Sorting the structure
When is the best time to start writing the PhD dissertation? This really depends on what you have to say that is of any importance. Some people try to start too early – before they have done any primary research, really – while others attempt to put the writing off for as long as possible! Like any skill, writing gets better with practice, so the usual advice is to start early – perhaps within the first couple of months – but be prepared to edit, revise, and if necessary throw away, your early attempts. As a supervisor of research students, I like to see the early attempts at writing in order to give some constructive feedback, and help the student “set the tone” or the correct level of the academic writing. For me, this early writing should come in fully constructed sentences – not bullet-points – and there should be a logical narrative which sets the scene of the research activities. It should be spell-checked, fully referenced, and grammatically correct. I give detailed comments and changes using the ‘track-changes’ function, to give the student a clear idea of the standard required of the final text (the student is then free to accept or ignore this advice – and that response tells me a lot about the professionalism of the student). This level of feedback might not be true for all supervisors. In fact, I know of some fully-fledged academics whose grammar and sentence construction lets them down badly, so they are unlikely to be very keen or useful critics of the fine nuances of the English language, however good they are in their own subject area. My view is that the quality and impact of my writing is a reflection of me, and by implication, the work of one of my students is an indirect reflection of me.
The quality of writing is important to me, because the production of a written dissertation – usually a maximum or 100,000 words in the UK – is the central work of the PhD, around which everything else hangs. The brilliance of the research, the care and skill in crafting the research process, the novelty of the solutions and conclusions – even the defence in the viva – are dashed to nothing if the student is not able to communicate clearly and engagingly. In a nutshell, if the dissertation is laborious and difficult to read, if it contains silly errors, lack of references to evidence, or simply is written in a tortuous style or in ambiguous language, the readers (including the examiners) will become frustrated, confused, and perhaps overly-critical. If they look for faults in your work, they will surely find them. On the other hand, if the dissertation is a pleasure to read, if it is well constructed and well presented, the reader might skip over any minor faults in their enthusiasm to follow the story. The examiners might look kindly on minor issues and even suggest how these could be easily improved. The skill is to construct a narrative which guides the reader through the research story, in much the same way as a novel, or a detective story, in which each chapter leads smoothly and logically into the next. Like most skills, writing is improved by training and practice, so starting with a skeleton list of the dissertation contents might be useful, allowing the student to break up the text into shorter sections and sub-sections, which can be edited and linked together in an ongoing process. The PhD dissertation does not need to be written in a totally linear manner, and it is quite common to double-back to add, modify, or delete earlier sections of writing as new facts become available or new academic articles are discovered. A key requirement is to be organised, and to approach the write-up methodically, but in easy stages.