One of the most common sticking point for PhD students in philosophy is getting one's dissertation moving. What's so hard about getting started? At least couple of things: (A) grad school classes teach you how to write 20-page papers, not book-length manuscripts; and (B) by the time you finish your preliminary exams, you might not have even written a philosophy paper in a year or so, and so basically you've kind of forgotten what it feels like to do philosophy. In short, you're simply not very well prepared to write a dissertation. This isn't necessarily your department's fault. Quite the contrary, I'm one of those (and I know many others) who think struggling as an ABD is a necessary evil. Still, two simple lessons got me on track -- and I've seen them work wonders with friends as well. What are they?
The first lesson comes from my former professor Mark Timmons, who gave me the advice after my committee rejected my first proposal. The advice was simply this: read, and read a lot. This might sound trivial as advice. Who doesn't read? Well...in my experience, a lot of ABDs think more than they read. I was guilty of this. I found a topic I was interested in, thought about it lots and lots, and started trying to write about it. Bad idea. You can't even begin to get a good topic off the ground unless you really, really immerse yourself in the literature surrounding it. In fact, this more than anything else makes the dissertation tractable. Instead of a huge 200-300 page foggy mountain in front of you (and you asking yourself, "How do I do that!?"), what happens when you read is you encounter smaller problems. Each problem itself demands thought and argument, and problems add up. Indeed, it helps to think of a dissertation as a ton of small problems. Once you get each problem in the literature around your idea in the open, you can begin working on this problem, then that problem, then that one -- and soon enough you have a dissertation!
Another nice thing about Mark's advice to read, and read a lot, is that you might end up (as I did) with a topic you never imagined. Initially, as an ABD, I was thinking about Humean theories of motivation and normativity. Then I read Rawls Law of Peoples and got an idea. Just like that. Lucky is what it was, and it never would've happened without Mark's advice.
The second lesson that got my dissertation off the ground is, you guessed it, write and write a lot. Lest this advice seem totally trivial too, let me explain it more precisely, as it worked wonders in my own case and I've seen it work wonders for others too (one of my friends had like nothing written after one year and then a year later - after the advice -- was totally done!).
So I had my dissertation idea. Writing, however, was very, very difficult. Again, you have this enormous 200-300 page mountain in front of you, and you're trying to be oh so rigorous! What happens then, of course, is that you drive yourself crazy trying to get the first page right, then the second page, etc. But of course nothing turns out right, and you find yourself getting nowhere. Yep, that's where I was -- nowhere -- a year after coming up with a good topic! And then, out of the blue, I don't even remember how I got it, I got a book entitled something like, "How to Write a Dissertation". I can't for the life of me remember where it came from. I think I got it for free in my grad mailbox, or maybe my mom gave it to me -- whatever. Anyway, the very first piece of advice was force yourself to write 5 pages a day without any editing whatsoever. The rationale behind this had to do with positive reinforcement. The book said something like this: if you finish everyday with something substantial actually written, you'll have a more positive attitude the next day. It was totally right. Although I was skeptical, I tried it, and after five days I had 25 pages written. Most of what I had written was awful, of course, but I felt like I was getting somewhere. Which brings me to the book's second piece of advice, which was: approach writing like throwing-up and cleaning-up. Throw up garbage first, then clean it up. It worked. I turned the 25 awful pages into five good ones by the end of the week. Eight months later I was done with the dissertation. No joke. I later gave the book to a friend who had the same problem (she was nowhere after a year). She was done in about eight months too.