This blog is written for HDR students in GUSS and beyond. The aim is to offer reflections, tips and tricks on various aspects of doing a PhD to help you with your thesis journey.
An obvious but often overlooked feature of doing a PhD is that it involves writing a book.
Although this writing element is often glossed over as a mere technicality as if we were transcribing a pre-recorded interview, it is a large, complex and generative process in its own right.
For this reason, multiple courses and groups exist to help people become writers, including writers of non-fiction.
One of the things they teach you in a writing master class is that writing well is not just about communicating clearly. Although clarity of expression is a vital pre-requisite to good writing (hence the common demand for academics to speak “plain English”), good writing depends on the quality of ideas and how they are framed.
In turn, high-quality work only emerges through writing – with playing with language and layering and structure to find what those stellar ideas actually are. In other words, writing is a route to, not just an expression of, thinking.
Like doodling, painting and other forms of expression, writing allows us to work out what we think, not just document what we already know. Not recognising this can lead to great frustration if what we write ends up not being anything like what we planned to write! Both the “wild mind” that is thought-in-action and the “editor mind” that is policewoman and judge are vital elements of being a writer.
Most of you will have some prior history of being a writer. Whether it was writing essays in undergrad, reports for an industry partner, media pieces or journal articles, anyone who has been in the academic system or workforce long enough to now be doing a PhD is well versed in spitting out various pieces of writing. The diverse forms of writing that we and others have produced demonstrate that writing comes in different forms. This is not just in the sense that journals have different article categories, for example, but in the sense that there are different genres and tones.
In academic publications, most writing is implicitly written from the position of an anonymous author. Although some academics do write in the first person to be more transparent about where the ideas are coming from, the convention of writing in a third person persona is proving hard to budge, shaping academia’s own dominant genre. But even in pieces where there is no use of the first-person perspective, it is obvious that authors have their own style and tone.
When you write as an academic, although there are certain academic conventions you usually need to follow (eg backing up assertions with relevant citations, or following a standard thesis structure), there is no formula per se.
This is why as an HDR student you are often told to “find your voice”. Finding your voice is closely related to finding your line of argumentation. Indeed, asserting an argument is as much a style question as a substance question. The trick is to align the two. Far too many potentially powerful theses are let down by a wan, bored tone that indicates that even the candidate does not believe or realise the far-reaching implications of their work.
Likewise, some theses suffer from hubris and grand-standing of a sort that is undermined by the pedestrian nature of the actual findings and the dullness of the ideas presented. While the latter issue needs to be addressed no matter what, even modest findings and conclusions can shine if written with an appropriately modest, thoughtful tone that celebrates the value of small studies and positions the work within a much larger (and carefully documented) social and academic landscape.
Appreciating that you are now not just a writer, but a book author requires an especially deep degree of self-understanding and especially sustained performance of authorial voice. No examiner likes reading an “uneven” thesis where the “voice” of the author lurches from one register to another across chapters without reason. This is particularly a challenge for theses with publications embedded within them. A consistent authorial voice in the intervening sections is vital to convincing an examiner that the whole works as a thesis.
Because theses can take so long to write, and you evolve as a thinker and writer so profoundly during the PhD journey (or should), you may barely recognise the person who wrote your early chapters or paper. It is therefore important to go back over early pieces and edit or even rewrite them in accordance with the final style and line of argumentation you adopt, stripping out bits and arguments that no longer fit.
It is important to revise your most recent pieces too as they may implicitly communicate only too clearly that you were tired, fed up and impatient to just finish!
Unfortunately, these are often the concluding chapters where the big points of the thesis have to be driven home and precisely articulated. If you don’t feel energised to do such work or write towards such a beacon (the topic of a forthcoming blog), go and do something else to rekindle your creative spark and courage. However, if you still feel the same after a day or so, just lock yourself in your office, set the timer and type!
Sharing these sorts of writing tricks of the trade is a genre in its own right. As a book author, you can draw on the vast range of advice directed at novice writers.
During my own PhD, Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: living the writer’s life and Writing Down the Bones: freeing the writer within by were my bibles – partly because they helped me recognise the existence and value of my “wild mind” and the need to tell Ms Editor to shut up every now and again. Following six supervisor changes and a personal catastrophe, I also found these books especially valuable because they soothed my anxiety, helping me realise I was just one writer among millions of others also struggling to master the task of writing; even if I was writing a weird thing called a PhD. I especially benefited from Natalie and others’ practical tips like nonstop “stream of consciousness” writing in a notebook every morning to help start up the writing engine. It is worth noting that among writers, writer’s block is a totally normal, mundane problem.
Far from being something to panic about, it’s just seen as an annoyance to work around. In the same way, as many athletes feel sore, achey and tired – but then get on with it and train anyway – so too do professional writers struggle with writing but get on with it anyway. That is the nature of writing, at least sometimes. The key is to become writing fit as well as skilful.
Besides Natalie’s books, the other bibles that guided me during my thesis were two key texts by my favourite academic authors at the time (Val Plumwood and Gillian Rose). These two women were my imagined audience, not just because I engaged deeply with their mind-blowing ideas and loved their scathing observations on the world, but because I revelled in the tone of their writing – the way they call things out with explosive points and then explain them methodically – all without the pompous intellectual posturing that many of the authors they criticise could be accused of.
So there’s another tip – if you are having trouble finding your voice, start imitating! Think about whose writing you love or really “get” and look closely at what it is about their writing that appeals. Look at how they craft their work. Now pretend you are doing the same… Keep practicing and soon you will not only evolve into a distinctive author of your own, you will have written that weird type of book that is a PhD thesis.
This blog is written for HDR students in GUSS and beyond. The aim is to offer reflections, tips and tricks on various aspects of doing a PhD to help you with your thesis journey. Focused on the intellectual elements of the PhD, the idea is to complement the advice you all get separately from your supervisors, to pool ideas from across different academics, and foster learning and conversation. In these ways, we hope that the often implicit intellectual (and thus personal) demands of “doing a PhD” will be made a little clearer and easier.
The blog is led by Lauren Rickards (email@example.com), deputy Program Manager of the GUSS HDR program, and co-leader of the Climate Change Transformations research program in CUR. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any ideas or feedback.