It’s no secret that writing your master’s or doctoral thesis is no easy task. Writer’s block and procrastination haunt many graduate students. Nonetheless, Geneviève Belleville, psychology professor at Université Laval, has a few tricks that can help make things easier. Back in 2014, she compiled her advice into a book: Assieds-toi et écris ta thèse! Trucs pratiques et motivationnels (Sit Down and Write Your Thesis: Some Practical and Motivational Tips).
At the most recent Journées de la relève en recherche held by Acfas, the association of French-speaking researchers, Dr. Belleville gave a presentation on seven keys to writing a thesis efficiently and (almost) worry-free.
1. Set specific times for writing
To start off, Dr. Belleville advises that you set aside short periods of time each day to write. She encourages you to regularly re-evaluate how long these blocks of time last. Why choose shorter writing periods over longer ones? To prevent procrastination and to reduce the eventual pressure to write. While it is important to write each day, she also recommends taking complete breaks from it. “The kind of person who succeeds in graduate studies is someone who also manages to do other things in life,” she says. “It’s a bit of a paradox, but [people who are successful] are invested in their studies but are also able to do other things, for example, on evenings or weekends.”
2. Set goals
Dr. Belleville says there are different types of goals that apply to writing a thesis: long-term, specific and weekly goals, as well as time-bound or project-driven goals. “You can’t expect a master’s degree or a PhD to be easy — you have to set goals and define motivations,” she explains. She suggests taking inspiration from the concept of SMART objectives to help with this stage. This method prescribes setting objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. For example, don’t take on a literature review when you have 35 minutes left at the end of a long workday!
3. Distinguish the different writing stages
There are three main stages to a thesis: planning, writing and editing. A well-thought-out plan makes it easier to start writing while reducing stress and hesitation. When it comes to writing, she recommends tackling this task without overthinking it. Writing ideas quickly without thinking about every word choice accelerates the process and prevents you from getting bogged down in one spot for too long. The editing stage is where it’s important to carefully consider the relevance of each sentence, spend more time on your structure and argumentation, correct typos and refine your style. Dr. Belleville reminds us that “We’re writing for others — not ourselves.”
4. Inspiration is a rationalization
Dr. Belleville adds that waiting for inspiration to start writing is just an excuse to procrastinate. “Writing doesn’t need inspiration, it needs structure,” she says. She believes that the best ways to get motivated are to write each day, for example, or to keep a notebook of ideas, vary your tasks, or talk about the subject with the people around you.
5. Avoid procrastination
“Scientific writing is one of the jobs most likely to be put off to the next day,” she explains. One of the reasons this happens in thesis writing is the anxiety it causes. The last stage of a PhD is also the most important, as it determines whether or not you earn your degree. More often than not, procrastination only causes more anxiety. Dr. Belleville has advice for fighting this tendency to postpone work. First, she emphasizes the importance of planning short, daily writing periods. You also need to create a pleasant, functional space that’s conducive to writing. Lastly, you need to remember that everyone procrastinates from time to time, so there’s no need to get hung up on it when you do!
6. Resist perfectionism!
Dr. Belleville argues that perfectionism and productivity are not the same thing. She says that while it’s a good thing to have high standards, having unrealistic ones is just shooting yourself in the foot. “Perfectionists are often unproductive because they are paralysed by their perfectionism.” She sees perfectionism as kind of cult “where the ideals we aim to achieve are attractive but unrealistic.” Perfection can come with certain nuances. Wanting to perform and excel is not the same issue as taking on too much, and both have very different outcomes.
7. Stay connected and talk about it with others
She concluded her presentation by stating “you have to make sure not to get lost in the thesis writing process.” Shutting yourself in, away from everyone else, is far from a good idea, and you shouldn’t hesitate to discuss any problems that come up. It’s important to remember that this kind of project will always come with setbacks.