Early stages

Research and writing – which comes first?

“I think another crucial thing for students, if they are working in a new area, is not being too afraid to go and ask people, “What are the most important things to read?” Just a basic question like that. They’ll find that people actually quite like answering those questions although it doesn’t necessarily feel like that when you’re a student, it can feel scary. Read the three, four, or five crucial things first. They won’t necessarily turn out to be the crucial things in the end, and you may miss some stuff which you’ll come back to later, but it gets you quickly to the heart of something. The key experience about writing is that sense of taking short-cuts the whole time – to get things down, to get it moving, to get it started. And not getting put off. Not letting the reading get in the way of the writing.”

“Completing a thesis means writing a thesis; it does not mean completing the research. Delaying the writing by spending too much time as ‘a researcher’ leads to all sorts of problems, some of which are beyond your control: supervisors may move or retire or disappear for the summer; a hot topic will cool over time; other people may release work on a similar area; and more new literature appears. It also becomes hard to change from a full-time researcher to a full-time writer.”

“The notion of a separate ‘writing up’ stage, tagged on at the end, is becoming increasingly discredited. Writing is not something that just happens at the end. It should be given major priority from the start.”

“I quiver at the term ‘writing up’. I think I might prefer terms like ‘writing out’ or ‘writing through’.”

“One starting exercise is to say to students ‘Imagine that you are in a radio studio and it’s a broad general audience and the interviewer is saying to you, ‘So you’re doing a thesis on x, tell me what is the importance of that?’ and you’ve got a minute to explain to an audience who knows nothing about your discipline what your problem is and why it is interesting. And you can’t use any technical language, you just have to explain it.’ If you can do that then you’re a long way towards making a decent attempt at your thesis.”

“The other exercise is to imagine that you are at a party with a bunch of nontechnical people and someone says, ‘What do you do?’ and you have to tell them and you have to make it interesting, because it’s a party and you want to appear interesting, but you can’t use technical language. Unless you can do this in a minute or so, then I think you’re not going to make progress. I think probably the same is true of the chapter planning. It probably needs to be done in lay language, in simple constructions, as if you’re giving a briefing for someone else to write.”

“Two pieces of advice were particularly helpful. ‘Start writing now, and keep writing’ was something I did, and it paid off, both in terms of practice and in terms of material to draw on when it came to putting the whole thing together. The only problem was all of those bits I was really attached to, but that had to be dropped because they just didn’t fit. And the other thing was the difference between academic writing and ‘readable’ writing – the desirability of avoiding complex, over-punctuated sentences. I haven’t got that right yet, but I’m much better than I was!”