PhD students often tell me that one of the most intimidating aspects of writing a thesis is the sheer size of it. It’s longer than anything they’ve attempted to write before. What are they going to include? What do they leave out? What does the reader need to know and in what order do they need to know it?
As a novelist I can sympathise: I need to sustain my readers’ interest over as many as 40 chapters, or around 80,000 words. Deciding what goes where is an important part of ensuring that I’ve got a story that flows and is enjoyable to read. What techniques can you use to get to grips with the structure of a large body of work?
Planning is essential, and for me it takes place off screen. I’m surprised when students tell me their plans consist of lists saved in documents on their computer or sometimes as notes inside the draft thesis document itself. In order to ‘see’ the structure of a work as long as a novel or thesis, it can be helpful to step away from the computer and draw out the structure on paper.
I take a large roll of brown paper and, armed with sticky notes, I write summaries of the plot threads in my novel. The sticky notes are handy because I can move them around; an incident that I thought fitted in chapter two might work better in chapter nine. I might see threads I’ve introduced but not continued, as well as the spine of my novel — I see my story as it unfolds through the entire length of the book. For a thesis, this would be your argument.
Students who have tried this low-tech way of working in my sessions have had some great results. Getting off screen for a while allows them to engage with their research in a creative and illuminating way. Several have solved structural problems they’d been battling with for months, merely by taking this step back.
You can try this technique at any point in the writing process. And you can get as detailed as you like. Try it with all your chapters to see how you might improve the flow of your argument, or work on just one chapter, summarising the points and then playing around with the order. When you return to your screen, you may find you have a fresh perspective on the structure of your thesis and are able to move forward more confidently.
As a Reader in Creative Writing, a novelist and poet, I have always been comfortable with the creative side of writing and teaching. But when it came to developing the critical component of my own PhD, I felt terrified. I had to remind myself why I was undertaking the project: enjoyment of my research into combining spoken word with film. I simply had to put my fears aside and keep going.
I found the best way to do this was to participate in my academic community. PhD students might feel they are locked in their own little world, trapped within the minutiae of their own project. But there is no need to study alone; you can reach out to the community of doctoral students and other researchers in your field. You may worry that you are not qualified to participate in academic debate, but be reassured — you do already have some expertise. As soon as you create a PhD proposal, you become a member of the academic community, with ideas to share and discuss. You can join specialist Facebook groups focusing on your topic or follow Twitter threads on the subject. If there are no Facebook groups available, why not start one up and invite people to discuss your topic?
As a doctoral student, you are also part of a broader community that will be responsive to your ideas; perhaps other researchers — or in my case, poets and film-makers. You may discover there are many more interested people than you originally thought. I recently led workshops for PhD students and early-career academics with my RLF Consultant Fellow colleague Heather Dyer that focused on how to increase the impact of their research. We advised them to create opportunities to talk about the progress of their work, joining relevant forums and social media platforms to give regular updates and looking out for conferences where they can present on their subject. It’s not necessary to have completed the research — it’s fine to present on ongoing work in a practical session, and during the Q&A you can gain helpful feedback from the audience. Taking part in debates with academics and others in the wider community helps students locate their work within the field and prove the relevance of their research. And it makes studying far more enjoyable. So my advice to PhD students is this: don’t shut yourself away — get out there and start talking! You’re more likely to persevere with your PhD in company.
One-day workshops for PhD students can be heavy-going when you are trying to pack them full of writing know-how. So I like to intersperse challenging tasks with exercises that feel like fun, but the lessons they impart are extremely valuable. A favourite exercise of mine is book blurbing.
Composing jacket copy is an extremely useful activity, since it serves the vital function of getting to the core of the purpose of the work, while at the same time selling it to readers. The blurb has to summarise, convince, beguile, describe and entertain, all at once.
If you simply ask students to write a blurb for their own thesis, the danger is that you will paralyse them; the task of summarising their work artfully is no small one. It is far better to approach the task obliquely. I bring in a novel, with the back-cover blurb taped over. I summarise what the novel is about, who it’s aimed at, and what the writer might be trying to achieve. I pass the novel round the room, get the students to talk about their casual impressions as they flip through its pages, and allow those who might know the writer’s work to characterise it for their peers.
Then I ask the students to take their best and most creative shot at approximating the blurb that I’ve hidden. All of their attempts at writing an alluring blurb go into a hat, from which I then invite each student to pick one blurb at random. Going round the group, reading out the newly minted blurbs, usually generates great hilarity. At this point, I inform the students that I’ve sneakily added the genuine blurb to their offerings in the hat, and that I’d like them to vote on which blurb they think is the real one.
The intention behind this exercise is for students to get to the heart of how they might like their PhDs to be read. What is the best ‘sell’ they can imagine composing for their own work? And what will someone gain by reading it? If a student comes away from this exercise feeling that they’ve learnt what is really at stake in their work, the exercise will have succeeded.
• They’re both about communicating ideas.
• They need to make complex ideas accessible.
• They tell a story.
• They aspire to effect change.
When I teach academic writing skills, I tell workshop participants that their writing will be more effective when it adheres to some of the constraints required in writing for children.
What’s the point of writing if not to communicate? Communicating requires you to empathise with your audience. How much does your audience already understand? Why are they reading? What’s in it for them? Keeping both the aspirations and the experience of your audience in mind will make your writing accessible and engaging. It will make your readers feel ‘seen’. Your readers will return this favour by paying more attention. This is particularly important if you want to share your ideas beyond the tight circle of your own research community.
Explaining something clearly requires you to think harder and dig deeper. The struggle to articulate a complex idea in simple terms forces us to make previously abstract thoughts concrete. It can reveal gaps in our own knowledge, or foggy thinking. Albert Einstein once said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ In workshops, I ask participants to explain their research to a child they know, or a family member who knows nothing about their subject.
They say children have short attention spans. But don’t we all? Good writing – like any good design – has no redundant parts. Every word should be indispensable to the whole. Getting to the point is another way of empathising with your readers. As an exercise in brevity, I ask workshop participants to describe their projects in 50 words or fewer.
I once heard a child say of a book he couldn’t put down that it had ‘an urging flow.’ What a wonderful description of narrative! Narrative drive is what keeps a reader hooked. If you can recognise a narrative in your research, you’ll be able to describe it in a more engaging way. Interrogate your work in the same way a children’s author does. What was the situation before you started out? What was the ‘inciting incident’ that began your quest? Why is this important? How did you reach where you are now? Were there difficulties and setbacks? Finally, what did you learn and how might it change the world? A story – like research – recounts a process through which new knowledge is attained. We describe a journey, not just a destination.
One of the frustrations that writing consultants and PhD students alike share at the end of a high-energy workshop, when everyone is feeling thrilled with the progress made and insights gained, is how to keep the momentum going. Specifically, how do you embed best practice when the writing consultant disappears back into their own world and the students are alone again, faced with having to write tens of thousands of words? They will have plenty in the way of critique to guide them, but perhaps little writing support.
Over the past two years, alongside Dr Sarabajaya Kumar, who until recently was head of PhD development at the London School of Economics (LSE), I have been pioneering lunchtime workshops designed to create Writing Coaching Groups among the research student population. Ideally, each group should number four to five students, preferably from different disciplines (so as to minimise departmental griping and maximise communication across disciplines), and run for the course of an academic year. We encourage students to meet monthly, creating a peer-supported space in which they can review each other’s work.
I have come to think of launching these writing groups as rather like setting boats off over the calm blue sea from the shore. I give them life-rafts and provisions in the form of writer’s group etiquette; writing guides; tips about how often to meet; how large a writing sample to exchange, and so on.
In terms of etiquette, the key message is that students providing feedback should not approach the task as if they were undertaking a critique of each other’s work. Instead, I recommend a three-step process. First, they need to express empathy. After all, they are all in the same boat, trying to convey a logical argument in an engaging manner: they need to say, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do here’. Then I task them to come up with an appreciation. This involves celebrating how well the writer has achieved what they set out to do. It helps a student enormously to understand where their own strengths lie. Finally, I encourage the feedback group to articulate the struggles they had in understanding the writing sample. The aim is to alert the writer to the need to express themselves more effectively.
One of the groups we launched in this way at the LSE bonded so well and finished their PhDs in so timely a manner that we decided to interview them in detail about how and why it worked for them. We then invited them to promote the Writing Coaching idea to a fresh intake of third-year PhD students.
As an RLF Consultant Fellow, I specialise in giving workshops on dissertation writing to third-year undergraduates and to postgraduates. These sessions pull together and help embed the skills needed to write what is the most ambitious assignment of a student’s career.
For students who are well advanced in the writing process, my favourite exercise is the ‘elevator pitch’. This is designed to help students refine their argument and also write the abstract. I introduce the scenario, asking students to imagine they find themselves alone in a lift with their head of department. It has recently been announced that a highly lucrative grant is available for just one student from their year to continue their studies as a doctorate. As the elevator doors close, they have one minute with the tutor to introduce themselves and their research topic with a view to winning the grant.
I give students four minutes to prepare their ‘sales pitch’, with key questions as a prompt. What is their research topic and why is it important? What does it add to the knowledge/debate within their field? The students work in pairs. I then time them as one student delivers his/her pitch to their partner in exactly one minute. The partner is asked to listen carefully and has time afterwards to question the speaker if anything was unclear, and jot down notes. The listener then has 30 seconds to précis the pitch back to the original speaker. Did the speaker manage to put their key points across? Can they give any tips on making the pitch more persuasive? Then it’s the second student’s turn.
From the hubbub that rises as the minute starts each time, it’s clear the students find this exercise energising. The response is overwhelmingly positive, with some students relishing the chance to shine while others enjoy the challenge of martialling their argument. Feedback suggests that the elevator pitch helps students summarise what’s important about their thesis, while some report using their scribbled notes to write their abstract.
Interlocking plastic bricks, modelling clay, coloured card and sparkly pipe cleaners — can playing with craft supplies and children’s construction toys really help improve your academic writing? I think it can. I use them in my workshops – even with senior academic staff – with surprising results. In a session to help Occupational Therapy staff develop creative approaches to support student writing, I asked the participants to construct a plastic-brick model to answer the question: ‘How does the social model of disability relate to the practice of occupational therapists?’ This was an undergraduate assignment that I knew their students found difficult and I wanted the staff to explore their expectations of how the essay should be structured. They found it challenging to ‘write’ the essay in a medium other than words, but their models – and the way they explained the models to their peers – was illuminating. The participants said they found the conversations the exercise triggered both stimulating and thought provoking. This simple kinaesthetic task helped them to express their thoughts about how the essay should be structured and to see how their approach differed from their colleagues’. It also helped them to appreciate some of the challenges faced by their students.
I believe that a successful workshop should be engaging, participative and should cater to a range of learning styles. Learning by touching, making and doing does not suit everyone, but by tapping into a different part of the brain, it can help you overcome some of those knotty problems that get in the way of writing. It can be a powerful tool for understanding key concepts, organising ideas and planning the structure of an academic essay, dissertation or article. I find that the sight of colourful construction pieces in a serious academic workshop lightens the mood and makes people feel that the workshop promises to be exciting and fun. And when high-achieving academics throw themselves into a construction task, it often lives up to that promise.