Tracking progress when writing essays and dissertations

Last week I finally submitted my PhD thesis. I found the writing up process to be reasonably smooth. I drafted several chapters over the course of the year so it didn’t feel like I had such a large mountain to climb in the last few months. By December, I had a full draft completed and I’ve spent the last two months editing, proofreading and formatting.

The most difficult part of the process was keeping up motivation and momentum while writing chapters from scratch. I’d like to share one method which really helped me deal with this problem. I hope this is useful to anyone currently stuck into a big writing project, such as a university essay, MA dissertation or PhD thesis.

Visualise your writing progress

The most important thing for me was to find a way of tracking the progress I was making, in relation to the project as a whole. It can be demoralising to be stuck writing a couple of paragraphs, with the idea in the back of your mind that those paragraphs are just a drop in the ocean. Worrying about that huge amorphous mass of writing that is required and focusing on a formidable target word count can really grind you down.

To avoid this demoralisation, I wanted to log the progress I was making, however small, and view this progress in a visual way that could inspire me to keep going. I had a look at several task management services to see if they could be adapted to my writing needs, but I didn’t find anything that really hit the spot. I do use one of these services (Asana) to manage general tasks now, but it is no use as a progress tracker. If anyone knows of a service which they’ve found useful for this kind of task, please do let me know in the comments.

Use an Excel tracking sheet

As a Microsoft Excel fan, I wanted to use it to create my own simple spreadsheet for tracking and visualising my progress as I wrote my thesis. You can see what I came up with below.

I started with the table of contents I had already devised and some vague target word counts for each chapter and subchapter. I entered the number of words I had written for each section so far and created a lovely visual representation of the progress I had made towards each target. This sheet can be easily adapted to suit any kind of document, just by changing the chapters and sections and updating the word count targets. Please download and try for yourself!

Every time I finished a writing session, I quickly check the word count of the section I was working on and entered the new number into the spreadsheet. I then enjoyed that satisfying moment when the progress bar crept up!

Keeping all your progress in one sheet like this also makes it easier to jump between sections of your document. You can easily spend an hour on one section and then skip to another once you get bored. Your progress in relation to the structure of your document is always visible and up to date. This method may not work for everyone, but if you think it might be useful, do give it a try!

6 thoughts on “Tracking progress when writing essays and dissertations”

  1. Hey! I love this way of tracking process – I am using your model for tracking progress in my own writing (trying to finish up PhD-project)
    However, I am so not an excell expert (far from) and now I want to expand the model to include all of my chapters. How do I integrate the tracking mechanisms when I expand rows?
    I can figure out how to “insert entire row” but it only gives me a new “empty” row of cells…?
    I would be super great full if you could explain me how (like I am a 5yr old).

    Best wishes – and huge thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Amanda, I’m so pleased you’re finding it useful! There are a couple of quick ways to add new rows which perform the same calculations.

      You can:
      – Insert the blank row as you mentioned before
      – Select the row above it, just including the 8 cells with data in them, not the entire row
      – Look to the bottom right of the selection box to see a tiny black square
      – Drag the square down to cover the empty row below, and let go
      – The calculation will be extended to the empty row

      Or you can copy and paste:
      – select the entire row for ‘2.4. Topic 4’
      – Copy it by hitting Control-C
      – Now select the row below it (Chapter 3: Methodology)
      – Right-click on the row and select ‘Insert copied cells’
      – The new row should appear above it with the same calculations

      Let me know if that works!


      1. Hi Katherine

        Thanks for replying. I actually figured it out by copying the =c/b code and just continuing the numbers – and it works! I’m thrilled. Thx again for sharing this awesome tool! And for a very interesting blog.


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