PhD Thesis Writing as a Process


Your thesis is the product on which you will be assessed. Writing it is far more than merely reporting the outcome of several years of research. Students experience a great deal of discomfort when attempting to present results in written form because writing makes people think about their work in a different way. If writing leads to discovery and not, as is generally supposed, discoveries merely need to be put into writing, then it is easy to understand why writing the thesis is experienced as the most difficult part of the work.

One student said, ‘Obviously you don’t formulate what you’re going to say completely until you come to write it down . . . it was only when I was writing it that I realized that in one section my interpretation was completely wrong. The point I was trying to make just wouldn’t embody itself verbally, so I thought it out again and rewrote the whole section.’

If you are able to read what you have written as though it were the work of someone else, you will find it easier to be critical of your own imprecise phrases and sloppy style. The way to achieve this ‘distance’ between yourself and your work is to put it aside for a few days and then come back to it as though you had never seen it before. Alternatively, if there is no time for that, you might try doing something else – make phone calls, meet friends – and then come back to it. The psychological switch will help to create the required distance. Another technique is to read aloud what you have written, as hearing often reveals the difference between what you intended to say and what you actually did say. In the same way, recording what you have written and then playing it back can also be very helpful.

Rewriting is a very important factor in the writing process and it is a good idea for students to keep successive drafts of a report or a chapter and then compare them to see whether later drafts define and refine meaning more effectively than earlier ones. Computers enable you to amend the text of drafts as often as required. The final version can be used in the thesis and can also serve as the text basis for journal articles which may be published from your research.

Different types of writer

Not everybody goes about writing in the same way. Just as there are at least two different kinds of learners there are also two distinct types of writer. At school we are instructed to make a plan and then write the essay. But we are not all ‘planners’ – some of us are ‘get it all out’-ers. It is not at all easy both to,

  • first, say what you want to say,
  • and second, say it in the best possible way at the same time. It is sensible, therefore, to do it in stages.

Two types of writes

  • ‘Serialists’ see writing as a sequential process in which the words are corrected as they are written and who plan their writing in detail before beginning to write. Here is an example of the serialist approach: ‘It’s stylistic, the phrasing of the work and the way it flows, that I’m having difficulty with at the moment. When I do write sentences I feel good about my style. I don’t feel like an inadequate writer, but writing sentences is very slow.’
  • ‘Holists’ can only think as they write and compose a succession of complete drafts: ‘I write a complete first draft in longhand. As I go along I tend to revise a bit, but when I’ve finished I revise a great deal and it tends to look like World War III on paper. If I’m really interested in it I’ll start at 8.30 a.m. or 9.30 a.m. and go on until late at night. Once I start I want to see it finished; the shorter the time between conception and finished article the better.’

The serialist emphasizes the writing of sentences, which is very different from the way the holistic writer talks about his work.

 The writing process cycle

We recommend that you approach your writing in the following systematic way. The writing process cycle can be summarized as:

  • Generate.
  • Organize.
  • Construct.
  • Plan.
  • Write.
  • Edit.
  • Get feedback (from colleagues).
  • Revise.
  • Get more feedback (from supervisors).
  • Accept or rethink.

To elaborate on this:

  • Generate the main points (in any order if you’re a holist, and sequentially if you’re a serialist), noting everything that comes into your mind, thus making a rough plan (which you need not stick to);
  • organize this into an acceptable structure; and only then attempt to construct the points into grammatical paragraphs made up of wellbalanced sentences;
  • plan to spend two to five hours a week on writing, specify those hours at the beginning of the week and stick to them, Trollope-wise, making sure there are no interruptions;
  • find quiet conditions in which to write and, if possible, always write in the same place;
  • set goals and targets for yourself;
  • ask colleagues and friends for feedback on early drafts before you show them to your supervisors for their feedback.

Feedback is an important component of the writing process. Since you will be asking your colleagues for such feedback on your work, you will inevitably need to reciprocate by giving them feedback too. So it is important to be aware of how to give feedback effectively.


Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. (2010). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (p.72). McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

  1. Akintade AFOLAYAN says

    Great article. Is a pdf version available for download? Would appreciate it.

  2. Adekolurejo, Oloyede says

    The article is very instructive and answers practical questions regarding my thesis writing. Can you forward me a pdf version of it

  3. Ogunode Phillips says

    This is definitely a handbook for every PhD student. Grab your copy without further delay

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