10 Tips For Writing Your Thesis*
*or any other preposterously long document
It’s almost been exactly one year since I had my viva (thesis defence) and earned my doctorate. Three years of hard work needed to be condensed, made sense of, and weaved into some kind of coherent dialogue to be presented to – and sometimes torn apart by – senior researchers and professors.
Writing a thesis isn’t easy. In the UK, there is no minimum word count but the maximum tends to be around 80,000 words – which gives an idea of the size that these things can get to (although typically the average word count for a scientific thesis is about half of that). So it’s no easy feat. But, it can be done! And it can be done without too much stress, too many tears or total social isolation.
For this post, I have decided to share my top 10 tips for writing a thesis, which have come directly from my experience of ‘writing up’ last summer – including both my successes and the power of hindsight following my failures. I hope you find them helpful!
- DON’T PANIC!!!
When you first start your PhD, the idea of writing a thesis may be utterly terrifying and completely alien to you. There will likely be a whole stack of them around the lab from students-past filled with nonsensical scientific language, endless experiments, graphs and figures. And all those references!!
‘How the hell will I ever write one of those?’ A book! A whole freakin’ book!?!’
Before you panic or pretend that it isn’t happening until a few months before your submission deadline, remind yourself – it isn’t that bad. First of all, yes it’s an entire book. But, the requirements for submission usually ask for at least size 12 typeface, double spacing, one sided printing and massive margins to allow for neat binding and easy reading. So all of a sudden one page of typed text actually becomes three. Now imagine all those massive books only one third of their size, and it all becomes a bit more manageable.
I also mentioned the word count – but don’t worry about it. It shouldn’t be a concern. Unlike pizza and doughnuts, bigger does not mean better. My behemoth of a thesis was 73,500 words and was BIG. Much bigger than those submitted by my peers, and it came under waves of criticism before even being opened and read. As it was, my examiners agreed its size was justified *phew*, however no one is going to be impressed just because you’ve written more. They will just be annoyed that they have to read it and carry it around. It’s also likely that in a massive thesis, the writing hasn’t been done concisely – therefore making it particularly unenjoyable to read and detracting from all your marvellous work.
- START EARLY
It’s easy to think in your first year that a 3-4 year deadline is far enough away to ignore for a couple of years. And actually yeah, it is. A thesis can be written in a few months if given your solid attention. But I don’t recommend it, and when you can lay the groundwork with relatively little effort early on, why not reduce the load (and stress and panic) later? Try to get in to the habit of making a final figure or graph or image whenever you finish any individual experiment, and collate these figures into a single, easy to find document. I found when writing up, what took up most of my time was fishing out the old data I knew I had somewhere, then making it look respectable and presentable rather than being a half-arsed unlabelled multi-coloured graph lounging at the bottom of a spreadsheet. It’s also easy to get started early on your methods section – whenever you do a new experiment or use a new technique, just type all the details out including where all your equipment and reagents were from. It takes practically no brain power and will save you digging through multiple lab books and a frenzied dash around the lab finding out where you purchased everything. If you can keep up to date with doing these things, then you will save so much time when you come to actually write up your work.
- WRITE YOUR RESULTS FIRST
Your results are the easy bit, and a huge bulk of your thesis. I recommend writing them first because – like the methods – they take less brain power or effort to write. Of course you need to put some thought into how you are going to present and order your results, but the actual paragraphs are just describing what you did and then what happened – the more-difficult-to-write reasons why you did it and what it means are reserved for the introduction and discussion sections. If you have an empty page and just need to get something started but your mind is blank or overwhelmed – start with the results. Formally writing out everything you’ve done might also give you a fresh perspective on your work and help you form a good discussion section. Once you’ve got something on the page, it’s much easier to do the rest.
- BREAK IT DOWN
This is a particularly useful thing to do for the text-heavy introduction and discussion chapters, but is also beneficial for planning out every single part of your thesis. I mean this as a way of breaking down large sections of text into smaller, more manageable chunks. For example, the introduction chapter can be the most daunting – this is where you need to summarise an entire field of research relevant to your PhD project and introduce the important themes. This was the last section that I wrote and I put it off for a long time. However, by planning in advance what I wanted to write about in each section, I could ignore the chapter as a whole and concentrate on a section of a few hundred words at a time. This doesn’t seem so bad! I completed a lot of writing without really noticing this way, then I could go back and link or re-order the sections as necessary.
- WORK WHERE YOU ARE COMFORTABLE
Everyone will prefer to write in different places – don’t let this influence where you do your writing. Many of my colleagues preferred to write in the office because that is their working environment and it put them in the right mind-set. Others prefer the silence that a library can provide. Personally, I found the office too loud and the library too quiet, and instead preferred to slump somewhere at home in elasticated trousers with CSI quietly on in the background. But that’s just what works for me. If other students are putting in 12 hour days in the office or pulling all-nighters at the library (madness!), don’t feel you have to do the same to ‘prove’ that you are working just as hard if that isn’t what works best for you. Equally, if everyone else is working from home but you need the office environment to concentrate, then don’t feel like a loser for going in to write.
- TAKE REGULAR BREAKS AND MAKE A TIMETABLE
I’m a sucker for a good plan. From GCSE exams up to revision for undergraduate final year exams and for writing my thesis, I have planned when I’m going to do which bits of work. This has several advantages. First of all, like many of my previous suggestions, it breaks the work down into more manageable chunks. For example, if you have planned out your paragraphs and sections, you can then put them into a timetable to plan when you will write which ones – maybe you will have time to tackle 5 sections a day over several weeks, or if you’ve left it late then maybe it will be 15 sections a day in a lot less time! Whatever the case, it gives you a goal to work towards. Another advantage of doing this is if planned well, you can avoid working those ridiculously long hours and all-nighters that we all hear horror stories about. And if free time is expected and planned, then you won’t feel guilty for not working! Bonus number 3! You can even extend this timetable to incorporate which hours of the day you work best – there’s no point strictly telling yourself you will work 9-5 if you never really get going until 11am. So have a lie in! Work from 11-7! Make better use of the hours where you work most efficiently. Advantage no.4 – making this timetable is an excellent little bit of procrastination before you really get going with writing.
Taking regular breaks is also important – you can treat them as little rewards for each section you complete, or as an opportunity to move around a bit or think about something else for a while. This will stop the work becoming too monotonous or tiring, and will actually mean you can concentrate better while you are writing. The length of working time between breaks and the length of break is up to you, but be sensible! If I was writing a section I found particularly difficult or boring, I would take a 5 minute break for roughly every 15 minutes of work – just by checking Facebook or something. If I was on a roll I just kept going until that roll unwound, then I would reward myself with some kind of cake. Or if I did really well, maybe I’d go change out of my pyjamas into proper clothes.
- NEVER UNDERESTIMATE FORMATTING & EDITING TIME
This, and my tip about starting early, are both born from wonderful hindsight. Formatting was the only thing that led me into the nightmarish realms of 3am thesis writing. Make your figures to the correct scale in the first instance – I wasted days re-jigging figures I made to the wrong scale that wouldn’t fit sensibly on an A4 page! But even if you do this right, fiddling about with the best placement of figures and text will take longer than you anticipate.
Check your university guidelines on thesis presentation before you start writing. You will need to consider the numbering of headings and subheadings, the preferred reference format (both in text and in the bibliography), page numbering, indexing, appendices… the list goes on. While it’s tempting to do all the writing then deal with these things at the end, on a document as large as a thesis, that can cost you a lot of time and sleep. Set those things up first, then be super smug when someone only bothers to read the guidelines the day before submission.
- USE A REFERENCE MANAGER
People still write without using a reference manager, and to me that seems insane. A reference manager stores the records of the manuscripts, papers and book chapters that you read, and works with word processors so that you can ‘insert’ the reference you need into your text, then it will automatically generate a bibliography from the inserted references. This means you don’t need to manually go through and check your references, then type them all out then re-order or re-number them whenever you make any edits. You really should use one. There are several different ones out there, and they tend to be free or have free versions. A reference manager will also give you the option of different formats to present your references in – it’s advisable you choose the one that matches with your university guidelines from the start because, although automated, trying to change the format of several hundred references in a few-tens-of-thousands of words document may put your computer out of action for a while.
- GET FRESH EYES
Either your own or someone else’s! After looking at the same bit of writing over and over again, you won’t see your mistakes. You will know what you mean and what you wanted to say, so your brain will ignore any spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. The only way to get around this is to do something else for a while then come back to it. When I say a while, I mean at least a day! Write something, do some edits on it, then leave it and work on another section. When you come back to reading the original section, it should be a bit less familiar and any mistakes a bit more obvious. Of course what’s even better is if you can get someone else to read it for you! It is particularly useful if you can get someone who doesn’t work on the same thing as you to read it – someone working on the same thing as you will have similar knowledge and make the same assumptions, so may not notice any errors because they ‘know what you mean.’ Someone unfamiliar will notice the bits that don’t make sense or that you haven’t fully explained. Bear in mind, it takes either great friendship or great coercion to get someone unrelated to your project to read any of your thesis.
- DON’T PANIC!!
A reiteration of my first point! But I am now referring to the end of the writing process rather than the beginning of a PhD. You will have made mistakes and there will be errors. While a thesis full of spelling mistakes and sloppy writing gives a bad impression, the occasional misspelt word is no cause for concern – so don’t worry if you spot a few after submission. The examiners know you’re human, and it’s entirely possible (and probable) they won’t notice many of these small mistakes anyway – and if they do they are just ‘minor corrections.’ I missed out my entire index of figures in my submitted version, but it’s not a sticking point in a viva! Stay relaxed while you’re writing, have a plan, and it’ll be fine. In the New Year, I’ll post some tips on how to survive the dreaded viva itself…!
Did you find any of these suggestions useful? Have you got any tips for writing a thesis? Let me know in the comments below!