Helen writes: spring-clean your thesis

In the next of our occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams talks about refreshing existing writing as a rewarding and important step on the road to your thesis.

In these uncertain times it’s nice to have a few constants and, whilst working at my desk overlooking my garden, I’ve been reminded that the changing of the seasons is one of these.

Helen's garden
Spring in Helen’s garden

As always, spring has sprung, and this put me in mind of other spring-related traditions that roll around each year. One of these that feels quite apt right now is spring cleaning; what better time than now to do all those tasks that get pushed to one side and ignored in favour of more ‘urgent’ ones?

You may be using this time to charge ahead with writing up and churning out new chapters, which is great, but if you’ve ground to a bit of a halt or want some variety, the following are some good ‘housekeeping’ activities that will pay dividends later on when your schedule may be getting back to normal (most of these assume that you have drafted some work already; if you need to start writing but are struggling, check out my previous post on this).

Re-read existing chapters

If you’ve been concentrating on writing new content, take some time to revisit older chapters. Not only is it easier to proofread and edit work that you haven’t read for some time, but you can also assess clarity – are there any sentences that you stumble over, or that you now can’t quite understand? It’s likely your examiner will encounter the same problems, so use this time to iron out any issues. You should also check that your writing (and perhaps argument) is in keeping with what you have written most recently. Has the focus of your research changed slightly? Do you now want to highlight slightly different aspects of the discussion, in light of your recent research or thinking?

Formatting

This often gets left until last, but also takes a surprising amount of time. There’s no reason that each chapter can’t be formatted and presented consistently as you go along, however. Of course, most word processing programmes can do much of this for you (see the Digital Skills Canvas course on using Microsoft Word for this) but if you’d prefer, you can do it manually. Make sure all headings, sub-headings and so on are standardised across each chapter, and think about how you want to present chapter titles. It goes without saying that legends or keys for all graphs, charts, figures and images need to be accurate and complete, and make sure that you are clear on whether a reference is also required if you are using (or have adapted) an image from elsewhere.

Reference list/bibliography

As with formatting you may be using software to do this for you, but it is still a task worth keeping on top of. Make sure you are clear which references you have actually used in your thesis and which you read and discarded; depending on which software you are using, you may be able to sort references in folders for each chapter. If you are collecting references manually, start compiling your final reference list as a separate document and take a bit of time to double check that everything is presented properly and without any typing or spelling errors. I also found it useful to have a list of texts related to my research that I didn’t use in my thesis, along with some notes as to why, just in case anyone wanted to put me on the spot during my viva…

Spring cleaning is a bit of a chore, but the end result is almost always satisfying – I hope you find the same with these suggestions, and feel free to share your own below.

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