Capstone Calendars: A Plan for Success
One of my favorite parts of my job here at Walden is meeting students face-to-face at residencies and dissertation intensives. However, at these events, when students glance down at my nametag and see the letters—P, h, D—next to my name, I often see their otherwise cheery faces go dark. Instead of smiles, I see grimaces and eye twitching, representing what the student feels has been a never ending process of capstone drafting, revising, hair pulling, and tears. Without fail, the next utterance out of students’ mouths always seems to be a version of the same question: “How did you manage to finish such a long and overwhelming writing task?” Although the question is frequently phrased differently, my answer is always the same. To complete a successful capstone, whether it is a dissertation or a doctoral study, one must have a specific and binding plan. This plan must include time for research, organization, writing, collaboration, and revision. Now, before these same students begin to roll their eyes at my abstract guidelines, l invite them to take a seat while I spend some time clarifying these requirements. So, just for a moment, imagine that you are sitting across from me at an advising table, and I am telling you how to successfully complete your capstone.
Determine your research and writing style.Your first task is to answer three important questions: How many days a week are you able to work on your capstone? What time of day are you best able to focus on research or writing? And, how many hours at a time can you generally work without feeling exhausted or distracted? The answers to these questions are important, as they will become the foundation of your capstone writing plan.
Commit to a specific plan.After answering these questions, the next step is to buy a calendar specifically for your capstone tasks. When detailing your responsibilities in your calendar, specificity is important. You will want to make several small deadlines that are too specific to avoid or put off. For instance, if you commit to having 30 pages finished in two months, you might never start writing, as each day is a potential day to procrastinate. And, there is always tomorrow, right? However, if you make a plan to write 3 pages a day, six days a week and you commit to beginning your writing every morning at 7 a.m., there is not a lot of wiggle room for procrastination.
Research and take notes.Before you even begin to think about writing, you want to complete your initial in-depth research of available resources on your topic. In this phase, you want to accumulate a substantial number of resources—articles, books, websites, etc.—that you need to read and take notes on. If you are struggling at all with accumulating sources, I strongly suggest you contact Walden’s librarians, as they are super skilled at locating a range of resources on many different research topics. After your initial research has been completed, you want to return to the questions you answered about your research and writing style. Based on the number of hours you have designated to work on your capstone each week, you will want to figure out how long it will take you to read and take notes on all of your sources. For example, let’s say I have designated 4 hours Monday through Saturday to work on my capstone. I have 40 articles and 5 books I need to get through. My plan is to get through 3 articles a day or one book every two days. Based on these requirements, it will take me 14 days to take notes on my articles and 10 days to take notes on my books. After I’ve figured out I need a total of 24 days to research and take notes, I want to map out this time period on my capstone calendar, making sure to account for the one day a week I am not working on the capstone.
Organize.After you have completed your initial research, you then want to spend some time organizing your research. Depending on how quickly you feel you can organize your notes into a cohesive outline or mind map, schedule 2 days, a week, or even longer for the organization phase into your calendar. Remember, when determining how long it will take you to organize your notes, don’t forget to take into account how many hours a day you have promised to devote to the capstone writing process.
Write and make daily goals.When writing a longer paper like a capstone, I usually suggest that students write 6-7 days out of the week. If writing most days of the week is not possible, I then suggest writing as often as possible. As writers, we tend to stay focused and make more progress when we consistently write on the same topic. On the other hand, if we only write sporadically, we tend to waste time in each writing session reacquainting ourselves with our topic, research, and where we left off during our last writing session. In addition to writing consistently, I suggest writers make one of two daily goals during the writing process: how many pages you will write per day or how many hours you will spend writing each day. While writing my dissertation, I decided I would write 2 pages 5 days a week. After only one short month of writing, I had over 40 pages written. So, even though only two pages a day does not seem like a lot, using this method, page counts can really add up quickly. Make sure to decide on a goal that works for you and map out how you plan to achieve that goal in your calendar.
Collaborate.Despite many students’ belief that writing a capstone is an isolating process, your computer should not be your only friend during dissertation or doc study writing. In fact, your writing will improve if you seek out collaboration and feedback while working on your capstone. While working on my dissertation, I regularly scheduled appointments with my university’s writing center every two weeks. By talking with someone else about my writing, I could ensure that I had sound organization, a clear argument, and a clear idea of what revisions needed to be made to continue on the right track while writing my chapter. Meeting with a writing tutor also gave me external deadlines; I knew that I would need to have words on the page in order to have something to discuss each week. Whether you choose to make an appointment with Walden’s Writing Center, workshop with a group of writers in your area, or just talk through your work with a friend or family member, collaboration is the key to making progress and improving what is on the page. Make sure to schedule regular collaboration sessions as you are planning for your capstone completion.
Revise.Although making time for revision seems straightforward, this part of the writing process can be a slippery slope for many writers. In writing my dissertation, I had a tendency to revise every sentence as I went. I would write one sentence, and then I would read that sentence aloud over and over, endlessly thinking of new edits. Before I knew it, an hour had passed, and I was still staring at that one sentence. The moral of the story here is to designate separate times for writing and editing. Your first goal is to get words on the page. This draft is the raw material that you can shape into something you are proud of during the collaboration and revision stages. Now, depending on how you work, you could schedule a day to revise after each collaboration session. Or, you could plan to revise once midway through your chapter or section and once at the end. Your revision style should reflect your style as a writer. Just remember, don’t get so bogged down in revision that you forget to actually write.
Finally, after completing your plan, you have to make a commitment to finishing. Just like failing to show up at work is not an option, your planned capstone work is also not negotiable. The plan you make is binding, period. And, if that means making it into a contract, signing it, and posting it somewhere others can see, so be it! Best of luck!
Sarah Prince is a Writing Instructor & Coordinator of Embedded Writing Support and Design. Her favorite thing about working with Walden students is helping them to develop the confidence, clarity, and unique critical voice it takes to become effective and articulate scholarly writers.