Doing the PhD

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

5 The writing process

The writing process

Writing is an extremely personal process and there are no hard and fast rules about how to write well. Yet it is perhaps the most important activity and also outcome of a PhD or MA dissertation, for obvious reasons, and this is particularly the case in a humanities discipline, where the object of investigation is frequently a piece of writing as well. A good thesis will develop its argument clearly and persuasively, and accurately integrate textual and analytical evidence. It will observe the academic conventions regarding footnotes and bibliography and be written in good English (or at the equivalent level of the target language if your university allows you to opt for this). All these aspects need attention from the outset: it would be an error to suppose that research and writing are two separate things, and that the latter, under the guise of something called ‘writing up,’ just happens once the research is done. On the contrary, the sort of research that we do in the humanities is generally reflective, analytical, interpretative or theoretical (or a combination of all four) and needs to be written out to find its proper direction. 

First piece of advice

So this is the first piece of advice in a tutorial that aims to avoid being prescriptive: write from the beginning and write all the time. This does NOT mean ‘writing up’ chapters once a month for the duration of your degree, but DOES mean taking notes, recording sources, tracking your progress, attempting to assemble an argument, pursuing lines of thought by writing them out. It also means setting yourself quite strict deadlines for producing written work to hand in, not getting hooked up on an illusory perfect chapter, and actually making sure you do produce something. Your supervisor will have an important role to play in all this and your department will probably have guidelines about when and how often a piece of work is expected. Be pragmatic about what a PhD thesis or MA dissertation actually consists of: it is a piece of sustained argument on a particular topic of a particular length. Largely what you need to do to be awarded the degree is actually to produce that piece of writing. 

Aim of this tutorial

The aim of this tutorial is to analyse what the task of thesis-writing consists of, the better to help you identify what you need to do. Other tutorials cover other inter-related aspects of the task, such as finding a research topic, writing up a research proposal, and note-taking. There are two main strands to the task of writing: firstly, learning to produce correct written English and secondly, learning to think through writing, to elaborate an argument, to develop a style.