Writing a dissertation or thesis isn’t all about the writing. Academic writing requires a lot of moving parts in order to be successful. Writing is, of course, important (words won’t magically appear for you), but it’s your little habits and practices that will make all the difference in timeliness and completion. Brilliance on its own isn’t enough to get you to your defense date. You’ll need organization to meet your deadlines, avoid unnecessary mistakes, tedious work, and/or a complete disaster (e.g. misplacing key resources, losing research, technical glitches, etc.).
Organization goes beyond the physical collection of papers, books, and research you might collect. In fact, chances are that most of your resources and research will be digital. Most research, even in the humanities, includes online and database research. Undoubtedly, you’ll have on hand dozens (perhaps hundreds) of online articles and statistics in your possession. Moreover, eBooks are finding a new prevalence in serious research and writing. Beyond eBooks and articles are digital newspapers, webpages, blogs, and even social media. Managing physical sources, papers, and books is only half of the battle. You’ll need to think about what to do with all that data you’ll undoubtedly accumulate. And no, leaving it all on your computer’s desktop isn’t an option! You’ll need to develop effective strategies and organizational techniques to manage your digital sources and files.
Thankfully, digital organization is rather simple. It doesn’t require much effort beyond instituting a few commonsense practices that will surely save you time, effort, and frustration. Additionally, there are a number of tools that can help you become a better digital organizer so you can focus on the stuff that matters—like writing!
Don’t use a USB stick! Please, please let go of those awful USB sticks. They’re a disaster waiting to happen. It’s not unusual for writing to be a mobile activity. More likely than not, you’ll need to work somewhere other than your home. That means you’ll have to take your work with you. So, it’s important to plan how you’ll take your work around with you.
While working as a librarian, it wasn’t unusual to find doctoral students using USB sticks to carry work around and save working versions of their dissertation. I’d always advise them to avoid using USB sticks. One, they’re ridiculously easy to lose. Two, they’re easily corruptible. Beyond these reasons however, USB sticks are not great for organization. They make it easy to lose, misplace, or save over important drafts of your work. Furthermore, they add the extra burden (and potential disaster) of moving your work from the USB stick to your main computer. USB sticks invite messiness, adding a unnecessary burden to your writing flow.
Embrace cloud storage. I love cloud storage. I used it almost extensively while I was writing my dissertation. I’m a huge fan of Google Drive, as I could switch between multiple computers without having to worry about losing my information on whatever I was working on. With dissertation writing, you’re going to need to keep everything organized and safe. You need to have the confidence that some sort of disaster isn’t going to befall you. Cloud storage allows you to work on the same document on any computer. No more losing USB sticks or worrying about losing your information. Moreover, Google’s Backup and Sync operates seamlessly with Windows. No more downloading or uploading because it’ll do it all for you. You can even work on documents offline as Backup and Sync will upload your documents for you once you’re safely back to Wi-Fi.
Can’t I just save everything on my laptop? Yes you can, but you’re also inviting the risk of disaster in case something happens. I always encourage students to use backups. Multiple if necessary. There’s no downside of using cloud storage, especially if it saves a local version of the file on your computer. Cloud storage is also amazing for organizing large groups of files (especially all those article pdfs). You can carry your entire research library with you wherever you go. This is especially helpful if you’re researching on a database
For the love of God clean your desktop! Take a look at your desktop. Go ahead and look carefully. Can you see the wallpaper in the background or is it blocked by the clutter of files, pdfs, and shortcuts? If you can’t see your background it’s time to start organizing! Think of your computer as your digital desk. Having everything on the desktop (like papers strewn on a desk) isn’t necessarily helpful. For one, it’s time consuming to continuously scan over your desktop just to find one file. It’s also bound to cause you unnecessary anxiety—where did I put my file again? Yeah, you want to avoid that whenever possible.
Take stock of everything on your desktop. Is everything there necessary? Begin by deleting any old files and shortcuts that you never, ever use. Next look over any pdfs and Word files. Are these relevant to your research? Should they be somewhere else (like a research folder)? Start by creating categorical folders for research (articles, eBooks, papers, etc.). You can even break that down into categories such as those you need to read, important articles, or even by author. There are a variety of ways of breaking down and categorizing information. Think of a system that works for you and stick to it. Make modifications if necessary, but stick to it!
Scan your articles after reading (Don’t print everything and don’t rely on paper). Some students have a bad habit of printing everything. Yes, it’s sometimes easier to read on paper, but be selective about what you print. Besides killing trees, printing dozens of articles creates an instant mess. Where are you going to store those papers? Will you carry them around with you everywhere? I’ll sometimes see students walk in carrying a mound of papers. It looks physically exhausting and potentially dangerous if you lose them—especially if you write notes to yourself on those articles. Let’s face it, printed articles are messy. Alternatively, try printing out only one or two articles at a time (what you reasonably can read in one or two sittings). Make your notes, highlights, and scribbles like usual. Once you’ve made your notes, scan your article and add it to your cloud drive. This ensures that your scribbles and scrawls are safe, without having to lug everything around. Moreover, you can always reprint the article if you want to add further notes. This is helpful if you just can’t stand reading articles on a computer screen.
Take digital notes. Digital note taking has been around forever. Evernote is the most well known, but there are plenty of choices when it comes to note taking. Some even simulate taking notes on paper (for touch based devices). Apple, Microsoft, and Google all have their own versions of note taking apps and software. Play around with a few and choose one that works well with whatever device you’re using. Some, like Evernote, will even allow you to take a picture of your handwritten notes, allowing you to upload it instantly to the cloud. Digital notes can help you with jotting down ideas and organizing your thoughts.
Above all, be sure to develop a strategy for saving and accessing all the data. Don’t wait to get organized. Start now and make it part of your research routine!