Why writing from day one is nuts

If you don’t know James Hayton’s blog, the Three Month Thesis yet, you should. James did his PhD in Physics in the nanoscience group at the university of Nottingham where he developed an interest in productivity. He now lives in Barcelona – because he can (I know I would if I could!).

In this post James takes issue with the advice that many research educators, myself included, give to students: that you should write from day one. I’m always willing to listen to a contrary opinion! So take it away James, convince me I’m wrong…

I know a lot of you will disagree with what I’m about to say.

I admit, I haven’t done a humanities PhD (I’m a physicist), so I don’t have first-hand experience, but no matter where you sit on the science-humanities scale, there are some general principles that apply to research and writing.

So I’m just going to say what I think, and you can correct me if you think I’m wrong.

Why writing from day one is nuts…

Things almost never work out exactly the way you thought in the beginning. If they do, then your research isn’t going beyond the obvious.

“But”, you say, “writing is a good way to develop ideas!”

Maybe, but writing in the form of a thesis, which is a formal report, is likely to stifle creativity and add undue pressure. A better way is to write many ideas on paper, do exploratory reading and research, and then see what ideas arise as a result.

Then you can start to solidify and refine ideas and your research methodology. Work out what questions you want to answer, and explore further. Take notes, of course, but writing in the form of a chapter from day one? Why do that to yourself?

Anything you write in the first year is likely to be sh*te

It takes time to get to know your subject and develop a deep understanding of the key ideas and how they link together.

The lit review I wrote in my first year was awful, because

  • I didn’t know the difference between a good paper and a bad one,
  • I didn’t know what was relevant,
  • I didn’t know where it was heading, because I hadn’t done the research yet, and
  • it was full of clichés and lacked any real insight of my own

Not a word of it went into the final thesis.

Was it a useful exercise? Not really. If anything it delayed me from getting on with actual research.

Learning vs Pressure to Impress

When I wrote that literature review, I put myself under a huge amount of pressure.

The idea was to get to know the state of the art in the subject. Because my focus was on the task of writing, the pressure of wanting to impress my supervisor, giving the appearance of knowing the material, I didn’t actually learn that much.

The time would have been better spent exploring a much smaller area and getting to know the basics in those early stages.

It’s very hard to edit writing when you come back to it 2 years later

If you write about a subject or idea but don’t complete it and go off an explore another idea, you’ll be left with endless pages of half-baked sections which you somehow need to pull together later. It’s even worse if you have multiple versions. Often this mass of writing becomes a burden rather than a useful resource!

It’s very difficult to delete sections and to make wholesale changes

Separating reading and writing

Not every paper or book you find should go into the thesis.

But if you are reading and writing at the same time then you end up sitting there with a new paper in front of you, trying to paraphrase someone else’s writing, trying to force it into the thesis without a developed view of how it fits into the overall picture, or whether it’s relevant at all.

Instead, approach the literature around a very specific sub-topic or focused on answering a specific question, and then read as much as you can without bias. Then write from an informed position after you’ve had some time to think!

Research must precede writing, otherwise you’re doing nothing more than  dreaming up nice ideas.

Establishing habits

Some say that writing from an early stage helps you learn the craft of writing.

True, but a crucial part of the craft of writing is finishing things (often the hardest part for thesis writers). If you develop the habit of always leaving things for later, then it’s a very difficult one to break.

So instead of trying to write chapters which end up full of holes, why not write short interim reports on your findings once you’ve done some exploratory work? You can then finish them by raising open questions and giving a plan for how you’re going to explore further.

Effectively, this is like tidying up every few months, rather than creating nothing but mess for 3 or 4 years and then trying to tidy up at the end.

Why are humanities so different in approach?

I have been told that, in the humanities, there is no clear divide between the research phase and writing.

But so often, humanities students have to wrestle and fight and struggle to tidy up the mess of years of writing.

Why not separate the processes and develop your ideas first, then move on to formal writing when you know roughly what you’re going to say?

Maybe there’s something going on here I don’t understand, but it seems to me that if so many smart people end up so stressed, perhaps it’s the approach of aimless writing which is broken.

I agree that aimless writing is usually unproductive writing James. Trying to shoe horn your work into chapter format too early is usually the kiss to death to creative thinking. But what do you think? Which parts of James’ advice do you agree with? Which parts are you not so sure about? Let’s have a debate in the comments :-)

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83 thoughts on “Why writing from day one is nuts

  1. I like the idea of doing interim reports. I think this could help you learn the craft of writing early, without feeling obliged to use the written work later. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I think writing is one of those skills you have to practice to develop. However, as James points out, you have to practice the whole thing (i.e. finishing up as well!). Writing smaller reports early on could be the answer as it lets you practice in manageable chunks which is very useful.

  2. I agree with this 100%, & I’m in humanities. Write stuff organically but stop trying to create a product/thesis. This should be a process where you learn the art of research. Many posts eg. #phdrace are only concerned with quantitative measures like I wrote ten thousand words today. Enjoy this period of research where you can indulge yourself in researching stuff you are passionate about. Yes, there are time scales but don’t let that ruin the essence of this degree. Relax and learn.

  3. I’m only in my second year, but I think that writing (or “writing”, as I’m doing) from day one has been absolutely critical to my process. I came to school absolutely sure of my dissertation topic. And then I learned things. And then I learned some more things. And then I worked, getting the chance to put some of those things into practice… while also learning more things.

    I haven’t been writing in “chapter form”, per se. But I’ve definitely designed and written all my course papers with the idea that those works will be part of my lit review, at the very least. Our program is actually structured in such a way to support and almost direct students in doing just that. I love it.

    It does seem like a lot of pressure if you look at it from a certain perspective. However for me, the process has helped me really think through my biases and identify gaps in my own knowledge, as well as explore gaps in the broader knowledge base. In doing all these things, I’ve really honed in on not only what I want to do with my dissertation – and, ultimately, my career – but also why I want to do these things. I now understand that, while I haven’t actually changed dissertation topics, I’ve completely changed the framework from which I’m approaching my work. I’m nowhere near done with coursework, but I already feel a much stronger sense of coherence about where I’m headed and what I should be thinking about to shore up the unsure spots.

    I can absolutely guarantee you that I would not have reached this point if I hadn’t been writing things I wanted to include in my dissertation all along. Now, whether those papers will actually make it is another question. I have two 20+ page papers that I will for sure be including in at least the proposal, if not the final product. In fact, I’ve already tweaked one of those for pre-dissertation grant proposals. I’ve received lots of encouragement around this, not to mention the sense of clarity I’m gaining throughout the process.

    _____________________________________ Amanda Michelle Jones, M.S. Youth Ally ◾ Justice Fighter ◾ Scholar http://www.amandamichellejones.com The Universe is my Classroom: every encounter is an opportunity to both teach and learn. – me

    From: The Thesis Whisperer Reply-To: The Thesis Whisperer Date: Tuesday, 16 October 2012 13:01 To: Amanda Michelle Jones Subject: [New post] Why writing from day one is nuts

    WordPress.com James Hayton posted: “If you don’t know James Hayton’s blog, the Three Month Thesis yet, you should. James did his PhD in Physics in the nanoscience group at the university of Nottingham where he developed an interest in productivity. He now lives in Barcelona – because he can”

  4. I think you have lots of good points. I never ask my students to start writing their dissertation but write about what they read and what the findings actually mean to them. It gets them over the hurdle of putting the first words on page. Also, personally, I never find it too difficult to delete paragraphs of what I have written. You can’t feel too precious about them if you want to improve.

    • I solved the problem of not wanting to delete paragraphs I laboured over by creating an ‘overflow’ file to accompany my primary document file. Instead of deleting, I just cut and paste into the overflow file, just in case I want to use one of those passages, later. I almost never do use them, but knowing I haven’t eliminated them entirely makes it easier to take them out of the primary document, in the first place.

      • I do the exact same thing. I’ve done a lot of editing and translating of other people’s writing, which has led to the habit of keeping as much as possible of the original text. I used to agonise over the same sentence for hours and hours. But now that I just move the bad text into a new file, I am much more productive. Most of those files end up so messy and scary (I tend to use highlighting of different colours when editing as well) that I never even attempt to reuse any of the text. It just makes it easier for me to be ruthless in my editing if I feel like nothing has completely disappeared.

  5. I have always advised my students to begin writing as early as possible, even though I know that most of what they write early on will not make it into the final manuscript (or thesis, if that is what the student is writing). The main reason I suggest they begin writing early is so I can help them become better writers. In my opinion, the hardest thing about developing a successful research career is not coming up with good ideas or ways of testing them, but rather it is learning how to communicate good ideas in a clear and concise manner. The ability to communicate effectively in writing and orally are the hallmarks of a capable researcher and scholar.

    My most successful doctoral students have been the ones who spent the most time writing, and that meant writing manuscripts intended for publication in journals or book chapters, and not simply thinking of every writing project as part of their dissertation. When I say successful, I mean these are the ones that are now tenured professors with their own research programs. The grad students who avoided writing until they “had the data” never seemed to understand the literature very deeply, or appreciate how their work fit into the big picture. They spent too much time reading, mistakenly believing that they had to know about every previously-published study related to their own research. Those who began writing from the start, AND sharing with me what they wrote, were able to get ample feedback on everything from sentence structure and style to building arguments and determining the best order in which to say things. Their writing allowed me to see what they were reading, and what they thought was important, so if there were any shortcomings in those areas, I was in a position to give them feedback.

    It takes a long time to become a good writer, and most academics continue to develop as writers long after they get their doctorate. Good writing is essential to getting one’s work published (the data don’t actually count for absolutely everything), and to applying successfully for a job (especially in academia), and for putting together a fundable research grant application. I have known many brilliant researchers who have difficulty getting funding because their communication abilities are poor, so even though their ideas are great, they can’t write a good grant application.

    So, my advice would still be to begin writing from the start. Involve your supervisor in the process, because that is one of his or her responsibilities. The supervisor should be willing to go through as many drafts and iterations of a manuscript or thesis chapter as the student wants or needs. Unfortunately, many students don’t want to go through the exercise because they don’t appreciate how important it is to their long-term success. Most students would rather be reading about someone else’s work than writing about their own, and there is a tendency to think that the former is more important. But, I don’t agree. I actually tell my grad students to write more AND read less.

    • I agree that writing from the start is a valuable method of improving writing. I recently finished my final draft – the result of 8 months revision. I was surprised at how much I’d improved my writing skills over four years, but it also meant that I had to rewrite many chunks of the earlier chapters. I didn’t see this as a negative thing because during my undergraduate degree, I learned eventually that it was often better (and paradoxically easier) to rewrite completely based on the draft (ie start a new document and cut and paste good sentences and rewrite awkward or grammatically incorrect ones) than try to fix a faulty piece of writing, even if initially very painful. I could probably get away with submitting the earlier thesis chapters without the rewrites, but the difference in my style of writing was so significant that because I place such importance on good writing, I felt it necessary to revise them. My supervisors praised my efforts because they knew how difficult it is to do such major edits. It’s hard to ditch sections of writing, especially if you’ve spent a long time labouring on each and every word; however, the practice of writing was a central part of my PhD experience. Ideas flowed from the act of putting fingers to keyboard (I can’t really say ‘pen to paper’ anymore), and it was invaluable to the development of my PhD research.

    • But how can you structure and write a qualified, critical literature review without having read and understood the research that you’re reviewing, incl making proper notes and capturing your own reflections on what you read. How can you write within a structure that only emerges with your understanding of the subject, BEFORE you’ve actually read and understood.
      And another point is that as I understand it, the structure is closely intertwined with your understanding and interpretation of the material, and your argument leading up to the research question. The process of informal note taking, writing down own reflections and tagging/categorising the material helps you getting to the level where you can present the argument in a consistent manner.

  6. I’m in the dissertation phase (nursing) and having tried both methods, at this stage I am not writing until I have the ideas formulated relative to the findings and literature. I found, like James said, I was wasting a lot of time. But, early on, the constant writing helped me immensely. My writing improved, and my thinking improved. With a place and time for different modes of processing, this article provides a nice perspective that challenges the traditional advice.

  7. Lewis Carroll said “Take care of the sense and the words will take care of themselves”. Here at the Woodhill Park Research Retreat (www.woodhillpark.com) a venue where Ph.D. candidates come to read, think, discuss, write, research and succeed, writing little snippets, often, is the encouraged norm.

    Indeed, capturing ideas, critical thoughts and appreciations in written words is critical to thesis construction whatever the medium. It doesn’t just flow from the brain to the fingers and into a chapter as a matter of course. There are many, many preparatory steps to lassoing ideas. I’ve use a dicta-phone whilst travelling through various parts of Australia. I was examining the uses of telecommunications for informal adult learning in remote settings and so had plenty of time to do this as I drove. I’d talk the ideas into my recorder and transfer the ideas and thoughts to a computer later on. Transferring oral memos into written form ensured that the ideas were not only processed, they were generally, I believe, ruthlessly interrogated.

    One of the Woodhill Park thesis writers I’ve worked with would often stop off at a shop on her way home. She did so ostensibly to buy an apple or a piece of fruit, but in reality, her motive was to get a brown paper bag so that she could write down thoughts she’d had whilst driving home from work. Eventually, she was persuaded to buy herself a hard-covered notebook.

    By the end of her thesis journey, she had no fewer than thirteen completed notebooks. These note-books eventually became a key resource for chapter construction. Importantly, each entry was dated and all were ‘house-kept’ from time-to-time; that is, regular visits of their contents were completed so that a stock-take of thinking could be completed. Aside of this, a reasonably systematic audit or review was completed by this candidate so that she could discern actions which had yet to be completed and unravel fresh questions, ideas and realisations. In each of these cases, the media were not important but the messages were (apologies to Marshall McCluhan).

    So the suggestion from James of not writing by chapters is, in my view very sound. But writing little and often is crucial. And it matters not where or even when the ideas become captured as long as they are purposefully authored and dated. To that end, applications such as EndNote, EverNote, Zotira, Mendeley, One Note, and Word, together with diverse media such as phone-cameras and brown paper bags, represent but a smidgen of the wide array of data deposit vaults at our disposal.

    Thereafter, the key to success is to know, roughly speaking, what has been stored where and more or less when. That way, your moguls can be retrieved in a timely fashion when the work eventually begins of thinking to write and writing to think deeper. Thinking and writing are joined at the hip when it comes to constructing the various stages of your ‘opus magnificus’. Of course, there are editing and examination considerations to bring into the mix as well but these are matters for another discussion.

  8. I’m a first-year part-time PhD student in humanities, and while I agree with the gist of what James is saying, I’m not sure I agree with the title “Why writing from day one is nuts”. After all, James says “…writing in the form of a thesis, which is a formal report, is likely to stifle creativity and add undue pressure. A better way is to write many ideas on paper, do exploratory reading and research, and then see what ideas arise as a result”.

    I totally agree with this – but then, that *is* writing from day one, just not in a formal thesis-like format.

    • ama to skefteis kala 8a xaonrsouia an ola osa les itan ontws fantasiopli3ia.kapoioi den ta eidan apla alla kai ta ezisan.pas na spoudaseis oikonomika kai ma8aineis na paizeis 8eatro.kai malista perneis eidikeush sthn tragodia.to diko mou “8ea” to exw diaxwrisei apo auto toy psinakh.den sunodeuetai apo xeironomies.apo thn allh o psinakhs den nomizw na exei metafusikes anisixies me thn aristotelikh ennoia alla mallon me auth toy 8eamatos

  9. I started on a Masters by Research with the aim of upgrading to a PhD, so I had to write two chapters for external assessment. I am studying part time and had to take an 18 month break while I changed jobs, moved and resettled, so those chapters are now quite old and I’ve moved on quite a way in my thinking – and there has been quite a bit published in the field. The thesis will be much better as a result, but the rewriting is hard work. In many Australian universities, within 6-12 months of starting, you have to have a literature review written, which means you have to start writing fairly early, but I am now wishing I’d taken the time to do a good annotated bibliography as I went – one that provides a summary of the content, together with things I agreed with, things I disagreed with and why. And yes, experience at academic writing is also essential.

  10. I admit to a fair amount of knee-jerk disagreement, but I think overall the post points to an important distinction. We do need to distinguish between exploratory and structured writing. In general, I think that exploratory writing is far more valuable than the author appears to; the early and provisional literature review is, in my mind, a very useful exercise even if the document itself doesn’t prove helpful. But author’s basic point–that trying to write the final document prematurely can be extremely frustrating and unproductive–is a good one.

  11. Several things spring to mind here.
    1)The defintion of writng – James is actually talking about the final write up of the thesis itself – seems to me that we are always wrting something from day one, just not the academic witing of the thesis itself. Yes I know I am pernickityhere, and that it really is a matter of semantics.
    2) The question of the Lit Review – dunno about the UK’s processes but here in OZ we havbe to do this thing called a Confirmation Seminar. This actually requires us to present a review of the Literature, so we do need to be familiar with it. This meand doing a … wait for it … a Literature Review!!! Of course it will be sh*te (to quote James) – mine was. I am now engaged on my final chapter, and am reveiwing the theoretical frameworks. My methods have remained intact from when I first did my Lit Review, but I have realised I have focused on the work of two key authors in the field in which I am researching. However, this realisation will not alter the Lit Review much at all.

    So, really, wrting a thesis is not that much different from writing an undergrad assignment, only we get to decide the research question and seek out additional knowledge. The Lit Review can be placed on a similar par with an essay introduction and the final chapter is the on par with the essay’s conclusion paragraph.

    • Completely agree Beth! This article was really interesting, and the writing from day one (or not writing from the beginning) is interesting. I am a first year PhD student and have really struggled with my Lit Review thus far. I am in a new faculty, and although I am familiar with the field, I have to gain a lot of confidence in the new literature before I can go back to my comfort zone of literature in the field I have come from.

      At the moment, my Lit Review for my Confirmation is pretty rubbish. My Supervisor thinks so too, so there has been a few struggles. Although I have recently discovered that I am not alone, and many of my peers have had many rewrites of their drafts and notes etc. But it also comes from writing this stuff so early. There is not a lot of time for deeper reading and the synthesising of ideas. But I do think that the Lit Review that you do for Confirmation is fairly rushed, and not much chop generally speaking. However, writing it up has helped me gain confidence about articulating my research project for others and the literature to address.

      It seems like six of one and half a dozen of the other, and one crazy mind bending process no matter what way you do it :)

  12. I could not agree more. I am a social work clinician who came into the academic arena to complete a PhD researching work stress in the community service sector and could not understand the mantra of ‘write early and write often’. I knew intuitively it did not make sense, at least for me. Although, I did experience waves of insecurites about my competence levels and fear of failure for not writing from the start.
    It makes my heart sing when I read ideas that match the reality of my long four year ultra marathon PhD experience. There is much naturally occuring ‘over used and ill fitting advice ‘ given, especially to the new starters.

    Lorraine Harrison

  13. Agree that students that try to write, say, the introduction in the first months of the thesis tend to run into trouble. But students who write ‘opening salvos’ (as I called them), reflective pieces, refinements of their research proposal, methodology attempts etc do well.

  14. I think the key is to write little, write often, and in the early stage accept that it’s ok to write ‘messy’. I did a course that drummed in the ‘write every day’ message early in my degree. It freaked me out because the message I took home was that I needed to be writing ‘chapters’ from day one. I felt lost in my huge topic. I would sit there every morning in my designated writing time and panic because I had nothing to say (I hadn’t done the research), feel terrible for the rest of the day and the procrastination / avoidance bug set in. I fell massively behind schedule, saw the drafts and articles my peers were churning out & thought about quitting every day. BUT then I found Scrivener, pretended I was setting a series of short answer questions for an undergrad student, set a deadline, and started to write little unstructured chunks. I’ve ended up with 15,000 words that will probably never make it into my thesis. But writing helped me see why I was stuck (the scope of my project was too broad, the questions I was asking were too superficial and, frankly, boring) & helped me define a more manageable and interesting focus within the topic. [I'm testing it with my supervisors soon, wish me luck!] I wouldn’t have got there if I just kept stewing and doodling on mind map after mind map. I’m still behind schedule, but I’m hoping that I’ve finally found a sense of direction. So I rate messy writing … oh, and also mindfulness meditation!!

  15. I keep a research journal for this purpose. I’m in anthropology, and I think of it as similar to the fieldwork journals cultural anthropologists keep (I’m a physical anthro.).

  16. I want to comment on the view that “it’s very hard to edit writing when you come back to it 2 years later”. If you have been writing as you go – not ‘thesis chapters’ but reports/accounts of what you are seeing in the stuff you read and what your data look like, when you come back to them 2 years later with ideas in your head for writing ‘the thesis’ editing may be easy. This was my experience with ‘ the theory chapter’ and ‘the data chapters’. (Caveat- my part-time PhD in sociology was done 1980-1986 and yes, the game has changed a lot since then). I collected and analysed my data in stages. The stuff I wrote about stage one was written in about 1982. It led me to revise my plans for stages 2 and 3. It also led me towards a central theoretical concept (not the same as reading all the stuff about my topic, more the lens through which I would view my data and the topic). I wrote a huge document on this central theoretical concept in 1983, reviewing how just about everyone had used it. In early 1986, with data analysis from stages one two and three pretty well finished I went back to theory and refined the unwieldy document into two theory chapters, adding very little but distilling material so that it linked to the data and to my evolving views about methodology. Then I went back to the data and did a little tweaking of the self contained reports I already had, and the back of the thesis writing task was broken.
    I realise that not everyone gets to a central theoretical concept, and that staged projects are now, alas, rare, But I think you could get value out of writing descriptive things like ‘what all the previous literature on ( insert aspect of your topic here ) has said’ in plain language and using bibliographic software so you keep track of references quite early in candidature and filing them for later editing.
    Incidentally, I was working on a typewriter. These days, the editing task would be easier on the fingers!

  17. perhaps your article would garner more support if you had given a precise definition of writing. :)

    people scribble all the time. they take notes. as some have pointed out, these notes are then transferred into parts of the actual thesis.

    i believe, when you say writing, you’re not referring to any of the actions above. instead, formal writing.

    then again, how do you separate the process of formal writing? would it be wise to say that drafting is not part of formal writing?

    writing is an essential repertoire in research. it clarifies the mind. putting off writing till the end would not be recommended in my opinion.

    why? simply because writing compels one to be productive. too much reading without writing is analogous to too much eating without exercise. hehe hope u get my drift.

    however, if the researcher is a perfectionist, then writing from the start would be a challenge. let your hair down a bit bro, it’s okay to make mistakes. :)

    • OK, fair point on the definition of writing. But I never said “don’t write things down”!

      I am talking about formal writing, which many people are encouraged to do right from the start, but which is often counterproductive.

  18. Interesting post, and equally informative comments! I’m taking notes as I hope to start a PhD inside of the next two years. As an anthropology student (currently writing a master’s), I feel the best thing is to continually document your thought process and research. I would never try to write a thesis from the first year of research. However, writing complete papers about each concept explored, the ethnographic fieldwork, etc, certainly gives an advantage when the time to write the thesis comes together. I worked that way for my master’s. Next summer I will assemble the pieces together and go through the whole thing again to make it more coherent and homogeneous.

  19. Agreed! After writing a proposal, I left writing until around 6 months after finishing fieldwork (at around 2 years EFT — although with babies etc it was at about 3.5 years for me). I then wrote an 11,000 word overview paper of the whole thesis, which I never published, but it acted as a second proposal to a quite different thesis. Each section became a thesis chapter.
    I have found writing the thesis much more straightforward than my colleagues who wrote from the beginning. I am very clear about what is part of the thesis and what is interesting stuff for later.
    HOWEVER, I made an effort to present at least two seminars/conference papers per year so was always refining my ideas for a critical audience. I published a couple of these in graduate-type journals and book chapters. I think we need to keep writing. But probably not lit reviews, thesis stuff. Practicing developing arguments is the point for me.

  20. I wrote right from the beginning, in chapter format. Most ended up in my ‘cut’ folder by the end of the thesis but I thought it was a very valuable process

  21. In some ways I agree and in some I don’t. I think you should read and think and scribble and free yourself from feeling that everything must be ‘written up’ as you go, but I don’t think you should leave the more formal writing until the end either. I am doing a Humanities PhD, and I am in year 2. I have a fairly full draft of my ‘theory’ chapter, and having something I can call a chapter, at this stage, makes me feel like I am getting somewhere. But I didn’t set out to write a chapter when I started. I wrote ‘chunks’ as I started to make sense of what I was reading and thinking, and these chunks became a chapter after a while. I am not sure of this is what James means when he says read and makes notes and then write formally later. For me, the chunks are formal bits of writing that grow out of my research and reading journals and all my reading and scribbling and voice notes on my cell phone. I could not imagine not trying to write all the way through, formally and informally, because I think when I write. Yes, it is often frustrating, and I have MANY drafts of this chapter already, from chunks to chapters, but for me that is also part and parcel of the PhD journey. The struggle is part of the journey. If it was all to easy and straightforward and not stressful I’d be concerned I wasn’t doing it ‘right’. :-)

  22. I totally agree and I’m about to hand in my thesis in literary studies, so very much in the humanities. I always thought of this ‘write from day one’-advice was the more or less desperate attempt by supervisors (be they the official ones or ‘just’ caring colleagues…) to make sure that the PhD student wouldn’t go to the other extreme of trying to compile years worth of scattered notes and thoughts into a coherent thesis in say 3 months.

    I’m all for using the first year just to get a feel for your topic, familiarizing yourself with the existing research (even though, it seems to be somewhat inevitable that much of what you read now will later prove totally worthless) and your sources.

    And then I think it very much depends on your source material. In my case my novels were right there so from the 2nd year on, I could research and write simultaneously chapter by chapter.
    Looking at some of my fellow PhD students who work in anthropology or other field work based areas of research I can see how that doesn’t work. Because then you have to gather your sources first, possibly transcribe interviews and only then you can write.

  23. I read this,

    Which I sort of agree with.

    I.e. do write to collate and help develop ideas but grinfding away at journal paper and thesis quality stuff is not necessarily the best use of time.

    I think the point for me is, I think I know I can write journal paper and thesis quality – once I have the data!

    The main thing I have to fight to do tho is be positive.

  24. I agree in general. Much like the author, now that I am beginning my writing up I am finding that the half-baked bits I wrote before are a hindrance rather than an advance (into the bin they go), and that I learned very little from it.

    On the other hand, I do think the intermediate efforts and reports I submitted were helpful – if anything, they showed me where the limitations of my previous views lied, and prepared me to “let go” – never an easy thing to do. There is a definite plus to writing along, but probably not in Chapter form.

  25. I have just finished my first year of my PhD. I decided when I began that I didn’t want to have to gather up all of my ideas after three years and write them into a thesis.

    I have written three small reports (6-10 pages long) this year concerning areas of my field that I knew I definitely needed to have an overview of. These reports have been somewhere between incredibly brief literature reviews and textbook style derivations and explanations – but they are clearly written for me to read later and to edit into thesis chapters. Once the reading and learning was done (scattered on pages and notebooks and without much order) it took almost no time at all to compile a report. I just chucked information, chronologically usually, into a report.

    Reading back on the first report I wrote (only about ten months ago), a lot of it is things I’ve forgotten (whether the research done or who did it etc.) but I haven’t had to go and find this information again. The most useful part of writing these reports is that they really show you where the gaps in your knowledge are – when writing them I came across gaps I didn’t even know were there.

    No doubt writing in thesis format is not a good idea, but ‘tidying’ as you go along by leaving yourself condensed, readable reports is probably a good idea.

  26. I’ve been both a science (computer science) and humanities (history) PhD student, having to leave the first full-time PhD after developing an aggressive and progressive MS-like illness, and going on to complete the second PhD part-time. So I have a perspective on this from both sides of the fence. And I’m very aware from my own experiences of differences between science and humanities writing, particularly in the final thesis, where a science model of the thesis (particularly structural) is wholly inappropriate to humanities students.

    Personally I didn’t write that much early on during my successful PhD. I wrote the literature review in the first three months, and that remained pretty much unchanged throughout nearly six years of a part-time PhD. But apart from exploratory reports for my supervisor I didn’t write very much until I started to write up my thesis half-way through. I was too busy doing documentary research in the archives to write up more frequently, and the ideas were still germinating in my head, particularly at the higher level, for me to have got anything useful down on paper at that stage.

    One of the lecturers in my department advocated the write every day mantra, and I strongly disagreed with him, though largely because of my severe disabling illness: writing at that stage would have used up valuable time and energy that I needed to focus on historical research early on, before I could usefully write up the thesis as a whole, and over a prolonged period. However I think it’s not such a good idea more widely, and can be a waste of time and energy, when students – including humanities ones – need ideally to focus on other tasks at that stage.

    Having said this I find writing incredibly creative. Often I will be writing and an idea comes out that I hadn’t thought of at all before. But this is only really effective when I’ve put in the legwork in the archives, have ruminated over ideas in my head for quite some time (months or years even in cases!), and then get the ideas down.

    Looking back at some of my early history PhD writing I am appalled by it – though not that literature review. It’s not that it’s not well written, it’s more than I can recognise that it was written at a time when my ideas were still in my formative stages, and, arguably, written too early.

    When I did come to start writing up my thesis halfway through my PhD I found it very hard, but I think this wasn’t so much that I’d delayed started writing, just that I was still struggling to work out my ideas and find my best voice. It was a process that I had to go through. Indeed I had to restart the writing completely, before I got onto a successful track.

    So I suppose I’m in favour of the blog’s arguments, and for humanities too. Writing is a very good tool, but I think it’s best deployed at the right time, and that isn’t necessarily the very start.

  27. Writing is a process, not an act. Early writing is Important to capture ideas, even if they are later discarded – they may turn out to be seminal even if you didn’t realise it at the time. Learning to cut-and-paste and edit your own work is how most people get to a final thesis, or academic paper, or novel. Or anything really. I agree that it’s silly to think that what you write in first year will find its way into your thesis in the form you wrote it, but I think it’s important to get into the habit of capturing what you’re thinking right from the start, whatever discipline you’re in. Which, of course, is exactly what scientists do, and I think that humanities people could learn from that.

  28. I disagree with this notion, but maybe that’s because I’m two and a half years into a four year, part time PhD programme. I simply don’t have the luxury of waiting to the final six/eight months or a year to start writing my thesis (which is ‘only’ 50k words anyhow, the other 25k being made of earlier, shorter research projects).
    Having a clear structure to work within, recommended and approved by my supervisor (indeed, he literally wrote the book on it (Doctoral Research into Higher Education: Thesis structure, content and completion) ) gives me the confidence to write up different parts of the thesis knowing that the words are part of a coherent document.
    I’ve allowed myself time at the end for final drafting and redrafting, but aim to be as darn close to the 50k word count that I can be five months before submission.

  29. I absolutely agree with the notion of “writing from an informed position once you have had time to think”. I refer to my own thought process as peculation – I need some time to get away from the reading / results and then come back to writing with fresh ideas and perspective.
    I am also a part-time PhD student and I actually think that because my reading / PhD work is filtering away in the background of my sub-conscience, while I attend to my “other” job, my writing is more focused when I actually get round to doing it.
    In the end, writing style, like learning style is probably a personal (and maybe contextual) issue.

  30. I totally agree and totally disagree.

    I agree, most graduate students do not really know what they want to write their research papers about.

    Some, myself included, make research a part of their existence.

    I still know what I would love to write my PhD. Dissertation on. I have known that for going on 20 years now. I have written many graduate papers with that research direction in my mind.

    Yes, I must come back and admit, some of my notes from 16 years ago got thrown out during this move, because I felt the time to review them would be almost as great as re-conducting the research. And I felt re-conducting that research would be more productive.


  31. One question I do have in regard to this though, is how often do you present drafts to your supervisors? I have presented many “works in progress” drafts, which really are that, but then it gets picked to pieces (which is kind of fine anyway, as I like feedback and want to make sure I am on the right track). But then my Supervisor seems to think that this is the quality I am producing.

    A couple of colleagues have said that you don’t present early drafts for this reason, and that supervisors just want finished. So, what sort of writing and drafts do you present to supervisors in meetings for discussion and feedback? How often do you present drafts? I am in the humanities and in my first year towards confirmation. Totally confused about what I am supposed to be discussing in meetings.

    • honestly, i think you should keep the draft to yourself but present the ideas in point form. this way, they will know that the writing is a form of WIP (work in progress) and not the final product.

      i know that supervisors can be a bit judgmental. u juz gotta learn to speak their language. hehe

      what to discuss in meetings? you can apply *scrum* here. tell the supervisor ..
      1. what i intend to achieve (goal? i’m being very objective)
      2. what i’ve done so far. (work done? i’m hardworking and all)
      3. what is problematic to me. (problem? i’m critical)
      4. how do i think it can be solved (possible solution? i’m creative)

      remember that each component translates to a certain impression to their eyes. for instance, telling them what you’ve done translates to being *hardworking*.

      the fourth one is crucial because some supervisors hate seeing an empty handed student. they want us to do some homework before asking for their *infinite* wisdom. :)

      all the best to u bro.

    • Many supervisors, including myself at times, will assess your thinking abilities by the quality of your writing. If you are showing supervisors unfinished writing it’s important to be very clear about why you are asking them to read it. Supervisors are time poor. Generally speaking, unless they ask for it, they don’t want to read a collection of notes (such as what James is suggesting you make). I think you should write these kind of thoughts in your notes, but for yourself and as a kind of memory aide for a conversation with your supervisor. In meetings you should verbalise these thoughts and ask for feedback on them this way. I think Pikir’s suggestion is excellent – and if you put these 4 points in writing, in the form of a short briefing document, and send it ahead of your meeting – even better.

  32. so nice to see someone putting this view out there, and just reading that there are so many who either agree or disagree with it. James’ viewpoint fits well with me, my way of working, my way of learning. That’s what the issue is with PhDs in Oz and elsewhere, the supervisors/administrators at universities think one size fits all, and for many of us who are adults when we come to the PhD phase we have adult ways of learning and that requires flexibility and creativity in the educators – we all need the guidance from supervisors, but we don’t all need to do all this writing in a formal, chapter, structured way from day 1.

    I thought of presenting my PhD as an interpretive dance by Traditional Owners on their own land, that would give the full detail and analysis that had resulted from my reserach. I suggested this the the discipline chair who said great idea, but you still have to write the PhD anyway! So much for accomodating different learning styles – universities need to get into the modern age, especially with PhDs and allow the flexibility to be creative and original – after all that’s what a PhD is all about sin’t it.

    • documentation is an essential practice of research to sustain its meaning through time. if you present your phd in that form ie interpretive dance, would you be able to guarantee the sustainability of meaning?

      in other words, would another researcher, say 10 years from now, accurately interpret your work? or would it bring more confusion than illumination?

      for example, had shakespeare documented his work as accurately as einstein did, then there wouldn’t be so much incongruency in its interpretation.

      you can record the dance on your cam and attach it to your phd thesis in the appendix section but please understand that the thesis is not meant to deter creativity, but rather to ensure the sustainability of knowledge.

      in research, the result alone (interpretive dance) may not be sufficient. the process of getting there is vital as well (epistemological evolution).

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  34. I completely agree. I am still in the first year of my scientific thesis and I found that writing the actual thesis was more of an excuse not to address the really challenging part of the thesis – programming my ideas, running experiments, analyzing the results. In fact, I find the sitting and writing part comparatively easy when compared to the research part.

    I attempted to write parts of my background chapters every day from day 1 and I had exactly the same problems. Writing lots, learning nothing.

    Instead, I am trying to SCRUM my research and thesis. Will have to see how that goes.

  35. In response to Philip Murray, I use writing as a way of thinking, and I know I’m not alone in this. It’s a really personal preference, but if I were to wait until i had a thought to write, I’d never write anything. I often start writing with something like “what I think is important about this is…” Then I write, refine, edit, refine, edit, edit…. until I have a piece of thesis-quality writing.

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  37. I appreciate this article’s courage to break away from conventional ideas of writing. Though, I have some other thoughts on the idea that “writing in the form of a thesis, which is a formal report, is likely to stifle creativity and add undue pressure.”

    One important aspect in writing, in my opinion, is putting different ideas and perspectives together aside from developing ideas. It may seem unproductive writing your research early on formally in chapters, but the process of putting ideas together actually helps me understand my theories better and inspires me to develop other ideas.

    It’s sometimes hard to tell whether your ideas are workable until you actually apply them. Developing ideas in discrete pieces and weaving them together are two different things, but equally important. The point here is we can keep developing our ideas in informal ways as suggested in this article, and try them out by writing them up formally every now and then (though not necessarily everyday).

    It doesn’t quite matter if you’ve written rubbish in your formal chapters. They’re meant to be rubbish somehow, so you’ll learn from them.

    “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” – Sir Ken Robinson

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  40. I’m doing a law PhD and I think James does have a point – it’s impossible to start writing your thesis without doing sufficient reading and analysis.

    But that is also why I think he is wrong…

    The first two years of my phd was spent reading, making notes, thinking about those notes, analysing them, writing papers and so on. Whilsts I had my research question, I had no idea where I was going and all my work seemed pretty random. When I finally came to writing up properly, I had a whole library of writings that have fed into the shape of thesis in some form or another. Sometimes I could use the rough notes straight, sometimes I had to go back to the original text for a second reading in light of the development of my thinking. In the process of shaping my thesis, I suddently remember things which I read in the first semester of my PhD (I am now in the fourth year) and never returned to. Somehow, what appeared to be disspirit texts and thoughts are fitting together.

    Therefore, if writing a thesis is about the shaping of an argument, then one does write the thesis from the beginning. One just doesn’t know one is doing so until towards the end.

  41. At present I am beginning my second year of a four year PhD. I very much hope that none of my writing so far ends up in my thesis, I agree it’s pretty bad. However, the writing process is a little less scary now. Writing is a skill in itself, and practice can’t come quick enough!

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  43. I am starting a Masters by research in the area of Humanities. I would like to start writing something, at least so I can sort through ideas, and make notes about papers. I agree that I need to practice writing something at least. How do people write their notes and organise their ideas? A folder with 4 million word documents is just not cutting it for me.

    • Two questions:
      - hasn’t empirical research been done in this field. Even though it is to some extent a matter of personal preferences what works best, I believe that some methods work better than others. How do successful writers/researchers go about the process of reading, taking notes, organising, keeping relationship of the snippets both to the writer’s course of argument and to the original source, finding out the structure, turning notes into sections, writing drafts, etc. ? I’m here talking about real, empirical research and quantitatively measuring the effect of the process on productivity and success.
      - what do you consider the optimal it tool(s) to support this process? I’ve reviewed quite a few (my favovorite procrastination activity while working on my phd) but never come across the ultimate tool, that allowed me to record and store store the individual snippets, incl relationship to original source, while letting me gradually develop a structure, eg through tagging, allowing the thesis to grow out from the snippets.

  44. It was quite liberating in a way to read this post. I think that there is much truth to it. When doing my masters I developed (and followed) a system that worked quite well, seperating active reading including building up the argument and the structure, followed by sorting all the notes I made during the research phase, and then eventually writing up the individual chapters.
    Years later I started a phd, but this time my supervisor constantly put pressure on me to produce near-ready text, proceeded by a requirement for an outline of the full thesis. This led to stress and unproductivity alike what is described in this post, procrastination, nonstop writing leading nowhere, looking at the structure without being able to fill anything into the neatly outlined sections, indefinite collection of nearly a thousand references, and eventually giving it up.
    Just in order to formulate your research question and delimit the study, reading is so important. If you use the time to sit and look into a blank computer screen in an urge to write more or less camera ready material, your chances of succeeding are small.

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  46. For me, writing from the start was pretty important. My first task in the thesis was to develop a method. I had general principles from which to begin, but nobody had developed the full method of interpretation which I wanted to use. Until I had this fully worked up and, crucially, articulated, there was no way I could begin work on the rest of the thesis, i.e. the application of the method. After that, each chapter was more or less a standalone application of the method in three different situations. It made sense to write them up as I did the research for each. I’m now in my final chapter, analysing the results and drawing it together. I can’t see that the thesis would have been doable at all if I had left the writing until the end.

    • Hi Ros
      Wasn’t there a process, before you could actually formulate your methods chapter, where you’d read relevant literature and make notes – a process that eventually led you to knowing how your methods should be? And in formulating your methods chapter, didn’t you refer to other studies and methods literature? Didn’t your knowledge of these come via notes that you made while reading the literature?
      Br Peter.

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  50. I have just submitted my thesis (business) and in hindsight I wish that I hadn’t done so much writing early on or that I hadn’t tried to make use of that early writing in the thesis. It would have been much better to build a strong, cohesive argument from scratch than cobble together writing that shifted in focus over those early days.

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  53. I don’t agree with almost everything on this post. Whatever you write at the beginning of your PhD is supposed to be crappy. Writing poorly is the only way you will ever learn to write better. It sounds like it wasn’t really the writing that was the problem, as in when you wrote your literature review, but the fact that you tried to concentrate on an area that was way too large. There is something else very significant that you are missing out on, and that is that writing is research in itself. As you write, you are not only developing writing skills, but you are also honing and sharpening your research topic; would you ever have arrived at that specific topic back then had you not read all of that (ir)relevant literature and did all that Sh***ty writing? Most probably not. Everyone wishes they could pull out every single Word document they ever wrote and stick it into their thesis when the times comes–but this just isn’t realistic. When you think about your writing as research in itself, you realize that all of those words were key to ending up with a polished thesis draft.

  54. Pingback: Too many words is never enough | Creative Writer PhD

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  56. Pingback: Writing from day one is nuts! | 赤心子曰

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  58. I’m in the last week of my 15000 minor thesis in Art History. This resonates so much with me. I spent May writing 10000 words. I read almost nothing new and have been struggling to make up for that in the last month. If I had spent May writing three lines each on three texts rather than 500 words on one I would be in a stronger place now and I’d have had had time to read texts I am only just discovering.

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