Tips for the PhD write-up a.k.a “brain-milking” process

I’ve been posting a little more about marketing recently, so here is a piece about research, drawing on the wonderful period of a thesis called “write-up”.

Academic writing is a bit peculiar. Especially when writing a bigger piece, like a thesis, you have accumulated so many ideas, notes, drafts and thoughts over the years that writing all that up in a coherent whole literally feels like milking your brain of its substance.

Writing up was actually a fairly enjoyable stage of the PhD for me, I liked the storytelling process. However, I also struggled at times. I would like to share it with you some tips I gathered in the process.

Dr. Karl Warner finished his PhD at the Adam Smith Business School in 2014 and he gave us brilliant advice on how to get the beast written (Karl was awarded the Prize for PhD Excellence at our university, I think he writes alright!):

  1. Create momentum: when ideas are flowing, keep going! Karl suggests to make sure to write every day, but not more than 3 to 5 hours at a time.
  2. Try to write about 1000 words a day. It can be more, it can be less. I found that keeping count really helps. To keep myself accountable I would also tweet my daily word count:
  3. Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 14.22.58Be critical. This is core to academic writing, never forget about it. Separate the good milk from the bad milk.
  4. Get into your ivory tower. Find your spot, where you are confortable and undisturbed.

I have implemented Karl’s advice and although it requires discipline, I can say they worked for me. Actually, I had two ivory towers rather than one: my office during day-time and my room at night.

Here a couple of extra tips from my own experience.

  1. Take breaks. Yes, creating momentum is important, but well-timed breaks allow you to come back to work with a fresh mind and pair of eyes.
  2. Focus. You just cannot write EVERYTHING that comes to your mind. Stick to the purpose of your piece, or you might confuse yourself and others.
  3. Seek help/feedback. Probably the most important point. You can decide to attend writing seminars (more useful than you might think!) or simply seek informal feedback on your work from peers and friends.

I hope this post illuminated the journey of PhD students and other academics looking for writing tips. Just start milking, your glass will soon be full.

You can follow-up on this post by:

  • Reading my first post on writing-up my thesis, when I was in the midst of it
  • Viewing Karl’s profile and Twitter – he’s into International Business and Entrepreneurship and now lecturing at Edinburg Napier University.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Haitham Al-Sheeshanyreply
August 17, 2015 at 3:32 pm

Thanks for these tips Lau.
1000 words seems a dream for me these days; I am still optimistic but lately the “criticality” gets in the way. Also, 3 little children are taking more & more time 🙁
I do not have an ivory tower (or ivory time 4 that matter), I just write whenever I find “space”, not ideal but adequate for the time being for me.

* Thanks for the reference as well. I shall follow his updates on twitter and hopefully LI as well.

August 17, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Hi Haitham, thanks for your ever loyal readership and commenting, especially despite having no ivory tower! I admire you to manage making time and I’m sure you’ll persist and see this through too…with 3 wee ones who’ll be extremely proud of their dad! PS: Karl was one of my PhD role models, along with Stacey, definitely worth following 🙂

Haitham Al-Sheeshanyreply
August 17, 2015 at 4:01 pm

It is my pleasure. I hope you shall have time to blog often.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, sometimes I feel a bit despair and doubt myself. All this will end one day (right!) 😀

I am checking his tweets right now actually

PS: aren’t you going to “edit” yr Twitter bio? 🙂

August 17, 2015 at 6:01 pm

It will end of course! Aw you’re right, I need to edit my bios, thanks for spotting this 🙂

Basil Barginearreply
September 3, 2015 at 3:59 am

Siân Lindsay, lecturer in educational development at City University London, has investigated the process of doctoral completion. She interviewed several PhD candidates at her institution as they were writing up their theses, in a bid to understand the factors that facilitate or obstruct their progress.

September 3, 2015 at 8:29 am

Thanks for your input Basil! I’d be curious to know her findings, to see if I was an normally-obstructed PhD student 🙂 Are you one yourself?

Getting through the PhD and its emotional roller coaster | Laurence Dessartreply
February 15, 2016 at 12:02 pm

[…] this blog, I have written about my various struggles and tips to get through the writing up stage, as well as the data analysis, or the editing process. Here, I want to focus on one slide of my […]

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