For the purposes of this course, I’ve defined writing as a form of communication. In the context of a PhD, this usually means the written thesis you submit for examination or papers written for publication.
You are writing for somebody else, with the aim of effectively communicating your research retrospectively once it’s completed.
If this is the primary purpose of writing, then clarity of structure and detail are vitally important and require careful thought.
However, in many fields it’s common practice to write for a different purpose. Sometimes writing is used as a way of generating ideas and arguments. The purpose is not necessarily to communicate, but rather to explore ideas for your own benefit.
In this case detail and structure may not matter so much. You can allow yourself to run with ideas and see what comes out, without worrying about what anyone else thinks about it.
How to write your PhD thesis: The secrets of academic writing
21st November 2018 2018
The value (and limitation) of free-writing
In any kind of creative process, it’s important to allow yourself this kind of playful exploration, without the pressure of worrying about the end result. It’s good to allow yourself to have bad ideas, because they often serve as stepping stones to better ones.
If you just write, without thinking too much, it might lead you to interesting new ideas and help you form connections between ideas.
So free-writing has value, but it is important to distinguish between this kind of free-writing for your own benefit and the kind of writing intended for communication with someone else.
When you communicate research, usually you will be presenting something you have spent a long time working on. You will have examined a particular question or problem in depth, and possibly from multiple perspectives.
In other words, the majority of the ideas you present should not be completely new to you.
Idea generation vs consolidation & communication
If you are at that stage where you are close to submitting a report of your work, it should be less about idea generation, and more about consolidation and refinement of ideas you have already developed.
Let’s look at two possible situations. In the worst-case scenario, you’re a week away from a deadline for submitting a paper, but have no idea what you are going to say and you start writing without knowing what is going to come out. Any ideas you come up with you won’t have time to really consider. You might get something done in time, but it is unlikely to be very insightful.
But if you are a week away from submitting a paper with a good understanding of the relevant ideas, then the challenge is to select what you want to cover from those pre-existing ideas, and express them clearly while putting them together in a logical structure.
In this latter case, you don’t need to write thousands of words in a thoughtless panic. You can think through how to structure your argument. You can write calmly and deliberately, with conscious control over the process and you have a far better chance of writing something good at the first attempt.
Free-writing is for you, deliberate writing is for the reader
So I think it’s important to make a distinction between free-writing (for yourself) and deliberate writing (for other people).
I do this by free-writing on paper, throwing ideas down all over the page and (literally) drawing connections between points. This builds up a stock of ideas, many of which I may never use. I can then consciously select what to communicate to others through deliberate writing.
I find that free-writing by typing thousands of words without thinking leaves me with a huge lump of text which is very difficult to reorder, partly because it’s difficult to get an overview all the ideas. By doing it on paper, I can see everything at a glance and it’s far easier to move things around.
If you free-write as a form of analysis, or if you use writing as a way of thinking as many people do, but struggle to then edit it into a presentable form, try separating the two types of writing. Generate ideas fast, but then put that writing to one side and start again taking more time to think about how to clearly communicate the best of those ideas to others.
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