How many thesis drafts do you need to write?

There will always be more you can do.

But there’s also got to come a point where it’s good enough to submit your thesis and get on with your life.

So here are a few guidelines to revising your thesis from one draft to the next.

First Draft

The content shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to your supervisor if you’ve been communicating during your research.

At the very least, you should discuss what you’re going to put in and a rough outline before you start writing.

Still, it’s going to come back with quite a lot of suggested changes, whether it’s spelling mistakes, factual errors, or changes in the structure or style. That’s OK, as long as you’re clear about what they want you to do to make it better.

If there’s even the slightest doubt, ask.

Second Draft

Any major changes should have been made, and it should be pretty close to the final thing, though there’ll probably be a few new mistakes in there.

At this point, your supervisor shouldn’t suggest any major new sections. If they do… well why didn’t they say so after the first draft? This is why it’s so important to clarify what they want you to do after the first draft.

Third Draft

By this point, there should be no obvious technical mistakes or bits missing.

There will still be spelling errors, there will still be more you could do, but from this point on, any further rounds of revision will have a rapidly diminishing effect on the quality of your thesis.

The hardest thing to edit…

The most difficult thing to edit is your writing style. If in doubt, keep your sentences as short as you can. This will generally make them clearer, and clarity is king.

How to avoid endless rounds of revision

Of course some chapters might take a fourth draft to get right, but if it’s going up to 6 or 7, then it’s just silly. Here’s how to avoid getting into that situation.

  • Discuss the thesis structure with your supervisor before you start
  • Plan chapters before you sit down to write, so you know what you’re going to include before you start
  • Give chapters to your supervisor one at a time, rather than drafts of the entire thesis
  • Don’t keep doing new research once you start writing. If you do need to do some extra, stop writing, finish the research!

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6 thoughts on “How many thesis drafts do you need to write?”

  1. Great blog post. It is strange how I actually followed the steps whilst I was writing my transfer report without even coming across this blog post. I used to make sure all my work is checked by my supervisors, going upto 3 drafts maximum. Communication is key that is what i’ve learnt in my first year of my PhD.

  2. Excellent post, James. Thanks for the stream of advice on this blog – so many simple yet imperative pointers. On a side note, do you by any chance know of a database/site that hosts a list of academic conferences; either by discipline or location? Essentially an academic conferences version of the ERA journal rankings list? I’ve been on the hunt for this for a while now but haven’t come across anything.

  3. Another great post – you highlight some things that I have found really important:

    Communication with your supervisor, both before you write and after draft modifications to clarify comments. ALWAYS clarify what your supervisor means if your’re not sure. Initial misunderstandings will lead to going onto 6 and 7 drafts.

    Write shorter sentences!!! The easiest way to dramatically increase the clarity of your writing. I think it makes editing easier as well.

    Finish the experiments before you write. This is important. Be aware that towards the end of your PhD, there may be a conflict of interests between you and your supervisor. They will tend to want to get every last experiment out of you which will add to your stress and make writing difficult. Try not to let it happen, or at least explain that you cannot write and do experimental work at the same time.

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