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7 Mantras for Pain-free Thesis Writing

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting

You’ve spent a few years optimising your experiments and gathering data, and with good planning “The easier way to write a PhD thesis” it’s all come together and you’re ready to start writing it up. This is the last big challenge in getting your PhD finished, but it’s the part which can feel the most taxing. Fortunately, it can be made a whole lot easier by following these mantras, which I have gathered from various gurus I have known…

  1. Begin With The End In Mind.  The thought of taking all the data you’ve accumulated and threading it together as a coherent story can be daunting.  If all went well in your research, you most likely have a clear idea of how you want the thesis to look.  More often, your thesis is the amalgamation of projects picked up along the way and you may have a more difficult time weaving the thread of your story together.  Either way, the best place to start is to spend a week drawing up a clear outline of each chapter, where your data will go, how you will introduce it and what you want to tell the readers about.  Looking over this with your advisor will give both of you a view of what your thesis will look like and you will get some useful input at the early stages.
  2. Read! Read! Read!  Technical writing can seem intimidating, particularly if English isn’t your first language.  The best way to get a sense of how to write well is to read good (and bad) writing.  Read as many articles and reviews as you can to see how ideas are expressed.  An added bonus is that you’ll be reading for your literature review so you’ll be able to blow them away.  Of course, don’t just stick to research papers, science and popular science sites are good places to find examples of writing.
  3. Keep it simple.  Good technical writing conveys a message in a clear and concise way.  One of the biggest mistakes to make is to try to impress by using convoluted phrases, longwinded sentences and big words. Complicated ideas can be put forward in very simple ways.  Remember, your reviewers probably won’t have the time or patience to wrestle through volumes of waffle.
  4. Bum on seat.  This is my writer friend’s mantra.  The enemy of any writer is procrastination and the best way to overcome that is just to start.  Find a comfortable, quite place to work and begin.  I found the best was to have a timer set for 40 minute intervals.  The first 10-15 minutes dragged, but I became so immersed in writing, the beep of the timer was always a surprise.   Whenever it seems so overwhelming you just want to stop, just keep at it, and keep writing.
  5. It’s easier to steer a moving ship.  A wonderful mantra I picked up from a fellow thesis writer.  One of the hardest things I found in writing my thesis was to keep up the momentum and not get bogged down fine-tuning a sentence trying to get it perfect.  The best moments were when I ploughed through sections getting a feel for the main points.  The fine-tuning comes later; the main thing is to get it written down.
  6. When it All Seems Too Much, Get Some Support  Writing a thesis is hard, you’ll have days when you just can’t anymore and it all seems impossible. And that’s when you need help.  When you need some time out to take a walk or visit a friend.  You also aren’t the first or last person to be attempting to write a PhD, your advisor or postdocs in your lab or department have been through this and can help.  I was very lucky to have a few fellow students who were writing up at the same time as me to form a loose support group.  And finally, find people to read your thesis for you.   Your advisor is a busy person and may not have time to read every draft of every chapter.  Get those early drafts out to someone whose advice you trust and get help.
  7. One chapter is done, the editing begins.  The mark of good writing is good editing. Read and re-read what you’ve written, this is where you get to fine-tune your work. Once it’s in a reasonable form, give it to someone to read, make sure to tell them to give you an overview of their thoughts on the chapter, not to spend too much time re-writing it for you. Depending on your level of writing, you may have to repeat this a few times – remember to treat your readers well (chocolates are always well received). Then it’s ready for your advisor, a final edit and submission!



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