Writing ahead of your research

Normally, we think of the process of writing a thesis as a process of ‘writing up’. That is, you do it after your research is complete.

But as you work to complete the project of writing a 70,000+ word document over your candidature, you will have written quite a lot of words before you have quite finished all the research you need to do. And many supervisors and advisors (and I’m one of them) encourage candidates to ‘write early and write often’. This means you will often need to write ahead of your research.

Isn’t it dangerous to get too far ahead of your research?

CC by Greg Morss, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/999051
CC by Greg Morss, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/999051

Sketching a hypothetical argument before you get too far into the research helps you to see the wood for the trees, to place your research project into it’s context, to see patterns and to make it relatable to your examiners or other researchers. Mapping a hypothesis with only a bit of information is very easy to do. If you wait till you have all the data, you often can’t see how it might fit into patterns. By the time you are finished with your research, you are often too deep inside the field to remember how it might challenge or surprise people coming new to your work.

Of course you must go back and rewrite it—you will have a much greater nuance, more data, greater understanding and original findings that you didn’t predict. But we know that thesis writing is an iterative process, and this kind of knowledge often builds comfortably on your existing structure and writing, as I have already demonstrated.

However, you need to keep this in balance. Don’t start writing in this way from day 1—you don’t have the background or knowledge yet. By about the 3-6 month mark, you need to start writing lit reviews and methodologies for confirmation or annual review—and this is a good strategy for it. In your first year, you may also be working on your first case study, and this is again a good strategy—to be trying out your hypothesis on some real data.

By half-way through your final year, you should no longer be guessing your thesis, you should normally know what you have found, and just be tidying up the last bits of data / research / writing up and getting down to the final edits. The purpose of the final edits is to bring what you found into focus, to explain how every aspect of your thesis develops your hypothesis, how the whole argument fits together. Too often, it is only at this stage that people try to create their argument.

It’s much better to learn how to write to an argument, and then tweak the argument as you go to address your new findings. That way, this final editing process is able to bring the argument to a sharply honed edge, to a mirror shine, to a brilliant insight, rather than muddling it together and hoping the examiner can perceive (through a glass darkly, through a muddy puddle) that there was a through line, an answer, in there, somewhere.

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