Are You Writing the Perfect Dissertation?  

Do you postpone starting to write because you know what you write won’t be perfect? Do you delay completing your writing because you seek perfection? Do you wait for just the right time, right environment, right mood to write? Do you have to be inspired before you start writing?
Hogwash. Just write. Because perfectionism is not possible. And if it were possible for you to write the complete and definitive work, what would you do next?  Switch topics for every manuscript you write because each will be the definitive work on that topic? (I’m exhausted just thinking about your writing life and academic career.)
Why are some of us perfectionists?
Our wanting to be perfect can come from

  • becoming overly attached to the dissertation or writing project. It is a work of scholarship; it is not your life. (It just feels like it.) A dissertation is significant and has implications for successful and timely degree completion, entry into post-doc and faculty roles, and the launching of a body of work and reputation as a scholar. Yes, the dissertation may be the most significant scholarship you will produce to this point. (And jeers to the faculty member who recently told his students, “Stay in graduate school as long as you can and produce as much scholarship as possible while you’re here, because it’s all downhill in our field after you finish your degree. You won’t get a good job, you won’t have time to research and write, and you’ll realize your doctoral program workload was easy compared to that of a faculty member.”) But the dissertation or any other writing project is not your life and does not define you. Professionally, perhaps. But life is more than your dissertation and academic career. (Make sure there are those in your life who will remind you of this. Regularly.) So don’t become so attached to any one writing project that you can’t finish it…or even start it.
  • not being cognizant of how long it takes to complete the dissertation or write multiple articles or books for tenure and promotion. Yes, you can take three years to produce your first chapter or ten years to write a book. But not while the time-to-degree clock is ticking or the tenure and promotion countdown has begun. At times, it’s better to get it done and get it out the door than persist in writing the definitive, perfect work.
  • inadequate guidance from our advisor, mentor, or (for faculty) our department chair. Identify the expectations. What is necessary to receive approval for the dissertation proposal? To get your advisor’s sign-off on chapter four. To meet the P&T (Promotion and Tenure) committee’s standards for retention and advancement? Meet those expectations. Even exceed them. But no one will ever tell you that your work must be perfect. (If they do, let me know. I’m taking names.)
  • the mistaken belief that if we wait for inspiration to write, the outcome can indeed be perfect. Silvia (2007) describes this waiting-for-inspiration excuse as a “most comical and irrational” barrier to actual and productive writing. “If you believe that you should write only when you feel like writing, ask yourself some simple questions: How has this strategy worked so far? Are you happy with how much you write?” (p.23). “Successful professional writers…are prolific because they write regularly, usually every day. They reject the idea that they must be in the mood to write. As Keyes (2003) put it, ‘Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend to them than inspiration’ (p. 49)’ (Silvia, p. 27).

Is Sternberg (1981) describing you?  “The myth of the perfect dissertation creates problems for graduate students. No dissertation, or for that matter, no book, is ever ‘perfect,’ or absolutely finished. All successful doctoral candidates and book writers can think of ten important changes they would have liked to have made within days after a project’s final defense or press date. But ten changes later, the dissatisfactions would be renewed. I often suspect that after, say, two drafts of a dissertation, further revisions don’t make a thesis better, merely different. One is reminded of Camus’ character in The Plague, who spends his life rewriting the first sentence of his novel – endless versions of horses trotting down the Champ Elysees”(p. 160).
There is another reason we may be a perfectionist that has very little to do with making our writing perfect…and everything to do with procrastination.  Luey (2004) describes this when she addresses writer’s block: “True writer's block... is mercifully rare. If you experience it you should seek help from a psychologist. What most people call writer's block is a variety of minor intellectual or procedural disturbances. One variety of this is the inability to stop fussing about details. You cannot move forward because there are so many little things wrong with what you have already written that you feel compelled to clean them up. This isn’t writer's block but a form of procrastination; it's much easier to fix what's written than to create something new. Fight the temptation” (p. 137-138).
If you have not written your perfectly fine (but less than perfect) 90 minutes yet today, get started.
Keyes, R. (2003). The writer’s book of hope: Getting from frustration to publication.  New York: Holt.

Luey, B. (2004). The ticking clock. In B. Luey (Ed.), Revising your dissertation: Advice from leading editors (pp. 231-239). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Silvia, P. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sternberg, D. (1981). How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation.  New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

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Some of the information in the BreakWriting postings is drawn from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please tell me so I can clarify and correct (Graduate Mentor).