Have you started writing yet?

Have you started writing yet?

is a question I get asked (what feels like) often. Normally, it is a follow-up to

What year are you in [of your PhD]?


Inwardly, my response is not dissimilar to that of Mike in this PhD comic:

On the advice of several people, including one from this parish, at around the two-year mark I put together the outline of my thesis in LaTeX. Once you take into account the title page and space for each of the tables of contents, figures and tables, and a list of appendices, you already have at least half-a-dozen pages. Then at least one page marking the place for each of the chapters, a list of acronyms, a bibliography, and appendices takes your page count to twenty or more before you have done any writing proper. I was congratulated:

Wow, Erika, you have started writing your thesis!

But to say I have a way to go is an understatement.

To put meat on these bare thesis-bones, I have the material from my upgrade report that will give me the basis of my introductory and background chapters. My first paper will form the first research chapter, and the remaining chapters will comprise my subsequent work. With this material in hand, I am not putting pen to completely blank paper. Nonetheless there are numerous gaps to be filled in what I have already written. Results that did not make it into published work will have a place in the thesis, and some additional experiments will link the chapters together.

I devoured was inspired by Cath’s account of how she wrote her thesis from scratch in a mere three months (hats off to Cath!). Richard took a similar approach. I digested Athene’s post on the topic from the point of view of someone who has both written (one) and read (several) theses. Advice on thesis-writing can be found on the websites of universities, other organisations, and individuals. The Thesis Whisperer has some helpful tips, and some inspiring posts.

I was glad I had taken Sylvia’s advice when my supervisor requested I bring an outline of my thesis in bullet point form to our next meeting. I was able to return to my skeleton thesis and start adding headings and subheadings to each chapter, with notes where the figures and tables will go. The table of contents now forms a bullet-point outline. This has the effect of breaking the writing task down into sections and sub-sections. I can see where what I have written already is going to fit in, and which gaps I still need to fill.

Now (or soon) is the time to start filling in those gaps. A fellow PhD student and I have discussed the idea of having a `writing day’, devoting one day a week soley to making progress on the thesis. I like the idea of a writing partner, as described in the first vignette on this page. I have seen others using the #shutupandwrite hashtag (HT the aforementioned Thesis Whisperer) or the Pomodoro technique to keep on-task. As you can see, I have a collection of useful tips already in mind. Do you have any more to add?

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18 Responses to Have you started writing yet?

  1. Ann Fenech says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much! You seem to have done quite a bit, with an outline, an upgrade report and at least one paper by now. I started writing my PhD in May last year while still having to do all the analysis (and most of the data collection) of the last two chapters (though prep-work for that was all done), and I submitted in August. As Cath said, 3 months should be enough. What I would suggest is that if you have any downtime or not up to doing other work start filling in some stuff under the headings and subheadings so that you don’t start with a blank space when coming to the writing up. With my supervisor I gave myself a deadline of a chapter every 2 weeks during those months, but I always made sure that I had the next weeks’ chapter started in some form in the previous 2 weeks.

    Good luck with submission. Seems like you’re doing the right things though already!

    • Erika Cule says:

      Thanks Ann. That is a good advice about downtime, for example whilst waiting for experiments to run. I am going to speak with my supervisor about making some intermediate deadlines. I feel some externally imposed mutually agreed deadlines would help me to reach smaller goals along the way.

      It is reassuring to be advised not to worry, but the question at the top of this blog post is a repeated reminder of the need to get started!

      • Ann Fenech says:

        Intermediate deadlines are helpful, especially if like me you hate sending things off even if finalised ‘just in case’.

        Some other advice I would give you is to check your calendar against your supervisor’s for the last few weeks…are there any times when you or them won’t be available? In the last month my supervisor had loads of conferences and his holiday and I had my brother’s wedding. This meant a lot of deadlines to make sure I gave him work before I was off or before he was off, and vice versa for him returning work to me. This still meant that the Saturday night before submission I ended up meeting him off the Picadilly Line from Heathrow to get the precious last corrections, which had to be finished by Monday – at that point I hadn’t seen him for around 3 weeks, which was very abnormal for us, and not very good timing.

        • Erika Cule says:

          Wow! Sounds like your supervisor was very supportive. Thanks for another practical pointer, and a good tip to keep in mind.

  2. Pingback: PhD: What Worked and What Didn’t « My Path Through Research

  3. Samuel Furse says:

    Funnily enough I was going to write a piece about this after I finished mine, but I haven’t yet. Over a year after my viva, I am not sure it yet feels as though it is over…
    What I would say is that the task is a mammoth one — likened, as it happens, to eating an elephant. I think the analogy is oddly true — there is as much to do as there are ways in which to do it. But, however large the task, you do have to pick one. For example, mine was interdisciplinary, including organic chemistry, physical chemistry and enzymology: this meant three experimentals, three sets of results (that needed to converge) and three parts to the introduction. I think the start you describe sounds very sensible, though I would say that taking one day a week for writing may not be a long-term solution. Although it may be good for a while, in order to finish it in the time available (I did a short post-doc in the middle of my writing up, which didn’t help…) and to be able to keep the momentum going when you get the idea etc for a section is to write for longer periods. This requires a sort of writing stamina that I found hard to develop and sustain unless I was writing all the time. So, perhaps try writing for a whole week, then take yourself back into the lab for a week, and then back to the writing.
    Having said that, some days will be better than others. A dangerous point will be after you have made some progress and have some of the stamina built up. At that point, I found, it’s easy to write too much in a day, which then makes it harder to write the next day. Having said that, there will be days when it just doesn’t work either way, and the best thing is to do other things and let it simmer in the back of your mind for a bit. When the stamina is built up and you have pace in your out put (this happened very clearly by the time I reached the beginning of about the second half of my writing up), you’ll be able to finish a day’s work at just the right moment and pick it up exactly where you left off, when you start again the next day.
    When you come to draft individual chapters, my suggestion is to start with the experimental chapters first. This will help you fill in experimental gaps as they will be glaring (if they are there). Then, I would do the introduction(s), i.e. the literature review. This will give you further ideas about what you need to fill in, if anything. Then, you can write the discussion. I did it this way round for my PhD, though didn’t for my MRes or MSci and am convinced that this was the most productive way of doing it I think: by the time you come to do the discussion, you have been thinking about your results and the background to the project for so long, that the narrative of your work flows out a lot better. This is also the bit that the examiners are typically the most interested in and so if it is readable, that is good.
    For most people writing up is [should be] painful for some or most or all of the process. This probably seems mean to say it, but I benefitted enormously from the process being that way. My relationship with the English language is quite different, and a lot better than it was before. I now have (just) enough discipline to write a professional weekly blog about lipids, though it doesn’t stop from me writing crap sometimes about other stuff, sadly. However in order to achieve this I needed to worry about it and work and re-work bits. I did for a time think the PhD might vanish altogether before my eyes, I even wrote a facebook note about it — called “Auf Wiedersein, PhD” (http://www.facebook.com/​note.php?note_id=3930404347​39 ) which I dare not read again as it is probably rather nauseating to my ear now.
    Nevertheless, I wish you the very best of luck and want to hear about how it goes 🙂

  4. cromercrox says:

    It’s essential that you write your thesis badly. Use long, unintelligible sentences (full of parenthetic, relative clauses); ensure that you use elaborate, Latinate expressions when there are perfectly plain, Anglo-Saxon alternatives; make a point of congesting your prose with technical data that would really do better in a table – all in all, used a tactical nuclear missile when a pea-shooter would have done perfectly well. Isaac Asimov, who had paid his way through college by writing and selling SF stories to pulp magazines, recalled that by the time he came to writing up his thesis, he was worried that he’d spent so many years learning how to write well that he wouldn’t be able to write badly enough to satisfy a doctoral committee.

    • hahahaha! too funny, cromercrox.

      oddly, that was the number one complaint about my writing when i was in grad school: “you write too well.”

      of course, i was too stupid to realise this was an insult, and instead took a perverse pride in my writing, refusing to become a better bad writer (“badder writer”?). the same accusation was said during my postdoc, until i ended up unemployed (and unemployable). of course now, i am not a good enough writer to “make it” as a writer of books and other delights, whilst my writing is “too good” to be allowed to write scientific papers. so now, i revel in mediocrity whilst working out sudoku puzzles and playing video games.

    • Eva says:

      …and then, to practice his bad-writing skills, Asimov wrote “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”
      (I have it somewhere on my hard drive after a friend scanned it for me when I wrote my own thesis.)

  5. I don’t buy any of this stuff about “intermediate deadlines” and Pomodoro techniques. The most effective way to write a thesis is to leave the lab and not return to it. Cold turkey, no experiments. Sit down with your word processor and don’t stop until you’re done. Honestly, writing a thesis is hardly a marathon, or an ordeal. It’s just writing, and for that matter, writing down stuff you know already.

    Biggest mistake you can make: start a new job before finishing the thesis. I’ve known several people who’ve done this, and it’s always a disaster. Second biggest mistake: writing “one day a week” or “while I’m just polishing off this last experiment or two”. Get the experiments done first, then concentrate solely on writing.

    I’m with Cath too (I suspect I commented as much on her post). Three months ought to be enough for anybody (note that mine took more like five, but I was dawdling).

    Last piece of sage wisdom – don’t write the introduction/literature review early, because as you know science moves so stupidly fast that if you do it first, when your thesis is “finished” three (or however many) months later, it’ll be out of date. Do it last, and be sure to brush up on new papers while waiting for your defense/viva. Favourite trick of examiners, try to trip up the candidate with a paper that came out last week.

    I’m sure you’ll be fine. Good luck, and enjoy not having to pipette anything for a while. And if all that advice seems belligerent and harsh, remember your uncle Richard has your best interests at heart. As my father once said to me: the point of graduate school is to get out of it as quickly as possible. 😉

    • Nico says:

      “Biggest mistake you can make: start a new job before finishing the thesis”: although I understand where that comes from, I had to pay rent and the bills, so not having a job wasn’t an option. Plus, if a good opportunity comes up, shouldn’t you take it, especially in these economically strained time?
      So I’d say “don’t make the same mistake as me and take longer than your grant lasts to write up”! Easier said than done, I know. Having a 9 to 5 job to do, plus long commute, then coming home to write my thesis in the evenings and week-ends was definitely a low point in my life. I was so much on autopilot (read, “exhausted”) that the day after I submitted my thesis I came back from work and automatically fired up the laptop and Word, and stared at it for 5 minutes before I figured out I didn’t have to write anything that time!

    • Erika Cule says:

      I don’t find your suggestions belligerent, but I think some students might find it harsh to be told that

      writing a thesis is hardly a marathon, or an ordeal. It’s just writing, and for that matter, writing down stuff you know already.

      We were given the advice about stopping doing experiments when we were doing MSc projects which were so much shorter and seemed to need “one last experiment”. Your advice about stepping away from the lab requires a degree of self-control, though, when all of your experiments, as well as your thesis-writing, take place on the same computer. (I am not wet-lab based.)

      On not taking a job before you have submitted, as Nico says, this is not always practical. It is again advice I have heard from a number of people (often, like Nico, in the context of “do as I say, not as I did!”) and is something I plan to avoid if I can.

      • Re: not taking a job – fair enough, and I suppose that I am also thinking from the North American perspective. I believe it’s more common in the U.K. and some other countries to have a hard stop to funding support at the end of a defined term, which would of course make finding a new position more critical. I guess that’s pretty much what Nico said.

        I guess my argument is based on this: if someone is serious about completing a PhD, then they need to be serious about writing a thesis. It doesn’t seem to me that it takes an extraordinary effort of will to get the thing done, but perhaps my recollection has been softened by the intervening years.

        It’s also good training for writing grants, where the literature review may be even larger than for a PhD thesis, and the amount of information to be presented is much denser.

        I’ll stand by my earlier statement though: seriously, if the student did, or collaborated closely on, all the experimental work, the thesis outline ought to pretty much write itself. Filling in the content may be tedious, potentially boring, and time-consuming, but it really isn’t an extraordinarily awful ordeal. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway.

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          “I don’t buy any of this stuff about “intermediate deadlines” and Pomodoro techniques. The most effective way to write a thesis is to leave the lab and not return to it. Cold turkey, no experiments. Sit down with your word processor and don’t stop until you’re done.”

          Preferably uphill both ways, in the snow, right? 😉

          Making an outline is a fantastic start. I didn’t do that for my thesis, but have used the technique many times since – so much easier than trying to start on a completely blank page!

          Best of luck, and remember that everyone works differently – what works for others will not necessarily work for you, and vice versa. Don’t be afraid to keep changing this up – different schedules, different locations, whatever – until you find what works best for you.

          • I’m certainly not against making an outline! By the time you get to writing a thesis, the outline should be obvious, and, yes, it needs to be written down.

            More sage wisdom, told me by a senior-ish graduate student when I was a junior-ish one: make the figures and tables first. Then you know what the story is and where it has to get to, and you can hang the text around them.

    • samuel Furse says:

      I’d be a bit wary about generalising on the time taken to write up. In my experience, theses vary in length by as much as a factor of 3, which is one reason for a variety. This may not be down to bad writing, either: some are necessarily short, others large (mine was getting on for 450 pages — interdisciplinary across three disciplines so 3 experimentals blah blah). Also, if you do what you can in a given time and hand it in and the examiners donm’t like it, you are just addimg to your corrections time :-/

  6. samuel Furse says:

    Would ‘how is the writing going?’ be a better question?

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