June 19, 2017


Top Tips on writing your thesis

Hi all! I am posting today on behalf of Carmen Soto, yooung investigator from UK.

There are many ways of writing your thesis, depending on the subject matter, the regulations of your institution, and your own writing style (and that of your supervisors). So I’m not going to talk about the fine detail of sentence structure and whether you use active or passive voice. The two (very brief) points I will make are:

  1. Please check the regulations and conventions of your discipline and institution before you start writing; make sure that nothing’s changed half-way through; and check again before you start your final draft. (There are likely to be rules about referencing; word-limit; formatting; and sometimes structure. There is nothing more frustrating than realising that there’s been a tiny regulation change just before – or after – you’ve submitted)
  2. Be consistent. If you’re going to use active or passive voice, then use it throughout. Make sure your tenses are consistent, that your tables are labelled in the same bold or italic font throughout, and that your headings are consistent. Use your University’s IT/library department to make sure you understand how to use Word (or the equivalent) for headings etc. Try not to swap between different software or versions (I once wrote a lovely, well-referenced, properly formatted semi-chapter in Pages then opened it in Word… it did not go well)

Broadly, writing your thesis is combination of writing the text and then organising it into something that makes sense and is enjoyable to read. Although I’ll talk about these separately, the two processes are intertwined.

“Just write”

My supervisors said this to me constantly throughout my first year. It’s probably the most useful thing they said to me, and the thing that took the longest for me to appreciate!

When you start your PhD, writing the thesis seems like an enormous, and very distant task.  It’s one that I put off for a very long time because:

  1. The thesis seemed like an impossible mission that was only accomplished by incredibly clever, knowledgeable and hard-working people. I was not that kind of person, therefore I was not going to be able to write a thesis.
  2. Even if I could write a thesis, this was something that I would only achieve when I knew more about my subject and had become an expert. Clearly, in year 1 (or 2, or 3, or 4…) I was not an expert, therefore there was no point to me writing.
  3. Because the point of the thesis is to demonstrate this expertise, it had to be perfect. I knew I wasn’t producing wonderful work, therefore I couldn’t write it. Because it wasn’t going to be the final, wonderful, perfect thesis.

Eventually, I realised that:

  1. A thesis is achievable and somebody else (supervisors, funders) think I can do it – so I’d best get on with it
  2. I’m never going to know everything about my subject – but I can write what I do know and build on it over time
  3. There is no such thing as the perfect thesis – but I can improve on what I’ve written as time goes on

What do I write?

Write everything. I mean this completely seriously. Write down your search strategy and literature search and how you cannot find anything relevant after trawling through thousands of abstracts. Write your struggles with ethics forms and governance processes. Write about the training courses you’ve gone on and discussions at conferences. Write it all down.

Not only does this make you feel that you’ve accomplished something (!) but by writing, you accomplish two very important tasks:

First, you provide an accurate record of what’s happened during your PhD years. Instead of just recording the successes, you also have a record of what didn’t work and why you’ve chosen a particular approach. Remember that part of the purpose of the thesis is to demonstrate that you are an independent researcher – so justifying why you’ve chosen a particular course of action is important, particularly if you’ve had to change from your original plan.

Second, the process of writing itself helps you clarify your thoughts and build arguments. They don’t have to be perfect or completely coherent at this stage (see points 3/c above) – but these thought processes influence how you move forward with your work.



 “Broadly, writing your thesis is combination of writing the text and then organising it into something that makes sense and is enjoyable to read.”

Making sense of it all

What do you do with this text now that it’s written? You should have started with a general idea of how the thesis should look – but be prepared for this to change. What you think is your final draft is not your final draft, and the thesis you thought you were writing almost inevitably becomes something different.

Partly, this is because of the issues discussed above. As time goes on, you learn and understand more about your subject are and your understanding of what makes a “novel contribution to the field” will also develop. You’ll develop new thoughts and ideas as you write. Inevitably, this means that some of the work that you’ve written will not be relevant to your final thesis.

Letting go

One of the very hard things about writing the thesis is learning when to let go. Some ideas and theories that you’ve come up with over the years may be valid and really interesting pieces of work… but they won’t all fit with the thesis as a whole. The thesis has to tell a story that the examiners can follow, while demonstrating your skills as an independent researcher, and show a novel contribution to the field… all while fitting into the word limit.

Some things are going to have to be left out in order to make your thesis coherent. This doesn’t mean they’re gone forever – these sections may make really good papers (so don’t delete them!) – but they don’t fit with your thesis. I found that removing sections from my thesis was quite an emotional process, especially when they were aspects that I cared passionately about. Some of these topics came up in my viva though – so they were still part of the thesis in that sense!

Editing and fine-tuning

Once you’ve established what you’re going to say (i.e. have written the 80,000 words plus) and how you’re going to say it (i.e. have pulled together your coherent-ish narrative), it’s time to edit and proof-read and fine-tune your final (ok, maybe final) draft. This is the part that I found most enjoyable – mainly because I decided early on that I needed to change location and environment in order to be able to “see” my thesis clearly again.

After working on the same piece of work for several years, it’s hard to see clearly the typos and errors that have crept in. You may have re-read the same sentence at least once a month for the past 4 or 5 years – it’s very difficult to suddenly spot a rogue comma or punctuation mark. You might not realise that a sentence which made perfect sense to you six months previously is now completely incomprehensible. It’s particularly a problem, I found, if in the process of finding a cohesive narrative, you’ve done a lot of moving around of text.

So, how can you address this?

First – get some help! Farm out chapters to willing victims to proofread and sense-check. Repay them in cake, coffee, knitted scarves, or the offer of proof-reading their work in exchange. Listen to their comments.

Second – move! I find it incredibly difficult to really “see” text if I’m constantly in the same environment. Move desks. Get a coffee. Find a park bench. Be somewhere away from where you wrote the text. (There’s probably a good reason for this, but I don’t know what it is)

Third – mix it up! Read your thesis in a different order. Start in the middle of a chapter or section. You’ll read it and see it differently.

Fourth – appreciate why you’re reading it, and read it differently. Don’t try and proof-read for typos and grammatical errors at the same time as sense-checking. The way you read will be different. If you’re checking for typos then you want to go through each line of text carefully. If you’re sense-checking, you’ll want to get a broader view of the section as a whole rather than concentrating on the fine detail.

None of this is possible without the first part though – just write!

Good luck!

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