This post was written by Grace McCright, a second-year master’s student in the English Department.
Whether you’re a graduate student or an honors student beginning the thesis-writing process, a science major approaching a semester-long research project, or even a creative writer beginning the process of writing a novel, tackling a long project requires a different approach to your writing. When writing a short essay, I usually complete all the steps of my writing process (research, planning, drafting, revising) in about 2 weeks, sometimes in considerably less time. But what do you do when you have to spread your writing process out across a whole semester? Or even, in the case of theses, dissertations, and creative projects, multiple semesters and perhaps multiple years? While I don’t pretend to be an expert on this topic, I want to offer a few pieces of advice for tackling a long project from my own experience working on my master’s thesis this year.
- Break your project into manageable chunks.
For me, if I am working on a self-paced project like a thesis, it helps to break the project into chunks. If I think about the thesis as an 80-page document, I become easily overwhelmed and discouraged. But, if I think about it in manageable chunks, it becomes much less intimidating. In the case of my project, I broke the project into four chunks—an introduction of about 10-15 pages, two chapters, each around 25 pages, and a conclusion around 8 pages. Since I have written 10–15-page papers and 25-page papers before, the project now feels less intimidating. You can break your project into even more chunks; for example, my 25-page chapters each have two distinct sections of 10-15 pages. No matter how long your paper is, or how many chunks you have to break it into, this strategy can help turn an overwhelming project into multiple, smaller, manageable projects.
- Set reasonable deadlines for each section.
If your long project is for a class, your instructor may set periodic deadlines for you to turn in various parts of the project. However, if you are only given one deadline for the full project to be turned in, it can be easy to procrastinate and save all the work for the last few weeks. In order to manage your time wisely, I suggest setting reasonable deadlines yourself for each of the sections of your project. Some of you may be able to keep deadlines you set for yourself easily; if that’s you, awesome! For me, it helps if I tell someone else about my deadlines and ask them to check in on my progress. For my thesis, I set deadlines with my thesis director and told friends about my deadlines. This helped motivate me to stay on track with the writing process. I also want to mention here that an important part of this process is giving yourself grace. It’s okay to push deadlines and give yourself more time if necessary. I had to do this multiple times in my own thesis writing process.
- Find fellow writers to work with you.
In addition to helping each other keep deadlines, working with others in a writing group or within the Writing Center can assist you in the writing process. For me, I joined a small writing group that meets weekly to work on our theses. This helps us to consistently set aside time to work on the project and encourages us that we are not alone in our struggles with writing. Working on a long project can be lonely, especially when you are spending a lot of your free time writing. Finding people to write alongside can be incredibly encouraging. Additionally, finding people to talk about your project with, whether they be members of your writing group, tutors at the UWC, or just friends you trust, can help you strengthen your ideas and work through writer’s block. There have been many occasions when a conversation with a friend or a UWC tutor’s feedback has helped me identify areas to improve within my writing.
- Choose a topic you’re interested in.
If you get the chance to choose the topic of your long project, make sure it is something you really enjoy and are interested in. Your writing experience will be much more pleasurable and rewarding when you are writing about something you care about. Even if you don’t get to choose your topic, I encourage you to find something in the project that you can get excited about or relate to one of your interests. This makes all the difference when working on a long project.
Completing a long project is difficult and tiring work; you pour so much time and energy into the project and often make sacrifices to finish it. Sometimes, especially with academic projects, you may not receive a lot of rewards or celebration from others for completing the project. I encourage you to take the time to celebrate your dedication throughout the writing process—you are doing something really hard and doing it well! The feeling of satisfaction when completing a long project is like no other, and so I hope you take time for yourself at the end of the project to truly celebrate what you have accomplished.