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.

How to set up your writing routine

Everybody has different circumstances and different amounts of time available, so however you setup your writing routine you’ll need to adapt it to fit your needs. With that said, though, there are some basic principles you can follow.

Do the research first

While it is possible to write some content before doing the research, sooner or later you will hit the limit of what you can say with confidence. So if it’s a choice between writing for the sake of writing or doing the actual work the writing is supposed to present, do the research.

See also: Don’t neglect your data!

Of course, in some fields writing is a crucial part of the research itself, and for those writing in a second (or third or fourth…) language then it’s important to practice writing and make a conscious effort to improve.

See also: Writing your way to a PhD
See also: Writing your thesis in a second language

Turn off the internet

Or at least the parts of the internet that distract you. If you reach a difficult point in your writing and your first instinctive response is to check email (then facebook, news headlines etc), then you will be at your most distracted when you need to be at your most focused.

I wrote my thesis with no internet connection at home, removing the need for willpower to avoid online procrastination. For those unable to do this, try using software to block sites during your writing time (I have recommended Freedom in the past, but it’s become less reliable lately- check this list for alternatives).

Let yourself settle

I usually find that it takes me about 20 minutes just to let my brain settle and to focus. At first, my brain is just racing through countless ideas, so I try to relax into the writing rather than rushing to produce words as fast as possible.

One useful technique is to turn the screen off and spend a few minutes with pen and paper to decide exactly what you want to communicate or what points you need to cover. Try to narrow your focus, slow your brain down a little, and just work on one idea at a time.

See also: How to overcome writer’s block

Set achievable targets

When writing my thesis, I set myself a minimum daily target of 500 words per day*. This was high enough to feel like a significant amount of work, but low enough that I knew I could easily beat the target most days. Whether I struggled to reach 500 or easily wrote 2000, both felt good.

You might not be able to produce 500 words per day regularly, so set a target you know you can beat every day.

*I didn’t do this all the way through my PhD, only at the end when I had to get the thesis done. Also, there are times when polishing what you have is more important than increasing the word count- when this happens just make the goal to finish the section you are working on.

See also: How I wrote a PhD thesis in 3 months

Figure out what works for you

Some people find it easiest to get up early and write while they are fresh. Personally, I find it easier to stay up than to get up. You don’t have to copy somebody else’s routine if it doesn’t work for you.

Figure out what writing routine works for you, then try to write during the same hours each day.

Get away from the computer when you need a break

Avoid email and facebook during breaks. Get away from the computer and leave your phone turned off, make a cup of tea, go for a walk around the block… anything that gives you a break from staring at the screen.

Avoid eating at your desk.

Don’t work to exhaustion

I always tried to leave a bit in reserve, stopping work for the day while I still had something to say. Some people panic that they won’t be able to start again if they stop, but by working to exhaustion they make it much harder to start again the next day.

At the end of the day…

Turn the screen off and take 10 minutes with pen and paper to write down any thoughts you have and tasks you still need to do. Give yourself something easy to start the next day with.

Any other writing routine tips?

What works for you? Leave a comment below!

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