The more you write, the harder it gets…

When you start a new chapter, there will be some material which just seems to spill out. You have a whole load of ideas bottled up, and so it’s easy at first to create new content and increase your word count.

But then something happens… It gets harder and harder to write the closer you get to finishing.

Why does that happen, and what can you do about it?

Picking the low-hanging fruit

Of all the content you want to put in your thesis, there will be some things you are confident in, some things that are easy.

Then there will be things that take a lot more thought. Things that you’re unsure of, or are are difficult to explain, or require thorough references, or are incomplete.

So if you start with all the easy stuff, eventually and inevitably you will be left with the more difficult things which take more time and thought.

It’s like picking the fruit from a tree. It’s easy at first to take the low-hanging fruit, but then gets harder the more you pick because the remaining fruit is higher up.

The more you work, the more work you create

What makes academic writing unique is the level of supporting detail required for every idea you present.

Almost everything you write requires some kind of reference either to previously published work or to some evidence you present as part of your research.

Even a fairly simple, uncontroversial and well-known factual statement may need a reference to support it. So writing that statement creates some extra work if you then have to go looking through the literature to find out where it originally came from.

This is often tedious work, so the temptation is to leave yourself a note (insert reference here) to remind yourself to do it later, because you want to carry on writing, creating more content and increasing your word-count.

70% complete…

So after working on a chapter for a while, there will come a point when everything that remains to be done is either difficult new content or tedious detail.

You will no longer be able to sit down and write 1000 words in an afternoon. It might feel like writer’s block, and you might feel the burning temptation to leave the chapter 70% complete and switch to writing about something else (where you’ll be able to take more low-hanging fruit and write fast again).

But that can only work in the short term. The same thing will happen again with the next chapter, and the next, until you have built up a vast amount of unfinished material. Everything that remains is difficult, and it’ll be one hell of a fight to get the thesis finished.

The stress-free route to thesis completion

If you fight against the inevitable, you will lose. But if you understand and accept how it works, then you can work in harmony with the task.

When you’ve gone through the easy phase of generating writing, and you start to slow down naturally, this is a signal that you should change your focus to working on either the finer details or to think about the difficult aspects of what you are trying to communicate.

Go back through what you have written. Edit. Put in the missing details. Put in the references. Take the time to think deeply about what you want to say next.

Try to anticipate what an examiner’s questions might be, and address the difficult issues now, while the subject and the ideas are all fresh in your head.

Accept that it’s necessary to slow down sometimes and take care over the detail. Be perfectionist about it. Do it well, and finish the section by dealing with all those tiny details before moving on to the next.

If you can complete one section…

Every section of your thesis requires the same basic elements before you can say it’s complete.

It will need all the references in place, with the full bibliographic information. It will need editing. It will need formatting to look like the final thesis. Any figures will need to be well designed and properly captioned. It will need to flow from one point to the next without any gaps to complete later.

You will have to do all these things at some point, for every single section of the thesis. You can either do it all at the end, under massive time pressure, or you can do it as you go. It’s up to you.

But if you can finish one section, just one section, taking care of all of these details, then you know what’s required for the rest of the thesis. And if you can complete one section to a high standard, then you know you can do it for the rest of the thesis.

The minimum viable chapter

When writing, it’s common to worry about whether you have enough.

What if I miss something the examiner wants to see?

This way of thinking leads you down a difficult path, always working to add more rather than presenting what you have.

Instead, think about the minimum you need. What are the most important things you have to communicate? What are your best, most interesting results? Focus on these, and don’t dilute the good stuff through fear of it not being enough.

See also:
What to do when your PhD project gets too big

How to write well: solving problems of expression

Writing is about solving problems of expression.

The difficulty of the problem depends upon the difficulty of the idea you want to express. Some thoughts are easy to put into words; the ideas you know well, have confidence in and have explained before. Other ideas take much more work, maybe because the thought isn’t fully clear to you, or because it is a subtle point or requires deep insight. These take much more thought, effort and time.

If you only write fast, then you will only be able to write about the things that come easily to mind, and you will never be able to reach those deeper insights, nor be able to express those difficult concepts adequately. It you only write fast, then you are denying yourself the opportunity to solve those more difficult (and often important) problems of expression.

A lot of writers get frustrated if they can’t maintain the same pace, but in order to write well – and to cover the full range of difficulty – you must allow your pace to vary with the difficulty of the ideas you are trying to express at any given time.

 

See also:
How to find your writing flow
How to overcome writer’s block

Academic writing tip: read it out loud

It’s hard to read your own writing critically, but it’s something you’ll have to do. One way to make it easier is to read your work out loud.

This has two advantages.

First, it slows you down. You can’t skim over text as quickly when you have to speak the words, and this makes it easier to spot typos, repetition and other such mistakes.

Second, it transforms writing from a bunch of words on a page into actual sounds. Writing is, in essence, a form of idealised speech, and good writers know how to use the sound and rhythm of a sentence to get their message across.

That requires, of course, a high level of skill. The first step towards developing that skill is simply paying attention.

See also:

Balance: How to write a thesis the examiner wants to read

How to tame your inner writing critic

 

Day 23: Decision fatigue and writing

Watch “Day 21: Decision Fatigue”
60/60: 60 short videos for PhD students in 60 days

A few days ago, I talked about decision fatigue; when you have to make a lot of decisions it’s tiring, and the more tired you get the harder it is to make good decisions and the easier it is to slip into bad habits.

Writing is all about decision making because there are countless ways to express and arrange your ideas. A lot of people avoid making decisions and just write, but this means you have to do all the decision making at the end when you’re under the most pressure…

Day 19: An Announcement

How to Write Your PhD Thesis, Part 1: The Fundamentals of Academic Writing

Click the link above to get your spot on the course!

 

How to Write Your PhD Thesis, Part 1: The Fundamentals of Academic Writing

Live session, 15th August, 1 pm to 4 pm UK time

_______

This is the best course on academic writing you will ever find, showing you EXACTLY what to do at each step of the process. Follow the exercises and adapt the principles to your project and you’ll find that writing isn’t nearly as difficult or stressful as you might think.

Do you ever…

  • Feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work to do?
  • Get lost in the literature?
  • Struggle to start or edit the 10th draft of a chapter?
  • Suffer from writer’s block?
  • Feel like you’re working and working but nothing ever gets finished?

Or do you ever feel that you’re trying your best but you’ve never had the right guidance?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this course is for you. Whether you’re just starting your PhD or pushing towards completion, this course is here to help you.

Academic writing can be enjoyable

Yes, it’s true. A lot of people suffer because they are working hard without seeing a positive outcome. Words go down on the page, but they aren’t happy with what they’ve done.

But with the right guidance and by developing the right skills we can make sure that your effort produces something you can be proud of. Writing can become enjoyable, rather than a source of stress.

Course structure

In this course, you’ll learn, step by step, how to write each part of your thesis, starting with the introduction and taking each section one at a time.

Module 1: Fundamentals
Module 2: How to Write an Introduction
Module 3: How to Write Your Literature Review
Module 4: Methods and Methodology
Module 5: Presenting your Results, Analysis and Discussion
Module 6: Conclusions and Preparing to Submit and Defend

In this first session, we’ll lay the foundation with some essential principles as well as some common mistakes to avoid. We need to recognize bad habits before replacing them with good ones!

You will learn:

  • How to start untangling the mess of ideas in your head
  • How to create a very quick first draft of a chapter or section
  • How to deal with writer’s block and perfectionism
  • How to avoid the most common writing mistakes
  • Techniques for avoiding distraction and focusing your attention

You’ll also start to assess your potential content and potential obstacles. This will be done using a series of specific, in-depth questions; answering these will tell you exactly what you need to communicate to your readers.

About the course

The aim of the course is to cover as much of the thesis writing process as possible, as simply as possible.

These live sessions will be recorded and available to watch later. You will also have access to a private Facebook group to ask questions and chat with other attendees between live sessions and after the course ends (because questions may come up months later!)

The course schedule isn’t fixed at the moment as I’m juggling multiple commitments, so I’m announcing one module at a time, but module 2 (on thesis introductions) will run in September.

_______________

Some important information

The session will last up to 3 hours (with breaks!) depending on the number of questions asked.

The ticket price only covers this first module. Later modules will have to be purchased separately.

Please note that the live session will run from 2 pm until 5 pm European time. Please double check the time where you are!

To join the session, you’ll be sent a link at least 24 hours before the event starts.

If you have any questions please email hello@jameshaytonphd.com

 

How to Write Your PhD Thesis, Part 1: The Fundamentals of Academic Writing

Click the link above to get your spot on the course!

Day 16: It’s OK to slow down

60/60: 60 short videos for PhD students in 60 days

Yesterday, I described a system for putting your writing in context by setting up a situation and a problem first. But when you do this, you may still have a number of options to choose from.

Whenever you face a decision, it will inevitably slow you down. Some people see this as writer’s block and say you should go faster, but it’s far better to slow down, give it some thought, make a decision and move forward. Otherwise, you just save up all the difficult decisions for later.

You don’t have to maintain the same pace all the time. Sometimes you’ll go faster, sometime’s you’ll need to slow down or stop to think. That’s OK, it’s just the nature of writing.

See also
How to Overcome Writer’s Block

Day 15: Academic writing: How to get started

60/60: 60 short videos for PhD students in 60 days
When writing, it’s often difficult to know where to start. But there are some simple tricks you can use which apply to almost any project.
 
First, describe a situation, then a problem or question that arises from that situation.
 
That then sets up a context for the information that follows.
 
This structure applies to the thesis as a whole, but also to individual chapters and sections.
This is obviously just a brief introduction to this concept, and it takes some thought to apply it to your own project, but once you master this idea everything gets much easier to write and to read.

Day 2: It’s not enough to just start

In the last few videos, I’ve talked about not waiting for conditions to be perfect before starting something and about trying to make small improvements every day.

While it’s important to start and not to let perfectionism hold you back, that doesn’t mean you should avoid the work of making things better.

When you’re writing, for example, if you just write 10’s of thousands of words without learning how to assess and improve your work, you’re effectively procrastinating over editing because editing is difficult and scary.

So don’t wait for conditions to be perfect, but don’t wait to start improving, either. It’s all about balance!

Today’s small improvements

I moved the camera up to eye level, and also figured out how to upload faster to YouTube. I’m also adding a page where you’ll be able to find all the videos I upload.