Improving your writing
Your doctoral thesis is likely to be the longest and most challenging piece of writing you have undertaken, so it is important that you spend some time thinking about writing issues.
Consider your audience
Think about who your audience is. This is likely to be very specific. You may even know who your examiner is and may be able to find out what they like and don't like, make sure you read their recent publications. Ask your supervisor and other academics what they look for when they are examining doctoral theses. Tailoring your message to a particular audience is an effective way to improve your writing.
Improve your readability
Think about how easy your work is to read and whether you can make it any easier. There are ways to calculate the readability of your work. If you want a test for your work's readability have a look at the following resources:
- National Reading Campaign: Readability test
- Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test
- Using Word to analyse readability
Readability has a few simple rules.
- keep words short. Avoid unnecessary long words and jargon
- keep sentences short. Convoluted sentences with lots of commas and colons are difficult to understand
- keep paragraphs short. If you regularly include paragraphs that are over six sentences in length, see if you can break them up
- use appropriate sub-titles and headings to guide the reader.
Look for models
A good way to develop your writing is to look at other writers' work and to notice what they do. Maybe start by analysing a thesis, but also look at other forms of writing. Try journals, text books, books that popularise your subject to the general public and journalism. Take note of how they present the subject, the vocabulary used, how long the sentences are and how the arguments are developed. Thinking about how writing is constructed will help you to gain a greater understanding of your own writing and give you more tools to improve it.
Getting feedback is one of the key ways in which you will be able to improve your writing. You should be seeing your main supervisor regularly and getting regular feedback on your drafts. Make sure your supervisor sees what you are writing early on so he/she can guide you from the start. It is also easier for them to read a chapter or so at a time, rather than the whole tome to a tight deadline. If your supervisor tends to focus on content ask them to also give you some comments on format and style.
Seek help from your friends. You might pair up to support each other by reviewing drafts and proofreading, or setting common goals.
There are other sources of expertise available to you. Academics in your department, research staff who have completed their doctorate, writing centres and trainers may all be able to provide you with useful feedback on your writing. There may be formal training courses available.
Become a good editor
You should not expect to be able to write a perfect thesis first time. It is likely that your thesis will go through many drafts. See reviewing and proofreading for further advice on editing your thesis.
Successful writers keep writing even if they are unsure about the quality of what they are doing. It is easier to edit and improve something that you have written than to write something brilliant from scratch.
- set clear goals for each week or day such as, ‘I will write 500 words today' or ‘I will finish section three'
- establish a routine to help make sure that you write every day. Make sure that you take regular breaks (perhaps 5 minutes in every hour) and build in activities away from your desk (like going for a walk or a swim)
Don't let yourself stall on details. When you get stuck take a short break or do something different - perhaps preparing tables or diagrams. However make sure you return to writing again fairly quickly.
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