Helen writes: reading to write

In the third of an occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams talks about how reading previous theses can contribute to your writing practice.

If you saw last month’s posts about perseverance and The Conversation, you’ll have picked up on the fact that November was #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) – an annual, month-long, communal attempt by academics at all career stages to focus on their writing. In thinking about what can be most helpful in both facilitating and improving writing however, I keep coming back to how important reading is as part of this process.

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." Stephen King

In my work with undergraduates I am always struck by how much they seem to glean from reading other students’ work. It is easy to forget that many students operate in a bit of a vacuum, churning out essays and reading plenty of articles, but seldom getting to read what others on their module or course are writing and submitting. I’ve even spoken to undergraduates who were sure that “everyone else” was writing assignments that could be published as journal articles (I assured them that this definitely was not the case), and that their writing was somehow very sub-standard.

What they find useful is seeing the actual writing that other students in their subject have produced – both good and bad. This can help with all sorts of issues, ranging from ‘what does a First-class essay look like?’ to the concern that their writing isn’t good enough. The same rules apply for postgraduate researchers, and it can be incredibly helpful to put academic articles and published texts to one side and spend a bit of time looking at other doctoral theses in your area. The University of Birmingham’s own thesis repository is the perfect place to start (more info).

What you look for when reading a thesis will differ depending on the stage you’re at, but here are a few pointers to get you started:

  • If you’re just starting out: skim through a few theses from your subject or department. Have a look at the overall structure. How long is each chapter? In particular, you may find it useful to look at a literature review section or equivalent. How do they write about existing research, and use this to position their own work?
  • In the midst of writing: everyone has their own writing style, but this can get repetitious and stale. Find a thesis written in a way that you think is particularly engaging or readable, and break down how it is written. What kind of vocabulary is used, or how is this varied? What kind of sentence structures do they use? How long are their paragraphs? How do they synthesise references into their writing?
  • Final stages: it might be helpful here to look at some of the practicalities. You’ll have to write an abstract, which can be harder than it looks. What good (or bad!) examples of other thesis abstracts are out there? What does an effective abstract need to do? Writing acknowledgements are another important final task, and are unlike any other academic writing you’ll do; look at examples for guidance or inspiration.

There is also a guilty pleasure to be found in reading doctoral work that isn’t actually that well written – but has still passed. Whilst the writing of the thesis can feel like the be-all and end-all, remember that there will be many other merits and strengths to your research beyond the words on the page. And like most of the undergraduate students I see, you’ll no doubt be pleasantly surprised to find that your writing is much better than you thought!

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