Pen and paper revision materials

Top 5 tips for writing your PhD

Being almost 3 years into my PhD, I’ve written my fair share of academic writing. This also means that I’ve had a huge amount of feedback from my supervisor on my writing style. There are some mistakes that I’ve made (and continue making), which I wish I had got out of the habit of doing sooner. So, I thought I’d share my top 5 tips for writing that I wish I’d known at the beginning:

Get your referencing right at the beginning, not the end

Your university might have particular rules about which referencing style to follow, or you might have had the freedom to choose the style yourself. Having had the choice myself, I decided to stick with what I was familiar with and continue to use the style that I’d used throughout my higher education, MHRA. I’ve learnt, however, that I’m really not as familiar with it as I should be, and this is something I wish I had sorted out before I started writing, rather than, at this point, having to go back and sort out all my many hundreds of references. Trust me, it will save you so much time and effort down the road if you get it right from the beginning. This is true even if you use referencing software such as Mendeley – you need to know your system inside out to make sure your program is getting it right.

Get your punctuation right

There’s nothing like ruining a perfectly good sentence with incorrect punctuation – something I’m still grappling with. Academic writing is so much more nuanced and complex than I ever realised when I started my PhD. I had thought that I was pretty good with grammar, but I quickly came to realise that the bad punctuation habits I had managed to get away with in my previous degrees weren’t going to slide now. I particularly struggle with semi-colons, an elusive little beast that is great to have in your writer’s toolkit, but one I just can’t pin down the correct use of. I’m helping this by (after doing some research) having a little note up on my pin board about how to use it and when. The point is, if you struggle with punctuation, take some time to do your research. There’s a lot of great websites and TED-Ed videos (I found this website particularly useful), so the information is out there, just waiting to be found.

Page with question mark written on it

Ask ‘so what?’ after every sentence

This is something I was told at the beginning of my PhD, but I stupidly didn’t pay any attention to. Now that I’m in the process of editing, I’ve realised that it’s a really useful piece of advice that I should have been utilising the whole time I was writing, because it forces you to make sure every sentences serves a purpose. It’s a great way to weed out the ‘fluff’, the sentences full of waffle that don’t actually contribute anything to your sentence, making your writing more concise, more accurate, and clearer. I can’t overstate the importance of this tip!

Avoid the word ‘interesting’ or ‘interestingly’

My supervisor has a lot of things that he calls ‘undergrad-y’ – things he really doesn’t like in PhD writing. The word ‘interesting’ is one of the worst, because it doesn’t really add anything to your sentence. I think of it like how, in primary school, we were told not to use the word ‘nice’ – it’s a bit of a null word. It’s usage can also make it seem like you’re trying too hard to overstate your point, and it may even put you in deep water – what you find interesting might not be interesting at all to your reader, who may then question your judgement on what is ‘interesting’.

Approach everything cautiously

One of the best pieces of wisdom that my supervisor has passed on to me, that he learnt from his supervisor when he was a doctoral student, is to think about your field as a pile of rocks, and your PhD as a little stone to place on top. This is to say that while your research won’t be ground-breaking, it will add a valuable little nugget to the body of knowledge. When writing, it’s important to keep this in mind – overstating your arguments at the expense of all other secondary literature won’t make your research more important, it will make it look like you’re desperate to do so, and be off-putting to your reader. The best approach is to be quietly confident – you want to entice your reader, not put them off. State your points convincingly, but don’t write as though they’re fact or as though yours is the best opinion out there, that will revolutionise the field. Acknowledge the drawbacks to your theory and treat other theories with respect, while maintaining a well-reasoned argument to convince your reader.

Person typing on laptop

I’m not an expert in academic writing – far from it. But I do hope that these little tips and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way will be helpful to anyone in the process of writing, or even editing, their own PhD.

The most important bonus tip I can leave you with is this: practice, practice, practice. Don’t leave all your writing until your final year, having done nothing throughout your first two. Academic writing a skill that needs to be honed slowly, it’s definitely not something you can master quickly. Take the time to develop your writing style, and when you compare your older work to your most recent drafts, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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