Now I know that every time I try to give advice to anybody through this blog there is an outcry of complaint and indignation, but this helpful tidbit I have offered to two fellow grads now (in a shorter version) and it has worked. And I am writing from a very good place at this moment, stuffed full of delicious chips and salsa and getting a buzz off those lovely carbs, so I am feeling magnanimous with the advice. Avuncular, even. (What would the term be for "aunt-like"? hmm.) To everyone else who is not newly or approaching ABD-ness: be warned; I'm going to talk about writing. And there will be Bizarre Metaphors.
First of all, writing a dissertation seems scary, if you don't approach it right. It is totally different from the earlier aspects of grad school, which involve taking courses and exams and writing seminar papers --- all of which bear some resemblance to the undergrad or MA experience. But after you pass whatever exam allows you to go ABD (all but dissertation), you are thrown into a situation with very little in the way of deadlines, or markers, or guidance. You might even feel a bit adrift.
But don't worry, just because you don't know how to start or where to go. You actually know a lot more than you think you do. If you start thinking about "writing a dissertation," you may actually paralyze yourself with fear. You should never think about "the dissertation" ---- save the big-picture view for the rare moments when the light is just right, the planets are aligned, and you are all aglow with the pleasures of some recent academic accomplishment. Instead of a panoramic view, you will need to develop protective tunnel vision. Or those blinders they put on horses to make them less skittish when they pull the milk carts. Or maybe the mirrored shield that allowed Perseus to slay the Medusa. (Someone please, stop the metaphors!)
Anyway, you think you are at sea, but you've actually weathered the big storm and made it safe to land by the time you are officially ABD:
Note that I didn't say it would be easy after this point. Oh look --- while your advisors aren't here, they left you some helpful tools!
The trick is to just jump right in to work. The longer you wait to start writing, the more daunting and big the whole task becomes. That's where the magic of subheads come in. Dissertation? --- big and scary sounding. Dissertation chapter? --- still big and scary. How long are they supposed to be? I don't know how to write one! But, by this point you are an old hand at taking seminars and writing seminar papers, right? If you break up your chapters by three or four (or maybe even five, depending on the lengths you want) subheads, then you can think of one as being just like writing a seminar paper --- you can handle a little ol' 15-pager, right?
Don't even think about the whole diss or other chapters or the other subsections at the moment --- just pick up your main text for the chapter and start bashing out some close reading. One friend took almost a year to start writing. "Why don't you just start freewriting on Major Text?" I asked. "Find some patterns and start writing about why MT interests you in relation to ---- what is it, the sublime?" "But I need to know everything about the MT and the concept of the sublime before I know what my argument is," replied the friend. "No, no ---- write up a bad seminar paper ---- even five pages. Then start making a list of what specific things you need to prove your argument and what things you will be expected to be familiar with in your footnotes. After you get about 6 or so things on your to-do list, start getting them and mixing them in (don't make the to-do list so long that you paralyze yourself though)."
Of course, you won't keep that first freewrite. (I didn't tell my friend that) It will disappear at some point of the revisions. It's just that knowing you have already started and have some pages is a great motivator and helps break you out of paralysis. Just keep focused on the little, small, do-able tasks, one foot in front of the other. And before long you are a paragon of industriousness:
Almost before you know it, you will be deep in the work of writing and will scarcely notice the time passing. Now, since dissertation-writing time is very unstructured, you should diligently keep track of your schedule and progress. Find whatever time-management systems work for you and implement them: I should add that for some people, the isolation of working alone on the dissertation for such a long time can make them skittish and unused to dealing with other people, so you might want to take steps to prevent that.
Eventually, you'll be finished with this trying time in your life and able to move on to bigger and better things, like working as a tenure-track professor. Which entails, um, I think, traveling through Spain and slaughtering hundreds of wolves. I wouldn't know; I haven't gotten there yet.