The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com

The short guide to writing a thesis fast

This guide is inten...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
What is a PhD thesis?
A PhD is the entrance qualification for ...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Research must precede writing
Many people say that you should ...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Clarity of thought
You do not think in nicely structured sente...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Give yourself uninterrupted time
Writing is difficult, but the...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
One idea at a time
Just write about one idea at a time.
Often,...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Finish what you start
Whatever you start working on, stay with...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Stick to what you know
If you have been doing research for a f...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
References
Most people try to include as many references as po...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Structure
Structuring your thesis is much easier when you have...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Consistency, routine, and achievable targets
Routine and consi...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Editing
I tend to edit as I write. I find it much easier to ed...
The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com
Confidence
You have to have confidence in what you want to say...
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Short guide to writing fast

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Short guide to writing fast

  1. 1. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com The short guide to writing a thesis fast This guide is intended to give you some basic principles you can apply to make the thesis writing process easier and faster. It will help you avoid the most common mistakes thesis writers make, and if you follow the advice, you should be able to write faster. Visit 3monththesis.com for more tips on thesis writing and PhD life If you have any questions, email me at james@3monththesis.com I cannot give coaching by email, but if you have questions about any of the ideas in this guide, feel free to drop me a message. Also, if you have any suggestions for anything you would like to see included in future versions, or if you spot any mistakes, please let me know. This guide is distributed under a creative commons license. Feel free to share it, copy it, print it, quote it, but don't modify the content or sell it! Please also credit me as the author, and a link back to my website http://3monththesis.com would be nice. James Hayton, August 11th 2013 1
  2. 2. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com What is a PhD thesis? A PhD is the entrance qualification for the world of professional academia, and it exists to test whether you are capable of conducting research to a professional level. The thesis simply a means of presenting research for assessment. Since professional academics are judged primarily on their output in peerreviewed journals, your thesis is assessed to the same standards as work submitted for publication. This is why most academic systems require the thesis to be reviewed by at least one independent expert in the field; it is modelled on the system of peer-review. I am often asked questions like, “how long should a thesis be?” or “how many references should it include?” but these are not useful questions to ask. No examiner will ever say, “well this is good work, but it is 10 pages too short”. Nor will they say, “well the work isn't good, but they have lots of references so they must have worked hard”. Since the purpose of a thesis is to present research, by far the most important factor is the quality of the research itself. If the research is poorly executed, it doesn't matter how good your writing is. In that sense, your writing is simply packaging for your research. That said, since the thesis is the official record of your research, and the only thing an examiner can see and base their judgement upon, it does need to be well structured in order to show them the quality of your work. Good research is no use if your writing is so bad that the examiner doesn't understand what you have done. So a good thesis is a combination of quality research and quality writing, but one must precede the other. 2
  3. 3. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Research must precede writing Many people say that you should start writing your thesis from day one, but I think this is terrible advice. It is like designing the packaging for a product before you have designed and tested the product itself. If you are writing a thesis, it is impossible to finish the writing until you have finished everything else. If you are still doing analysis, you cannot finish your discussion or conclusions. If you are still gathering data or source material, you cannot finish anything. So writing is always the last thing you can finish, but the standard advice is that it is the first thing you should start. This seems a bit nuts. This is why so many students end up with so many abandoned versions of chapters... they haven't yet done the work necessary to have any confidence in what they want to say. I have spoken to students who have written hundreds of pages, but haven't even looked at their own data yet! So they end up in the nightmare scenario, a few months before submission, and they have no idea what their data says, nor how to do the analysis. Research must precede writing, always. Finish collecting your raw material. Do your analysis. Work out roughly what you want to say, and writing will be much, much easier. In my own case, I didn't write a single word of my thesis until I had finished doing experiments. I had done at least preliminary analysis of all the data, and so I knew what I had to work with. The only difficult chapter to write was one where I decided to do a couple of extra experiments, and I started writing in anticipation that they would work. They didn't, and so I had to throw the chapter away and start it again. Yes, write down ideas. Keep a record of what you do. But don't start writing it up formally until you have done the work. 3
  4. 4. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Clarity of thought You do not think in nicely structured sentences, paragraphs, sections and chapters. Everything you want to communicate in your thesis, all your thoughts and knowledge related to your subject, is stored in your head in a disordered mess. And it takes work to transform the disordered mess in your head into ordered writing on the page. Writing is a process of clarifying and structuring your thoughts in a way that someone else can follow. And so sometimes you will find that you gain a better understanding of your subject by writing about it. This is one of the reasons why some suggest writing from day one, so that your ideas become clearer over time, but I prefer to think of it a different way. If you have some clear ideas before you write, then writing is much easier. If you spend time thinking and discussing ideas with other people, you will have a solid basis of clear, confident ideas before you start setting words down on the page. While writing this document, I have written over 800 words in an hour, but this is only possible because it is not the first time I have thought about these concepts. I have spent 3 years refining and developing my thoughts through my work on the blog and with individual students. You don't have to have everything perfectly formed before you write, but at least having some experience discussing and explaining most of the key ideas you want to cover is essential if you want to write fast. 4
  5. 5. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Give yourself uninterrupted time Writing is difficult, but there is one thing you can give yourself that will make the process much easier; uninterrupted time. Writing fast does not mean typing fast. Even if you are an exceptionally slow typist, you should still be able to write, say 10 words per minute. That translates to 600 words per hour, or 4800 words in an 8-hour working day. Typing speed is not the limiting factor. The limiting factor is thinking time. Writing can be frustrating because there will be half-formed ideas, which you don't quite know how to express clearly. It's like the ideas is floating in your mind, but it's not solid yet and you can't grab hold of it. In situations like this, it takes a bit of time for the thought to solidify. But if you are interrupted during this process, it can disappear forever. The most important resource for any writer is uninterrupted time, so you can sit and think about what you want to say. But interruptions don't just come from other people. It is quite possible to interrupt yourself. It is so easy, when you have been sitting doing nothing for a minute or two, to find yourself online, first checking email, then Facebook, then 45 minutes later you are watching videos of cats on YouTube. If you want to get your thesis done, work offline. Remove the option of the internet, either by cancelling your broadband contract (which is what I did) or installing an internet blocker such as Freedom (http://macfreedom.com). Finding uninterrupted time is not easy, but you must create it for yourself if you are serious about getting your thesis done. 5
  6. 6. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com One idea at a time Just write about one idea at a time. Often, people feel the need to show how much they know or how much they have read, and so cram as many ideas into every paragraph as possible. But this makes the thesis impossible to read and just comes across as lacking in confidence. When you write, always have a clear idea of the point you are trying to communicate to the reader, and take your time to express that one point clearly. I often read samples of students writing where every sentence in a paragraph contains a completely different idea. It leaps from one concept to another, trying to cover everything, but succeeding in covering nothing. Give each of your ideas space to breathe. If an idea or argument is important, give it a paragraph of its own rather than suffocating by squashing it in with 20 other big ideas. While you write, you will have 1000 ideas all bursting to get out at the same time, but the trick is to hold back 999 of them and gently extract the one you want. Imagine a crowd of people trying to fight their way through a narrow doorway. If they all try to get through at the same time, they will get stuck, but if they form a queue and walk through one by one, it will be much faster and easier. Slowing down and calmly bringing out one idea at a time, then giving each one the thought and attention it deserves will not only make your writing clearer, but it will also be less stressful for you, AND it will be faster. 6
  7. 7. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Finish what you start Whatever you start working on, stay with it until it is finished. The pace of your writing will vary naturally. Sometimes you will write fast, other times you will need to slow down, either to think or to do some background work (such as checking data or references) before you can continue writing. In order to keep getting words on the page, the temptation is to switch to writing about something else and leave those difficult details for later. This works, but only in the short-term. Eventually you will run out of easy things to say, and you will have a thesis where everything is 70% complete, but the final 30 % is all the crucial difficult stuff you have avoided earlier. You will have 10s of thousands of words, but nothing will be finished, and it will be a nightmare to try to edit it all together later. But if you take the time and care to complete whatever section you are working on, including all the references and finer details, then you can move on to the next section with confidence, knowing that you are one step closer to completion. The more you have complete, the easier it will get as you approach the final submission date, rather than facing a blind panic in the last few weeks trying to work through all the difficult details in a very short space of time. 7
  8. 8. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Stick to what you know If you have been doing research for a few years, there will be some things you know really, really well. There will be other things, perhaps related to your research, that you don't know so well, maybe because you haven't used that technique or idea during your project. Obviously, it is easier to write well about things you know. But often there is the temptation to try to appear knowledgeable about everything, and people spend a huge amount of time filling in the gaps in their knowledge. When I was writing my thesis, I decided to focus only on the areas in which I felt confident and I did not include anything I wouldn't have been comfortable talking about in my thesis defence. Any extra reading I did to strengthen my knowledge, I did to strengthen the concepts I was already good at, either because of practical experience, or because I had discussed the ideas many times during the course of my PhD. I did this partly because I figured it would be easier and faster and more enjoyable, but also because I knew I couldn't bullshit the examiners by pretending to understand something I didn't. The end result was that my thesis was very strong, I enjoyed writing it, and the examiners enjoyed reading it. I passed with zero corrections not by being a brilliant physicist, but by focusing on my strengths and making them even stronger. 8
  9. 9. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com References Most people try to include as many references as possible in their thesis. But this approach is obviously flawed, because if more is better then there is no end to how many references you could include. I took the opposite approach. I decided I would only allow a reference into my thesis if I thought it was good enough to be included. I searched for the absolute highest quality papers to serve a specific purpose. For example; • • • • • • To back up an argument or show precedence for an idea To show whose work I had used as a basis for my own To refer the reader elsewhere for more information on a topic I didn't cover in depth As a source of data To provide context or comparison for my work As an example of the best work (or the variety of work) done in a particular area/ using a specific technique or idea I never cited anything just because it existed. I never cited anything I hadn't read, and I never cited anything I didn't understand. It is essential to take a critical view of the literature, and not just blindly cite every source you find. By setting a high standard for your references, you show that you can distinguish good work from bad, and you ensure that your bibliography is of high quality, rather than quantity. There were a few unintended side effects of setting a high standard for my references. First, high quality papers are usually easier to read and to write about. Second, I wanted to justify why the kind of research I was doing was important. By first justifying why the top papers in the field were important, my own research was justified simply by association- “here are the top papers, they are important because of X, Y, and Z, but there is a gap, which my research happens to fill...” The third side effect, was that it lent to the feeling of quality in the thesis, which is vitally important when trying to make a good first impression. 9
  10. 10. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Structure Structuring your thesis is much easier when you have a rough idea of what you want to say. However, some of the structure will emerge and evolve as you write. So there is a balance to be struck between planning and flexibility. It helps to have a rough outline of what every chapter will include before you start to write, then narrow your focus to work exclusively on one chapter at a time. A trick I use is to type a few bullet points for the section I am working on, in the rough order I think I will write about them. These serve as a kind of roadmap so I know where I want to go with the narrative. As I type, I can change the bullets, editing, adding, removing or re-ordering them as I see fit. The best-selling author Scott Berkun uses this trick too (and his writing process is uncannily similar to mine). I highly recommend watching this short video where he explains how he does it: http://youtu.be/D85NqSrpzew I always try to make sure there is a continuous flow from one idea to another. I start at the beginning of the chapter, and keep writing until I reach the end. Although I will often go back and insert something earlier in the chapter when I realise I need to, I will never, ever jump forward leaving a gap to fill in later. If I think of something to go later in the chapter, I simply make a note or add a bullet point to the list, and carry on working on whatever idea I am working on. 10
  11. 11. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Consistency, routine, and achievable targets Routine and consistency are important. It is the things you do consistently that add up over time to success or failure in your PhD. It is better to write 300 words per day for 10 days in a row than to write 1500 words one day, then another 1500 10 days later. Even though the output is the same in terms of average words per day, writing every day means that you are engaging often with the ideas you want to write about. It also helps to create a habit, and avoids that building feeling of guilt if you do nothing for several days in a row. I worked with a minimum daily target of 500 words. I knew that I could write much more than that in a single day, but I wanted a target I could exceed, allowing me to feel good about my productivity every day. If I had a great day, and wrote 2000 words, then I would feel fantastic about smashing my target. If I had a bad day and had to fight my way through to 500 words, then I would feel good because I had overcome difficulty and still reached my target. No matter how much I wrote on one day, the next day my target was 500. And because that was my minimum, my average per day was higher. Different writers have different routines, but I used the following principles; 1. Try to achieve something (even a really small thing) early. 2. Step away from the computer when taking a break (this is easier when you have no internet connection) 3. Stop writing while you still have some energy in reserve 4. At the end of the day, leave yourself something easy to start the next day 5. Back to 1, repeat until finished! 11
  12. 12. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Editing I tend to edit as I write. I find it much easier to edit a sentence or a paragraph while the ideas are still fresh in my head, rather than writing thousands of words and editing later. Some people misunderstand when I say this, and think it is perfectionism, but really it's just taking a bit of time and care to think about what I want to say, and to try to express it clearly. The basic principles I follow are; 1. Have I accurately and clearly expressed the idea I want to communicate? 2. Does it follow from the last thing I wrote? 3. Is it nicely phrased? I will edit again later, and during my thesis my supervisor was reading and making suggestions, but the later editing was made much easier because I did some of the editing as I wrote. This is the opposite of the commonly held attitude that, “the first draft of anything is shit”. I take the view that I have something valuable to say, and I'm going to take some care over it. There is a balance to be struck. If you spend hours and hours over a single sentence, that is clearly excessive, and sometimes you can worry too much about getting it just right. I'd rather get it OK, at the very least, on the first draft. This is of course easier having completed the research before writing and sticking to topics I knew about. 12
  13. 13. The short guide to writing a thesis fast | 3monththesis.com Confidence You have to have confidence in what you want to say. It is difficult to write, knowing that an expert is going to read it and make a pass-or-fail judgement, and this can often make your writing hesitant. It can lead to procrastination and indecisiveness (which people mistake for perfectionism), but you have to become comfortable with the idea that someone is going to make a judgement, and you cannot know what they will think. All you can do is give it your best shot, and don't worry what anyone else thinks. I decided that I didn't care what the examiners thought, and told myself that if I failed then I would just deal with it. That attitude helped me relax and just focus on doing the work for the hell of it. I always say that confidence is not knowing exactly how things will work out, nor is it certainty that you will succeed. Confidence is accepting the unknown, accepting that it may go horribly wrong, but doing it anyway. Not worrying about the end result is not apathy. I was determined to get the thesis finished, and if I was going to fail, then it wouldn't be because I hadn't submitted. Have the confidence to say what you think. Have the confidence to make a clear, bold statement. Have the confidence to make your own decisions about what you include in your thesis. Have the confidence to say less, when necessary. Have confidence in your expertise, and don't worry about gaps in your knowledge because everybody has them. Have the confidence to submit to the examiners judgement. And have the confidence to defend your work with pride. 13

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