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How to Write Your Thesis Right

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting
How to Write Your Thesis Right

After years of hard work in the lab, having to sit down and write everything up can be a daunting and difficult task. Here are a few tips that I picked up during my thesis write-up that might help to make the process that little bit easier.

Back up

This is probably the advice most often given to PhD students, and with good reason. Many things can go wrong when you’re writing up, and even when you are just putting reports or figures together. You don’t want to lose all the hard work you have done in one instant of stupidity.

To back my files up I have an external hard drive that I use in combination with a great bit of software called DeltaCopy. This freeware (yes, it’s free!) allows you to backup your important files and folders with a few simple clicks. For more information on how to use DeltaCopy (it’s pretty simple to use though) and to get it for yourself, click here. DeltaCopy is only available for Windows, but for Linux and Mac you can use the original software, Rsync.

In addition to my external hard drive backup, I also like to backup to the internet. It’s good to have a backup that is kept in a different location to your computer, just in case. I have an account with and try and keep it updated regularly with all my figures and thesis chapters. It isn’t really for backing up everything, but it is good for backing up those very important files (like your thesis).

Start early

I don’t mean get up at 5 am to start writing (but if it works for you, go for it). You want to start writing BEFORE you leave the lab. I took this advice and wrote up my materials and methods section while I was still at the bench and was so grateful when it came to the final write-up.

Materials and methods take surprisingly long to write, with a lot of that time spent searching for the protocol you used, or trying to find out where you get your antibodies and reagents from. Being in the lab when you write this section means you can quickly go and check the freezer for the catalogue number of that antibody or find out what rotor you use for the tissue culture centrifuge.

I simply spent a hour a night doing this section and found that within a couple of months it was done. Another benefit to writing this section in small chunks is that you won’t get too bored or frustrated, as this is really not a fun section to write.

I also got a bit of start on my introduction, and If you’ve been a good student and kept up with the literature, then writing your introduction as you read is a great way not to forget it all. I wish I had spent more time reading and writing my intro as I went along, as this was the most difficult and time-consuming chapter to write. That said, the intro was also probably my favourite chapter to do, especially drawing all the diagrams.

Draw your own diagrams

I know that the figure from that review is perfect…why waste time drawing it again yourself when you could simply copy and paste it, right? Well don’t, because it looks, and is, incredibly lazy. Drawing your own diagrams shows that you have understood the topic well enough to describe it in a diagram. If you do find a diagram that shows exactly what you want, just recreate it with your own spin – but don’t forget to cite the paper that you adapted the figure from. Personally, I found diagram drawing to be the highlight of my thesis write-up, and used it as a treat for a hard day’s work.

But please, don’t use PowerPoint. There are so many graphics programs out there that you can use to create much better diagrams and drawings than PowerPoint. My favourite is the freeware Inkscape. It may take a bit of practice and play to get it all figured out, but the great thing about Inkscape is that there are hundreds of free tutorials online that will show you how to do almost anything. I found out how to do everything I needed by simply googling it. For more information on making figures, check out previous articles here and here.

Be strict

When it comes to the actual writing, it is easy to lose motivation, especially if you decide to write at home (like me). To overcome this, you need to keep yourself in a routine and be strict. I still got up at the same time I did every day, had the same morning routine and then started work at the same time I would normally leave the house. To keep yourself on track, you need to have a plan of what you intend to do each day. I would not let myself finish until everything on my list was complete, which was a bit of a struggle, as I often found myself battling with my inner child.

One of my best tips is to just sit down and start, because once you’ve gotten into it, the momentum will keep you going. To make it easy to get started quickly each day, I would start the next day’s work at the end of the previous day – by just writing the first sentence or two of that next section, or finding a few papers that needed to be read and putting them out so they’d be ready for the next day.

Get someone to read it

Your supervisor will obviously need to read your thesis, but I found that I got the best corrections, tips, and advice from the senior post-doc in the lab. She had been my mentor during my PhD and knew my project as well as my supervisor, and was able to point out mistakes that my PI would have surely missed (like when I put down the wrong concentration of my nucleotide mix!). Plus, getting someone else to read it in addition to your supervisor will mean an extra set of eyes reviewing your work, and a greater chance that all your mistakes will be discovered.

Be a smart procrastinator

When you find yourself fighting with your inner child about doing a particular task or section, don’t procrastinate by browsing the internet or watching television, just move onto a different topic.  When I found myself getting bored and fidgety writing my introduction, I would move on to something else, such as checking my references for typos, writing my list of abbreviations or just start a different topic. This meant that I was always doing something towards my thesis, and tasks that I didn’t want to do one day often became more appealing on other days.

Walk away

There were days, normally after completing a chapter, when I would spend hours reading my work and thinking it’s not right but I don’t know how to make it better. In those instances you need to just get away from it. Go for a walk, do some cleaning or get some exercise. You’ll be amazed at how a little distraction will help you order your thoughts and see your work in a new light. Just don’t get too distracted.

Size doesn’t matter

Don’t get bogged down worrying that your thesis is 10 pages shorter than that of the last PhD student in your lab. Your supervisor should let you know if you don’t have enough data to submit, and everyone’s thesis is unique. Writing more won’t necessarily help your thesis. Concise and to the point is much more appealing than pages of waffle.

These are just tips from my personal experience of writing a thesis. What are your tips for thesis writing?


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