Converting your thesis to a monograph

Back again! And I just remembered that I promised you guys I’d tell you about what I was planning to do for my Masters thesis once I got the details hashed out with my supervisor…so, here goes!

This what I’m doing, and what – so far – I’ve learned.

My thesis is actually going to be a practice-led project – a project/exegesis combination. Partly this is because the ‘practice’ part is valuable for me right now, and partly it’s because it’s new. I’ve already done a large research-centred project, and I don’t feel the need to repeat the experience. Instead, I’m transforming that old project: I’m taking my PhD thesis, revising it into monograph form and self-publishing it as an e-book, and linking that to a research project on how and why self-publishing hasn’t taken off in academia the way it has in trade fiction and non-fiction since the invention of functional e-books (think peer review and impact measures and you’re at least partway there).

What this means in practice is that I’ve spent the last few weeks refamiliarising myself with my thesis manuscript and working through the first stage of revising it.

This is the simple bit – the bit that all the web pages and publisher sites tell you about. Taking out the heavy-handed signposting, as many block quotes and integrated quotes as possible, and as much repetition as you can get away with losing. But there’s more to getting a monograph out of a thesis than that, and this is the phase I’m about to embark on.

It all comes back to reader-centric writing. A thesis, as I’ve said before, has an audience of about four – your thesis supervisors and your examiners. Possibly six, if your parents leaf through it too. It also has a specific set of academic training-hoops to jump through, to show that you’ve mastered the requirements of your discipline. A monograph, however, has a potential audience of your whole discipline, and a lot fewer hoops, but these are people without any commitment to read and engage like your examiners have. So when you come to revise your thesis for publication, it doesn’t just need to be tweaked here and there, and the thesis ‘stamps’ scrubbed off. It needs to be reconsidered down to the structural level to make sure those readers pick it up – and keep reading. Here are some questions to ask yourself, to help you get started:

  • What’s the heart of your thesis – the original contribution to knowledge, the one big thing that makes it worthwhile?
  • How can you make that the heart of your book? Do you need to restructure, rewrite, rethink?
  • Does the monograph really need a dedicated literature review? If it does, where should it go? If it doesn’t, what does it need instead?
  • Are there elements that are distractions? Can they be cut, or reshaped to suit your new argumentative line?
  • Do you need to do more research to bring the book up-to-date?

You’ll need to map out your entire thesis all over again and find the book in it. Be prepared for a lot of structural changes, and a lot of new writing, particularly in the introduction and conclusion.

The hardest bit is that if you’re doing this for formal, scholarly publication, you’ll need to do at least some of it first – before you even submit your proposal. You won’t have much editorial support and you won’t have huge amounts of time. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll have a looser timeframe, but even less support. And you really do have to think about the issue of peer review (yes, book publishers do peer review for scholarly texts right alongside journals, though it looks a little different). The academy uses peer review for quality control, but it also uses it for gatekeeping and to confer legitimacy, especially in the Arts and Humanities – despite the fact that it’s a flawed system. You’ll have to decide whether you want to engage with that system and present yourself as an independent scholar, or step outside of it and take the risk of your work being seen as illegitimate even if it makes your publication process easier.

You’ll also need to think about how you’re going to handle indexing (the answer will be different depending on whether you’re aiming for print or electronic self-publication), getting and giving quote and image use permissions, and which platforms you’ll use to publish and promote your work.

So, this project is going to be quite a ride! I’ll report back from time to time and let you know how it goes…

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The final step: working with a thesis editor

So here’s the secret that not enough people get told at the start of their PhD or Masters: when it comes to finalising your thesis, these days, you don’t have to do it all alone. There are plenty of editors out there—like me!—who will help you edit, proofread and polish the expression of your thesis so that the work you submit is as good as it can possible be.

However, there’s more to the process of working with a thesis editor than just handing over a manuscript. Last week I published a guest post over at DoctoralWritingSIG on how supervisors can help their students to work effectively with a professional thesis editor that goes through all the details—everything from timelining to assessing quotes to organising your acknowledgments. I’d definitely recommend you have a look at it at some point! But today, I’m going to keep it simple and just list the three big takeaway points for students who are thinking of working with an editor.

1.Plan ahead

Even these days, students often get the option of working with an editor thrown at them in the last stages of their thesis, when they’ve already got a million and one other things to think about and deadlines bearing down fast.

That’s not helpful. And worse, it often feels punitive—as if you’ve got this far and now you’re supervisor’s telling you that your writing’s not up to scratch. The truth is, though, that working with a thesis editor is supposed to be helpful. At this point, you know your manuscript so well that when you look at it you’re more likely to see what’s in your memory than what’s on the page, and let me tell you, that makes spotting tangled sentence structures and typos very difficult indeed*. A professional editor or proofreader is a pair of fresh eyes that can come in at the last moment and spot these issues, clear them up for you and take a job off your plate at a point where you’re already overburdened**.

So start thinking about it early. Research your university’s policies on use of editors, allowable methods of editing and ways of finding a good editor, and make a decision about whether or not you want to go down this path. The more work you do early on, the less stressed you’ll be in the final weeks of your thesis.

2.Write a brief

Editors are used to working to briefs—documents that list exactly what is expected of them for each job they do, and that also details what they are not expected to do. If you just send your editor your manuscript and a request to ‘please edit this’, they’ll be left trying to guess what you actually need done…and they may guess wrongly.

To avoid this happening, make sure that you write your editor a brief. All it needs to be is a short list spelling out what you want them to do, e.g. check for typographical errors and grammatical accuracy, minimise use of the passive voice, reduce unnecessary repetition, ensure all lists are in parallel structure, and ensure all captions are in the same format. The Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) in Australia  has some good online resources available on how to write an editor’s brief, and so does the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) in the UK.

3.Allow plenty of time

It’s dispiritingly common for editors to get emails from students who have a 70,000-word thesis manuscript that they need edited…before their submission deadline in five days’ time. And okay, a good editor who doesn’t have any other work on at the same time could probably turn the job around that fast. However, if you want a really good, thorough edit done over multiple passes, with as few errors missed as possible, it’s best to build a decent amount of time for editing into your submission plan.

A good rule to work by is this: you’ll need a month or so to request quotes, compare them and choose an editor to work with (this should happen before you hand in your Notice of Intention to Submit); then allow two to three weeks for a really good edit, and a week to read, assess and respond to their suggestions, and key in changes to your manuscript. Then you can send your manuscript for printing and binding.


Finally, I recommend spending some time at the IPEd website, or your local equivalent, to find out some more details on thesis editing in general. I’d also recommend looping your supervisor in on the process, and making sure you get a contract with your editor that outlines clearly what’s expected of both you and them. And a quick note about the cost of thesis editing: while editors are a notoriously underpaid and undervalued mob, we still tend to reduce our rates substantially for students. However, the cost of editing a 70,000-word thesis manuscript is still highly unlikely to be fully covered by the $840 thesis production allowance provided by most Australian universities. When you’re making a decision about whether to use an editor, you’ll need to take that into account as well. If your budget only stretches so far, consider getting a proofread rather than a copy-edit, as it will be cheaper..


*As the five-page list of them that one of my examiners submitted with her report on my thesis can attest.

**What they will not do, and what you should never ask them to do, is fix holes in your argument or structure. They can offer suggestions, but rewriting to make the content work (not the same as editing for expression) is your job and yours alone.

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The big job: revising your thesis manuscript

So, you’ve written your thesis! You have drafts of every chapter, your introduction, your conclusion, your abstract. Your bibliography is looking pretty. You’re done, right? Right?

…sorry. No. There’s more work to come, I’m afraid.

As we say around this neck of the woods, drafts are called drafts because they’ve got great big holes in them that the wind whistles through, and that’s as true for academic writing as it is for fiction. Before you can submit your manuscript, you need to spend some time revising it—taking out all the gaps and making sure every link in your argument holds together like chain-mail.

It’s a big job, made harder by the fact that it’s very difficult to try to hold a clear picture of three years’ work in your head all at once. For this reason, I recommend—not breaking it down into sections, for once, but getting it outside of your head. This will help you to spot problems, gaps and changes that need to be made. Then you can start work on a plan of attack.

1.Map your thesis

This is kind of like drawing a mind-map, but not quite, because you don’t free-associate ideas. Instead, you draw up a visual representation of your thesis—colour-coded if that helps—that breaks down the argument chapter by chapter, step by step and link by link and lays out how it’s organised, how the sections connect to each other and how the argument develops. It’s incredibly helpful for spotting gaps in your argument or evidence, repetition between chapters and spots where you haven’t yet spelt out the connections between points.

Be aware, though, that this is not a small project—either physically (mine took up six sheets of butcher’s paper taped end to end) or in terms of the time it will take. But it will help you with the next thing you have to do, which is…

2.Identify necessary changes, and be prepared to make them (when you’re ready)

These can be big, structural changes—the location or content of a chapter, the focus of a discussion and so on—or small specific ones. They can even be changes to your argument that ask you to do a lot of tweaking and revising to tighten everything up to a new line: How do I know what I think till I see what I say? is a phenomenon that can affect academic writers too, especially on big projects! The main point is that at this phase of your work, there will be changes to be made, and you can’t back away from that.

However, you don’t have to jump into them straight away (unless you feel like it, of course). Completing a first draft is a lot of hard work, and if you need a short breather before you get back into rewriting, that’s fine. Take some time, identify the changes you need, plan them, and build up your strength again before you start revising your text.

But when you do start again, this time, work through your text in order from the first chapter to the last. It will help you to keep that sense of the larger pattern in your head as you write.

3.Revise your conclusion, introduction and abstract last

And yes, I listed them in that order for a reason. Even in the process of revising, you’ll be discovering new things about your project, creating new connections and making your argument more cohesive and sophisticated. By the time you get to the end of the argument, you’ll probably know exactly what it is that you’re trying to say, and will be able to wrap the ideas up nicely.

Then you have to take those insights back and embed them into your introduction. No spoilers in academic writing, remember? And no saving the best till last. Grab your best and most completely expressed ideas from your conclusion, transplant them to your introduction, and polish them up some more. This will both hook your examiners’ attention immediately (reader-centric writing!) and keep your argumentative line straight as an arrow from introduction to conclusion.

And then, of course, you line the abstract up with that. You can’t summarise what you don’t know yet, so wait until you’ve finalised your argument to finalise the abstract too!

…Oh, and one final point: if you’re using EndNote to create your bibliography, please make sure you check it against your university’s style guide! EndNote is great but it’s not perfect, and it can throw out small errors and odd punctuation issues from time to time. Check it at the revision stage and there’s less likelihood you’ll spot an error at the last minute and have to check everything in a screaming panic just before your print deadline…

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Writing tips and tricks 2: reader-centric writing at the micro level

Last week I posted about creating a reader-centric HDR thesis on the macro level—abstract, introduction, chapter and section-level writing techniques to help your examiners track your argument and absorb your ideas as easily as possible. However, reader-centric writing isn’t just a macro-level skill. For your thesis to be as good as possible, you need to think—and write—reader-centrically at the micro level of sentence structure and word choice as well. Three of the best tools I know for doing this are: defaulting to the active voice, creating strong carrier sentences for integrated quotes, and using everyday English wherever possible to express your ideas.

Seems like a lot of fuss for something only a few people will read, I know. But remember: if you’re writing a thesis, you’re not just a scholar, or a researcher, or an experimenter. You’re also a writer. This is how writers think about their work. Welcome to the club, and have fun!

1.Use the active voice wherever possible

In academic writing, we’re still trained to default to the passive voice, for many reasons: because it creates a more objective tone, because it avoids using I/we, because it sounds more professional, and so on and so forth.

The problem is that very few of these are good reasons for using the passive voice.

Passive voice is hard to read. It muddies the verb and buries the lede; it makes sentences longer and more difficult to parse; if there’s too much of it in one place, it puts your reader to sleep. And when you’re writing a thesis, you need your examiner to be awake, alert and absorbing ideas as smoothly as possible! So while there are certainly good reasons to use the passive voice sometimes—to foreground a key idea, or manage a long list written in sentence form, or express an idea that can’t be written any other way—even in academic writing it should never be the default sentence structure. Every time you edit a piece of your own writing, reserve one pass to look for passive voice sentences and see if you can recast them in the active voice.

Don’t worry about sounding too subjective or emotive; you can use your word choice to ameliorate that issue. And your examiners will thank you for the easier read. Trust me on this one.

2.Frame integrated quotes in carrier sentences

Integrated quotes are a hugely important part of your thesis; unlike block quotes, they can contribute to your argument as well as illustrating key points. It’s therefore very important to make sure that they genuinely are integrated with the rest of your writing, and that your examiner is never left staring at a quote and trying to figure out exactly how it connects to the sentence they just read.

You can achieve this by framing every integrated quote in a carrier sentence. This is a short—or not—sentence in your own words that ‘sets up’ the quote, explaining why it’s relevant or how it connects to your point. The simplest example of a carrier sentence is the author/source type (eg ‘As Attebury argues in Strategies of Fantasy, …’), but there are all sorts of variations on the theme. If you’re feeling confident you can even site the carrier sentence after the quote, like a speech tag in fiction! The most important thing is that wherever you put it, it’s in the same sentence as the rest of the quote, and it gives the quote context and connection to the rest of your writing.

3.Simplify your vocabulary

Every field of academia has its technical vocabulary—and its jargon, which is not quite the same thing—and in your thesis you of course have to show your mastery of that vocabulary. However, the acid test of any idea is not whether you can rattle off the jargon on cue. It’s whether you can explain your argument and the evidence that supports it clearly and accurately using a lay vocabulary, supported as and when needed by the technical language of your field.

Jargon’s a great comfort blanket for the thesis writer, but it obscures your meaning and makes it harder for your examiners to absorb your points. Take a deep breath, steel yourself, and throw it out. Aim for straightforward, moderately formal, everyday English that lets you integrate your technical vocabulary smoothly where needed and state your ideas clearly when that’s what you need instead. Your examiners will find it easier to identify your argument, process your logic, and integrate your evidence—and they’ll probably genuinely enjoy reading your writing too. As everyone who’s ever marked undergrad essays knows, when it comes to assessing someone’s work, readability matters.

For those looking for more specific information about building these skills, here are my four best-loved resources:

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. 2nd ed. New York: WW Norton, 2010. Print.

This book is marvellous. It rejects the idea of writing as a mystical gift and reframes it as a technical skill—a series of ‘moves’ that anyone can learn to deploy. It’s practical, deeply useful and well-organised. If your university library doesn’t have it, it should.

Kane, Thomas S. The New Oxford Guide to Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

This may be getting a little dated now, but if you want a resource that can help you break down sentence structure and rebuild it from the ground up, wrangle your paragraph organisation and order your evidence, there’s not much that can beat it.

Orwell, George. ‘Politics and the English Language’. wikilivres, 28 December 2016, Accessed 13 March 2017. Web.

The original and the best. Don’t just read it for Orwell’s points about language and jargon; read it for his use of language. It’s the best possible demonstration of his point.

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

This includes some great practical tips for both avoiding jargon and creating fluent, readable academic prose.

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Writing tips and tricks: reader-centric writing

In many ways, HDR theses are a unique genre—narrowly-focussed pieces of writing with some arcane and specific rules and a very, very small audience to impress. In one way, though, they’re exactly like every other piece of writing: to make them successful, you have to keep that very, very small audience in mind at all times as you write.

In business writing, this is called being ‘reader-centric’. It means stepping out of your own point of view as you write, and focussing on what your reader needs/wants to know rather than what you want to say. It’s a great technique for soothing an annoyed customer. It’s also great for presenting your ideas to a thesis examiner.

Being reader-centric doesn’t mean that you distort your argument to write what you think your examiners will agree with, though. That would defeat the whole purpose of a thesis! What it means is that you write in the awareness that your examiners are 1) busy academics who have added examining your thesis onto an already heavy workload, 2) reading and assessing it in sections based on how much time they have available at any given moment, and 3) broad experts in your field but—and this is crucial—not experts in your specific topic. When you’re writing, you therefore need to make sure that your examiners can always identify what you talked about in the last section or chapter they read, what you’re going to cover in this section, and how all of the pieces fit together as easily as possible. Below are my three top writing tricks for doing exactly this.

1.Signpost every transition

One of the quirks of academic writing is that you’re allowed to be obvious. Even in English Literature, where theses are assessed on the grace and fluency of their prose as well as the quality of their argument, it’s not only necessary but completely acceptable to spell out exactly what you’re going to be doing at each transition point in your thesis—the abstract, the introduction, each chapter, even each section if your discipline permits chapter subdivisions! Some of the most useful phrases you can ever type are: ‘In this thesis/chapter/section I* will…’ And even in Eng. Lit., there’s no limit to how many times you can use the perpendicular pronoun this way, fortunately…

The great advantage of using these ‘signposting’ phrases is that they let your examiner know what to expect at all times, and help them to line up each section with the preceding and following ones more easily as they read—as long as the signposts are accurate. This is why you tend to insert them late in the drafting process, when you know the structure of your chapter and can retrofit the introduction to suit!

2.Structure every paragraph

Along with signposting at the macro level, you can use your paragraph structure to guide your examiners step by step through each point you make. While there are many variations on the idea of paragraph structure, the most basic is a three-part structure adaptable to every circumstance: topic sentence, evidence, and conclusion/connection sentence.

The topic sentence spells out exactly what your paragraph is about—though usually not by means of a formulaic ‘This paragraph discusses xyz’ statement, as these are too clumsy at paragraph level. You can choose from many options, from a straightforward statement to a ‘master plan’** sentence, based on what suits your paragraph topic and your discipline area…but no matter what it looks like, every paragraph you write must have a topic sentence. If you can’t figure one out, that information belongs in a different bit of your thesis, not in a paragraph of its own.

The evidence section of your paragraph lays out all of the pieces of evidence that support your topic sentence in a logical order. The order in question is up to you, but remember: there are no surprises in academic writing, and no spoilers either, so don’t succumb to the temptation to hold things back for effect. Wherever possible, put your best ideas and strongest evidence front and centre, so that your examiners will be sure to see them.

The conclusion/connection sentence wraps up this paragraph and prepares your examiner to encounter the new idea introduced in your next topic sentence. If you think that sounds unnecessary, remember this: every strip of blank space on your page is a potential stopping-point for your examiner, even if the stop is only to answer an email or have a stretch. You want them to put off stopping until they get to a memorable anchor point—the end of a section, or better yet a chapter—and by connecting each paragraph to the next, you make it easier for them to read on and continue absorbing your ideas in the best possible format, and harder for them to stop.

3.Use tag sentences

One of the worst possible ways to end a paragraph in academic writing—but one I see used all too often, even in published works—is with a block quote.

This is because block quotes, unlike integrated quotes, are purely illustrative. They don’t advance your argument; they only supply evidence in someone else’s words to support your point. This means that your examiner has to make a mental transition at every block quote, from processing your words to processing someone else’s words and figuring out how they support the point you just made.

If you start a new paragraph immediately after a block quote, the next thing they’ll encounter is a completely new idea—one not connected to the quote they just read, or the point it was illustrating. They may stumble for a moment, or get a touch confused…or miss a vital connection between two ideas and end up misinterpreting your argument because of it. Therefore, it’s vitally important to follow every block quote with a ‘tag sentence’ (or more than one sentence, if needed) that restates your point, concludes the paragraph and connects it to the next one. Thankfully, this isn’t hard to do. Just think of it as an amped-up conclusion/connection sentence, and you’ll find it practically writes itself!

Next week: writing tips for the micro level.


*If you’re in engineering, science, maths, and some of the social sciences, you’d of course write ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.

**Or laundry-list sentences, as one of my students used to call them!

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Planning your thesis: three tips

Yes, I’m posting about how to plan a thesis a week after I posted about how to start writing one. No, that wasn’t a mistake. Why not? Because you can’t really start planning your thesis until you’ve developed some ideas about what you want to write about, and you can’t do that until you’ve started writing!

Your structured program and administrative deadlines will of course impose a schedule on your planning process (which can actually be very helpful), but don’t let them push you to start developing a plan too early. It really is more effective to start writing first and then use what you’ve learned from writing and discussions with your supervisors to develop your thesis plan. That way, your thesis will grow organically from your research rather than your research being warped to fit pre-existing ideas.

And while there’s no one right way to organise your thesis—the details of what goes into each chapter etc are up to you and to a certain extent your supervisors—here are my top three tips for managing the process of thesis planning.

1.Build in a word budget

It’s easy to lose track of scale when you’re working on a thesis, especially a PhD. An upper limit of 100,000 words looks like an impossible, unfillable amount—like you have all the room in the world to sprawl out and write about everything, as much or as little of it as you want. But one of the hallmarks of a good thesis is that its discussion is evenly balanced. So, when you start planning, always build a word budget into your plan, aiming for the lower end of the range for your degree to make sure that you have room to expand if needed. This allows you to do three things: keep all the parts of your thesis in balance by ensuring that each has roughly the same word count, identify when you’re having trouble developing a topic (if you can’t reach your word count without padding, this suggests that maybe it’s not substantial enough and needs to be rethought), and identify when you’ve gone massively over your word count and need to stop and rethink your plan.

A sample plan with word budget included might look something like this:

  • Introduction: ‘Fairy tales: a literary genre’. 5,000 wds.
  • Chapter 1: ‘Tales as old as time? The origins of fairy tales’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 2: ‘Clever girls and cautionary tales: the French salons’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 3: ‘Transcription vs editing: the Brothers Grimm’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 4: ‘For children: Victorian and Edwardian England’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 5: ‘American heroines: the Disneyfication of fairytales’. 9,000 wds.
  • Chapter 6: Reclaiming fairytales: writing back to Disney’. 9,000 wds.
  • Conclusion: ‘Subversive stories’. 3,000 wds.
  • Bibliography. N/A

Total word count: 62,000 words.

2.Respond to your research

Remember that your research and writing should shape your plan just as much as your plan will (eventually) structure your writing and research. A thesis plan is a living document. It should develop regularly, for at least the first third of your candidature—maybe more. And this doesn’t just mean the small details. Chapters may shift places, split up and recombine, vanish and reappear under other headings, and shrink or grow as you write. If they do, let it happen. Follow where they lead, and rethink the project around what they’re telling you as they do. You learn about your project through the process of writing it, always.

For example: In one of my thesis journals I still have an early version of my thesis plan. It includes a single chapter about tragedic and heroic narrative paradigms, orchestrator characters and female authors writing back to Tolkien. Yes, I really thought I could blast through all of that in 9,000 words (remember what I said last week about being embarrassingly naive?). But when I started reading more broadly in the relevant area, and more importantly when I started writing, I realised that I needed more space to deal with these ideas. First the tragedic villains required a more in-depth discussion. Then that grew into a complete chapter. Then I had to unpick all the variations on the comedic ethic, which required not one chapter, but three—one for each book I was studying. Then the orchestrator concept proved to be more complex than I’d originally anticipated and needed its own chapter too. Over time, that one optimistically-planned chapter grew to the point where it became almost my entire thesis (and yes, it was a much better thesis for doing so).

3.Be prepared to amputate

It always takes more words to write about a topic than you initially think it will, and most of the time that’s a good thing. For one thing, it tells you what you need to focus on. However, at the same time it’s also telling you something else: what to cut out.

A hundred thousand words doesn’t cover as much as you’d think. You’ll never be able to fit everything you want to write about inside that limit. So if a section of your plan is lying neglected because other things are (legitimately) pulling focus*, or if it’s starting to feel peripheral to your argument, or if you just can’t see any way you can do it justice along with everything else you want to write about, then it’s time to kill that darling. No matter how much you love the idea and tell yourself you want to write about it, the truth is, you’re not writing about it, and if it no longer fits organically into your developing plan, you have to let it go.

You don’t have to forget about these jettisoned ideas altogether—one of them might make a perfectly good paper some day, after all! But a thesis is a project with time, space and word count limits, and if you want to complete it you need to work within them. Be pragmatic. It helps.

Next week: writing tips and tricks

*It’s possible to get distracted and go down an unhelpful research path, but that’s why you need to stay in contact with your supervisors: they’ll help you spot if this is happening and correct your course.

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Where do I start? Getting words on the page.

This is the first in a series of posts about writing a good Higher Degree by Research thesis, Australian-style.

It’s not uncommon for students starting a higher degree by research (PhD or Masters) to feel overwhelmed by the thought of converting an early, rather vague area of interest into, basically, a small book within two to three years. It’s also not unreasonable—that’s a big ask! The trick is to accept that and then find a way to move forward out of that initial freeze-up as easily as possible. These are the three best tips I know for doing just that:

1. Write early, write often

Perhaps the single best thing my PhD supervisor Joy* ever did for me was look at me three months into my candidature and say ‘You need to start writing now’. This wasn’t because my ideas were brilliant. To be honest, at that point they were embarrassingly naïve. But I was engaging with the literature and starting to formulate arguments, and as soon as you start doing that…you need to start writing. And by ‘writing’, I mean producing structured, fully referenced academic prose, with an argument, that you can give to your supervisors for discussion and feedback.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. The things you write at this point will probably never make it into your thesis—not even years later in heavily revised form. But that doesn’t mean it’s wasted effort. These early pieces can serve as springboards for new ideas, or help you identify research paths you don’t want or need to go down…or produce a seed that eventually grows into a paper, a chapter, or the thesis statement of your entire project. And it will get you into the habit of writing regularly and developing your ideas section by section, which means that you’re unlikely to get to the end of years’ worth of reading and experiments and freeze up at the thought that you somehow have to transform a small mountain of notes into 75,000 words of fluent prose by the end of the year.

2. Narrow your focus, then broaden your reading

At the start of your candidacy you face an enormous amount of reading—so much that if you let yourself get buried under it you may not find your way out (sadly, I’ve seen this happen). As with writing, the trick is not to try to do all the reading at once, or to do it all before you start writing. Instead, break your reading down into stages.

Stage one—the first six to twelve months of your candidacy—is mostly about getting to grips with your field, and finding and defining the gap in the literature that your thesis will fill. Spend the first few months just reading within your field and writing about aspects of it that are relevant to your topic. This will help you define your research focus. Once you’ve started to develop a sense of the specific argument you’re chasing down, you can think about roughing out an initial thesis plan**. Then you can move into stage two, which involves reading more widely and incorporating that reading into your writing. Again, you don’t need to do this all at once. Work out which areas you’ll need to read into for each section of your plan, and explore them systematically, writing as you go.

This probably makes the process sound rather neater than it really is. In fact, reading is an ongoing thing, bits of reading for one part of the thesis will overlap with bits for another part, and you’ll find yourself hunting down new references right up until your final draft. But thinking, and working, in sections is the key to getting your own work onto the page and your thesis developing consistently.

3. Lurk in the library

When I was doing my PhD I had to rely on interlibrary loans to get access to some of the journal articles I desperately needed, so let me be clear about this: online academic databases are the greatest thing ever. But they’re not the be-all and the end-all. Among other things, when you’re searching a database for papers, it’s all to easy to only find what you’re looking for, and when you’re aiming to broaden your reading, this can be a problem.

This is why I recommend heading over to the library every now and again and spending a few hours in the stacks instead. You won’t get lost, I promise, and you can find some great things by exploiting the peculiar serendipity created by the Dewey Decimal system. Start by looking for something you know you need or want to read, and then drift out from that point. Pick up books that are on roughly the same topic, and books that just have interesting titles. Browse introductions; skim chapters. Flick through bound journals that look like they might publish papers in your field. It’s amazing what you can find by chance that you didn’t realise you needed—or wanted—to look for. Not to mention, a decent lurk in the stacks is a great way to take a break when your brain feels overstuffed with thesis things. Just don’t forget to go back to your desk eventually and write about what you’ve found!

Remember, you’ve got two to three years to write this thesis in. It’s okay to take your time.

Next week: Developing your thesis plan

*You’ll probably hear more about Joy as I write this series, for the very good reason that she was an absolutely amazing supervisor (still is, actually) and I learned a lot from her.

**I’ll write about that next week.

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