Write on time: How to take the pressure off the ‘writing-up period’

Now that we’ve concluded another incredibly successful WriteFest at the University of Sheffield, it feels like a good opportunity to reflect on positive writing habits. In this post, I’ll be talking about the unique challenges of the thesis writing-up period and practical ways to deal with it. 

Let’s start by tackling the phrase ‘writing-up period’, which is a term I use very reluctantly! It rears its head in day-to-day conversations between researchers, in online communities, in HE scholarship, and you’ll even see it used formally by universities and funding bodies. But, call me a curmudgeon, I just can’t quite get on board with it, and the reason why is twofold.

Firstly, ‘writing-up period’ implies that the process of writing is an afterthought following the research, which is certainly not the case. While approaches to writing can vary significantly according to discipline, writing is never just about getting words on the page. As Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson put it, ‘We write to work out what we think. It’s not that we do the research and then know. It’s that we write our way to understanding through analysis’ (see Kamler and Thomson, Helping Doctoral Students Write, 2006).

Secondly, the phrase suggests that the writing process should be limited to a certain time frame (specifically, the final year or months of your PhD programme). Have you ever found yourself nodding along when someone says, ‘oh, I’m just in my writing up period’, or ‘I’ll just write it up in my final year’? The danger of this mindset is that it plays down the importance of writing up– it’s a big task that shouldn’t be shoehorned into a few months to complete.

Writing from an early stage in your PhD will help you feel much more productive, motivated, and focused on where your project is going. So, get yourself writing regularly by following these top tips:*

*Note – this means full prose, not just notes or bullet points, though by all means you can start off with these and flesh them out into sentences!

1. Read a paper, write it up!

For each article, chapter, or book you read, try writing a paragraph reflection that summarises the argument, details any thoughts it’s stimulated, or simply responds to one aspect of its argument or data. This will get you thinking more thoroughly about the topic and can be directly used in a lit review.

2. Practice writing small reports on how your research is going

This not only gets you writing, but also allows you to evaluate your practice as you go. It’s a great way to reflect on your approach to research or your findings, and can even be used to update your supervisor ahead of supervisions.

3. Write your methods section as you’re doing it

Not only does this mean you have a large chunk of your thesis completed well before your submission deadline, but it also makes a lot of sense practically! Saving this section for your final year means you may forget the details of specific procedures or why you took a certain approach. So why not save yourself the time and energy spent revisiting your methods by getting it all down while it’s still fresh? Have a look at the following post for more on this: https://www.talkplant.com/i-wrote-phd-thesis-time-life/

person writing bucket list on book

4. Outline chapters and subsections as you go

Writing mini-abstracts for each section of your thesis not only helps you hone your academic writing style; by allocating yourself dedicated time to write about how your project will (hopefully!) pan out, you’ll able to view your thesis more holistically and consider how different sections will feed into each other. In many cases, it can also be used as part of your submission ahead of your confirmation review.**

5. Blogging or writing about aspects of your research area via social media

This is a great way to get writing, and it can also be a valid public engagement activity that can be used for your DDP. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to start your own blog, although this could be an option! Instead, it could involve approaching conference organisers to create conference reports, writing book reviews for academic journals, guest-blogging for academic societies (or, of course, writing a post for the Think Ahead blog!) Even live-tweeting conferences gets you into the habit of succinctly summarising the arguments of other researchers – a skill you’ll certainly have to use when writing your thesis.

If you have any tips or techniques that got you writing your PhD thesis early, feel free to let us know in the comments below!

** You can always book yourself onto a Think Ahead Writing Retreat if you struggle to allocate time to do this! (https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/rs/ecr/events/retreat)

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