To get to the desired end, you have to forget about it

So you want to write a doctoral thesis or something similar? First of all you need to know where you’re headed; otherwise you’ll never get there:

  • You really have to know why you want to do this. The more complex, hard and time-consuming the project, the more important this will be.
  • You have to know your goal: what is it you aim for?
  • You have to know what this means for the text you are trying to produce: which criteria will it need to meet?

Yet at the same time you have to be aware that “writing” actually means two completely different things: the text as an outcome, and the process leading to it. I assume you want to produce the best text possible. What must seem like a paradox to you is the central point of good writing:

To produce a really great text, quite often you will have to forget about all criteria for that when working your way towards it.

Writing is a creative act, as is any real scientific or academic work: coming up with new insights, producing new knowledge per se means creating something new. Therefore you will have to allow yourself the detours necessary for that, the meandering, the paths turning out not to lead towards your destination after all, the work that feels like time-wasting yet is essential in the long run. That is one of the reasons I consider exercises like Peter Elbow’s freewriting or Ulrike Scheuermann’s focus sprint really important: because they can make you realise how helpful these detours can be. (I have actually seen someone come up with a completely new concept for their thesis after doing a writing relay, three focus sprints in a row.)

You will have to develop a strategy of working in a focused, efficient manner yet allowing for the necessary detours at the same time. Combining techniques like Pomodoro or Personal Kanban and agile project management frameworks like Scrum with methods like freewriting, while regularly reflecting what you’re doing and how you’re doing, is a good way of working on that.