Review of Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (1998), by Joan Bolker
Although the title suggests a quick-fix miracle plan for producing instant PhDs, author Joan Bolker, a writing instructor and EdD who has taught at several elite Boston-area universities, admits to using it as an attention-grabbing tactic (xvii). Because it grabs attention doesn’t suggest she doesn’t genuinely mean it, however. The fifteen minutes are at the core of the book’s two main messages: start small and remain consistent.
I would have found this book helpful when I was writing my dissertation—if I could have been convinced to set aside time in my tight procrastination schedule to read it.
There are ironies in the dissertation-writing process that affected me throughout my work, that I see affecting some of the clients I work with now, and that this book seeks to curtail before the writer succumbs to them. I did many things wrong that Bolker would have alerted me to, such as setting overly ambitious goals too early, isolating myself from my peers in the belief that it would help me focus, and remaining too long with a first advisor who was not a good match with me. The irony is that we make choices we think will help but that paralyze us because we cannot turn into writing machines overnight; we’ll always be human, and Bolker’s book is for the human writer.
I made it to the end, as will many others who muddle through without the assistance of a guidebook, but it would have been much less painful if I had applied many of Bolker’s suggestions. Much of her advice can apply to any writer attempting a large project for the first time.
Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day doesn’t mean only fifteen minutes a day. It means, in part, don’t push yourself beyond fifteen minutes in the beginning.
Alongside the principle of starting small, Bolker emphasizes the “zero draft.” This is not a first draft but a mass of writing that may or may not have structure, organization, or even research or proper paragraphs. It consists of your initial thoughts written out, but en masse. Its purpose is to get you into the habit of writing even when you feel blocked. A big part of feeling blocked is the pressure (as strongly self-imposed as it is externally imposed) to get everything right or at least to produce something that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to show someone else. The zero draft keeps you writing by giving you permission to have no guidelines at all. It can consist of lists of partial sentences, flowcharts of scattered ideas, freewrites of as-yet-unconnected theories, journal entries about how one feels about one’s research that day, or even (even!) conventionally structured paragraphs complete with author-date citations. It can be as free-form or as coherent as you feel inclined to make it, as long as you just do it at all. For fifteen minutes a day.
In some fields, the typical sequence is for all the research to come before all the writing. A fifteen-minute writing routine can fit into anyone's research schedule, while the zero draft helps the writer get into the habit of writing throughout the process so that when the time comes to write “real” drafts, there is already a collection of ideas that can be applied to the field’s standard framework. The zero draft encourages creative thinking, analysis in unexpected directions, and a continuous engagement with the topic.
The principle is that if you give yourself modest goals, you can be more consistent about keeping them. And if you keep your goals consistently, you can gradually make them more ambitious. A zero draft has no official beginning or end, but at some point it will be time for the writer to progress to a first draft. The writing habit the dissertation writer developed during the early stages will, ideally, carry over into this stage, and they’ll be in the mental space to work a bit more rigorously at that point, as well.
Bolker recognizes that writers will all differ in their approaches. She presents a few basic frameworks for organizing one’s work and setting goals (pp. 44–5), but there are other areas of the book in which the balance between flexibility and structure seems to become hazy. It’s not clear how the writer knows when to step up their game; they just do. The hope is that with all these thoughts and this writing being generated every day, the practice will become more habitual and the process of writing less grueling. Bolker doesn’t directly address the possibility that a writer might still be dragging themselves through fifteen painful minutes a day of writing—or, worse, disorganized journaling—five years after beginning.
However, the book allows us to speculate on how she’d respond to that. If you’re writing fifteen minutes of real material every day, it’s still fifteen minutes more than you probably would be otherwise. Some people just don’t like writing and will never like writing.* If this is how you need to get through the dissertation, then hitting those very small targets won’t get you there fast, but it’ll get you there.
As for those who get stuck in the zero draft stage, Bolker discusses (though not with the above gloomy scenario in mind) ways to locate the source of one’s writing paralysis, whether it’s the topic, the advisor, or factors affecting the writer from outside the writing context, such as illness, financial stress, or family problems. She provides guidelines for recognizing when you need a change in direction. One would hope that most people would apply these guidelines before it’s too late.
What about Editing?
Since I'm an editor who usually has a dissertation job or two in the pipeline, I kept my eyes peeled for this topic. Bolker does not discuss using an outside editor for the dissertation itself before it is submitted but does recommend having others proofread it (131). She raises the topic of professional editing only with respect to developing the dissertation into a book manuscript and, surprisingly, discourages it, suggesting instead, “editing your book is a job you should mostly do yourself, with helpful suggestions from literate colleagues and friends” (147). Note again that this is not the dissertation she’s talking about here but the potential book based on it.
This advice is particularly curious in light of the Acknowledgments section of her own book, in which she thanks one person for “careful and sensitive copyediting” (xi) and three others for “editorial help” (xii) on the current volume. Perhaps the latter is what she means by “helpful suggestions” (two of the three are her immediate family), but I’d attribute the discrepancy partly to a lack of specificity about what types of editing she has in mind in these two sections of the book: copyediting? developmental editing? line editing? These categories of work are not always clearly defined even by those of us who perform them.
I admit I'm biased, but here's my view: A junior academic seeking to publish their first book, which will help establish their place as an expert in their field—a book, one hopes, that will be cited by others and read by grad students, undergraduates, and/or colleagues—should probably want their manuscript to be as smooth, clear, cohesive, and professional as possible. Editing isn’t a skill all writers—or even all good writers—have (or we editors would have no work). The hardest material for even professional editors to edit effectively is their own writing. An editor who is specifically experienced at adapting dissertations into reader-ready volumes would bring expertise to the process that few freshly graduated scholars are likely to have.
It’s reasonable for an author to perform the first edit and to retain the right of final say on any editorial choices. But to go without a professional editor of any kind on a book one expects to be published by an academic press would be, to me, a confusing decision.
Bolker’s advice with regard to editing a finished dissertation into a book manuscript is only a tiny part of this volume, the remainder of which can be very useful to any doctoral candidate who is experiencing trouble starting or continuing their dissertation. I recognized a number of the paralyzing factors she discusses and saw how I could have applied her approach to my own writing process if I’d have been aware of it in time. However, some of the bad habits that cause dissertation writers to most need a book like this are also the ones that could cause them to think they don’t have time for it. Nonetheless, it’s slim and a quick read, and your eyes need something to do while you brush your teeth.
* This would be bad news for those on a traditional “publish or perish” academic path, but not all PhDs publish much—some at liberal arts colleges primarily teach, and others may plan to work in industry or administration (or to become an editor). So the dissertation is the one and only big writing project they expect to complete, which is part of what makes it so difficult.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.