9. How to Keep Going

This is the ninth article in the fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles click here

Just a quick one today because I realise that there’s a lot in these articles and that it can be quite easy to feel that the whole idea of doing a dissertation is rather overwhelming. See below for my top 3 tips for sticking at it and managing these difficult moments.


You can do it. Lots of others, just like you, have done it before, and lots will do it next year. You can do it.

1. The Journey of a Thousand Miles Starts with Single Step

So often the key if you’re struggling with something is to break it down into smaller, manageable chunks. Tackling something difficult can be much easier if it’s done step by step, and working out what those steps are gives you a sense of purpose. When know what you have to do, doing it isn’t so tough.

At the start of the process of writing a dissertation, people always think “How on earth will I ever write so many words?” Almost without exception, people finish their project having written far too many words and having a hard time cutting and editing. What I’m saying is, don’t worry about the journey ahead. Break it down into small sections on different topics and before you know it things will start coming together.

For example, you might split your dissertation into:

  1. An Introduction of about 800-1000 words, 
  2. Three main chapters each of 3000 words, and 
  3. A Conclusion of about 800-1000 words.

This will make you up to your total of about 12000 words. You’ve probably written an essay of 3000 words before. You can do that. If you can do one, you can do three of them.

Then you can break this structure down even further. You can do it for each chapter, or section. For example, if you’re writing your Introduction you might think something like this to yourself:

“Ok we could have the opening paragraph to introduce the topic, and then three following paragraphs, one on each of my main chapters, and then a concluding paragraph which sets up my first section. I don’t really know what I want to say for that very first, opening paragraph, but I know roughly what my first main chapter is about, so I can start on that paragraph now.”

A timetable might help here, because it gives a visual representation of events and of your completed tasks. I’ve found this helpful myself. In the run up to exams, I always have a large paper calendar which I write the dates of each exam in. This helps me to know what’s coming up, so I can plan better and feel more in control.

2. Celebrate Effort 

Give yourself a regular pat on the back. Go on, do it now.

Make sure to recognise what you have done, and also particularly that effort that you put into doing it. Do this even if you didn’t achieve everything that you set out to in a day or a week (and by the way there are lots of studies showing that we almost never do everything we set ourselves to do).

Focusing on effort is also a good way to get yourself to do something you’ve been putting off. Don’t say “Today I’m going to write chapter 3.” Instead say “Today I’m going to spend one hour working on chapter 3.” Maybe you finish it, maybe you don’t, but the story you tell yourself at the end of the day will be much more pleasant with the second one. 

3. Give Yourself a Choice, and Treat Yo’self

With a dissertation you often have several bits that you’re working on at once, several plates you’re spinning. If you really don’t feel like doing one bit, and it’s not super urgent, then work on another bit and come back to the first one later, or tomorrow. 

This will give you a sense of control over your project, which can be just what we need to keep going with it. 

You can also treat yourself.

For example, if you have to do something difficult or ‘boring’, take yourself to a new setting, like a coffee shop or a different library. Change things up. If it will make the afternoon more pleasant, treat yourself; get that hot chocolate with whipped cream!

Wrap up

I hope you’ve found this helpful. Do let me know if there are any tips that you personally use. I’m all ears. The next article is a mini project for you; find it here.

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