How to Finish Your Project or Thesis

[See also: How to write a research project. How to write the background, theory, method, analysis and discussion sections. How to write the introduction and conclusion. How to review the literature, how to structure a research paper, and how to reference properly. Part of the Craft of Research series: full program here.]

“Appreciate your finitude.” (T.B.)

Video from March 30, 2023

Suppose you have about four weeks left to get it done. Let me remind you that four weeks is about 60 hours of productive writing time, and another 60 hours of productive learning time (thinking, reading, analyzing, etc.) If you only have 1 week left, it’s 15 hours of writing and 15 hours of learning. And in the final week those 15 hours of learning are basically teaching yourself what you have found in detail, so that you can make sure your text provides a suitable occasion on which to test your knowledge.

What can you accomplish in 60 hours of writing? Well, you can write 120 fresh paragraphs (about 50 pages of prose), 27 minutes at a time, with three minute breaks. In a pinch, you can write 180 fresh paragraphs, but, more comfortably, you can rewrite some paragraphs at this pace — 18 minutes at time with two minute breaks. Maybe you have written and rewritten almost all the paragraphs you need. Maybe they’re very close to perfect — which is to say, to being finished. In that case, you can try rewriting the whole thing, giving yourself 14 minutes on each paragraph, and a 1-minute break between them. That’s 240 paragraphs in all, which is probably going to be enough. However you go about it, you’d be spending only 3 hours a day writing, 5 days a week.

What about those 15 hours of “learning”. Spend three hours every day going over your sources, your notes, and your data to make sure you’ve got them right. Compare them to what you have written–but don’t change what you have a written. Read your own writing slowly and carefully and preferably out loud. If you find a mistake, make a note to yourself that you’ve got a writing task in the days to come. But stick to your plan: three hours of writing (I suggest in the morning) and three of learning (in the afternoon). Like I say, you’re not just making sure that your text is getting things right; you’re giving yourself a chance to internalize what it says. This will serve you will when you have defend it orally later.

Also, keep your after-the-fact outline up-to-date. Have list of the key sentence of every paragraph, be aware of the 100 or 120 or 240 things you’re saying to your reader. Make sure you believe them. Make sure you know they’re true. Learn your own lessons.

There’s no magic to it. No one has devised a helmet that can read a dissertation off your brain. The pill you’re looking for does not exist or is likely to have terrible side effects. You don’t need to be “limitless” to finish your project; you just need to appreciate your finitude.

Finally, live a healthy life during this time. You’ll probably devote more than 30 hours per week in the final stretch to this sort of project. Or you’ll at least feel like you should. But make sure that you eat well, get some exercise, and sleep well while you’re doing all this work. This will show in a calm orderliness in your text. As Jonathan Mayhew put it long ago, “Quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality.” Relax. Work as well as you can for the few weeks you have left and then hand it in. There’s no way to do this better.

Here’s an older, slightly more formal and discursive video from 2019 that covers much of the same ground:

Here is the 2022 version of this talk: