Ever Feel Like the Only Clown in a 3-Ring Circus??

Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

This is probably one of the most accurate analogies for you as you move through your dissertation. I imagine that you have felt that way many times if you are focused on completing your dissertation or thesis. So many things need to be done and of course, all at once!
The dissertation process can overwhelm many students because it is so different from traditional coursework. It requires careful long-term planning and short-term planning besides setting a good solid work schedule. It takes lots of discipline.

Being successful in academic endeavors is much the same as being successful in business. It is important to See It Big But Keep It Simple. Never forget the long-term goal of completing the dissertation but simplify the process by setting weekly goals and working to achieve those.


Because the dissertation process is so complicated and requires so much time and effort, periods of psychological distress and frustration are not uncommon. In those times you want to remember many others before you have had similar difficulties yet completed their dissertations. As you go through the dissertation process, many activities can help you progress while waiting for feedback on a submitted draft.

Never Stop Reading and Writing!

The key is never to stop reading and researching new material. For hot topics, the continuous flow of new research will give a deeper understanding of your subject. Also, taking the time to reread existing material to seek new insight into the problem is important.

  • Always read and immerse yourself in the scholarly literature about your topic.
    • What new literature have other scholars published that will support the existing problem?
    • Is there new literature that would alter the existing understanding of the problem?
    • What updated reports and summary documents now exist that can offer more exact demographic or other data?
  • Expand your knowledge and expertise of the proposed method and design.
    • What are the best practices for the method and design you will use?
    • How can you incorporate those into your study?
    • How can you better understand and prepare yourself for the statistical analyses you might do?

How Can You Improve Your Writing?

Writing is a complex task that takes time to learn and should result in a clearly written document.  If others have noticed and possibly commented about your writing, then you might ask yourself, “How can I improve my writing process?”  


Red Flags

Indicators that your writing process may need refining:

  • The ideas in the paper are difficult to follow
  • Paragraphs have no clear main idea, too many unrelated ideas, no support for the main idea, or are too long (or too short).
  • You find several sentence errors (e.g. run-ons, fragments, awkward wording, or unclear meaning)
  • There are grammar issues such as word usage, subject-verb agreement, and punctuation mistakes.
  • On the word level, you notice wrong words used, and spelling errors.


Do What the Pros Do!

The writing process comprises the following steps. Accomplished writers use a tried-and-true process to improve their writings. Successful writers go through these stages in some manner, and although you go back and forth among the steps, you eventually progress through them.

Free Writing.

Get your ideas on paper - you must be well-versed in the scholarly literature to accomplish this; otherwise, you won’t know what the key ideas are.  Write your thoughts down without worrying about grammar or punctuation. Express your ideas freely as you will critique them later, using the following steps. In Free Writing, it is important to get words on paper.  Good writers rarely let anyone see this draft; some call this the “vomit draft.”  

Order & Logic.

Sort your ideas and prioritize them. Put them into a logical flow. You must have some idea of your specific problem and purpose to do this step.  The next step will reveal your thinking and logic (or lack thereof) so go through several drafts at this level, uncovering your logic gaps, unclear ideas, etc.  In each draft, refine your thoughts to follow a clear rationale.  

Support & Elaborate.

Using scholarly sources, support and explain your ideas. Your argument comprises statements--truth claims-- so support each one by logic (explicit), evidence from research (citation), or an authoritative source (citation).  Elaborate on your ideas so they are both concise and clear.  Don’t assume the audience knows what you mean.


Review (and revise) your writing for logical flow, inserting transitions, introductions, and conclusions. Use reverse outlining to test your flow of ideas.


Analyze each paragraph for unity, coherence, and sufficient support.  Make paragraphs with at least three sentences but limit them to one-half page. Paragraphs cohere when the sentences follow a logical order and develop an idea. Readers need to see how a series of sentences “hang” together to feel they are reading a coherent passage.


Look at each sentence and edit for clarity, precision, conciseness, word choice, repeated ideas, length, proper grammar, proper arrangement of independent and dependent clauses, punctuation, etc.  Refer to the APA manual to avoid things like colloquial expressions, rhetorical questions, hyperbole, and editorial language.


Delete every word or phrase that does not carry meaning. A writing style checker can be useful at this point in identifying different issues with word usage. While no single style checker can catch every issue, using one provides a different perspective of your writing. Besides spelling, it can check things like homonyms, incorrect contractions, capitalizations, or abbreviations, to mention a few. Most universities have special student subscriptions for writing style software so take advantage of it.


Review any guidelines provided by your university and the paper version of the APA Publication Manual, 6th Edition or the online version for paper formatting such as margins, APA format for in-text citations and references, headings and subheadings, tables, figures.

Read it aloud.

Sometimes sentence structure problems and a lack of flow reveal themselves if you read a document out loud.  Shut yourself in a room alone and speak what you have written.  If you struggle to say any of the sentences out loud, there may be a structural problem and you should correct it.

Get a reader.

Finally let someone else see your paper and give you feedback.  


It is this simple. Completing a dissertation is tough but with determination and effort—and the right tools— you can do it. Take time to step back and see what you are now doing that could be changed to increase your chances of success!