Strategies for successful dissertation completion

by Eszter Hargittai on November 18, 2005

If you are or were at some point in a doctoral program then you have probably heard the following before: The best dissertation is a done dissertation. But how to get it done?

I am at the annual meetings of the National Communication Association where I have been asked to present on a panel about “Strategies for Successful Dissertation Completion”. It is hard to say whether I have any more expertise in this area than anyone else with a PhD, but I did sit down to come up with a list that I thought may be worth sharing here. I want to acknowledge the contributions of my grad school friend Erica Field who kindly entertained this question over dinner last night and offered several helpful additions to the list. Since we had spent countless dinners during grad school discussing our dissertations her contributions to all this have been more significant than simply talking about it over one meal.

I welcome additions to the list. I plan to share this with students in the future so the more helpful pointers the better.

It is probably fair to note that I did not follow all of these points, but if I had to do it all over again, I likely would. The list is presented in no particular order.

Also, several of the items are likely helpful for people who are at more advanced stages of their academic careers so you may get something out of this even if you already have a PhD.

Strategies for successful dissertation completion

1. Start early in your grad school years. Do not wait for a grand idea to strike. Sometimes very solid dissertation ideas come from relatively small ideas you have early on. Start exploring those.

2. Keep track of everything you do by filing material (whether digitally or not) and by keeping a diary of progress in your research.

3. Related to #3, but worth a point on its own: back up everything!

4. Identify your thesis committee early. Set up meetings with them on a regular basis. Profs are busy, you have to be forceful about this. Do not be shy. They are (or are supposed to be) there to help you get through the program.

5. Get feedback on your work regularly. You do not want to write five chapters only to be told that your basic premise is completely faulty and you have to start over.

6. Do not be discouraged if you find another project that * sounds * like yours, chances are good that it is not. Often enough you will encounter projects that make you think your work has already been done. Before you get completely stressed out about this, check the details of the other project. In all likelihood it is different from yours in significant ways.

7. Keep a notebook of all of your ideas even if they seem tangential to the project. You never know when they will be helpful later whether for this project or another one.

8. Do not be scared of contacting researchers elsewhere who may have relevant material/ideas for you.

9. Go to conferences. These are helpful for several reasons. (In fact, a whole other list could be written about them.) Directly related to dissertation completion is that they offer serious motivation to get parts of your dissertation done since you have deadlines to meet for presentations. Also, getting feedback about your project should be helpful as is meeting others in the field of your work so you can learn about more research that is relevant to your project.

10. Form a group with other students to motivate progress. Get together every couple of weeks either to share drafts or in the least to discuss what progress you had made since the last meeting. This kind of accountability can help motivate you to get work done.

11. If you need resources, look for and write grants to get funding. These are probably available both at the level of your university and outside. Ask others about the sources of their funding to find out about opportunities.

12. If you need a lot of resources then join a big project that is related to your interests as a research assistant. (This project does not have to be at your own university.) If you do good work and show dedication to the project then you may be able to carve out a piece for your own dissertation data collection/analysis.

Related to all this, it may be a good time to revisit Kieran’s list of Indispensable Applications.

I will take this opportunity to point to a document that does not focuse on dissertation completion per se, but has lots of helpful general advice for PhDs: Phil Agre’s Networking on the Network.

Of course, there are countless books available on this topic as well for those looking for more.

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Arm 11.18.05 at 8:55 am

13. (especially helpful in writing stages) Have a small achievable goal for each day (writing x number of words or something). Do that small achievable goal almost every day. A sense that the dissertation is progressing, even by incremental steps, is enormously reassurring.

14. Have mental health days (“I can’t stand it anymore, I’m going to the movies instead.”).


Eszter 11.18.05 at 9:06 am

Thanks. Yes, #14 is especially important. It doesn’t even have to be a full day. It can be sections of days. “I have had it with this for now, I’m going to go and work on my papier mache.” (Uhm, that would come under the points that I actually did pursue.;)


dsquared 11.18.05 at 9:18 am

the most important point is one that Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok emphasise repeatedly (I think it was originally a Peter Drucker aphorism, but this may be a calumny on Tyler and Alex); what destroys productivity is not producing too little every day, but having too many days of producing nothing at all.


C. Schuyler 11.18.05 at 9:26 am

In my case, it didn’t hurt that mine was supervised by a Swiss professor, trained in the German tradition of short doctoral dissertations. Try to get someone with a strong German accent if you can.


goncharov 11.18.05 at 9:37 am

“I question the premises of this entire entry! Wasn’t this supposed to be a blog for intellectuals!” Shouts the enraged perpetual graduate student who will never finish his dissertation. Is the best dissertation really a done dissertation? That’s what they say now, especially at nameless big ivy league grad programs cum dissertation factories with a nice high turnover rate of grad students and a hunger for teaching assistants with neither short nor long term institutional memories. But let’s not kid ourselves. Hanging on for seven or eight years, if you can bare the humiliations and get some other useful writing done, is by far the best model. If you know your dissertation won’t get you a job anyway, ehy bother following Peter Drucker and the management gurus when you can submit a prospectus and spend some time doing what you love…


Hektor Bim 11.18.05 at 9:56 am

A lot of these points are useful, but they illuminate the difference between the sciences and the social sciences.

In many cases in the sciences, what you write your dissertation on is not up to you. You are part of a professor’s reasearch program and you have a clear direction and topic handed to you by your professor. Obviously you can investigate aspects you are interested in and can develop it in ways you are personally interested in, but this often comes later when you are already waist-deep in the project.

So, a lot of these points are very useful, particularly 2, 5, 8, and 9 for everyone.

But some of these are not nearly as useful in the sciences, like 11 and 12. In science, you typically join a group (who provides funding) and get handed a project and work on that. Over time you make it your own, but the original idea is almost always the professors. Most science professors will not take you seriously if you approach them with a research idea you dreamt up independently as a wet-behind-your-ears first or second year grad student.

This comes up a lot when I discuss grad school with people in non-science fields. There is a conceptual gap there that is hard to bridge.

I hasten to add that I am not saying that one way or another is better, they are different. The real advantage in the sciences is that grad students tend to be funded better and finish more quickly, but they lose independence.


John 11.18.05 at 10:46 am

16. Get a post-dissertation job with a firm deadline for employment.

I put in 15 hour days, 6 days a week the last few months before I finished, because the very good job offer I had earned was only open for six months and was contingent on having finished my dissertation. While this is very motivating, it is probably more applicable to PhDs in sciences and engineering.


Peter 11.18.05 at 10:57 am

My favorite is:

3. Related to #3, but worth a point on its own: back up everything!

I had been working on a Masters and my notebook was mostly digital. When that computer died, my notes were gone. Even though I had dropped out of the program due to money problems, I regret losing such things.

When you’re done with the panel, might the results be available online to the no-longer academics?


polychrome 11.18.05 at 11:14 am

And building on hektor bim’s comment, the list also illuminates the differences between PhD programs in the US and (say) Australia.

In my experience,

1) comment 3 says it one way, I was told it another – each day, set out to do at least one thing. No matter how small, come in, and do something that advances your cause.

2) write everything down. If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen

3) write up (at a standard you would use to sketch out a journal article, or even writing one) as you go. This helps immensely in identifying holes in your argument, experiments that must be done to make the claims you want to make, and gives you words on a page to work with, when the crunch time comes

4) expect your goals to change. There is a lot of advisor to advisor variation, but a significant shift in direction every 12 months or so would be a fair average, based on what I saw.

5) did I mention writing up as you go?


Chris Stephens 11.18.05 at 11:31 am

Three books that I found especially useful:

(1) _Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day_ by Joan Bolker

(2) _How to Complete and Surive a Doctoral Dissertation_ by David Sternberg

(3) _Writing with Power_ by Peter Elbow

The first, as the title suggestions, points out the advantages of what Dsquared, Arm and others mention – set a realistic goal and stick to it – better to set a _very_ minimal goal and put in your 15 minutes (which will often end up going longer) than a more ambitious goal that your fail to meet and then you start skipping days…

Also, there is a lot of psychological evidence to suggest that you’re better off if you can:
- find a place where you do nothing else but write/work on the dissertation (don’t check your email, etc.)
- find a regular time (morning is usually best) where you always work on the dissertation (Hey – that means stop reading this blog and get back to work).

Additionally, (at least in the Humanities) there is the temptation to try to read everything first. Resist this. Write, write write. Write as you go. Turn your editor off for a while and just produce a lot of quantity (that you can then go back and edit).

And remember, avoid the “Dissertation as Magnum Opus” myth.


RS 11.18.05 at 11:40 am

#N+1 – Try not to read Crooked Timber religiously, every day… its much too efficient a procrastination device! Blogs are the death of politically interested grad students…


paul 11.18.05 at 11:51 am

Like Peter above, my favorite is also:

3. Related to #3, but worth a point on its own: back up everything!

but for a different reason. I like its self-referential nature. This suggests a new strategy, if you can get your advisors to sign off on it: your dissertation should be about your dissertation. At the very least, you could be absolutely confident that you’d be the first to write on this topic!


Kieran Healy 11.18.05 at 12:03 pm

“I question the premises of this entire entry! Wasn’t this supposed to be a blog for intellectuals!” Shouts the enraged perpetual graduate student who will never finish his dissertation. Is the best dissertation really a done dissertation?

Well yes, in the sense that a not-done dissertation, no matter how good it is, is not actually a dissertation.


Clayton 11.18.05 at 12:41 pm

[This conversation took place in the bar from The Shining.]

Soc: What are you doing?
Me: Writing.
Soc: What are you writing?
Me: Something.
Soc: C’mon tell me.
Me: My dissertation, All the Reason in the World.
Soc: But isn’t it impossible to write a disseration that is not a dissertation?
Me: Of course. Nothing could be a dissertation unless it was a dissertation.
Soc: You are neither a liar nor a madman.
Me: I suppose not.
Soc: If it is a not-done dissertation, there is not something you are writing. But then you’d be a liar or mad. You are not yet either. Thus, what sits before you is a dissertation.
Me: Agreed.
Soc: Excellent. You’re done. Let’s have a drink.

My advice to the dissertation writer. This line of reasoning is available at each stage in the writing process. Use early. Otherwise Socrates is lying to you at line 9 and at that point, you can’t be helped.


Kieran Healy 11.18.05 at 12:50 pm

Someone could probably get a dissertation out of this problem.


Michael 11.18.05 at 12:55 pm

My dissertation would have been longer, but I had too many TV shows to watch. So I say unto thee, avoid TV. But don’t avoid caffeine; it helps. Seriously, though, having a set schedule is essential — you have to dedicate three or four days (at least) when you do nothing but write all day, with minimal or no distractions. If not, the writing can take an eternity. Also, think about one chapter at a time; if you worry about the entire thing, the anxiety will paralyze you. And Chris is right: avoid the Magnum Opus myth. It’s a plumber’s license, the thing you need to join the union, as my committee told me. Most clear-headed faculty members will know this, and will understand that you’ll have time to make it great when you turn the dissertation into a book.


ingrid 11.18.05 at 2:19 pm

I’ve used John’s strategy (advice #16) in the social sciences and it worked extremely well for me, also in fact to put my supervisor under some sort of soft pressure to read my stuff rather quickly — though I would add that if you go for this strategy, you do have to give yourself one afternoon and evening off in which you should preferably go something in the open air, otherwise you’re killing yourself.

The other parts of my strategy were:

# 17: eat lots of Belgian chocolate (luckily I had a direct supply from Belgium ;-)

# 18: try to have dinner a couple of times a week with friends who are in the same shit.

# 19. Cry every evening before going to bed (don’t worry, if you’re really exhausted, you won’t need an effort for this). Then take a hot shower/bath. You’ll sleep well — and that you need for the next day.


dr ngo 11.18.05 at 2:29 pm

I agree with almost everything that has preceded, particularly the emphasis on actually WRITING something, not just waiting until you’ve done “all the research” first (a perpetual trap for historians). I also like the reference to the “plumber’s license” – my advisor framed this as “your masterpiece,” in the original sense of the word, i.e., the piece of solid craftsmanship you need to produce to validate your transition from journeyman to master.

One major point overlooked so far — perhaps just because it’s so obvious, but let me belabor it anyway — is the need to find a topic that really INTERESTS you, if at all possible. The difference (I used to tell my students) between those with PhDs and those still ABDs is not that the former are necessarily smarter. They kept at it; the others did not. And quite possibly they abandoned it for very good personal, or even professional, reasons, because, face it, time spent writing a dissertation can be some of the most thankless and tedious and frustrating and underpaid hours/days/months/years you will ever have.

No matter how bright you are, no matter how determined to get a doctorate, you will wake up some days – or even some months – thinking “Why in hell am I doing this?” And you need a good answer for yourself, and part of this answer nearly always will be “Because I really really want to _know_ this thing.” Simply “because I want to get my PhD” isn’t good enough. (ObDisclaimer: I’m describing history dissertations, which last for years; perhaps in math or science it may be possible to push through on sheer force of will alone.)

As always, YMMV.


Anna Alexandrova 11.18.05 at 2:40 pm

Regarding #3. Backing up your work is not enough by itself, you also need to keep back ups in a number of different places! So

#3′ Back up your work and store it in different locations!

I backed up everything religiously, but when I was moving from UK to the US I put all my back up CDs in the bag with my laptop. The laptop was forgotten in that terrible airport O’Hare. I had 5 peices of luggage and was jet lagged, but that did not stop me from hating myself, untill the day an angel from O’Hare Lost and Found Office called me to tell me that she’s found my laptop. Oh heavenly bliss!


hilzoy 11.18.05 at 3:51 pm

Here’s what worked for me:

Find a friend who is also writing a dissertation, and who you can count on to enforce penalties. Make a bet with this person, according to which you must either (a) have a given chapter (or whatever) grow by five pages per week (or whatever), or (b) buy that person any book he or she wants. (Again: very important to pick a friend who really will buy a very expensive book, and who will never, ever let you out of it.)

Stipulate that quality is irrelevant; that if need be you can turn in five pages of needless gibberish and win the bet. But you have to give it to the other person. This neutralizes in advance the possibility of thinking that you can’t write, since anyone can write gibberish; shame usually ensures that you won’t.

Do it every week for a year. Voila, a dissertation.


Mary 11.18.05 at 4:06 pm


An alternative I’ve heard of is to give a friend a cheque for something that seems to you to be just a bit too much that is made out to a charity. If you don’t produce evidence that you’ve done whatever it is the bet is about at a certain time, they get to put the cheque in the mail.


Another Damned Medievalist 11.18.05 at 4:24 pm

Alternatively, work very slowly for too long while trying to balance work, research, and family. Allow guilt and knowledge that you will really hate yourself if you don’t finish take over. Add The Departmental Deadline Which Cannot Be Extended and the looming possibility that you will have let your beloved Doktorvater down. Combine with Prozac. Write the bulk of the bloody thing in three months.

Or not. I’m just sayin’


Eszter 11.18.05 at 5:39 pm

I thought I’d report back from the session. Here are a few additional points that came up:

- Do not go with the “easy” advisor. He or she may let you get through the program quicker, but that may not be in your best interest if you do not have quality work to show for your years spent in the program.

- Do not include all material you have ever read in the literature review section of the manuscript. Yes, you have read lots of material that is related in one way or another, but only cover the works that are directly relevant, and cover them briefly.

- Do not think about the entire manuscript ahead of you (in some cases around 300 pages), it is too overwhelming. Take the writing one step at a time, page by page, section by section, chapter by chapter.

- Do not wait for perfection. These things are never perfect. Strive for high quality, but be realistic.

- Do not be evil. There is too much negativity in academia. It is possible to demonstrate the importance of your project without dismissing every piece of work that has ever come before it.

- Recognize that critical comments that challenge you are probably for your own good. An advisor who does nothing but praise your work without any suggestions for improvements is not doing you any favors. If you are not getting critical feedback, seek out some additional people for comments.

- As a follow-up to #1 on the original list, although it is important to start early, do not feel that you are obliged to turn your earliest ideas into the “big thing”. If you realize that an initial idea is not going to be suitable for the dissertation then abandon it. (If you have done enough work on it for a publication then it can be very beneficial to get at least a journal article out of it.)

- Let me reiterate comment #1 above: make sure you are staying healthy, both physically and mentally. Taking breaks is not only okay, it is often essential in order to maintain high quality work.

And Dr. NGO is absolutely right and it is worth spelling out: you have to be passionate about the topic you choose.


vivian 11.18.05 at 9:37 pm

One more: visualize yourself as fully qualified to be out on your own in the best job you can imagine. I came into grad school like that, got beaten down to a more humble self-image (where I could learn more and pick a manageable project), but then was unable to overcome the “I can’t be ready to write X, must read more first” problem. Until eventually I came to see myself as qualified to teach the subject to people like me, without embarrassment. Then finishing the writing was a matter of scheduling.

Way too much of life is about pretending (or imagining) to feel confident in order to get something done. Somehow I have to re-learn this about twice a year. Sure wish someone had told me, regularly, early on.


RedWolf 11.18.05 at 11:35 pm

My choice is points: 2 should be applied moderately, otherwise you another mountain of data to deals (you created yourself), 3 is general advise applicable to everything you do on a computer, 5 should be strengthen to “discuss your latest accomplishment with your adviser as often as possible” 6, 7 don’t say “notebook” it sounds archaic use “record”, 8, 9, and 10.

Would add:
• Present your work to others, students and faculty, frequently.
• Attend colloquia and other students’ presentations.
• Try to be active in presentations you attend.
• Experiment frequently with your results by applying them to concrete examples
• Don’t hesitate to read up on work in related, and unrelated, fields.
• Explain your work to friends and colleagues who don’t have any knowledge in your field. (E.g. your fish monger may be much smarter than most people you work with.)


nick s 11.19.05 at 10:09 am

what destroys productivity is not producing too little every day, but having too many days of producing nothing at all.

Agreed. It’s easy to get into ever-decreasing circles where you feel as if any work you produce will set you back rather than push you forward. It’s a tempting belief: but even crappy material can be edited.

One logistical suggestion: if you devote time early towards finding the tools to organise your research notes and writing, it’ll make life easier in the seemingly asymptotic final stages. Once you’ve found something, stick to it. (I learned LaTeX as a response to MS Word’s treatment of my masters’ MS.)

Though I’ll admit to following the ‘another damned medievalist’ method. It works, sorta.


Hektor Bim 11.19.05 at 12:05 pm

Actually, I have to disagree here with the “easy” advisor advice in note 23. Having a bad advisor is always a bad idea, but in the sciences, there is a high correlation between advisors with students that finish on time and good advisors. It is almost always a bad sign to have an advisor with students who take forever to finish.

After all, you aren’t really in grad school to be in grad school. You are there to get the requisite training and get out. Almost anything you failed to learn you can learn later while getting paid more and being happier.

This is much clearer when you compare the expected time to a science Ph.D. between the UK and the US: 3 versus 5 years. But both people have effectively the same credentials. You might as well get a Ph.D. quickly and then either leave academia (which most grad students actually do) or get a postdoc and do the same thing only for more money and more respect.


nick s 11.19.05 at 12:21 pm

After all, you aren’t really in grad school to be in grad school. You are there to get the requisite training and get out.

The UK/US distinction is important here, though: if you’re British and get funding, those three years before the cheques stop are your chance to have the university experience that you most likely forsook in order to get said funding.


rc 11.20.05 at 1:30 am

Choose your dissertation committee carefully. Others have warned against thinking of your dissertation as a magnum opus; in hindsight, I’d say it’s better to view it as a parvum opus: your target audience is the three (or four, but three is better) people on your committee. Here’s a practical tip: when choosing your committee chair, check how many papers he or she has co-authored with students. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether it might be a good strategy to seek out exactly the professors I assiduously avoided: those who have a reputation for exploiting and ripping-off their graduate students. They’re the ones who have the most to gain from their students’ productivity. The professors who have a large volume of solo-authored work may be too occupied with their own research agenda to contribute much to your dissertation. Don’t forget to check where a potential chair’s students ended up: the second most important role for a committee member is to sign your dissertation, but the most important is to help you to get a job afterward. Here is a real-life painfully-learned (fortunately, not by me) lesson: do your best to avoid a situation where one committee member is having an illicit affair with another committee member’s spouse.


VidalJr 11.20.05 at 9:46 am

do your best to avoid a situation where one committee member is having an illicit affair with another committee member’s spouse.

Cue discussion of how and when to restructure your committee…


A. G. Rud 11.20.05 at 2:55 pm

To Mary at #21: the charity may work, but the variation I heard from reading Robert Boice (who, along with Jerrold Mundis, Nick Daws and Peter Elbow, is a great writing guru) was to have a check made out to a hated organization, such as the ACLU if you are a Fox News watcher, or the Heritage Foundation if you do not watch Fox News, and have a friend mail it if you do not meet a goal. (Boice’s obscure little gem, Professors as Writers: A Self Help Guide to Productive Writing, may be available used somewhere. Jerry Mundis has great things to say about writer’s block, too, in his book and tape series.)


Ed 11.20.05 at 5:04 pm

This is just a variant on some of the other things posted, but I’d say this was the most important for me:

Establish a routine of daily writing–actual writing time, and pre-writing time (prepping for the next day of writing), and stick to it religiously. So much about writing a dissertation is establishing the habit of writing the dissertation.


Ken 11.20.05 at 9:30 pm

#22: Always move forward. If you feel the need to procrastinate, use the time to do something useful, like organize your citations, preparing a CV or cover letter, laying the groundwork for the project after the dissertation.


Tom T. 11.20.05 at 11:27 pm

Remember, there’s always law school….


Paris 11.21.05 at 4:14 am

This point is most critical before you are even in grad school: make sure that your program is committed to supporting you in a manner appropriate to your project. This is variable according to field, but basically boils down to $$$ to do the things you need to do. For scientists this can mean knowing the facilites available, what projects are currently underway by the lead researchers, and such; for the liberal arts, this means travel grants, library holdings, and a reasonable amount of flat out funding to do research instead of teaching, bar tending, etc.

In the event that you go forward without this commitment, recognize that the dissertation is going to take a lot longer to become successful.


Barry 11.21.05 at 3:35 pm

“do your best to avoid a situation where one committee member is having an illicit affair with another committee member’s spouse.” Personally had this situation over 25 years ago; not much could be done to avoid it. The affair was common knowledge and quite visible. Luckily, both (women) were constructive readers, and ultimately, quite polite during the defense. In a way, worrying about their behavior prevented me from being nervous about my performance at the defense.


academic coach 11.22.05 at 8:14 am

Coaching clients I’ve worked with have actually used the “check to a hated organization” technique. However, I’d like to suggest that it only be considered as an extreme measure. In general, the milder the incentive the better.
I’ve been coaching grad students and faculty for over a decade – but have only used this last-ditch method three times:

1) A grad student in a dissertation skills class wrote a page of her introduction to avoid sending a $25 check to a pro-life org.

2) A grad student who’d been ABD for 10 years sought individual coaching from me and we decided that if he didn’t write 10 pages the first week of our work together that he’d send $200 to the Bush re-election campaign. The pages got written the night before we met.
3) A 4th yr assistant professor, who hadn’t published anything in years, decided that he’d send off an almost-completed paper within 2 weeks or send $500 to the re-elect Tom Delay campaign. Fortunately, he mailed in the manuscript.

As you can see – this approach is not for the faint hearted. Use with caution.

BTW, the check needs to be written in advance and the coach or friend HAS to be willing to send it. Gotta say that sending any of these checks would have about killed me…


Gina Hiatt 11.22.05 at 12:32 pm

Having just given a talk to the graduate students at Brown about the relationship with your advisor, I’m interested in the comments on what kind of advisor to look for. I believe that a good advisor will not only help with the conceptualizing and writing of your thesis, but help you develop an identity as a knowledgeable scholar and a peer to your professors, so that you don’t drag yourself out of grad school, spent and filled with self loathing.
I often hear reports of needlessly cruel advisors, or alternatively, advisors who neglect their students shamelessly. My latest newsletter article, Why Are There So Many Bad Dissertation Advisors? explores the underlying reasons for this as seen by Dorothy and the Scarecrow. I agree with the above commentators that it is crucial to investigate how previous students or your potential advisors have done — not just in terms of eventual accomplishment, though. Find out whether these former students survived with their dignity and with their love of the field intact.


Rachel 11.22.05 at 3:19 pm

Regarding number 3– I did this with my MFA thesis: one copy on disk, one on hard drive, one on e-mail in my account, one e-mailed to friend, one hard copy in my house, one hard copy in other location. The only risk is that if you revise after you deposit copies elsewhere, you need to be certain that you don’t wind up with one original version, one version that has revisions, another version with different revisions, etc. It can be nightmarish to try to make sense of this sort of trouble.


George Williams 11.23.05 at 7:53 am

In response to Rachel’s comment #42: when you save a new version of something, prefix the date to the file name.

For example, don’t just name your draft of Chapter 1 “Chapter1.doc.” Name it “20051122.Chapter1.doc” instead. If you work on it a few days later, save that draft as “20051126.Chapter1.doc”

Delete the older drafts as appropriate. This naming system allows you to differentiate among the different copies you have saved in various locations and makes it easy to determine which is the most mature just by looking at the filename.

By the way, putting the year first, followed by month and day, results in files that line up in neat chronological order. Otherwise, they might line up in clumps of all the 22nd days of the month (regardless of month) and all the 11th months of the year (regardless of year).

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