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How to start writing from Day One of your PhD

What do I write? How do I start writing? Is my writing good enough? If you’ve found yourself asking these questions, you are not alone. One of the most common struggles among PhD students, at various stages of their doctoral research, is actually starting writing. 

Since writing makes up a very large part – if not the entirety – of a PhD, this is something that all doctoral students will eventually have to do, so it is good to start as early on in the PhD as you can.

Some supervisors will set you small writing tasks in the early stages of your PhD, such as writing a summary of the main ideas from the literature you are reading, a book review, or a detailed discussion of your research questions. Speak to your supervisor early on in your PhD for suggestions of what you can write to help you develop your ideas at the different stages of your research. Where possible, submit this work to them for detailed feedback. 

You do not necessarily have to start writing full chapters. Often, what you write in the first year or so of your PhD may not be included in the thesis itself. However, this early writing is important for helping you reflect upon the existing literature, clarify the directions of your research, develop your thought process, and become accustomed to academic writing, especially within your discipline. 

If your working relationship with your supervisor does not include as much of an emphasis on writing, you can still maintain a regular writing schedule for yourself. Here are a few writing prompts you can use to start writing: 

  • Keep a research journal: Make a point of writing regularly in your research journal, for example, every day or once a week. As this is not a formal piece of work, there is more room for you to write about fledging thoughts and explore your ideas. You can use this as a space for writing your reflections on things you have recently read, or to work through questions or problems that you are dealing with in your research. This journal can also be used to make fieldnotes when you’re conducting fieldwork or experiments – these notes will be very useful to come back to when you reach the later stages of analysis and writing up. 
  • Read (and reread) things that excite you: If you’re finding it hard to find anything to write about, return to the few books or articles that you know you always enjoy reading. Read and reread them, looking out for the main ideas that excite you and that are relevant to your own research. Extract a quote or a paragraph and use that as a starting basis for reflecting upon how a particular theory or idea relates to your work, what questions it brings up for your own research, what aspects you agree or disagree with, and why. Sometimes, a single quotation can inspire a very interesting, complex piece of writing that will offer you interesting new insights and move your research in novel directions. 
  • Write essays, not chapters: If you are still at an early stage of your PhD, it will probably feel too daunting to begin writing a thesis chapter, especially as your research is still not fully developed. However, you can still begin writing on a smaller scale. Think of these writing assignments as essays instead of full chapters, and set yourself workable, realistic word counts (not more than 1000-3000 words). Some examples include a mini literature review of the texts you have read so far, or a discussion of the methodological approaches and methods you plan to use. The writing may feel rudimentary and not particularly developed, but at this stage, it can be useful for clarifying your directions and helping you see what areas you need to address or read more on. 

Don’t waste time trying to create ‘perfect’ pieces of writing or worrying about the technicalities of spelling, grammar and punctuation. These early writing drafts will not be formally assessed and finer details can be addressed much later on in your PhD by engaging external help.


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