If you’re working on the final stages of your thesis, there’s probably a lot of writing going on in your world right now. It’s also likely that you’re juggling that with a job, cooking dinners, spending time with your family and trying to get out of the house once a day for fresh air. Therefore, despite your best intentions, writing might not be happening as often as you’d like.
some tips for carving out some time every day to get those brilliant findings
and interpretations committed to the page.
As much as possible, try to plan your weeks so that writing time is scheduled. Of course, life is unpredictable and sometimes we can’t stick to our plans, but if you at least know what you’re aiming for, you’re more likely to get there. If your schedule looks jam-packed, try to think creatively. Can you get up earlier a couple of days a week? Work in the evening while everyone else is watching TV? Get the kids to make the dinner one night so you can spend that time working? (Age of child dependent, of course!)
your housemates/partner/family that you have to shut the door
If you’re a housemate, a mother, a father or a spouse, you might feel that you need to drop everything the moment you’re needed by the people you love. Genuine emergencies aside, this is not the case. Can you set a time for working when you tell everyone that you’re not to be disturbed? Even if it’s only for half an hour a day, those half-hours will start stacking up, and so will your word count.
3. Turn off
point telling your family that the door is shut if you’re going to spend all your
time behind that closed door frantically checking Twitter and replying to your
favourite WhatsApp group chats. Put your phone on silent, don’t open your
emails and try to resist the urge to start Googling things as you write – it’s
all too easy to fall into an internet rabbit hole that way. You can always look
up how to spell phenomenological later; for now, just fudge it and get those
4. Recognise and reward the wins
Writing a thesis is really hard, even when there isn’t a global pandemic. You are doing an amazing job and you deserve to be rewarded. Sadly, most of the time, everyone else is too wrapped up in their own challenges to recognise how awesome you multi-tasking postgrad students are, which means you might need to reward yourself. And that’s just dandy, cos no one knows what you like better than you do! If you pass a milestone, no matter how small, book yourself a day off, buy your favourite cake, settle down with a novel and convince your other half to rub your feet. You’ve earned it.
expect the impossible
It can be
really tempting to start setting yourself huge targets: I’m going to write
2,000 words every single day without breaking a sweat. Sound familiar? The
problem with these unrealistic targets is that if you can’t stick to them, you
might start feeling discouraged, which makes it harder to come to your desk
feeling positive and energised the next day. Plus, if you know you don’t have
time for your 2,000 words that day, you might think well, there’s no point
starting – I’ll begin tomorrow instead. You can see how this thinking can
quickly lead to a week with no words written at all. Some of you might find it
easier to set a time limit for each day instead or to think in terms of
sections per week.
Do you have any tips for writing every day? Do let us know if so. And of course, once you’ve finished writing, you can always book us to proof-read your work so that you can be confident it’s as polished as it can be.
If you’d like to book PGPR to help you with your writing, just get in touch via the form below.
By this stage in your postgrad journey, you have probably read thousands of academic papers – or at least it feels that way. Indeed, you may have written one or two as well. But was the process quick and painless – or did it involve tears, tantrums and having to cut far too many of your carefully honed words? If you fall into the latter camp, you’ve come to the right place. Don’t panic; paper writing is challenging at first. But the more you practice, the slicker the process gets.
The method section is the simplest section of the paper. What did you do? Can you remember? If so, write it down. Check your target journal to see whether they have certain subheadings they want you to include (examples might be data collection, analysis, ethics and so on). If they don’t, have a look at other papers and copy their headings. Writing this short, factual series of paragraphs gets you into your stride and breaks that terrifying ‘blank page’ syndrome.
If you can, it’s often a good idea to start writing your method section while you’re still conducting the research. This ensures that you don’t forget any of those details about exactly where you found participant 14 or when you made those all-important changes to your interview schedule.
2. Use your table of themes to create your findings section
The findings are the most important section of a qualitative paper. This should be the longest and most detailed element and will guide the material you include in your introduction and discussion sections. This is why, once you’ve got started with the super-simple method, you should tackle the findings next.
You’ve got a table of themes that you lovingly created during your analysis, right? Well – I say lovingly created – what I mean is wrote, crossed out, re-created, kicked down the stairs a few times and cried over until you reached this final draft. Am I right?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that (nearly all) of the hard work is already done. Created correctly, your table of themes should be the blueprint for your findings section. This means that you already know what points you want to make, in what order, and supported by which quotes. Brilliant, right? Well done past you. In theory, all you need to do now is turn write about why you named the themes and subthemes as you did, how those ideas are supported by the quotes and any interplay between the themes. With the right table of themes, this is easier than it sounds – the section almost writes itself.
The bad news – which really isn’t all that bad – is that analysis continues during writing. This means that, as you write your findings up, you are likely to realise that some quotes don’t quite do the right job, or that some points need shuffling around. You might need to seek out some different quotes, or re-order things. That’s fine; it’s good, in fact, as it shows you’re really engaging with the material. In this instance, use your new findings section to re-order the table.
The next stage is the introduction. These can be tough to write when you start writing papers as opposed to a thesis. They are somewhat equivalent to the lit review chapter of the thesis – but much, much shorter. And shorter does not mean easier!
Start by making a bullet point list of all the points you need to make in your introduction. These should include:
Setting the scene for your research question
The main points which need addressing from that question. So, for example, if you’re asking what it is like to work in criminal law (a heteronormative culture) as an LGBTQ person, you might have a bullet point on heteronormativity, a bullet point on the culture in criminal law and a bullet point on the challenges faced by LGBTQ people working in heteronormative environments. (I kinda want to read that paper now…)
Why your approach is the best way to answer your question
Once you have the list, approach this in the same way you did the method section – just fill in the blanks and write a paragraph (two at most) for each bullet point. If you’re lucky, you’ll already have done all the relevant reading. If you’re not, you’ll need to conduct a lit review at this point. However, knowing exactly what areas you’re interested in will make this quicker and easier than if you were just exploring the topic as a whole. Search for relevant, recent papers, plug them into EndNote or whichever referencing system you’re using, whizz through the relevant sections and make notes on anything useful. As you go, slot useful points into your skeleton intro, following the bullet points. You can refine it later. Ensure you don’t just look for papers that back up your pre-existing point of view; remember to be critical at all times, even of your own ideas.
Think of your introduction as a funnel. You’re starting with the wider context of the question and then narrowing down to the point where the reader agrees with you that answering this is question is essential, and that your stance is the best way to do so.
Once you’ve presented your findings and shown the reader why they are important via the introduction, the next stage is to discuss them (hence the name!) in the light of other people’s work. Discussion sections can be notoriously tricky, which is why we have an entire blog post dedicated to getting them just right.
Qualitative discussions will generally follow the same structure as your findings. Work through each theme in the same order you presented them, showing how your findings confirm, contradict or build on existing work.
If time is of the essence, you can start your discussion section simultaneously with the introduction – after all, the two map onto each other to a certain extent. As you read the papers and make notes in a skeleton discussion section too. Write out your theme names under the ‘discussion’ title and note down any useful findings from others. All you need is to polish up your notes (and potentially look for a few more papers), and voila! You’re nearly done.
Please tell me you’ve been doing these the whole time? And that you’re using a handy piece of referencing software like EndNote or Zotero? If so – easy peasy. Use your software to set the references to the right system for your chosen journal (APA 7, Chicago or Harvard, most likely), and away you go. If you haven’t been using software, step one is to amend this immediately for next time. I know it feels like an intimidating pain before you get started, but it is SUCH a lifesaver in the end. Step two, for now, is to get onto Google Scholar and copy and paste those bad boys in by hand.
And finally, the abstract. Journals often have tight rules for how long an abstract should be and what structure it should follow, so check those first. Your abstract needs to give a small flavour of all the other elements of the paper. They can be hard to get right and might be best left for a week or so (if you have time) so that you can get a bit of distance from the work. Or, if you’ve done the bulk of the writing, you might ask another member of your research team to have a crack at this bit.
7. Send to PGPR
Whether you’re a total paper-newbie or an old hand, we can all use an extra pair of eyes now and then. If you’re struggling with any element of your paper writing, just get in touch with us using the form below, and we’ll be happy to help.
You’ve spent months toiling in the lab, you’ve wrangled with SPSS or IPA or FDA or one of those other acronyms that make your family’s eyes glaze over. Finally, you’re ready to write up your fascinating findings.
It’s one thing to bore the pants off your family, but how can you stop your audience’s eyes glazing over? How can you keep those examiners or reviewers or students turning pages?
Academic writing has a reputation for being dry and hard to struggle through, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I am the post-graduate proof-reader. I’m a qualitative psychologist and novel writer, and I’ve proofed more PhDs than you’ve had hot toddies, so I know how to make formal language sing. Here are my five easy fixes.
Present your text professionally.
Align your work to the left. Justifying leaves unsightly spaces between words – spaces which, when I worked on magazines, we used to fill with unnecessary ‘buts’ and ‘whys’ and ‘therefores’. Do everyone a favour and hit align left. This simple step will make your eyes sigh with relief.
Inserting returns between your paragraphs is another stunningly easy fix which will have your examiners smiling. It’s easier to read text that’s spaced out than words which are crammed together.
Break up those unwieldy sentences
Postgraduate work is brain-breaking stuff. Sometimes our ideas are complex and feel too big to be hemmed in by such bourgeois notions as short sentences. As you start writing, you might find that your ideas run on and on. That’s fine for a first draft, but always go back and try to divide those monstrous marathons up. Look for where you’ve used the word ‘and’. Can you delete it and start a sentence? Can you delete it? Start a new sentence? (See? It’s simple.) Your readers will thank you.
Omit needless words (Strunk, 2007)
No matter what you’re writing – an epic poem, the great British novel, a paper on the latest discoveries about the phonological loop – William Strunk’s famous edict applies. Effective writing is concise.
Mistakes I see a lot include writing ‘all of the participants’ where ‘all participants’ would do; ‘appears to suggest’ where ‘suggests’ works well; or ‘For P1, the experience of rain was distressing’ where ‘P1 found the rain distressing’ is far more elegant.
Avoid informal words
This one is a bit trickier as you have to learn which words don’t work in a formal environment. However, as with all writing – academic or creative – it helps to be specific. Don’t say ‘things’ when what you mean is ‘negative elements’. Avoid the word ‘normal’, especially if you’re talking about people, as it implies that some people are abnormal. And never use the word ‘very’. Your writing will sound stronger without it. Trust me!
If all this sounds knackering and you just want to get back to writing your next grant application or maybe even watching a bit of Killing Eve with your long-suffering spouse, fear not. Just get in touch with the post-graduate proof-reader and I can help you complete all these fixes and many more so that your academic writing becomes something to write home about.