Why writing from day one isn’t nuts

Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Locat...
Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Location : seen outside Rewley House of Kellogg College, Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Hayton wrote a guest post at The Thesis Whisper, decrying the (very widespread) theory that to write a good PhD, you need to write as you go, or – as he puts it – write from “day one”.

I can only speak from my experience, as an English DPhil student at the University of Oxford, but I’ve found it essential to write as I go, for the following reasons:

1. Writing is rewriting.

The most valuable part of writing is rewriting. For me, rewriting is not always exciting – much of the material is already familiar to me, and I’m refining/redirecting/clarifying, not charting a course into the (thrilling) unknown. Nevertheless, it’s that critical eye which refines your thesis and makes the messy first draft (second draft, third draft…) better. I dread the thought of returning to my thesis between submission and viva (obviously praying I get that far! And not jinxing it! And knocking on wood and frothing with neurosis!) and realising that – although no thesis is ever perfect – just one more rewrite would have fixed things. If you don’t write from day one, you have much less time left to rewrite. Hayton says that it’s difficult to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago. This is COMPLETELY true because it is BILGE and you’re a MORON and why didn’t your supervisors stifle you at birth. On the other hand, realising something from two years ago looks like relative bilge is testament to your own progress since then; something I’ve found strangely affirming. Moreover, there will probably be something you can salvage. It’s easier to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago than to return to a chapter that doesn’t exist.

2. Writing is revealing.

Writing shows up the flaws in your argument; the paragraph that doesn’t fit; the stylistic tic that you need to spot; and, sometimes, the glorious link that couldn’t be made until ideas were made adjacent on paper. The more writing you’ve done, the more likely you are to see the strengths and weaknesses of your research. Writing from day one isn’t fun – not as much fun as a glorious library wallow without concept of producing results – but it does acquaint you with your research-self.

3. Writers have readers.

It is very, very hard for your supervisor to get a sense of where you’re heading and what your strengths actually are if you’re all talk and no hand-in. As ever, I’m very lucky in my supervisors, but in my 1st year a remark from the then Director of Graduate Studies (made at a general session for new research students) stuck with me: “A great way to get your supervisor’s attention is to hand something in“. If you’re only making notes and plans and following your own discursive research leads, it’s very hard to get the feedback which is so valuable early in your PhD, by averting disasters or pointing out obvious omissions. Sooner than you think, too, you’ll be wanting your fellow research students to look over your work, or you’ll need writing samples to win scholarships or even jobs…

4. Writers don’t just write theses.

Your thesis draft is the source of conference papers, podcasts, job applications; it’s a repository of fascinating miscellanea which frankly bear NO relation to your stated topic but which might turn into fascinating articles at some point. Writers are also teachers, and in a climate which seems to value research-led teaching, a clear research identity (and an idea about what constitutes good writing in your discipline) is much easier to model if you’re settled in your own written work.

And, finally, breaking my nice if semi-hypnotic/creepy structural streak:

5. There is no bloody time.

There isn’t time. There definitely isn’t time. Not in the UK. There’s time for reading and exploring and doing conferences and archive trips and all, I promise, all the attractions of graduate school life but there is not time for all these activities without any suggestion of written results. I teach and research-assist alongside my thesis, currently while applying for jobs and attempting to have a social life and see the people I love. Many doctoral students also have spouses, mortgages, children, and a pressing need to graduate before their funding expires (mine ends in Sept 2013) or before self-funding becomes still more untenable. You can’t be a seminar-going, committee-member, sociable, fulfilled, profile-building graduate student and then write your thesis. You have to do both at the same time, and make the best fist of it you can. There’s no blueprint for writing a thesis, but you’d have to be an extraordinary person (or just extraordinarily hurried) to sit down after thirty months’ research and write 100,000 words in the final six. More power to James Hayton, if he can manage it – but I can’t, and I’d advise any new researcher not to try.