The following tips are aimed at helping you master the difficult craft of scholarly writing.
Write your work up as you go
Don’t wait until you have finished analysing all your data. Why?
Writing at the PhD/MPhil level is expected to be of a standard that could be published in internationally recognised scholarly journals. Writing at this level can be likened to a craft and, like crafts such as painting and sculpture, it takes time and reflective effort to learn the “tricks of the trade” and to develop competency, let alone mastery. This time is best spread out over the length of your degree rather than squeezed in at the end where it will lead to a lot of avoidable stress. … Not that there won’t be other things to stress about, but why add to these?
Rough notes quickly become meaningless if not written up properly. This means that if you leave writing up until the end, you may have to redo a lot of work because you won’t be able to understand, let alone write from, your rough notes.
Writing things up properly helps you to “debug” your thinking. Human thinking is notoriously “fuzzy”. Consequently, it is often only when you start to write things up carefully that you will discover “holes” in your reasoning or further things you need to consider. Obviously, it is better to find these problems earlier rather than later.
Learn from others
To learn from the writing of others (and only imitate writers you actually like reading!), you need to learn to read for structure and not just content. How do good writers introduce and link ideas? How do they structure their arguments? How do they indicate their level of confidence in the conclusions they draw from their evidence? What sorts of questions do they address in different sections? It is not plagiarism to use stock standard phrases like, “These results suggest that …”, or “A second approach to addressing the problem of X is to do Y”, so it is okay to collect such phrasings for use in your own writing.
Thus an abstract provides a brief summary of the entire study, which (ideally) answers the following five questions:
- What did you do?
- Why was it worth doing?
- How did you do it?
- What were the key results?
- What are the implications or significance of your results?
Example analysis of an abstract
Example analysis of a body paragraph
Using tables and figures effectively
Although the key principles are not very complicated, tables and figures are often not as well integrated into a piece of writing, as well explained, or as well designed as they could be. To learn what the key things you should be paying attention to are, download our notes on "Incorporating Tables and Figures Effectively Into Your Writing."
Ask for feedback
All writers can benefit from feedback on their writing. To get the most out of this:
- don’t just ask someone to “check it for you” (apart from anything else, this may come across as you asking them to do your work for you). Rather, ask for something specific such as, “Do you think the structure is okay?” “Are my explanations clear?” “Is the argument in section 3 convincing enough?” “Do you think I need more supporting data in section 2.4.”
- In particular, if you give someone a rough draft to check if your basic structure is okay, make sure that the reader knows that this is what you want and that you know it still needs a lot more polishing but that you aren’t worryied about that at this stage.
- Students for whom English is a second language may find their supervisors focussing more on English errors than on more important stylistic, structural or analytical issues because the English errors are more obvious and easier to deal with. Consequently, such students may need to encourage their supervisor to ignore the English issues and focus on issues that are of more concern to the student.
Edit your work
Checking and developing structure. One aspect of editing is to ensure that there is a logical flow of ideas in your writing. Some form of outline, either developed in the planning stages or after you’ve put some ideas down to see what you’ve got, can help with this. One form such an outline might take is a flow chart of main ideas or as a list of questions each paragraph has to introduce and answer (see following examples).
Example flowchart of main ideas to check for a logical flow
Example of seeing paragraphs as answering a logical sequence of questions
Are you explaining things clearly or enough? You will be better able to determine if your writing and explanations are clear if you put it aside for a few days and then come back to it. By doing this, you will start to forget what you were thinking when you wrote what you wrote and so will be able to see your writing more as another reader would.
This is the part of editing that looks at correcting typos and errors in punctuation and grammar. Proofreading requires close, careful reading, and as such is best done with a paper copy rather than on screen (of course, while reviewing your work on screen, you can and will pick up some errors). It is also best done by reading out aloud (even if only in your head), as speaking speed is much slower than normal reading speed, and reading out aloud requires every word to be read. When doing this, try to read in an interesting way (i.e. as though you were reading to an audience) and listen for when you pause as this will help you identify where commas and full stops should and shouldn’t go. Also listen for sentences that sound odd, incomplete, or are awkward to say, as these things generally indicate grammatical problems.
Students for whom English is not their first language may need to seek the help of a proofreader to improve their written expression to the required level. However, such assistance is best sought after all other issues have been addressed, as there’s not much point in paying for proofreading if your supervisor then recommends significant revisions.
Learn how to deal with “writer’s block”
If the cause is:
So many ideas to coordinate that it’s hard to work out what order to put them in
Try mind mapping your ideas since in a mind map you don’t have to worry about order, only what the themes are. Once you have your mind map, then you may be able to work out a logical order.
Not being able to come up with the perfect way to say something
Don’t worry about achieving perfection on a first draft. Write sketchy dot points if that’s all you can do. It’s easier to revise than to create, so getting anything down, even if only dot points or something like “Discuss Bloggs’ ideas about X”, is a good starting point. It is known from Beethoven’s sketch books that it took him 20 attempts to get his famous, Daa naa naa naa, Daa naa naa naa, just right. The point being that getting things just right can take a lot of tinkering, and just getting something down gives you something to work on: “Okay, why I aren’t I happy with this? Ahh, I need to explain that more, so maybe if I say …, that will improve things. … Okay, still doesn’t seem quite right, what’s the problem now? … Oh, that idea doesn’t link to that one. Perhaps if I add … that will help. … … … Ahh, finally, I think that works really well now.”
A similar idea is that of “free writing”, where you just write whatever of relevance pops into your head, not worrying about grammar, punctuation, writing in complete sentences or even logical flow.
Not really knowing what you want to say
Try explaining verbally what you want to say to someone else or to yourself (you might tape what you say), or explain to someone else or yourself why you are having problems. If all else fails, it might help to take a break from writing for a few days to see if “clearing your head” can help you get a fresh perspective on how to say what you want to say.