The thesis outline – so much more than just a chapter list

It’s about time for another blog post. I’ve not been able to do much PhD work lately due to a range of on-going computer problems plus a lot of time spent teaching and marking. The computer issues have limited my ability to do the more technical aspects of my PhD work, so I’ve been doing as much as I can of the less technical work. This has included writing a new thesis outline.

A thesis outline is a funny thing – it all seems a bit unnecessary at first. I mean it should be pretty clear what sections your thesis will have. Shouldn’t the outline be obvious? So you might think but I can assure you that this is not the case. Just like you were told at school: always plan your answer before you write anything. The thesis can almost be thought of as a really long essay and, as such, it should be properly planned before any writing takes place. I suspect failure to do this can cause a lot of trouble later on when it transpires that major restructuring is required!

I wanted to avoid getting caught in this trap so I have had a thesis plan on the back burner almost since the word go. I initially wrote my first thesis outline as part of preparing my research timetable. Things have massively changed since those heady days as a first year PhD student and my current thesis outline bears little resemblance to the original. But comparing the two is a quick way of summarising the way that my project has developed and evolved, which is kind of nice in itself.

Producing thesis outlines at various points in my PhD has also helped me to keep on-track and to work out what I should be focusing my efforts on. This was true even before I started doing any writing but is particularly true now I am getting words down on paper. At this late stage I have worked up the thesis outline into a contents page format, whereas before it was more of a list of chapters. Now it includes a better idea of the subsections within each chapter as I start to define exactly what work will go where. At the same time I’m trying to work out a figure list, which is proving really helpful in guiding my final data analysis. By knowing what figures are required to make my key points, I am able to be more focused with my data processing and generate only the results I need, without too much surplus.

This is why I think thesis outlines are so vital – at every stage they save you time by keeping you tightly focused and on track. Any PhD will include a bit of speculative work but the issues come when too much of what you’re doing is pursuing tangents, some of which will inevitably be red herrings. That’s the sort of thing that will prevent you finishing on time and this is where a thesis outline can be very helpful, whether you’re in first year, second year, third year, and especially beyond!

Writing a lit review without going insane

As I’ve said before, I’ve recently been writing my literature review. This has turned into a fairly weighty 12,000 word document. So I thought it might be helpful if I shared some tips and tricks that have allowed me to write this fairly painlessly.

Now I’m not professing to be any sort of writing expert, I’ve just done quite a bit of it now and I have worked out a strategy that works for me. Some of this stuff may work for you too – but I can’t make any guarantees! For more tips about academic writing, I suggest you have a look at the many blog posts on this topic. I particularly like ‘How to write 1,000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)’ by the Thesis Whisperer. A quick Google search will return more blog posts and articles on academic writing then you can possibly ever read, so have a quick look and skim a few of the most promising.

This brings me to my first point – whatever you do you need to make a note of what works and doesn’t work for you personally. Then you need to stick with what works. It’s very easy to get excited by new methods that promise to have you writing like a demon, but if you don’t eventually pick one method and stick with it then you’ll end up wasting more time then you’re saving.

Getting started

Often the biggest barrier to a productive writing session is getting yourself into the right frame of mind from the start. The hardest part for me is avoiding drifting off into email/ Facebook/ Twitter procrastination. This requires a surprisingly large amount of will power and can be nigh impossible when you’re tired, or stressed or when you just really don’t feel like writing today.

This initial procrastination hurdle is something that you really need a strategy for dealing with. For myself, I’ve found that pomodoros are often effective at getting me going. If I sit down and immediately set a timer for 25 mins then I find this removes the temptation to procrastinate and helps me settle into a productive frame of mind. Sometimes, if I’m in an easily distracted mood, I’ll carry on with pomodoros but often I’ll ditch them after the first one or two because I’ll have got into my groove and will no longer need enforced periods of concentration.

Other strategies that I can recommend include setting up a nice working environment and preparing yourself a little pre-writing routine. For example, I like to write in my office at home because it’s quieter and less distracting than being in the busy postgrad room at uni. Before I start writing I’ll get my laptop and desk all set up ready, make myself a nice cup of tea and put on some suitable music. I find that I generally need calm and fairly uninteresting background music but when I have a deadline and the shit is hitting the fan, then I’ll amp it up with some melodramatic classical stuff or some heavy drum & bass. Lends me a sense of urgency! Try out different writing environments; try using music and find out what combination of food and drink will best set you up for a writing session.


Once you’ve worked out your optimum writing environment and have found a method to get you started then you need to think about keeping up the pace. The main thing to remember is that you can’t concentrate forever – you must take breaks. I work best in the morning, so I’ll often do a solid 3 hour writing session and then spend an hour or so responding to emails etc. That brings me up to lunchtime, when I’ll have a good long break. This could even include going for a run or hitting the gym for a pilates class or a go on the bouldering wall. I just need to do something that takes my brain out of ‘academic mode’. Then I can return to my desk feeling refreshed and able to do a thorough proof-reading and edit of the text I wrote in the morning. I can round off the day by working on something less strenuous, like preparing figures. Using this timetable, I find I can write a good 3,000 words a day when I’m on form.

It’s also important to keep a balance when you’re in the writing stages. By this I mean that you need to keep sleeping, exercising, socialising and doing all the other stuff you do normally. Although doing more hours seems like the obvious way to write faster, you will generally find that you’re actually getting less done in more time and are probably procrastinating more. This will turn you into a friendless, unhealthy and guilt-ridden thesis zombie. Don’t do this to yourself.

Cranking up the word count

When I was in Svalbard I spent some time writing up a field report whilst living in shared accommodation with a mix of other PhDs and Masters students. The Masters students were amazed at the writing speed I and the other PhDs could sustain. They just didn’t understand how we could churn out several thousand words a day and still be turning up for meals and going out to the pub in the evening.

The trick to pulling off high daily word counts is partly to get going quickly and to take regular breaks, but it is also important to write quickly. There are two things you need to do to write quickly:

  1. Know what you are going to say.
  2. Just say it and worry about how you’re saying it later.

The first point simply requires good planning. Always plan your writing and make sure you’ve done the reading/data analysis etc. before you start. I like to set out all my headings and subheadings with a few bullet points under each that summarise what this section is going to be about and what the key points and examples are. When I come to write it, all I have to do is to expand on the bullet points. Easy!

Achieving point number 2 is a bit trickier. We all want to write well but trust me when I say that it’s best just to write something and that you don’t need to write it perfectly first time. That’s why it’s important to go back and do a bit of editing later in the day. The first writing session is just about getting words on paper and emptying your head of all your thoughts on the topic. Worry about getting the thoughts in order and making sure they’re well-articulated later. You don’t need to do that straight away. I don’t even reference initially, I just put (REF) in brackets where I know I’m going to need a reference and then come along later and insert the citations. This avoids me breaking my chain of thought to go and hunt down that paper that I know said something about my topic but I can’t quite remember who the author was. Just write now & tart it up later.

So this is how I got through my lit review without having a nervous breakdown. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep applying these methods to my full thesis and I hope they will help you too. Let me know if you have any other useful writing techniques! Remember that writing begets more writing. Even writing a blog post like this is good practice and it all helps you to type faster and write more fluently.