By Richard Parfitt |

Getting your writing started early is something that most supervisors will say is vital from the off. Generally speaking, the advice is not to spend two and a half years gathering research before you actually get some words down on paper. The problem with this advice is that it is outcome based. Most of us realise that it would be advantageous to have more of your thesis written earlier, that seems fairly self-evident. What some find a little more difficult is the actual process of writing. How should you get started? How much time should you spend writing? How do you make sure all that material you’ve collected is actually feeding into what you end up churning out?


Of course, there’s more than one way to go about it. Some like to designate a day of the week for writing, some like to go along to writing workshops run by their universities. What I would like to do with this particular post is to take you through my process. My gripe with a lot of advice is that it’s too generic. I often think it’s more helpful to give people a taste of how somebody (in this case, me) actually does it. From that, you can take specific aspects or nothing at all, but I think it helps to have an example in front of you. With that in mind, what follows is the way that I have found works for me.


Personally, I haven’t found the ‘designated writing day’ a helpful model. It doesn’t fit in with my more methodical working style. Instead, I prefer to have what you might call a writing ‘phase’ perhaps once a term, where I will spend four weeks or so planning and writing. This allows me to spend the periods in between focusing solely on gathering material towards the next chapter that I plan to draft/rewrite.


The important thing here is that, while I spend a lot of time gathering material, I still have a date in the pipeline on which I am going to start writing the next chunk. Whether or not I have viewed all of the material that I think is going to be relevant, in order to keep the word count ticking over I make sure that I do start writing on that date.


The first stage for me is sketching out ideas. That starts by going through the notes I’ve made on the various sources that I’ve looked at in preparation for this phase, with a rough spider diagram identifying key points that I intend to make. At the same time, I highlight key quotes and sections in my notes and annotate them noting the part of the chapter in progress to which they are relevant. This can be a hard slog, but it makes it a lot easier when it comes to later.


The next stage is planning. Having made my diagram of key ideas, I shift these around into a skeleton paragraph plan of how I think the chapter will develop. I tend to go through three or four iterations of this before I’m happy, and it often changes slightly once I get writing, but it helps to have a broad outline of how the chapter is going to flow from one theme to the next. With that plan settled, I then have a sheet of A4 for each paragraph. With these sheets, I go through my notes again, sift through the highlighted sections, and write out the precise quotes and sources to which I plan to refer.


At this point, the eagle eyed reader will have noticed I haven’t technically written a single word. Have faith. What I do now have is the entire chapter planned out almost precisely as I intend to write it. With that done, I can now start writing without having to sort through notes. I only need my small stack of paragraph plans. That means that I can focus on making my writing as good as it can be. The structure and evidence are already done and dusted, now it’s all about phrasing the argument.


As stated, there are many methods. What I like about mine is that it allows me to compartmentalise the actual writing part and crack on with it, uninterrupted by lengthy searches for specific quotes. All told, I have found this method allows me to knock out a 15,000 word chapter in about four weeks. In any case, you will have your own method, but my advice would be to definitely have a method of some kind so that you can see clearly in your mind how the research you do will translate into words on a page.



Richard Parfitt is a Committee Member for Pubs and Publications.  You can find him on Twitter and on on