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About this book

This is an invaluable guide to developing the writing skills needed to succeed at every stage of postgraduate research. It provides useful guidance on writing clearly and coherently, and covers core topics such as exploring key concepts through writing, building a structured chapter framework and completing a first draft. Each chapter features insights from researchers along with hands-on tasks and self-evaluation exercises to help readers develop their own strategies for success.

This detailed, step-by-step guide to the secrets of successful PhD writing will be essential reading for PhD students and their supervisors across a wide range of disciplines.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
A PhD research project presents two types of challenges. The first relates to the project itself, the type of research that is being carried out, its content and its methodology. For these, there are many potential sources of support – individual supervisors, supervisory panels, discipline-related communities and an ever-expanding range of courses and books that offer training and advice on research design, data collection and data analysis. The other set of challenges relates to the ability to produce a written PhD thesis that will do justice to the quality of your research, enabling readers to understand and appreciate the development of your thinking. This ability will also sustain you throughout a future career in academia, when writing will be the main means of communication with other members of disciplinary and cross-disciplinary communities. It is evident that developing writing skills to the required level will be an important goal for all PhD researchers. However, there is a tendency for writing support to be made available only through occasional self-contained workshops while the need for ongoing support is often underestimated or even ignored. There are several possible reasons for the relative lack of attention to writing which can characterize research training programmes in higher education institutions. One is the fact that many PhD supervisors and research skills trainers see their responsibilities as limited to giving guidance on content and methods.
Desmond Thomas

1. The Stages of PhD Thesis Writing

Abstract
The traditional model of the PhD The standard or ‘traditional’ model of the PhD can be considered a kind of academic apprenticeship that emphasizes the production of a written text (a thesis), closely supervised by a specialist in a particular field. In recent years, the emphasis has shifted slightly to take into account the importance of the learning process itself and the acquisition and further development of a range of skills that can be used later in a career. The stages for the traditional model can be described as below. Note, however, that the sequence will tend to be cyclical rather than linear. For example, reviewing relevant literature will take place in parallel with most of the other activities. Similarly, the initial proposal will be revisited and revised later on. Developing a research topic and the initial research proposal This will involve a mix of the following: identifying a topic area and clarifying overall aims applying feasibility criteria to the area of interest breaking down the topic area to give it a clearer focus turning this focus into research questions generating hypotheses from questions and vice versa (for some research projects) identifying and justifying suitable research methods building a written rationale around all of the above Reading takes place both before and after the gradual refinement of the research topic.
Desmond Thomas

2. Developing a Research Topic through Writing

Abstract
This chapter considers three basic criteria sets for choosing a suitable research topic examines ways of breaking down a research topic through writing explores the relationship between topic development and the successful completion of writing tasks, such as the production of an updated research rationale Choosing a topic There are many possible reasons for the initial choice of a research topic at PhD level. Sometimes the choice may be limited by practical constraints such as supervisor availability. For some, the choice is determined by the supervisor’s own interests or by financial incentives such as scholarships or study grants. In joint research projects with a designated principal investigator, individual choice may appear to be limited. But when choice is a real option, the freedom to choose can sometimes become problematic and even burdensome – in particular for those who have spent many years of their lives responding to questions that have been posed by others. How do researchers make their initial choice of topic and justify this choice? Answers to this question can be surprisingly varied and include the following, where the supervisor’s role and influence is a deciding factor: My supervisor suggested some topics and I chose one (computer science). My supervisor chose this topic for me (computer science).
Desmond Thomas

3. Managing Research Reading

Abstract
This chapter examines the relationship between research reading and writing considers different reading aims within a research project identifies problem areas related to text selection compares different ‘levels’ of reading, contrasting reading to understand and/or to summarize content with reading in order to respond to ideas via critical analysis considers specific reading-to-writing tasks, including summarizing, paraphrasing and critical notetaking Reading aims The first piece of general advice that supervisors give to PhD researchers is very often to ‘go away and read’. When such advice is given and received, it seems straightforward enough. But in practice, it can have very different meanings for different individuals. It can for some readers mean a green light that signals the starting point of a long and convoluted process of jumping from text to text, following a reference provided by one text leading to another – and then another. In this way it is possible for the reader to reach a point which is very far from where they first started without realizing precisely how this has happened. It can also mean unintentionally completing a circle or series of circles and returning to the point of departure. This type of process can be immensely frustrating: taken to extremes, it can also prove to be both ineffective and unproductive. My own experience of reading for a PhD in the early 1990s seems typical. My approach to reading was very simple: I calculated that if I summarized everything that I identified as important, I would inevitably have valuable material that could be used in my writing.
Desmond Thomas

4. Producing a Literature Review

Abstract
This chapter examines the multiple purposes of a literature review within a PhD research project explores alternative approaches to compiling a literature review and identifies potential problem areas considers the following questions: What type of literature review do you need? What steps will you follow to manage and assemble the relevant literature? How will you record your reading? How will you integrate your notes into draft and final chapters? The literature review as a process and a product The term ‘literature review’ can mean different things to different people. Confusingly, it is commonly used to describe both a process and a product. As a process, it can involve any or all of the following while engaging with ‘the literature’: exploring and guiding the development of research topics testing research questions, claims and hypotheses examining counterclaims and alternative hypotheses identifying, exploring and defining key concepts exploring research methodologies examining other relevant research projects and case studies Meanwhile in its capacity as the end product of such work, a literature review can be embedded within a thesis in a number of ways. Here are some of the more common alternatives: an introductory chapter, providing a broad context for your research with reference to relevant literature a designated chapter within your thesis (as is often the case at Master’s level)
Desmond Thomas

5. Exploring Key Concepts

Abstract
The importance of concept development within a research project It is difficult to imagine attempting a literature review of any sort without exploring the key concepts embedded in the research topic, research questions, claims or hypotheses. The reason for this is clear: if you as the writer assume that the reader will understand complex concepts in a certain way, your assumption might be correct or it might be wrong. It is necessary to spell out precisely what it is that you mean by such terms in the particular context in which you are writing. However, this cannot normally be achieved by means of a simple dictionary-type definition. You can attempt to do this, but the chances of failure are high. What needs to be done instead is to carefully unpack and explore the concept in question. The process begins with reading to see if there is agreement concerning the meaning of a particular concept within your field. An examination of the literature in your field may indicate that multiple interpretations are possible. Outside a single disciplinary area, there may be an even greater variety for you to consider. Your ultimate aim will be to include a section or sections within the literature review or elsewhere in the thesis in which definitions of your key concepts are carefully explored. This is not just a glossary or list of terms where an explanatory sentence or two is added to each item. For certain terms, an entry in a separate glossary may suffice, but for complex key concepts with multiple possible interpretations, something more will be required.
Desmond Thomas

6. Building a Structured Chapter Framework

Abstract
Producing an overall framework The table of contents and abstract At a certain point during the first year of research, it is likely that your general approach to writing will begin to change. Developing the research topic, managing reading and generating research questions will gradually give way to a consideration of what the written end product is going to look like. You will start thinking in terms of chapters, and you will begin to consider your readers and their expectations. PhD supervisors often ask for a rough overview of intended chapters during the early stages, but your initial reaction may be that you do not feel ready to provide this. There are understandable reasons for this reaction. Before you can define the end product, you will first need to consider the scope and the parameters of your research: however, at this stage you may have more questions than answers in this respect. Whatever you do in terms of trying to plan your writing, you will need to be aware that your thinking and therefore your planning will inevitably change as your research progresses. Before you begin to plan your writing, you will also need to think in very general terms about the task that lies ahead. It is possible that this could be the longest piece of writing that you will ever attempt, and one key area of difficulty is the requirement for overall coherence. You will need to develop arguments that readers can follow without getting lost throughout a lengthy text. Meanwhile, you will also need to prevent yourself from losing your way as you gradually and painstakingly construct this text. Ensuring that coherence is maintained will eventually be achieved in different ways (some of which will be discussed in detail in Chapter 8). At this initial stage of chapter writing, the first step will be to focus on a draft structural framework.
Desmond Thomas

7. Establishing Productive Writing Routines

Abstract
A structural framework for a PhD thesis such as a table of contents is only, as Umberto Eco (2015) points out, ‘a working hypothesis’. An additional element is necessary if your plan is to be of practical value – the allocation of time. One of the reasons for the growing popularity of ‘New Route’ PhDs is, I would argue, because they help PhD researchers allocate time more effectively due to their structured nature. In the more traditional model of PhD research, it is mostly the responsibility of the researcher to manage time. Nowhere is this more difficult than in the planning of writing. Goals, schedules and routines The time that you have available for writing needs to be carefully broken down so that writing tasks can be allocated to time slots. A first step might be to try the following simple quiz. There are different aspects of setting goals, and there are different aspects of planning, some of which appear to receive more attention than others. Here is an example of a question which deserves your full attention: When are you most productive? Alternatively, when are you least productive? My own answers to these questions would be early in the morning (most productive) and late at night (least productive). However, this has not always been the case: I can remember writing essays late into the night when I was in my early 20s. It seems that different people have different body rhythms which can change over a period of time.
Desmond Thomas

8. Writing Clearly, Concisely and Coherently

Abstract
Clarity and coherence One of the requirements of every PhD thesis is that you produce a text containing ideas that are communicated to your readers in a clear and coherent way. At the same time, you are expected to write in a suitable academic style, determined partly by the discourse of your particular disciplinary area and partly by a perception of a more general academic style. The problem faced by all thesis writers is that clarity, coherence and style can easily enter into conflict with each other, with style acting as an obstacle to clarity. If taken to excess, the result can be texts that consist of turgid, impenetrable prose or pompous rhetoric. A further complication is that certain texts might be rejected by some readers on these grounds, while other readers may be prepared to accept a loss of clarity in favour of adherence to stylistic conventions. When PhD supervisors in the UK talk about clarity and style, they may refer you to an essay written by George Orwell in 1946 (Politics and the English Language), in which he identifies what he considers to be the ‘mental vices’ that affect the clarity and coherence of writing: ‘dying metaphors’ (used without understanding their meaning), ‘verbal false limbs’ (phrases with redundant elements), ’pretentious diction’ and ‘meaningless words’. Orwell’s suggested rules for clear writing come at the end of his essay and act as a warning against overuse of metaphors and imagery, excessively complex words, redundant words and sentences, technical expressions that have an everyday equivalent and the use of the passive rather than the active voice.
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9. Developing Academic Style

Abstract
Expectations of academic style Academic conventions Attention to academic style tends to be associated with the editing rather than the first draft writing stage, but it is never too early to develop a finely tuned awareness of what is required. Writers need to develop the necessary skills for communicating within stylistic conventions even when writing early drafts. Ensuring that ideas are accessible to the reader, that sentences are clear and concise and that longer sections of text are coherent need to be counterbalanced by the fact that the writing that you produce has to look and sound academic, whatever that might mean in your particular disciplinary area or areas. The first step will be for you to revisit the kind of stylistic conventions that are likely to be familiar to doctoral level writers. These include referencing techniques and formats, the amount of direct quotation that is deemed acceptable and bibliographical conventions. Such issues will not be considered in this book, because of the difficulty of providing any form of meaningful non-disciplinary guidelines. A useful overview of referencing systems, formats, techniques and reference software is, however, provided by Grix & Watkins (2010). There remains one convention that does need to be considered outside a disciplinary context, that of ‘hedging’ claims and arguments.
Desmond Thomas

10. Completing a First Draft

Abstract
The basic writing cycle So far in this handbook we have discussed the planning of research writing in terms of its structure (Chapter 6) and the ways in which productive writing routines can be developed (Chapter 7). The delicate balance between clarity, coherence and academic style has also been explored (in Chapters 8 and 9). Structure, clarity, coherence and (to a lesser extent) style are all important elements of first draft writing, which is arguably the most demanding task for any research writer. In contrast, many would argue that text editing is a smoother and more enjoyable process. The author James Michener shares this point of view and is often quoted as claiming to be less able as a writer than as a rewriter. I find writing the first draft of any academic text to be a painful, messy and time-consuming process. The primary aim is to commit all of the content and the argumentation to screen or paper in a structured and coherent manner. Once a significant amount of content has been written down in some form, the process of reallocating sections of text can begin. You can, for example, plan Chapter 3 but then realize that it lacks a certain amount of substance; it can be reallocated as a section or subsection within Chapter 4. You may scrutinize your plan for Chapter 5 and conclude that the text will be straightforward to write; it then grows steadily in size to such an extent that you have to consider dividing it into two or three new chapters, or sections that will fit into existing chapters.
Desmond Thomas

11. Motivating Yourself to Write

Abstract
Writing is more than just a technical exercise A PhD student once told me about the occasion when she felt so blocked in her writing that she decided to give up her entire research project: I wrote to my supervisor: ‘I’m giving up and going back to my own country. I apologize.’ He replied: ‘Sorry? You can’t say these kinds of things by email in this way. We need to talk about this in person.’ When they met the next day, the advice given by the supervisor was to begin a fixed routine: get up at the same time, go to the gym, write for a few hours, have lunch, continue to write and then stop. Every day the routine should be the same. He also arranged a new office where all of this writing could take place. The student began to make some progress with her writing. The situation was eventually saved. The experience of many writers suggests that a regular routine of this kind can be helpful and in this particular case, it worked well thanks to the quick thinking and sensitivity of the supervisor. The writer was feeling isolated, demotivated and homesick. Some words of understanding and simple practical advice were required from someone who realized that writing a long text is as much a psychological as a technical exercise. However, there are occasions where such simple solutions are not enough. It is possible to reach a stage where you begin to think, ‘What I am writing has little value or no value. I am wasting my time and other people’s time.’
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12. Reporting and Analysing Research Findings

Abstract
Structuring your data report The expectation of many readers is that the data report section of the PhD thesis will define your work and highlight its originality and even its uniqueness. Such readers may be impressed by the depth of analysis within your literature review or the quality of your research design, but arguably, what will interest them most will be the research findings themselves and your interpretation and analysis of what you have found. Some writers consider this to be the most complex and demanding element of the PhD thesis, while others such as Dornyei (2007: 280) believe that it is relatively straightforward because there are well-established formats to guide writers. However, while there may be agreed formats in certain disciplinary areas, difficult choices may need to be made in others. There are a number of potential danger areas to consider: The quantity of data collected may cause some writers to feel that they are blocked at the very beginning of the reporting exercise. The report and accompanying analysis may fail to do justice to the quality of the data collected. If key findings are not clearly highlighted, the reader may become lost amidst all of the detail. It may be difficult to achieve a clear structure for the narrative element and coherence for both narrative and analysis. To provide a clear structure for the data report, there is sometimes an assumption that a PhD thesis should contain a ‘results’ chapter, as is often the case at Master’s level.
Desmond Thomas

13. Completing your PhD Thesis

Abstract
Writing the final version Once the first draft has been completed and major revisions such as the reordering, division or exclusion of chapters have taken place, a new phase in writing can begin. This editing stage may still involve making substantial changes that will affect chapter content, such as: seeing whether the same or similar ideas are unintentionally repeated in different parts of the text and taking appropriate action looking for unexplained contradictions in different parts of the text and deciding whether you need to justify or remove them cutting entire paragraphs or chapter sections that seem to create unnecessary digressions from your main arguments At the other extreme, there will be more detailed changes that need to be made in your text. These are the types of changes that Murray (2002) refers to when she draws a distinction between editing and ‘polishing’ a text: This is the time for revisions so fine that they do not seem worth making. It all begins to seem a bit pedantic, with more attention to the correctness of grammar and punctuation than to the research and your contribution. This is as it should be. Understanding the differences between the different types of editing is a necessary part of the writing process. Arguably, ‘polishing’ or proofreading a text should come at the very end, once other aspects of editing have been completed. Before this final stage, it is advisable to work through a series of other checklists that you can use as clear points of reference when you re-read your first draft. Editing checklists are a useful tool as part of the process of monitoring progress in writing: when you are aiming to improve your writing through editing, you will need to break this process down, as there are so many different aspects of writing that can be problematic.
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14. Writing throughout an Academic Career

Abstract
The writing skills that you develop as an accompaniment to PhD research will be put into practice on a regular basis and gradually refined throughout your academic career. According to Blaxter, Hughes and Tight (1998: 137) such skills will be a major factor in determining career development, promotions and job satisfaction: Writing is something that all academics engage in regularly: from writing notes and references on students, through committee papers, to reviews, articles and books. It is a role which many academics find hard, particularly when sustained pieces of writing are called for, but also one which can give great pleasure and a sense of achievement. A few years ago, I decided to explore these ideas in greater detail by collecting the testimonies of some experienced and skilled academic writers as part of a project entitled ‘Writers on Writing’. I interviewed six people from a range of social science and arts and humanities disciplines. All the interviewees had an extensive list of publications: surprisingly, none had ever been asked about their views on writing or their recommendations for ‘good practice’. The interview questions and the answers that I obtained are reported in a summarized version below. What are the skills and qualities of a good academic writer? For most people writing is something which has to be learnt and has to be developed over a long period of time. The process of writing is multi-skilled and no one is born with all of the skills that are required.
Desmond Thomas
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