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Writing your thesis - tips from Researcher Development - University of Sussex

Tips on planning, getting organised and getting started on successfully writing your PhD thesis.

Amelia Philpott

on 17 February 2012

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Transcript of Writing your thesis - tips from Researcher Development - University of Sussex

Writing your thesis Outline Brainstorm everything that needs to be included - no detail, just headings, sub-headings and figure titles, so you know all the sections that you need to complete. Structure Based on your outline, decide on a logical order for your research -
what information needs to be included in your introduction/background chapter, and how will it be structured?
how will you split your research into chapters?
Discuss with your supervisor. Organisation Decide how you are going to organise your your writing - helpful to have a filing system, such as separate files for each chapter and footnotes so you know what version/draft it is. Decide on a suitable workspace and make sure you have everything you need - try to keep it tidy and organised. If you haven't already got a filing system for papers make sure you start one now - such as paper copies kept in folders with any notes you have made, or pdf copies stored on your computer with other relevant files. Time management Make a plan - estimate how long you think a task will take (allow reasonable contingency time for over-running) Put a chart or calendar on your wall so you can see what you've got to do and how much time you have - good for motivation! Set self-imposed deadlines to keep you motivated and focussed e.g. agree to send a chapter to your supervisor by a particular date etc. If possible, try to minimise other commitments such as teaching or work. Regularly review your progress to make sure you are on target to meet your deadlines. Drafting Most people find it much easier to improve something that is already written, rather than start from scratch. So try to write anything - as rough as you like - to get started and then go back to improve and clean up for your supervisor to read. When you sit down to write, make sure you actually write something - some notes, a few ideas, even just a paragraph of text. At this stage is doesn't need to be good quality writing that you would show to someone else, just something to get you started. If you find a particular section easy to write (often a methods or methodology section), keep this for when you are struggling to write anything else. Motivation Set yourself self-imposed deadlines to keep you motivated and focused e.g. agree to send a chapter to your supervisor to read by a particular date etc. Reward yourself for meeting goals or targets that you set - a night out with friends for finishing a chapter; a piece of cake for completing your figures etc. Keep a to-do list or progress chart on your wall so you can visually keep track of what you've done and how much you have got left to do to help you stay motivated and on schedule. Timeframes Agree with your supervisor how much they will read and their timeframes for returning work to you. Any comments you receive will be useful, and academic writing improves with practise, so don't be put off if your first draft comes back covered in red ink (or the electronic equivalent), you will improve! Your writing must be clear and concise. Good grammar and clear structuring will make the thesis easier to read. Decide at the beginning whether to use the active or passive voice ("I did this" or "this was done"). It is very important to speak with your supervisor as rules on this vary widely between disciplines. Academic writing is formal and you should not use any slang, colloquialisms or other informal writing. Ask friends or colleagues to read your writing - do they think your arguments make sense, are your explanations clear, is your writing easy to understand? Look at other theses from your subject area. Get ideas on how other people have structured and formatted their theses - what will work best for yours? Do not compare yours to anyone else's in terms of quality or content When to stop A thesis will never be perfect - it is a large body of work and in the timeframe you have it will never be perfect. However, you can do your best to limit any corrections by making sure you have, for example, checked:
Page numbers
Figure numbers
References Make sure you give your supervisor enough time to read your thesis, and time for you to make any necessary changes. Your supervisor should be able to help you identify when you have done enough, but when you reach the stage of 'fiddling' with wording, or 'prettifying' figures, it is probably time to stop. References Decide on your choice of referencing program/software before you begin writing (e.g. Endnote or Zotero). Make sure you reference as you write - it is very time consuming to go back and add references later, and you are more likely to miss out references = plagiarism! Breaks Take regular breaks. Do something away from your computer e.g. exercise, see friends, watch TV, do the housework etc. Treat or reward yourself after each completed milestone to maintain your motivation. When you complete a chapter take a day off and do something nice. Don't over-do it. If you are tired you will not be able to write or think to the best of your ability. Take breaks and get plenty of rest, then return to your thesis refreshed and better able to think and write clearly. Writer's block Try to remain productive - find something else to do. Write a method section, do some more analysis, finish a figure. Time away from a difficult piece of writing can help you see it with a fresh pair of eyes. Try explaining to someone else what you are trying to write about - it can help you form your ideas in a succinct manner Distractions and Procrastination Establish regular working hours - this gets you into a routine and can help with productivity.
Limit email/facebook/twitter to set times e.g. 9am, 12pm and 5pm only. Do not reply to emails as they arrive in your inbox unless absolutely necessary.
Tell friends and family what your writing hours are so they do not phone you or expect you to reply to texts etc. Further resources For additional help with writing you thesis:

Doctoral School workshops: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/researcherdev/events/

Library resources: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/library/researchhiveseminars/

Online video from Hugh Kearns: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/doctoralschool/internal/researcherdev/e-learning/filmslectures

Doctoral School handbook: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/doctoralschool/internal/resources There are a number of additional resources available to help you improve your writing and provide further help with writing your thesis. Amelia Philpott BSc PhD Ensure you are aware of the approved format of your thesis. Full information is provided in the Doctoral Student handbook: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/doctoralschool/internal/documents/handbook-for-doctoral-researchers-2011-12.pdf
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