Here is part two of a five-part series on the dos and don’ts of thesis writing by PhD Candidate Eric Jardine. For Part I: The Lulls click here.
II. The Value of Putting Words on a Page
Another positive experience that I would relate involves the actual process of writing the dissertation. Both my undergraduate honours research paper supervisor and my master’s research paper supervisor were firm advocates of the “start writing and go from there” approach to crafting a lengthy project. My supervisory committee at NPSIA was the same. This approach has a lot to suggest it. First, I find that I think while I write, or at least writing is a process that forces me to think about my topic, so my ideas become clearer and the areas that need more work become plain. In some ways, I think the writing process is actually a core part of the research process itself, so believing that you will be able to complete the research and then write up your findings is not particularly realistic. Even if you are doing heavy duty quantitative research, the meaning of your findings can only be discovered through a process of careful thought; a process that writing facilitates.
Second, there is a huge advantage to having a draft of a chapter completed, namely, you can hand it in and get feedback from your committee. Your committee members are there to help you and to give you guidance, but it is hard for them to help you if they don’t have something concrete to comment on. No matter how clear the ideas are in your mind, your committee is unlikely to treat them as being “real” until they see them put down on paper. The reason for this is that all projects must follow the same trajectory. You start with research, then formulate ideas, then you write something. Repeat as needed. If you approach your committee with just ideas, even ideas that are, to you, concrete, you are going to be met by one of two responses. Either your ideas will be challenged, morphed and redirected (a helpful process to be sure) or you will be asked to put everything down on paper. Either way, you need to start writing and show this material to your committee members in order for them to be taken as more final. If the ideas are flawed or otherwise insufficient, having them on paper won’t help you. But, at the same time, not having anything on paper is in some ways the same as not having anything done. In this sense, starting to write is a necessary by not a sufficient condition for making real progress on your dissertation.
Third, you should start writing early and often because writing is a pretty time consuming process. The idea that you can write your whole dissertation (easily 200 pages if not far more) in a short period of time is pretty unreasonable. I am sure it happens, but like most extreme things, the idea that most of us “average” people can accomplish what only a select few can do is just statistically impossible. Most of us are the rule, not the exception. Writing can also be exhausting and, if you work on a laptop like me, bad on your back, so spreading it out over time is advisable.
Fourth, don’t worry about writing things that you might not end up keeping in the dissertation. Many of the ideas that are generated during the writing process can easily form the basis of a research article that you will write at some other point. So, if an idea does not fit with the dissertation as it develops, don’t delete it. Save it in a separate document and return to it later. I am not sure how many people would be completely deterred from writing anything for fear that it won’t ultimately be relevant, but if you are at all, put that out of your mind.
Part III. Publishing: The Gift that Keeps on Giving to be posted April 10, 2014.