Develop Your Writing - Writing Skills and Technique

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As you get further along in the writing of your thesis, you will start to think about its quality and whether there is anything you can do to improve this.

In this section you will find advice on what you can do to develop your writing through focussing on the needs of your readers and thinking about how your thesis - both as a whole and in its individual sections - will communicate your original contribution to knowledge.

The Graduate School's Top Tips for Developing Your Writing
  1. Think About Your Readers' Needs
  2. Remember Basic Rules for Good Written English
  3. Write Regularly to Develop Confidence and Quality
  4. Have a Structure for Drafting and Re-Drafting
  5. Get Feedback on Your Writing and Use It
  6. Be Realistic About What You Can Achieve

Think About Your Readers' Needs

Whatever you are writing, your aim should be to make your text as clear as possible – to present your ideas clearly and concisely and to avoid ambiguity or redundancy. Achieving this becomes easier the more you practise writing and begin to develop your confidence in your writing style.

If it is something you are still having problems with, try adopting these very basic rules as you write your thesis:

  • avoid excessively long sentences
  • do not use a difficult word where a simple one will do
  • use punctuation correctly to aid the sense of your writing
  • use paragraphs to break your text into logically self-contained units

To guide your readers through your thesis it should include a system of "signposts” – things that explicitly or implicitly tell the reader what to expect. Signposts that you can use in your thesis are:

  • a detailed table of contents
  • a well written abstract
  • an introductory section/chapter for the thesis as a whole
  • an introductory paragraph for each individual section/chapter
  • a consistent system of headings and sub-headings

Remember that your thesis is telling a story – your original contribution to knowledge in your discipline. It should be clear from the very start what your original contribution to knowledge is and each section/chapter should then help to tell that story.

Finally, your readers will expect your thesis to be fully and accurately referenced. For more advice, read the University's Avoiding Plagiarism Study Guide and the Referencing and Bibliographies Study Guide. Ask your supervisors if you are unsure of the conventions for referencing in your discipline.

Remember Basic Rules for Good Written English

It is important that you pay attention to the basic rules for good written English - accurate spelling and correct use of grammar and punctuation.

Errors of spelling are best avoided by careful proof reading - and you should never rely simply on your word processor's spell check function. Proof reading is something you should allow time for as part of your structure for re-drafting your work - do not expect your supervisors to do your proof reading for you.

Grammar and punctuation can be more difficult to get right, particularly if English is not your first language. For more advice, read the University's Grammar Study Guides:

You may also want to consult the University's Inclusive Writing Study Guide.

Write Regularly to Develop Confidence and Quality

Research students are encouraged to start writing early on in their research degree. Writing as you go takes some of the pressure out of your final year and gives you the opportunity to practise writing and develop your writing technique.

As you enter your final year and your expected thesis submission date gets closer, regular writing becomes even more important. Research students who make a routine out of writing find it helps them to concentrate on their work and that this helps them feel more comfortable putting their thoughts into words. Most research students find that in their final year they need to spend at least some time each day writing their thesis in order to complete it on time and many find that keeping "office hours" for their thesis is a good way of making sure they focus on their writing.

Critical Writing

One of the skills that regular writing will help you to develop is your ability to write critically - that is, to write in a way that is characterised by:

  • a clear and confident refusal to accept the conclusions of other writers without evaluating the arguments and evidence that they provide
  • a balanced presentation of reasons why the conclusions of other writers may be accepted or may need to be treated with caution
  • a clear presentation of your own evidence and argument, leading to your conclusion
  • a recognition of the limitations in your own evidence, argument, and conclusion

It is important that you can demonstrate a critical writing style in your thesis. For more advice, read the University's Critical Writing Study Guide.

Academic Conventions 

Whatever discipline you belong to, there will be certain conventions of academic writing - for example, specific modes of phrasing, specific terminology, recognised acronyms/abbreviations, etc. It is important that you make yourself familiar with these and the best way to do this is through reading theses, articles, and other texts.

Ask your supervisors if you are unsure of the specific conventions for academic writing in your discipline.

Have a Structure for Drafting and Re-Drafting

To start with, your thesis will be very much a work in progress. It is important to remember in the early stages of your writing that you are working on a draft, not the finished thesis. Keep writing even if you know that you can do better - leave the improvements until you come to write the next draft. This will give you time to reflect and think more carefully about anything that you might need to change.

Instead of re-drafting as you go, why not look to make drafting a process with formal stages and different questions to be addressed at each stage:

  • 1st Re-Draft - Editing for Academic Rigour
  • 2nd Re-Draft - Reducing Redundancy
  • 3rd Re-Draft - Editing for Consistency
  • 4th Re-Draft - Signposting and Linking
  • 5th Re-Draft - Proof Reading 

For more advice on the type of things you need to consider at each stage, read the University's Art of Editing Study Guide.

We recommend that you apply this structure to each complete section/chapter of your thesis as well as your final complete version - so it is important that in your work plan you allow sufficient time for each re-drafting stage.

Get Feedback on Your Writing and Use It

Getting feedback from your supervisors as your writing progresses should already be a part of your work plan and your strategy for managing your writing. 

Your supervisors may structure their feedback in a way that brings out the positives before going on to talk about any weaknesses. You will need to take a balanced approach - be pleased with the positives, but take seriously any weaknesses and listen to and act on any comments your supervisors might have for addressing these.

Your supervisors will comment on the content of your work, but if you would find it helpful to also be given feedback on your writing style and what you could do to develop your writing, let your supervisors know that this is something you would appreciate their comments on.

Alongside your supervisors, your friends - particularly fellow researchers - are a useful source of feedback and can offer general advice on tone, phrasing, and structure as well as suggestions on how you might improve your writing.

Be Realistic About What You Can Achieve

It is natural to be anxious about the quality of your work, but do not let this stop you writing or allow yourself to be caught in the trap of repeatedly revising the same section. Being realistic as to what to expect from your writing will avoid wasting time through worrying rather than getting on with your thesis.

Remember that:

  • you are just starting out as an academic writer - you should not expect, nor will your examiners expect, to see in your thesis the writing style of an experienced academic writer
  • you need to keep sight of what is important about your writing style - do not waste time agonising over phrasing or your choice of words, your writing is doing its job if it communicates clearly what you have to say
  • you can use feedback from your supervisors and others to reassure yourself that what you are writing is of an appropriate standard

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