Develop Good Writing Habits

Good Writing Habits to Finish Your Dissertation

You’ve done a lot of writing during your Ph.D. program. Most of your courses require writing a substantive paper, and you’ve likely revised papers and submitted them for publication. 

But how are you managing the writing that is demanded of you, especially as you begin writing your dissertation, a project that is likely bigger and higher stakes than any writing project you’ve tackled before? 

During graduate school, scholars begin to develop habits to manage their writing obligations, habits that may or may not be productive! 

Embarking on a big project like a dissertation presents an opportunity to examine your habits and make adjustments so that you leave your doctoral program with not only a degree, but also with new abilities as a writer that will serve you well throughout your academic career. 

Let’s start that work by exploring common beliefs many graduate students have about writing productivity.


Common Myths about Writing Productivity

Graduate students are notoriously busy: you juggle courses, projects, assistantships, and demands from your advisors. You may also have a job, a family, hobbies, and other dimensions of a full life. Because of the many obligations you have, you may have settled into a habit of waiting for large blocks of free time to do your writing. 

This habit of waiting to write goes hand-in-hand with certain beliefs about writing. You might believe that you can write more and write better when you have cleared a Saturday or Sunday and can just focus on your dissertation. 

Alternatively, you may feel that since your day-to-day life is so structured and full, the best writing will happen when you are struck by inspiration. In that case, you might believe that writing happens when it hits you - perhaps late at night or when you get a great idea out of the blue.  

These two beliefs, that writing should be done when you have long stretches of free time or when the spirit strikes, are misconceptions that will only prevent you from developing a productive and satisfying writing habit. 

Sadly, waiting to write, whether we wait for free time or for inspiration, is not a habit at all! It actually is a form of procrastination, and it is dangerous. Why? When we haven’t written for a long time, we create three big problems for ourselves:

  • When we return to a writing project after several days, we have to expend a huge amount of energy just remembering where we are and what we need to do to get started again. This is a waste of our precious time!
  • We return to the writing project with a combination of guilt and worry, emotions that inhibit both sound cognitive work and pleasure. 
  • When our work on a project is dropped for several days, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to stay connected to that project and create a deeper engagement with the problems we are trying to elucidate and solve.  


Key Tips for Picking up the Writing Habit  

While procrastination serves the psychological purpose of allowing us to avoid confronting our fears and worries, it ultimately prevents us from making progress on our writing. The good news is that you can break the cycle of procrastination and build a more productive writing habit. 

Below are some helpful strategies that will help you tackle not only your dissertation, but future projects as well.

Depersonalize and lighten your writing work

It is very typical to see your dissertation or other large research and writing projects as a measure of your personal value or as the key to your future success. 

While working on projects that have meaning for us can be intrinsically motivating and exciting, it can also be intimidating when we give our writing so much weight: these projects can feel so high stakes that we may avoid them. 

To break the cycle of avoidance, it’s important to put your work in perspective so that it feels manageable and possible. Below are some practical strategies to help you do that.  

Break your work into bite-sized chunks

Academic productivity experts such as Boice (1990) and Rockquemore and Lazloffy (2008) suggest creating short-term writing goals and then assigning yourself daily work to get to those weekly or monthly goals. 

When you know what manageable chunk of work you are to do on a given day (for example, spending 15-30 minutes writing a stronger introductory paragraph for a chapter), you can happily face that work without having to take on the huge questions of “What am I doing with my life?” or “Will my dissertation help me become a great academic?” 

You’ll be able to just jump into your writing. Take a look at your work you’ve assigned yourself for the day and imagine that someone gave you that work to do. You are there to carry out that work. 

This may sound strange, but it is crucial for you to see your writing as a task that is simply something to do and not immediately start associating this work with your self-worth, your future, or your career. Detach the work in front of you from those looming bigger issues. 

Sometimes a paragraph is just a paragraph! Your career, future, and self-worth are important, but they actually get created one sentence at a time, so just imagine that you’re doing some work, not your life’s work. Remind yourself that your dissertation or your big project is part of a whole series of studies and potential publications you’ll work on over the course of your career. 

It can be very helpful to remember that our doctoral work simply needs to be defensible. Contrary to what some folks tell us, a dissertation that is done is more important than a dissertation that is a masterpiece. If you conceive of the work as that which will make or break your career, you may never finish it. 

And that would not be good! “But what if my dissertation isn’t perfect and I get asked some really difficult question at my defense?” you ask? Here’s your answer, “That’s a great question, and I thought a lot about that while I was working on my project. I would like to hear some of your ideas as I plan on working on that when I go to publish that chapter.” 

Your mantra is to write and finish your work each day so that you can defend your dissertation. Nothing more.

Write regularly to set your routine

Scholars who study the habits of productive writers agree that consistency is the key to efficient output, and the most productive writers are those who hit the keyboard for a scheduled amount of time each day (Gray, 2015). 

While it may seem daunting to write every day, keep in mind that habit-building is nothing more than initiating a pattern of behavior with a recognizable trigger and sufficient reward (Duhigg, 2012). The quantity or quality of what you write is irrelevant to the habit-forming process.  

Here’s what does matter for building effective habits:  

Write at the same time each day. Choose a time that you can save for writing even when your schedule gets hectic.  

Write in the same place each day. Pick a quiet environment where you won’t be disturbed. The familiar cues of place and time will help you settle in to work each day.  

Set a timer for 15-30 minutes. Work without disruption for the entire time. Don’t stop to read more or hunt down a lead on the web, just write. 

At first, you’ll have to be disciplined about warding off distractions and keeping your fingers on the keyboard the whole time. Eventually, the cadence of these short blocks of solid writing time will form an automatic routine and become a habit cycle.  

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “How am I going to get anything done in just 15 minutes!? It takes me that long just to warm up.” While that may be true at first, once you get in the habit of coming back day after day it will be much easier to start because you haven’t been away long enough to get “cold.”

Formalize and use your routine

Setting aside a time and place to do your writing is an important first step toward building a writing habit. You can make the most of this habit by ensure that the time you’ve set aside is productive. 

Below are some strategies to help you make the most of each day’s short writing session.  

Develop helpful rituals. You may want to have a writing playlist and some other sensory cues that help you step out of your everyday life and into your writing space.

Create a welcoming space for your writing with a favorite tea, special candle, comfy chair, or soothing photos on your desk. Not only will these items help you feel calm, but these aspects of your environment will eventually become cues to help you get writing more easily by reinforcing your writing routine.  

Take a tip from Ernest Hemingway and never end the day on a period. Start a new section, or paragraph, or sentence before calling it quits and it will be easier to get back in the flow tomorrow. 

Leave a little comment to cheer yourself on the next day, such as “Hey this treatment of the concept Y was great! Today jump into this next section where you contrast concept Y with the work of So-and-So!” That little note lets you jump right in the next day. 

If you get into a groove and find yourself writing for more than 30 minutes from time to time, go with it. But by setting a short time limit, the pressure is off and the habit gets formed easily because you lower your anxieties about writing!  


Build in rewards to enhance motivation

While setting a predictable schedule is helpful for building a writing routine, a system of regular self-reward can help sustain motivation. 

The most obvious reward of writing is found in the finished product, but what about all the time between blank page and completed manuscript? 

Well, part of making writing a habit is learning to see every session of dedicated writing time as a small victory, an intermediary accomplishment on the road to a larger goal. So go ahead, reward yourself after each session. It could be apple slices, a great piece of dark chocolate or a walk in the woods. Whatever you choose, make it a reasonable reward that you can guarantee yourself each time.  

There are even ways of using rewards to track your progress. You might start a writing journal and give yourself a sticker for every writing session done. 

If your reward is chocolate, you could make a collage out of the wrappers from all the treats of a single project. Those with more pragmatic minds might simply put an ‘X’ on the calendar for every day they complete the 15–30-minute obligation. 

Eventually, the need to make that mark or entry in your log will be the thing that drives you to fire up the computer on those days when you’d rather not.  

Join (or start) a writing group for accountability

Writing groups that meet regularly (weekly or bi-weekly is best) can provide external supports for both tracking progress and sticking to your schedule. Such groups tend to ask members to report on the work they’ve been doing and declare goals for the next meeting. 

Some may even share their work with each other and provide feedback. And some groups use the “Shut up and write” format; they meet virtually or in-person and settle into writing using a timer. After a specific period of time (maybe 30 minutes), everyone checks in with a small victory. 

Then the timer gets set again and they’re off for another cycle of writing! Whatever the format, writing groups are an excellent way to achieve low-stakes accountability and peer-support networks.  


  • Boice, R. (1990). Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. New Forums Press.
  • Bolker, J. (1998). Writing Your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis. Owl Books.
  • Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House.
  • Gray, T. (2015). Publish and flourish: Become a prolific scholar. Teaching Academy, New Mexico State University.
  • Lambert, N. (2014). Publish and prosper: A Strategy guide for students and researchers. Routledge.
  • Rockquemore, K. A., & Laszloffy, T. (2008). The Black academic's guide to winning tenure - Without losing your soul. Lynne Rienner Publishers.