Should you write from day one?

One of the most problematic pieces of advice I see is the suggestion that you should ‘write from day one’ of your doctoral candidature.

You probably shouldn’t start writing drafts of the thesis before about the 3 month mark. Most people have not yet clarified their research question, selected their methodology, or surveyed the literature before they commence. There’s no way you can write any part of your thesis before getting this work done. And people who try, often write themselves into terrible corners and end up having to delete tens of thousands or words.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be producing text, but you can’t start writing your thesis just yet.

Instead, here are 4 helpful kinds of pre-writing to help you start writing early and often. 


1. Take notes using the Cornell Method. 

As I wrote over on The Thesis Whisperer blog, using the Cornell Method of Notes helps you turn your notes into writing. I’m a fan of taking notes in a way that will actually help you produce academic text.

The template gives you a big space at the bottom to write sentences that summarise the page.  That is, you start writing your critical response on the notes themselves. … I didn’t have to spend any time thinking about how I would turn my notes into my writing, because my notes were already facing in the right direction. My notes were already my writing plan, my topic sentences, my argument.

And here’s my template, if you want to start using it yourself.

2. Write an Annotated Bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a list of all the books and articles you’ve read. There’s the bibliographic information, a summary of the argument, and you also comment on how this research relates to other readings you’ve done and to your own research question.

You can expand the basic format to what a good friend of mine calls ‘an annotated bibliography on steriods’. This has the following sections:

  1. Bibliographic details.
  2. List of terminology / key words
  3. A précis of the reading
  4. Your critical reflection on the reading
  5. Quotables
  6. Borrowed sources (i.e. the article’s bibliography).

Producing an annotated bibliography like this can be very helpful across your research. However, remember you don’t want to patch together your annotated bibliography together, and hope it’s a Literature Review. It isn’t.

3. Write regular progress reports

You’ll need to produce annual progress reports for your committee, but you should probably be producing one for every supervision too, particularly in the early days. Report on the work you have done, the time line, and the next steps.

In the last fortnight, I have:
Read 6 articles and created annotated bibliography entries for them.
Attended a workshop on gaining ethics approval for research.
Set up my citation management software.

This means I am meeting the deadlines of the timeline agreed at our meeting of 24th March.

In the next fortnight, I intend to:
Read 6 articles and create annotated bibliography entries for them.
Create a first draft of my ethics application for us to review at our next meeting.
Attend a one-to-one session with a research librarian to help me find literature.

Not only does this reassure your supervisor that you are working and doing a good job, it will make your annual reviews much easier to put together.

4. Write Opening salvoes and Test Runs

Some ideas work in plans, in notes, in discussion with your supervisor, in your head. But sometimes when you try to turn the ideas into academic prose they just don’t work anymore.

That’s normal. But you’ll be assessed solely on your academic prose for most theses (espcially in Australia where there is no viva or spoken defence). So you need to have ideas and concepts and artugments that work in full written sentences and paragraphs.

I produced three or four of these, just a couple of pages of low-stakes, trying-it-out prose. It meant I could start to see which terms needed defining, discover my argument didn’t work, work out my voice, before starting to write a chapter of the thesis. Consider them warm up excercises.


These 4 kinds of pre-writing are not even shitty first drafts, Some parts of these texts have the potential to make their way into your first draft, many don’t. You should probably stop writing test runs within a few months, but the quick report will be useful throughout your entire career.

“Write early, write often” is great advice. I had a 20,000 chapter completed by my first year review, and about 50,000 words by my second year. This made my final writing up year much less stressful. But don’t start writing from day one.




Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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