Helen writes: getting started

In the first of a new occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams gives advice on getting started with your thesis writing.

In 2018 I started at the University of Birmingham as a Writing Skills Advisor, and when asked to contribute to this blog I considered the hardest part of writing my own thesis.

Helen Williams, Writing Skills Advisor, Library Services

Fittingly, ‘getting started’ was often the toughest task for me, which also felt apt for a first blog post. Preparation is essential in drafting effective writing, and there is a lot that you can do encourage this process before putting pen to paper. So, to start, here are four tips for getting started.

  1. Don’t write ‘too soon’

Waiting until you are really ready to start writing is essential. Writing can be slow at the best of times, but if you are struggling to get beyond a few sentences it could be that you need to spend more time reading, thinking or planning.

This can feel demoralising – particularly if you’ve psyched yourself up that Today You Will Write Stuff – but you’ll save time in going back to the drawing board and eventually producing something worthwhile. Revisit notes, read something new, or write a more detailed chapter plan. Speaking of which…

  1. Plan, plan and plan some more

My absolute top tip for writing (and writing well) is to create the most detailed chapter plan that you can. (Planning is a personal process, but for example: each chapter of my thesis was around 10,000-12,000 words, and each chapter plan would run to between 2,000-3,000 words). Plan out each paragraph individually. What ideas, references, information or material do you need to engage with? In what order does this need to happen to develop your point? How should your writing join up these dots and create an argument? What thread does each paragraph need to pick up, and where should it take the discussion?

Plan this in a way that works for you and then write an ‘abstract’ for this chapter. Refer back to this when necessary to remind yourself what the bigger picture of this chapter is, and what it needs to achieve.

  1. Free writing

Free writing is a way to get your thoughts down on paper and overcome blocks or impediments to expressing your ideas; it involves writing continuously and ‘freely’ without considering spelling, punctuation or grammar. If I was struggling to nail the crux of my argument or the point I was trying to make, I’d get down a paragraph of free writing that would often expose the essence of my argument. Often the text is unusable in its ‘raw’ form, but it can reveal what you are really trying to say and give you text to refine.

  1. Enlist some help

If after all of the above you’re still struggling to start, look to external forces for help. The ‘Shut Up & Work’ sessions run by the University Graduate School provide a supportive and sociable environment where, by writing alongside others working towards set goals, you are more likely to succeed. These start with specific goal-setting, set periods of work and breaks, as well as time to reflect and determine future goals. More detail can be found here.

Equally effective – if less sociable – is the Pomodoro technique. By breaking your day into timed segments of 25 minutes’ work and five-minute breaks you maximise your average timespan for concentration (around half an hour) and give yourself a break as your brain starts switching off. Surprisingly effective!

What are your tips for getting started, and what have I missed? Share your suggestions in the comments below.

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