Tackling the Beast: Advice for Starting New Thesis Chapters

In the three years I’ve been working on my PhD, I’ve come to realise that there’s nothing quite as terrifying and exciting as starting a new chapter. When I finally get to set aside the document I’ve been working on for months to start something new and fresh, I’m usually met first with a sense of relief that I’m progressing in my work and then, inevitably, a daunting wave of anxiety over what I still have yet to finish. I’d like to think, though, that the past few years have given me some insight into how to make the most of my time.

Though there’s no one ‘right’ way to go about starting a new chapter, here are a few tips that have worked for me:

Build a Foundation

One thing I learned early on in my PhD is that I need I to have a firm understanding of my chapter’s material before I even think of writing. So, I spend a fair amount of time going through primary sources, scholarly texts and journal articles to build a foundation from which to build my own thoughts and my chapter’s narrative. Some people might find it more helpful to do most of their reading at the very beginning of their PhD, some might prefer to do it as they go. Regardless of what works for you, it’s important to set aside time to familiarize yourself with your research and make sure you know what it is you want to spend the next several weeks writing about.

Outline, Outline, Outline

As someone who used to loath outlines, I understand the ambivalence some people feel toward them. But if there’s one thing I hate more than outlines, it’s a blank page, and outlines are a pretty great cure for that. While it can be easy to view outlines as structured devils meant to remind you of how much you haven’t written yet, there are plenty of ways to cater outlines to your own tastes. You don’t have to follow the bullet-point structure and you don’t even have to write in complete sentences. I know academics who outline with colourful markers or bright sticky notes, who make diagrams or put their thoughts in speech bubbles. The primary purpose of an outline isn’t necessarily to create a structure (I’ve changed my structure after outlining countless times), but rather to create a place where you can connect your research to your thoughts, and where you can return to remind yourself of the overall purpose of your chapter.

Picture of a messy desk. Laptop is open in the back, crumpled sticky notes are scattered across the desk, a half-empty coffee mug and various other items.
Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

Write What you Know (At First!)

Before I started my PhD, I found it difficult to start writing anywhere but the beginning. If I did that now, though, I’d spend ages working on my chapter’s introduction before even getting to the heart of my analysis. I’ve found that, for me, there’s always a particular section in each chapter that I’m more comfortable with than the others. Whether this comfort comes from the amount of research I’ve done or just because it’s something I’ve been looking forward to writing about doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this comfort makes starting to write easier and more enjoyable than forcing myself to deal with the intricacies of an introduction. Writing about something you know you know can also give your space and time to flex your writing muscles and get used to the pace and tone of your new chapter without also overly worrying (because let’s face it, you’re going to worry no matter what) that you’re getting something wrong.

Don’t Try to be Perfect

This one is much easier said than done for me. Though I’ve come a long way in my drafting skills over the years, I still find it difficult to write without editing at the same time. I know when a sentence I’ve just written isn’t good, or when I could explain something just a little bit better, so I’m always tempted to edit what I just wrote. (Literally, I’m doing exactly that while writing this post.) But when I have been able to convince myself to ‘let go’ and just write, I’ve found that beginning a new chapter goes by a lot faster than otherwise. Of course, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely let go of my editing-while-writing tendencies, but some of the things that help me are putting notes to myself instead of trying to edit. If I’ve written a sentence that doesn’t really make sense, I’ll make a note in square brackets – [fix this sent], [clarify] – so that when I’m ready to edit complete sections, I’ll remember what I wanted to work more on.

I recently started a new chapter for the last time in my PhD. And while the process was a bit less daunting than it was the first time, I still found myself wondering if I really knew what I was doing. It’s a feeling I don’t see going away any time soon, but I try to remember the other feeling that is just as present: excitement. Thesis chapters are kind of like mini-projects, and there’s always something exciting about getting to start something new. So, if you take just one thing away from this post, I hope it’s this: there is excitement and possibility in every new thing, even when that ‘thing’ is something as frustrating as a thesis chapter.

Feature Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

If you would like to write a guest post for the blog, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk

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