Thesis Writing Tips

By | May 20, 2015

Here’s a list of 5 Thesis Writing Tips to try and make writing your thesis that bit easier.

For more general writing advice – read this book.

1. Speak to your supervisor

Believe it or not your PhD supervisor probably has a good idea of what is going to go into thesis. If you’re completely stuck for how to get started – go and have a chat with them.

2. Plan first

With all this talk of writing your thesis it’s very tempting to make the mistake of straightaway starting to write it. In fact, just like in GCSE English essays, it is a much better idea to make a plan first, before you get down to writing. A plan let’s you sketch out the rough story and themes that you will cover in your thesis. It might uncover gaps in your knowledge or data, or help make it clear which sections and chapters are going to be toughest. I found it useful to think first in terms of chapters, and then the key headings for each section in the chapters.

As Abraham Lincoln said:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

3. Make use of intermediate reports

With any luck your institution has compelled you to write end of year reports or something similar. With a bit more luck you took them seriously. If you’re reading this early on in your PhD, here’s my advice: Take them seriously.

When you go back to read them as you work on your thesis, you’ll probably find the writing is terrible, and nowhere near sufficiently detailed. But these intermediate reports can be used to quickly flesh out your plan. Don’t let the reports be a mere administrative box-ticking exercise. Use them to bring together the work you’ve been doing and summarise the conclusions you were coming to. And mention somewhere in the report where exactly you’ve stored your files – this can avoid days (weeks?) of hunting around for a file you were sure could never go missing.

4. Race to write a first draft

Once you’ve got your plan out of the way and dug up any old reports you might have you I suggest you work as hard and as fast as you can to put together anything that resembles a ‘first draft’. This can be the dirtiest thing you’ve ever written, with typos and mistakes all over the place. What it really is though is a framework for you to edit and build on. You’ll probably find that some sections come easily to you, and others prove to be a massive burden. Try not to edit this draft as you go. Don’t worry if you think your writing is clunky, too wordy or not detailed enough. The only thing that matters is getting words on the page.

Once you’ve worked through your plan and filled in the sections right through to the end, you’ll have a much better idea of the task ahead of you. You’ll know which areas are already pretty solid and which need lots of work. It’s at this point you can go back through your thesis and start to hack it to bits with a red pen. Don’t be shy about cutting bits out, and moving them around.

At this stage I think your own personal writing preferences might become more important. You might like to continue working on the thesis as a whole, but I think it’s more common to work on each chapter in isolation before bringing them all together as a more or less completed work. Make sure you continue to involve your supervisor – their knowledge, experience and editing skills are invaluable!

5. Write the fucker and hand it in

This was advice given to me by a previous PhD student after a particularly drawn out period of writing his thesis. It can be easy to get distracted or come up against writer’s block, and there’s almost always something more interesting you could be doing. But the important thing is to keep plugging away at it. On more the one occaision when my attention has drifted, I’ve found myself repeating this mantra to encourage me back to work.