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Common barriers to thesis completion

Strategies to keep you on trackSample scheduleVisual maps and the reverse outlineEditing and revision

Strategies to keep you on track

Download a PDF of this resource here.

It’s important to set goals and strategies for yourself while you’re writing every day, and more importantly, that the goals be achievable. Some strategies that work for both students and faculty are listed below:

Free writing

Just write. Don’t edit. This activity helps get you into the practice of writing. Get into the habit of free writing for 5 minutes at the beginning of each day:

  • Keep your hands or fingers moving
  • Go for your first thoughts
  • Don’t edit
  • Don’t stray from the topic
  • Be specific
  • Don’t worry about punctuation and grammar
  • You are free to write the worst junk imaginable

Goal setting

Some people are able to sit for hours at a time, continuously writing. Others, not so much. One of the first goals to get you started is to just stay seated for an extended length of time, maybe X minutes, while doing nothing but writing. Once that time is up, check it off your list.

Positive reinforcement

You may want to reward yourself in some way after accomplishing your goal. Maybe you’ve earned a walk in the neighbourhood or some musical instrument playing after a few hours of writing. Whatever you enjoy doing, be sure to only reward yourself with that activity once you’ve reached your writing goal. This actually works.

Create a time and place to work

Be sure that your work space is in a place you enjoy working, and when possible, stick to that space. As well, as much as possible, stick to a schedule where you’re writing/working at that space each day at the same start time to the same finishing time. Structuring your day in this way helps you to feel more in control of the process.

80/60/40

One formalized way of doing all this is the 80/60/40.  This method allows you to get everything you need done in one go but you do not leave your seat for each allotted time for writing. Some people like to start with different time frames, such as 60/40/20 and then work up to larger ones. This means that at the beginning of your day you:

  • Write for 80 minutes.
  • TAKE A TEN MINUTE BREAK*
  • Write for 60 minutes
  • TAKE A TEN MINUTE BREAK*
  • Write for 40 minutes
  • You’re done.

* At each break, be sure you don’t do anything that will be too distracting from your mental space for writing. Go for a walk, make some tea, whatever. Just don’t check email, Facebook, etc.

Helpful links

Having trouble staying off the internet? See our resource on Focus and Concentration, including a list of free or low-cost apps to help you focus.

Still having trouble? Maybe this is the way to go.

 

Sample schedule for the first month of reading/writing

Make Free writing a routine, try out some Writing Strategies, then stick with one. Remember to reward yourself with small breaks, but most importantly, keep at it.

Week 1

Monday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Try writing strategy #1
  • Go for a walk / take a break
Tuesday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Try writing strategy #1
  • Go for a walk / take a break
Wednesday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Try writing strategy #1
  • Go for a walk / take a break
Thursday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Try writing strategy #2
  • Spend time with friends
Friday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Try writing strategy #2
Saturday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Try writing strategy #2
  • Relax at home
Sunday
  • REST DAY
  • Accomplished: 1 rough outline, 12-15 pages of rough writing.

Week 2

Monday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
  • Go for a walk / take a break
Tuesday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
Wednesday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
Thursday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
Friday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
  • Night out (e.g., go see a movie)
Saturday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Try the reverse outline
Sunday
  • REST DAY
  • Accomplished: 1 working outline, 15-20 pages of rough writing.

Week 3

Monday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
  • Try some visual maps
Tuesday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
  • Read something for fun
Wednesday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
Thursday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
  • Night out (e.g., take in some live music)
Friday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
Saturday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Revisit and revise your outline
Sunday
  • REST DAY
  • Accomplished: first draft outline, 20-25 pages of writing.

Week 4

Monday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
  • Spend time with friends
Tuesday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
Wednesday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
  • Spend time on a hobby
Thursday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
Friday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Use a writing strategy of your choice
  • Night off at home
Saturday
  • 5 minutes free writing
  • Revisit and revise your outline
  • Treat yourself!
Sunday

Visual maps and the reverse outline

Download a PDF of this resource.

When reading for research, we need to read with a dialogue in mind. We need to be continually asking ourselves if the information we’re reading is useful to our central argument or interest. This isn’t easy, and students can often get lost in continuous reading. Some ways to stay on track are taking breaks every so often and taking notes on how the information relates to your interest. Not enough time to write all those words? Use visual representations along the margins instead:

 Venn diagram comparing two items

 

upside down triangular chart showing most important, less important, and least important information

Mind mapping

blank mindmap template

And once you have some writing done, or an initial draft, try a reverse outline.

The reverse outline

If a regular outline is something you do after you draft out your paper, a reverse outline is something you do after you write a draft. A reverse outline can help you make sense of what you’ve done.

The big picture

Reverse outlines can help you see the big picture, most especially with papers that need major reordering of paragraphs or papers filled with paragraphs that have too many ideas in them and don’t hold together.

How to do it?

  • Go through the paper and number each paragraph
  • On a separate page, record the main point(s) of each paragraph
  • Go through the entire paper this way. When you have gone through the entire paper, you will have an outline providing you with an overview of your paper

Then what?

Look carefully at your overview, asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are the paragraphs properly focused?
  • Does each topic sentence reflect the main idea of each paragraph?
  • Do all of your topic sentences create a coherent story?
  • When you look at the outline as a whole, does the organization reflect what you promised in your intro/thesis? If not, revise.

Adapted from Craft Of Research by Booth, Colomb & Williams.

Self-editing checklist

If you would like to learn more about how to edit your writing for grammar and sentence-level concerns, try SASS’s self-editing checklist. There is also a short series of videos to walk you through this process of improving your academic writing. If you would like to learn more about how you prefer to write and edit, see the self-assessment below.

Editing self-assessment

Try completing both of these sections sequentially.

From Barbery Nyce Dougherty, Composing Choices for Writers McGraw-Hill 1985

When I write, I

__ a) can’t get started until I have found a thesis

__ b) begin writing as soon as I have sufficient material

When I write, I

__ a) make lots of revisions in my first draft without losing my thread of meaning

__ b) write straight through to get at the gist of my ideas

When I write, I

__ a) write one draft, making only a few revisions after I am done

__ b) revise, completely, once or several times

When I write, I

__ a) have my context point pretty clearly in mind before beginning

__ b) wait to discover my main focus

When I write, I

__ a) follow a writing plan I have worked out in my head or on paper

__ b) don’t have a plan worked out, but wait to discover my structure

When I write, I spend most energy proportionally

__ a) planning and writing what I have to say

__ b) writing and revising

Revising a Draft

__ I revise my work before handing it to someone else

(If you are a frequent reviser, answer the following)

__ On average, I revise “X” number of times

(If you never or only sometimes revise, answer the following)

I don’t revise because…

__ a) I don’t have time

__ b) my first draft is usually pretty polished

__ c) I have never been required to revise

I revise…

__ a) while I write the first draft as well as after

__ b) only after I have my first draft

I revise…

__ a) on my own

__ b) after consulting with someone

Did you get mostly As? If so, you may want to spend some more time practicing writing and being less concerned with editing while writing. Try the next section.

When I revise, I

__ a) search for a better word

__ b) rewrite awkward sentences

__ c) make sentences less wordy

__ d) check spelling and punctuation

__ e) rework my introduction or conclusion

__ f) check my paragraphing and my transitions

__ g) rework my topic sentences

__ h) edit for coherence

__ i) reformulate my thesis

__ j) rework my writing plan

__ k) evaluate the match between content and audience

__ l) reorganize the order of my ideas

__ m) reconsider my stance toward topic and audience

In the revising section, if you found you checked mostly a-d, you’re predominantly copyediting. If you found you checked mostly e to h, you’re stylistic editing. If you found you checked mostly I to m, you are for the most part doing structural editing. All three stages of editing are required, but remember that when you do edit that STRUCTURAL EDITING comes first, STYLISTIC EDITING comes second, and COPYEDITING is done last. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re editing when we’re actually doing the easiest stage (copy editing), and ignoring the others.