A PhD is not, primarily, about writing; it is about research. The writing serves as a means of presentation.
To me this seems obvious, but a lot of people assume that because the final submitted product is a piece of writing, that writing is the primary aim.
So I meet students only a few months away from the deadline who have never even looked at their own data and have no experience or skill at all in analysing, presenting and discussing research results.
They may have written hundreds of pages, and those pages may superficially look like thesis chapters, but they have nothing – absolutely nothing – in terms of research content.
You might be a fantastic writer, but if your research sucks then you cannot write a good thesis. But if your research is good then the writing doesn’t have to be fantastic; just good enough to explain what you did and what the results were.
Do the research. Do the analysis. Discuss your results. Repeat. Then write.
Doing a PhD and writing a thesis are not the same thing
Recently, this site was included in a Guardian article listing top online resources for PhD students.
James Hayton PhD: A former nervous PhD student, now a post-doc, shares his wisdom about how to write a thesis without losing your mind.
Aside from the fact that I wouldn’t describe myself as “nervous” and the fact I’m not a post-doc, I would not say that this site is about writing a thesis. It is about doing a PhD.
Writing a thesis is part of doing a PhD, but it is not synonymous with doing a PhD. The thesis is the part that other people see, but it is only a tiny fraction of the work that should go into the research.
Yes, this applies to social sciences and humanities too
Let me make this very, very clear. This post is aimed at social scientists and humanities students too. The vast majority of students I have worked with have come from these areas, and BY FAR the most common problem is trying to write without having done the fundamental research work.
Example: someone gathering interview data but who only spends (over the course of 5 years) about 3 days actually doing interviews. The quality of the thesis will depend on the quality of the data, and the quality of the data depends on your skill as an interviewer. If you have only done 3 days of actual research, there is no way you will have developed the skill required to do it well. The writing will be exceptionally difficult because, fundamentally, you don’t have any good content to present.