What is a ‘writing audit’ and when should you do one?

When I was part of the La Trobe RED team, and we were running our Accelerated Completion Programme for late-stage PhD candidates, we got people to do a thing we called a ‘writing audit’, where you counted up what was in all the sections of your PhD, and then worked out what was still missing. It could be scary, or a massive relief, but either way it gave you a sense of where you actually were.

Like many of these tools, the time when people most want to do a writing audit is right at the beginning of their candidature, when they want a list of exactly what they need to do and how much of it. But at the beginning, we honestly don’t know what your research will need to be written up. Maybe there is more or less literature than we expect, maybe the methods are more innovative than we could predict, maybe the results are wilder than we hypothesised. So it’s a great idea to read some other theses in your discipline and get an idea of what is the range of normal (most people seem to write a 7000 word literature review chapter / have 1000 words of literature review at the beginning of each chapter / spread the literature throughout the thesis). But there’s no point getting too specific about what you need to write until you know what your PhD needs to communicate!

The most effective time to do a writing audit is as you are nearing the end of the first full draft. When you scroll through the document, or browse through the files and folders, you can see you are nearly there for a lot of it, and it’s hard to see what’s still missing. Because you can’t find the gaps easily, you waste lots of time searching for them before you can start to write. You also can’t predict how much longer you need to work for to fill them all up. You are surprised by gaps in sections you thought were finished, and are sure there are gaps in sections but when you go to find them you find they have already been filled.

The audit is a map to the gaps in your draft.

I just went through my messy draft for Writing Well and Being Well for Your PhD and Beyond. I have just agreed a timeline with my series editor, and we are aiming for 1 October for the first full draft, with a good draft submitted to beta readers and series editor by 1 December. That’s only a matter of months away, so it was time to get down to business.

What did I do?

  1. Get all the writing for the manuscript into one place. I had blog posts, notes, and drafts—mostly in one place, but there were some outliers still strewn around. If your filing system is pretty tidy, this should be quite straightforward. If everything is a mess, expect this to take ages.
  2. Note how much I already have. Check the word count. I have a word limit of 60,000 for this book, but most theses are expected to be longer. Remind yourself about what is excluded from your word count and what is included (references, bibliography, notes, appendixes, abstracts, front matter, code, figures, tables etc).
  3. Give myself some leeway with the word count. Blog posts tend to be baggy, so I know I should aim for more than my word count and then trim back for my writing advice books. For scholarly writing, my writing tends to be too dense, so it’s important to come in well under the word count for the first draft. Know yourself!
  4. Go through the manuscript, systematically noting down everything that is missing. Include everything that still needs to be written: ‘2 intro paragraphs’, or ‘50% of section 1.3.4’ or ‘all of section 2.2.1’
  5. Give the missing parts a predicted word count. You can be super detailed about it, but I guesstimated, and decided that ‘signposting/intro text = <250 words’; the mindfulness and movement practices would be worth about 800 words; and the sections were worth about 1,500 words.
  6. Format the information in a way that is informative and inspiring to me. I used Excel conditional formatting, COUNTIF and SUM functions to colour code and calculate, but you can do it manually.
  7. Add up all the missing parts, and then add that number to my existing word count. Sometimes I realise that unwritten chapter won’t fit in under my word limit, so then I have to cross it off my plan. This is a fast way to make progress!
  8. Now I have a to-do list of what still needs to be written. You can start at the top and work down, or start with the biggest sections or with the smallest sections. It doesn’t matter, as long as you start and make progress. I like to start with the longest sections.
  9. Tick off sections when I have written them. As I complete each section, I update my map, so that I can always easily find the next unwritten section.
  10. Celebrate my achievements. You might celebrate every section, or anticipate the countdown to the completion of the first full draft. There is so little still to write that I’m saving up for a big fancy celebration at the end of the first draft, though I also get a tiny thrill each time I update my checklist with a DONE note!

Finally, I know that the first draft is a huge achievement, but it’s also the start of the re-writing process and there are multiple more drafts to go through. That’s okay though, because the re-writing is always faster than the first draft.

My writing audit in late August 2022

I hope this tool is one that might help you as you get to the end of a first full draft!

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


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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