Top 10 tips for fast thesis writing

1- Decide when to start

You have to decide when you are going to write. The first thing to do is to set a date when you will stop doing research and start writing in earnest, leave yourself at least 3 months to finish off any last things you need to do. This deadline has to be absolute. Anything not done by then, doesn’t get done.

You will never complete everything on your to-do list, but this is liberating if you accept it as true. Setting a finish date for your research will help you focus on the few tasks which add the most value to your thesis.

2- Decide when to stop

Set your own thesis completion deadline (ideally three months after your start date). Imagine every month you add to the time as costing you $5000 (since you lose income and free time).

If you don’t think it’s possible to write a thesis in that time, write down every reason why not, and ask yourself if it’s impossible, or just difficult.

3- Set mini-deadlines for each chapter

You should already have a rough idea of what your content will be (in terms of chapter titles and so on, so set a deadline for completion of each chapter. These deadlines have to be tight (say 2 weeks per chapter), otherwise you’ll always be able to “start tomorrow”.

These dates have to be agreed well in advance with your supervisor, so they know when to expect each chapter for review (this is the only way to expect fast feedback from a busy academic). Also set dates for meetings to review each chapter, so for example if you hand them a chapter on a Friday, schedule a meeting for the following Wednesday.

4- Set easy targets for each day

Aim to do 500 words every day. It might not seem like much, but it means that you can achieve and beat your target every single day. It soon adds up, and if 500 words is your minimum, the average will actually be higher. Aiming for 1000, 2000 words or more, you’ll miss your target as often as you make it, which is terrible for morale.

It takes the pressure off, and gives you time to write the right 500 words, saving a huge amount of time in the long run.

Print out or make your own “word grid” and place it on the wall above your desk, fill it in as your word-count grows, so you have a visual record of your progress and productivity. It feels good to see it grow!

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5- Create a comfortable, distraction free environment

If you have a choice, work from home. There will be fewer distractions than in the office.

Ideally, work at a computer with no internet connection, but if this isn’t possible, switch off all automatic email notifications and chat programs. That green dot next to your name is an invitation to friends to come and distract you.

Put your monitor at eye level, otherwise you’ll suffer back and neck pain. If you use a laptop, buy a second-hand monitor and external keyboard. It’s not worth physical pain.

6- Only turn on the computer when you know exactly what you’re going to work on

Discovering this changed my life. It also helps to…

7- Check email only after you’ve done at least 2 hours work

Even then, it’s usually not necessary. Email is a non-urgent form of communication and the biggest source of distraction in the modern working world. It’s also the first step into a procrastination loop, because it feels justifiable to check email when you get distracted.

8- Work for 25 minutes at a time

Use a timer, work intensively for 25 minutes on one thing, then take a 5 minute break. During those five minutes, get away from the computer, make a cup of tea, stretch your legs, whatever you want to do, but don’t check the internet. After four 25-minute bursts, take a longer break.

When your brain tries to distract you, you just have to make it through to the end of the 25 minutes, rather than aiming to spend all day concentrating. Take advantage of your brain’s natural attention span. If you think of something else you need to do, write it down, then carry on with what you were doing.

9- Get away from the computer when you aren’t working

Most people find this a challenge, but try to create a binary state. You are either working, or not. Being in some sort of half-way in between state is no use to anyone. If you can do this, you’ll end up spending less time at the computer, but getting far more done.

10- Look after yourself

Be nice to yourself; eat well, sleep well, and socialise. This is far easier if you follow the tips above, because you’ll have the time to spare for things you actually enjoy doing.

Comments

  1. Mo says

    I could agree with you if the three months scheme where about writing a chapter. PhD candidates subject are different, for instance I am writing about middle east history and it is not possible to write the whole thesis in three months even if I spend 2 years in reading and collecting evidences from different archives! because each chapter has it different sources, books and documents!

    Thanks

  2. Ross says

    I am not ingenious or consider myself an extraordinary individual but I was given around 3 months time to complete my Thesis. Me along with 3 of my friends were from the same program, however 2 months we have spent on few clicks here and there finding some relevant ideas and info about our topic but originally when the deadline came very close we realized that it ain’t going to work the day we thought, and it took me around 24 days to complete it.

    According to my personal opinion, I do not believe the number of hours or months really matters to most students since either they are busy enjoying or engaged with jobs. Usually even if you start from the beginning but with relevant findings and devoting himself/herself can really come to great effort and should not take more than 3 weeks.

  3. Amna says

    Hi… i Have very short time ..research is difficult when we do not have time … i hope i ll complete in sha Allah .. by following

  4. Liz says

    I think 3 months for just the write-up might be reasonable, if you were able to dedicate at least 7 hours per day to it, but only for research in the sciences. In the humanities, which is my field, you need to start writing up very early and it is a process that continues throughout the whole research degree. This is because it is often through writing that you discover your own insights and ideas, and often in the humanities there is no ‘data’ and ‘field work’ or ‘lab work’ per se. What advice to you have to offer to humanities PhD students?
    What about part-time students? Do you think 6 months is appropriate? Or does the distraction of doing other things interfere with the brain’s processing abilities, meaning it would therefore take longer than simply 2 x 3 months?
    Great blog with great insights, though :-)

  5. Regina says

    I’ve got about four months to go to finish my PhD. I started many moons ago but two babies in the middle will surely slow one down. Your site provides me with a lot of motivation for the final push through to the end. Thanks for taking the time to help others during this (potentially) challenging time.

  6. Sailee says

    Hi

    great post!
    is this 3 months to write a thesis for how long a duration?
    I mean I had 3 months for my Masters dissertation, and now I have 15 days left to do the write up, however I have researched and done some of the work. Any tips for this situation? I need a minimum of 15000 words done.
    Also the 500 words per day grid pdf file link you have for download does not work! :( Could you correct this?

  7. tatiana vastilovia says

    thanks a ton james…this is indeed helpful *sigh* i got a thesis which i gt to submit in 4 mnths n havent strt it yet :/ really tensed..i hate d criteria of our uni…anyway keeping this on mind…yes it shall work :D thanks again

  8. Sarisha says

    I’ve been working on my MSc thesis since 2010, I was supposed to be done by last year but due my brilliant procrastination and disorganization skills I’m still writing it and now working full time. All the data has been collected and *almost* processed, I just need to finish the analysis and write it all up. It’s on my mind constantly and I feel like failure because I haven’t finished and I’ve received so much support from my thesis adviser…how do I get unstuck?

  9. Jo says

    Thanks for putting this up here. It’s good to know I’m not alone!
    I’m currently writing my MSc, and had to ditch the research I’d done from Sept-May as a panel of supervisors decided it was too ambitious. I’ve had to basically start from scratch, and I aim for 500 words a day as a minimum also. I get really panicky some days, and I work afternoons so I don’t have the luxury of time. I’ve got 15000 words to write by the end of September. Not impossible, but still a fair whack – not to mention editing the full 30000 words by then too. Good luck to anyone else in the same situation!

  10. Julie says

    Thank you for great tips James. I was wondering if these 3 months cover just the writing phase or the research itself as well. Do you think if you have a good planning of what to do and know all the steps for your research, can a PhD thesis be done in a year with published papers. Yes, I am stuck!:( Need help…

    • jameshayton says

      3 months to write, having finished research. 1 year might be physically possible, but would be extremely rare… 2 years is definitely possible but exceptional.

  11. Zaiha says

    I’m doing my thesis right now and I also have tree months.
    Chrome Nanny has helped me a lot. So you can block websites
    that are distracting you like Facebook. And use internet
    only for writing purposes ;)

  12. shila says

    hi James, very good tips.

    James, I have only four months and 15 days to finish up everything.

    My problems are, I suffer chronic multilevel slipdisc (I have to rest many times, I am experiencing pain during sitting when studying. and another one I am not masters yet in statistics. My thesis is quantitative.

    What are your advice.

    Thanks very much.

    syila

  13. tulis says

    I think i’m in those procrastination kind of student .I have every single bad attitudes that u mentioned in your videos and I need to submit my phd thesis july 2012. This 3 monththesis tips really help me. Thanks James.

    • jameshayton says

      I’ve never tried it… writing services might get you through undergraduate reports, but for a PhD or masters degree where you have to defend your writing it doesn’t seem like a good idea.

  14. Anonymous says

    What is this bullshit? I need to write thesis in 3 days not in 3 months. And you actually believe what you have written here? Wow.

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