a lot of bad luck). What this did mean was that instead of pushing forward with artifacts, I had to start producing on the writing end of things. This meant I had to develop a workflow that was going to be conducive to writing something about my dissertation every day.

“Write everyday” has been the most repeated advice I’ve received on dissertation writing, be it from friends, my committee, colleagues, the couple people who read this blog, or the numerous books, articles, and blogs I’ve read about writing a dissertation. In Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, Joan Bolker suggests that the only way to do this is to make sure you develop a writing habit: a couple days without writing should make you feel jittery and anxious. I haven’t reached that stage, but I certainly feel guilty for having not done any work. To curb that problem, Bolker suggests doing your writing first thing in the morning. This way, it won’t loom over you for the rest of your day: it’s done. You did it. You worked on dissertation. Now do your other stuff without feeling bad.

So, the past month I’ve been doing my best to get started writing every morning. About half the time, this works real well. I get started between 9-10, and typically make it to around noon. Other days, I get distracted, and things don’t get started until much later in the afternoon. I’ve been using a variety of tools to limit these distractions (Freedom and, my new favorite, Concentration being my go-tos at this point). What has helped get me into the writing, however, has been starting with a daily research log.

In the research log, I get my writing blood warmed up. It also jump starts my brain. It is basically a 20 minute free-write. I write about where I am, what’s been distracting me, what’s helping me focus, and what I accomplished the day before. That las bit leads me into what I hope to write about that day and to outline a couple of goals. Then I spend the rest of my twenty minutes sketching rough outlines, or working out problems I have encountered while writing.

After spending 15-20 minutes on the log, I move into the actual document, where I put a lot of these things into sections and paragraphs. Often, if I hit a rough spot, I go back to the research log, create another entry, and type out what’s bothering me about the section. This allows me to have a “work space” that is separate from the writing space. I can be messy here, write in first person, and pose questions to myself that wouldn’t make it into a draft. If I were an artist, the research log would be my sketchbook.

Now that I’m back in the lab, I am continuing to keep the daily research log. Even if I can spend 20 minutes writing about my dissertation a day, it will continue to help me establish that “writing habit”. It also help me to process what I’m doing in the lab with the other elements of the project on a regular basis.

Are any of you using similar strategies? Have any ideas about how to do this better? I’d love to hear about them!

Photo credit: “Back on the Log Train” by Claire L. Evans via flickr

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About Terry Brock

Terry is an archaeologist who lives in Virginia with his fiancee and is writing his PhD at Michigan State University. In his spare time, he writes for Gradhacker, an Inside Higher Ed Blog, and tweets @brockter. His favorite thing he's ever written is Swimming Buddies and a Pipe Cleaner Necklace.