Come on, let’s write a PhD thesis!

writingup_klein(My photo)


So, I’m in the writing-up phase of my thesis. What does this mean? To me, quite a lot, and here’s a bit advice on what works (and has worked on other occasions) to get on with it. Of course, this advice does not apply to everyone, but I guess there could be a few pointers in here for some people. Also, it’s not rocket science – or is it? There’s noone who has found the formula to writing as of yet. Quite on the contrary, there are many, many guides on writing out there, and more than once I rolled my eyes at things that would never apply to my personal working style. So, here’s what works for me to get my words on paper:

Open your eyes to the facts

… and make plans and outlines. I know that this a very top-down approach to writing, with content being actively controlled from a structured point of view, but let me explain. I always need to know where I stand, and I find that keeping my eyes closed to the facts never helps in any way. So, from time to time, I like to take stock of my own work and put everything in a straight outline, or as you might have it, a “storyline”. This storyline, of course, needs to correspond with my research question which guides the plot of the article or thesis chapter. I like to work with the contents table feature in Microsoft Word because it gives me a quick overview of how the argument flows, but other methods will work just as well. It might (and probably will) take a few tries to get the story right, and of course, it might change in details during the course of writing. But all in all, it makes sure I keep on track while filling the space under the headings. In the end, these outlines benefit my writing in a great way, and sometimes it feels just like I only have to fill the blanks. Also, and as an added perk, my supervisors like these outlines since they give them a quick and dense overview over my work, too.

Write regularly

Putting off writing is never helpful, and thus… I make a plan. You might’ve already guessed it, I’m a big fan of plans and to-do lists. So, I make plans for my chapters or sections, setting out how many words or pages I want to get down in print in one day. The next step is not only setting these goals, but also assigning certain routines to them – like writing every day in the afternoon, whatever works best. It doesn’t matter when I write, I just does that I do it regularly in order to develop a habit. This is hard at first since I’m not used to this new chunk of writing in my timetable, but after a few days it’s already a given in my day. I found this worked perfectly with coding data – I had to code a whole lot, and putting it off, sadly, did not diminish the work. So I decided to code a certain amount every day, and after a very hard first week, I knew how long it would take me approximately per piece and I had the routine down. Routine – that’s the term here. Write regularly to get into a habit, and the piece of writing will grow every day.

Always keep in mind: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

However, be reasonable with the goals. Writing is hard work, and I can’t cram 5.000 words in a single day, at least not as a set task. No, I kept myself at a minimum of 1.500 words a day, and even though this isn’t that much, the thesis grows every day, step by step. Every day that’s pencilled in my calendar, that is – and these are only five days a week, and not more. Why? I made the experience during coding that working every day of the week with a high goal is not healthy, especially if you are bound to fail when it comes to keeping it. Life often comes in the way – either with bad things like illness, and even common colds keep you off work, or good things like meeting with friends or days out which everyone needs every once in a while. So, while I got on with my work with these seven days a week goals and did not lose much time, it was exhausting and took most of the fun out of my work. And fun, that’s what a marathon has to be in order to get to the finish line! Reasonable goals are everything, and a habit still develops even when not sitting on your desk 24/7.

All in all, these are the things that keep me going: good planning and structuring, writing regularly as well as setting reasonable goals. However, I would advice everyone to try out for themselves what works best. Just because I am a “list-everything person”, not everyone is. By the way, there’s some literature out there that can help a great deal – in fact, I would like to recommend Joan Bolker’s “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” (1998). Even though it is quite old, discussing whether one should use a computer for the thesis or not, Joan Bolker’s advice on writing as well as just getting on with it is still very valuable. Even though the ‘fifteen minutes a day’ is not really what happens after reading this book, one can take away lot while being guided through the book by Joan Bolker in a reassuring voice. Of course, there is a lot more out there, but since this book is tailored specifically for PhD students, it is worth a look. After all, learning by doing is always best in this case.

P.S. Also, when everything fails, I just sit down and watch an episode or two of ABC’s Castle. Richard Castle, the crime novelist, always creates the best storylines out of seemingly unsolvable murder cases at hand, and when I get up and back to work, I’m always excited to get my own loose “storylines” in order. So, this is recreation time well spent.