The different stages of the writing process

Going up the mountain is slow, coming down is fast
Think -> Write -> Edit -> Polish
by Katherine Firth

Last week, I talked about the writing cycle being a trap for perfectionists when applied to each sentence, but really useful when applied to larger sections.

Today, I’d like to think about the Writing Cycle in relation to the process of completing a project, the writing up of a PhD Thesis.

Kerryann Rockquemore (one of the rockstars of the effective academic writing blogosphere) says this:

Just imagine what would happen if you reliably identify a manuscript as being in one of four stages of completion: 1) 0-25 percent, 2) 25-50 percent, 3) 50 – 75 percent, or 4) 75-100 percent. And what if you could draw upon a group of readers at each stage of that manuscript’s development so that you’re regularly getting feedback.

 This is pretty helpful, because one of the great difficulties I faced when doing my PhD was that it wasn’t finished, and then it still wasn’t finished. 

I like to get stuff done. I like to succeed. I really like it when I hand in an assignment and then I get a good grade for it. I really miss that about undergraduate and master’s study.   When you’re writing a thesis, you go through the Valley of Shit, where you feel all your writing is shit, and you aren’t getting any cleverer (actually, you don’t get any cleverer doing a PhD, you just show you have stamina, skills and an understanding of the field sufficient for you to stop being a student and become a peer of the experts).

25% to 80% stages of a draft
The stages of completeness
by Katherine Firth

But what if ‘I have a shit scrappy pile of bits that gestures towards being a chapter’ was an actual stage? A stage you could achieve. A useful place to get feedback on structure and content? Where you could ask, ‘Does my idea make sense?’ and ‘Have I done enough reading?’ That would be good.

And what if, ‘I have a shitty first draft, but it is actually a full draft’ was an actual stage. A stage that was worth opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate? A useful place to get feedback on coverage and organization? Where you could ask, ‘Does this adequately cover the field?’ and ‘Can I cut those irrelevant findings in chapter 2 out yet?’ That would be fantastic.

And what if, ‘I have an unpolished draft, but it’s pretty much there’ was an actual stage? A stage that was worth taking a month off to reward yourself for? A useful place to ask ‘How does APA use colons’, ‘have I misspelled ‘collateral’?’ and ‘should I put this comma here?’ Whoa. Cool.

Of course, anyone who has looked at the progress hurdles for PhDs, or indeed ever done any academic work ever, knows… these stages are not created equal.  It will take you years to do your research (with undergraduate work, my masters, and individual reading, by the time I handed in a Lit Review, I had already done about 8 years work in the field).  Getting together a full first draft rarely happens before the 3 year review. And then lots of people get from first full draft to submission in about three months. Also, note that the university doesn’t think all the stages are equal—many even allow you to outsource the final section to a professional editor.

Research takes longer than writing which takes longer than editing which takes longer than proof reading
Effort vs Time
by Katherine Firth

I know, these stages are often all happening in overlapping circles. Your Lit Review might be in the polish stage, when your Discussion chapter is only a few bullet points on a post-it note. That conference paper you are giving tomorrow is finished, and most of your Results chapter is in shitty scraps.

Going up the mountain is slow, coming down is fast
The First Full Draft Summit
by Katherine Firth

This is cool—you guys are smart, and dealing with complex interactions all the time.  Make a chart (like my friend @PetaF, the goddess of the gantt chart). Draw a new diagram. Find a metaphor–mine was that doing a PhD was like climbing a really high mountain.  And the final editing and proofing stages were like descending the mountain while wearing rollerskates.

So, remember that a shitty first draft is a good draft, and that everything after your first full draft is so much easier.  Promise.


  1. Reblogged this on A Hat Full of Ness and commented:
    Keeping this for future reference! This “it wasn’t finished, and then it still wasn’t finished” really resonates.
    My first results chapter draft is somewhere around 35% (it needs an introduction and discussion) while my second results chapter is maybe at 5% because I haven’t even pulled the figures together yet. Hmmm.

    1. Do celebrate passing the 25% mark for the first chapter. That’s a major achievement and there should be cake!
      If you haven’t pulled the figures together yet, that sounds like you are still in the Thinking stage of the process. That’s great, to start writing a little bit here, because it means your thinking, planning, data, research is all working towards writing your chapter (as opposed to a thing you do, that you then have to fit into a chapter).
      But yes, this will all continue to be relevant, and more relevant, as you progress. Keep up the good work!

      1. There was cake, and it was delicious! But the thought of “ugh, I have to go back and properly finish that chapter” is a drag. There’s a bit of me saying “here’s your pictures, the answer is obvious, I’m done”, which is not so true!

        On second thoughts, I think you’re right about the 2nd chapter still being in the thinking stage. With the 1st chapter, I was much further along with the figures & their organisation before I started writing, than I am with this chapter. The shape of it is in my head already so I sort of know where it’s going, but nothing is clear yet.

      2. I would probably leave the introduction and discussion till quite a bit later. You really aren’t going to know what the data means in terms of the whole thesis for another few chapters. If you can, just keep churning through the chapters, and then going back and doing it again. It becomes super easy to write ‘in this chapter I do x, and then I do y in the next chapter’ when you’ve actually done it!

      3. Given that you’re the second or third person to suggest that, and it makes perfect sense, that’s what I’m going to do. 🙂

        It is infuriating having it hanging over me though because it means I can’t mentally class it as done yet. It appears that patience and dogged persistence is still the name of the game. Oh well.

      4. It won’t be done till it’s submitted but it is ‘done for now’. And yes, patience and persistence is what is being tested at this stage. You’ve already shown you are smart enough, competent enough, etc. it’s all about grit, this last bit. But you have that too.
        Write well!

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