Being an academic entails authorship, meaning that writing is a prerequisite for doing research, for communicating research results to others and for positioning yourself in the academic conversation. The main product of your research will be a dissertation, in the form of either several articles or a monograph. However, during your PhD study programme, you will very likely write other texts, such as conference papers and other articles or book chapters, as well as popular research summaries, press releases and the like. Some of our writing tips will be useful for writing these, too.
The writing process poses a significant challenge in most PhD projects. It requires steady progress, realistic scheduling and project management. Writing can be both satisfying and demanding; you will gain insight from it, but you will probably also experience it to be overwhelming from time to time. Most PhD candidates experience these aspects of writing in varying degrees and at different stages of the writing process.
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Academic writing is a highly individual process, depending on personal attitudes, creativity, everyday workflow as well as the requirements of academic disciplines, dissertation genres, and the specific research project. Therefore, there is no standard recipe for writing. Some writers like to begin right away; others will first carefully draft an outline. Some will start by reviewing the existing research literature; others prefer to work with hypotheses and their own observations before engaging in a dialogue with previous research. However, the start of every writing process can be challenging. We have collected some suggestions that might help to get the ball rolling:
Commit to your research question
Your research question should be your overall point of orientation when writing a dissertation. Therefore, it is a good idea to let the writing process begin with the formulation of your research question. We recommend that you draft your research question at the very beginning of your writing process, to divide it into sub-questions and to indicate how you are planning to answer these questions. It is crucial that you are aware of the relevance of your research question – to you, to your readers and to the research community. Write only things that are important: If you lose the thread in your writing, go back to your research question.
Use preliminary notes to create an initial structure for your dissertation. Draft a table of contents and an outline of your research question, sub-questions and how to go about answering them. These notes can serve as starting points for the different parts of your dissertation. By assigning deadlines for single chapters or articles in the table of contents, you get an overview for how to manage your time.
Start in the middle
It is necessary to distinguish between the writing product and the writing process. While your text starts at the beginning (with the title, the introduction, etc.), your dissertation will usually not be written from the beginning to the end. It might be beneficial for your writing workflow to be aware of this: Writing forward from some point of your dissertation often leads you to new ideas on how to work backward as well.
Do not wait for the right moment
It is a good idea to start working on the texts that will be part of your PhD dissertation at the very outset of your project period. Structuring your manuscript is useful, not only with a view to the final product, but also in order to keep control over your own writing process. It might also be motivating to see the text gradually taking shape. A dissertation is the result of a number of drafts and documents that will be changed continuously, following the progress of your work.
Do not do everything at once
Even though your writing should relate specifically to your research question, it might not be necessary to deal with the overarching questions at all times during the writing process. Modularise your project, make a clear plan of how the single parts (articles, chapters, paragraphs) are to be organised and how they are related to the research question of your project. It might be a good idea to outline a work procedure that allows you to reflect on the overall research question periodically, but also lets you devote time to work on details.
A major cause of delays and unfinished dissertations is perfectionism. The illusion that one can write a perfect text right from the start sends self-expectations soaring, and an imminent fall to the ground is likely. The consequences of this may include frustration, self-doubts and even writer’s block. The cliché of the ingenious writer who simply goes with the writing flow can be alluring but is not common practice among professional academic writers. Editing and rewriting texts is a standard procedure of academic writing, and this implies that the normal thing to do is to start with drafts, sketches and preliminary texts that you improve through the writing process. If you allow yourself to write badly today, you may be content to let your scribblings from yesterday serve as a starting point for your writing tomorrow.
Writing as a thinking tool
Writing is a complex activity that can have many different functions for a PhD project. Representation of knowledge and communication of research results in a completed dissertation text might be the paramount, but the process of writing is closely interconnected with the research workflow, too. Developing and structuring your own thoughts, discussing the research literature, and presenting your research in a comprehensible way are important aspects that relate to writing as a tool for thinking.
Incentivise your reader
When writing, you have to keep your reader in mind in order to present your research in a comprehensible and convincing way. The following reflections might even be a good starting point for your writing process:
- How can you draw your reader’s interest to your project, and how do you make your reader keeping on reading?
- How can you convince your reader to follow your line of argumentation?
- How can you structure your material to make it as comprehensible as possible?
- How can you make your approach, your procedure, your reasoning and your conclusions transparent and understandable to the reader?
Reviewing literature can be an excellent starting point for your own writing. You come into close contact with other writing styles, lines of reasoning and perspectives, and in the discussion of previous research you can motivate and justify the specific premises and focus of your project. By joining the academic conversation on your topic, you might find inspiration for other perspectives, or become aware of gaps in the field of research. Keep in mind that a dissertation develops throughout the course of the research project and in the context of research done by others.
If you have the opportunity to present your research at seminars, conferences or in research groups, you can use your presentations and conference papers as starting points for writing the dissertation. When you accept a conference invitation or submit an abstract, it might be a good idea to ask yourself the following questions: How will this fit into my dissertation? Is my paper or presentation a possible draft for a research article or a chapter?
Beware of predatory conferences. If you get an invitation to a conference you have not heard about, or from people you do not know, examine the conference more closely before applying to attend. See Think-Check-Attend for help in differentiating between conferences you would like to attend, and conferences you should avoid.
If your project is going to deal with research data, you should think as early as possible about the kind of data you are going to collect, how to develop a Data Management Plan (DMP), and how to publish or archive your data. Consider whether your data are to be published open, or must remain confidential. Read more about research data and data management.
Relating to previous research
The most important things are first of all to know the state of research in what you actually do and be able to place yourself in relation to what is going on in your field.
(PhD graduate, social sciences)
One essential feature of academic writing is to place your work in an ongoing, continual dialogue with previous research in the field. At the PhD level, your inclusion of existing literature will indicate how well you know your field of research. By reviewing literature you have the opportunity to demonstrate how your dissertation fills gaps in the present knowledge and adds new perspectives to the research discourse.
Sources you are using in your text must be easily findable and retrievable. By giving proper credit to all your sources you avoid intended or unintended plagiarism and demonstrate academic integrity. Relating to the research of others allows you to make the context and the foundation of your study transparent, to compare and contrast your findings to those of others and to develop arguments that involve previous research.
Selection of sources
Evaluate your sources carefully with regard to authorship, type and context of publication, form and content of the source and the relevance to your project. There is no need to quote cyclopaedic, common knowledge or sources that might seem interesting, but are not crucial for your research question.
Be especially aware that many texts exist in different versions and editions. Sometimes using the most recent and updated version is advisable, and sometimes remaining closer to the original text is important. Are you using translations or commented editions? If possible, always consult the original work, and be careful with secondary sources.
While it is crucial to refer to previous research and take part in the current dialogue in your field, science is not a contest for writing the longest reference list. The quality of your work depends above all on your ability to select the most relevant sources and engage with them in a fruitful way. The fact that sources contain views or conclusions that are contrary to yours is never a justifiable reason to discard them – relevance to your discussion is the pivotal point for source evaluation.
Quotations and paraphrases
The two most common ways of referencing are paraphrasing and direct quotations. Paraphrasing means to express the information that other authors have provided but to write it in your own words with a citation pointing to the source. A direct quotation is a word-for-word transcript of another author’s words which is marked as such by using quotation marks or an indented paragraph for longer quotations. The quotes you use should always have a clear function. Quote when the exact wording in a source is necessary for your argumentation; paraphrase when the reasoning or the content of a source is relevant for your presentation.
Every quote must be introduced and commented on. The authorship of every statement or phrase in your text must always be transparent for your reader. Use your own words to explain or elaborate on the statements of others and to show why this specific source is important for your text.
When paraphrasing, pay close attention to your wording. Make sure there is no ambiguity with regard to the origin of data, claims, arguments or formulations. If you can do this without repeating a full reference to the same source multiple times within the same section of your text, it will enhance the readability of the text.
Finding your own voice
An important aspect of participating in the ongoing academic discourse is developing your own voice and style of writing. Your reader is interested in your point of view, not only in a general summary of research done by others. In your dissertation, you need to explain your assumptions, basic premises and theses and how they relate to the research of others. A reasoned and critical review of previous research can be a good starting point for your own writing.
Research is not a monologue, and the quality of academic texts depends to a great extent on how you represent the context of others’ research. When reading the work of others, think about how you can use their texts in your own work to support your arguments or to demonstrate differences. Be part of a conversation: Give credit to others by referencing and acknowledging their work, and when criticising the work of others, be professional and respectful.
When presenting your own research, keep in mind that you are a specialist and try to explain your dissertation as comprehensibly as possible. If you are writing texts intended for a readership outside academia, pay special attention to language and genre requirements.
Situating your work within a field
In the process of searching for, selecting, reviewing and discussing with the texts of others, you make important choices, which contribute to situating your project in one or more research fields. Sometimes it is self-evident which field a research project belongs in, but even then, you have to write your way in, by invoking and relating to the works of other authors.
On the other hand, it is not always that clear where your work belongs. If the point of your project is to 'translate' terms or methods from one field to another, if you base yourself on previous research from different subject areas, or aim to unite approaches and perspectives from several fields in an overarching study, you have to relate to more than one field. And if your project challenges established limits or conventions in a specific field, you may even need to claim a place for it. Such endeavours will be a part of your writing process and formative to your dissertation. Therefore, they are important to be conscious of, and they should be reflected in your text.
Incidentally, a sin one more degree heinous than an incomplete reference is an inaccurate reference; the former will be caught by the editor or the printer, whereas the latter will stand in print as an annoyance to future investigators and a monument to the writer’s carelessness.
In your dissertation, the relation to previous research must be transparent for the reader, and you are expected to give credit to the works of others by using references and acknowledgements. Sources used in your dissertation are referred to by in-text references and in a reference list / bibliography. The in-text reference is a link to the complete reference in the bibliography. The complete reference is a further link to the original work being cited, and functions as an address to the original work. The bibliographic data required for a reference vary with document type and specific disciplinary requirements, and is standardised in reference styles.
Referencing codes of conduct
Correct referencing means that you
- are open about your sources
- enable your readers to find your sources easily
- use information that enables verification
- acknowledge other researchers’ contributions
- put your own work into an existing context
- welcome critical discussion by mentioning earlier contributions
For an eye-opening example of potential consequenses of bad referencing, we recommend the article Academic urban legends (Rekdal, 2014).
Basic bibliographic principles
The basic function of a reference is to point to a source, and provide the necessary information for others to be able to find and read it.
You will sometimes encounter new document types or material that you are uncertain about in terms of how to write the references. Keep in mind that you should provide enough information for your reader to identify and locate the material. A basic bibliographic description should include the following, depending on the reference style chosen:
- the author of the work (e.g. a person, a group of persons, an organisation)
- the title of the work
- the year of publication
- the publisher (editors, publishing house)
- page numbers or other markers when referring to a particular part of a text
- a web address or digital object identifier (doi), if the work is distributed electronically.
In addition, some reference styles include place of publication, date of download from online resources and more. Check guidelines and style manuals for complete descriptions of the requirements.
To make in-text citations and to organise and format the reference list, you must use a specific reference style. There are two main types of reference styles, author-date and numbered. In author-date styles (e.g. APA and MLA), the citation in the text consists of author name(s) and date of the work enclosed in brackets, often supplemented with page numbers. Numbered styles (e.g. Vancouver and Chicago A) have the citation in the text indicated by a number, either in brackets, or as superscript; both of these refer to a more substantial citation in footnotes or endnotes. All styles have complete references in a separate list at the end of the document. The preferred reference style varies with the discipline.
Over the years, standards have emerged in reference styles, both for numbered and author-date styles. These styles have developed manuals to guide the writing and formatting of citations and references. Consulting a style manual is particularly useful when writing references for special or uncommon material, such as maps or archival material.
When preparing a manuscript for submission, you need to pay particular attention to the reference style requested in the instructions to authors from the publisher. Some journals have developed their own reference style. However, in most cases, they have based their reference style on one of the standard formats.
Style manuals and help pages for reference styles
When writing your dissertation, you should be aware of common referencing standards in your discipline or particular requirements of your institution. For article-based dissertations you should follow the reference style defined in the journal’s instructions to authors.
Below you will find a selection of style manuals for some frequently used reference styles, as well as links to the help pages of some of our institutions.
APA 7 Publication manual of the American Psychological Association: the official guide to APA style (Seventh edition). American Psychological Association. (2020)
- Norsk APA 7.-manual, 2021, v.1.5 (APA 7 manual in Norwegian)
- The Chicago manual of style (17th Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (2017)
- MLA style (2021)
- AMA manual of style
- Vancouver style / NLM style: Patrias K. (2015). Citing medicine: the NLM style guide for authors, editors, and publishers [Internet]. 2nd ed. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US)
Help pages for reference types and styles from:
Most academic authors make use of a reference manager. These can help you store and organise your references, search for and include references in your text as you are writing, format your citations and reference list according to specific styles, and allow you to exchange references with your co-authors.
Some reference managers are open-source and freely available for everyone to use; others require a licence. Many institutions offer licences to their students and employees, and libraries often provide training sessions and support. Check with your institution to find out what they offer and recommend.
Writing process and workflow issues
It may be one of the popular misconceptions of writing that, once started, it all 'flows', and that those who do not 'flow' must have something wrong with them.
(Murray, 2017, p. 191)
The research workflow of your dissertation depends a lot on the discipline in which you are working. In the sciences the workflow often starts with a predefined research question, and proceeds via a systematic literature search and review to production, analysis and discussion of the research data. This differs from the prevailing practice in other disciplines, such as the humanities or social sciences, where the work progress commonly runs simultaneously with the writing process. Searching, reviewing literature and writing in these disciplines are typically intertwined activities throughout the entire workflow, and they have a strong influence and are frequently instrumental in redefining the research question.
Writing is not something that ‛just needs to be done’ at the end of the PhD period but is instead an integral part of the research process itself. Structuring your workflow, dealing with the research literature and a long-term writing process can be challenging for many PhD candidates. At the same time, the academic workflow is a highly individual practice, and there is no one method that fits all. In the following section we will present some measures that can help you structure your workflow and cope with typical writing problems.
Some practical tips for the writing process
Most PhD candidates commence their work with great optimism, eager to realise their project and not always aware of possible difficulties they might encounter in the course of their process. Nevertheless, unforeseen problems are a part of any writing process, and they can be handled if the workflow is managed carefully. In the following, we do not intend to suggest universal solutions, but we offer some food for thought and practical advice.
Structuring your workflow
Your writing workflow is not least a question of attitude; it can be wise to think through your conception of writing and how you will manage your time while writing a dissertation.
- When writing, focus on time, not on product. If you tell yourself that you will take a break only when the current chapter or paragraph of your text is finished, you might not be able to keep your word. Organise your working day with a clear time structure and defined writing sessions and breaks in order to ensure a balanced workflow.
- Use an app like Pomodoro (working packages of 25 minutes, then a five-minute break)
- Do not think that you have to get it perfect or in a final form right from the start. Scribblings and preliminary texts can be a very effective starting point for your writing the next day.
- Instead of seeing difficulties as personal failures, accept them as a natural part of the work process. Share your writing experience and working plans with others and discuss your working strategies explicitly in order to get new ideas and try out new practices.
Dealing with large amounts of literature
When searching for literature, you might feel overwhelmed by the amount you retrieve. To limit the amount you have to deal with, consider the following points:
- Reconsider your research question and thus your search strategy, or be more restrictive regarding inclusion and exclusion criteria.
- Start reading the most recent contributions and be observant: ascertain the standard works that contemporary scholars regularly refer to.
- As you read and make notes, think about what you are going to use the text for in your own work. Rather than storing notes and excerpts with information about the research literature you have read uncategorised, always try to write about the relevant literature as soon as you have read it, and place your notes within the structure of your dissertation. This way, your reading becomes more focused, you reduce the likelihood of forgetting, and after the first year of work, it will probably feel better to have a draft containing imperfect text rather than to have nothing but notes.
- Be aware that you can optimise your reading only to a certain degree: It is not possible to avoid reading a lot of literature that will eventually prove to be 'unnecessary' to your thesis in the end. Keep in mind that there will be a life – and opportunities for further publications – after your dissertation. Focus on literature that is relevant for your project, and save literature that is interesting, but irrelevant to your project, for later publications.
- Use a reference manager to keep track of relevant literature.
Dealing with writer’s block
Writing blocks, doubts, diminishing faith in your project and a feeling of not having sufficient information are all quite common in the process of writing a dissertation. One way to be able to discuss your writing and work with others is to present parts of your text to other people and ask for their reactions. Being in continuous dialogue with others about your writing can lower stress and help dispel the notion of being lost in the writing process.
Be conscious about your workflow and think of writing as a daily task:
- The idea of writing a whole dissertation can be overwhelming. Set yourself reasonable goals; break the process down into manageable parts.
- Keep a log of what you do, focusing not only on the amount of time spent or number of words written, but on what you have achieved academically. Hours of work sometimes results in very few lines of text, but these few lines may nevertheless make a huge difference in the overall picture.
- Deleting text is one of the hardest things to do, but it often proves to be very constructive for your thinking. A tip to reduce the stress you might feel over having to delete text is to save it in a separate document. Then at least you know that it can be retrieved if you change your mind at a later stage.
- Rather than seeing the writing process as a series of challenges or even as a struggle (against your dissertation as the enemy), you can try to view writing like any other daily task, like a workout or like practising on a musical instrument.
- Refrain from making up a list of imaginary requirements you imagine you need to get started, such as inspiration, a good atmosphere, having slept enough, etc. It is always possible to write even if it is not your best day.
- When you get stuck: tell a friend who is not an expert in your field about what you are planning to write. The process of telling another person will make your thoughts clearer and force you to break the complexity down into a few main points that anybody can understand.
- When you feel you cannot concentrate on writing because you have so many other thoughts and problems on your mind: take a five-minute break and clear your head: write down everything that is worrying you or occupying your mind (like in a diary). Then go back to your dissertation.
Read more about dealing with writers' block in Nygaard (2015) and Murray (2017).
Writing together or side by side
The daily life of a PhD candidate is often a long and lonely journey. It can be both fun and useful to share and discuss your work with peers at your institution, or collaborate with them on writing.
Writing with co-authors
- Make use of each other’s competencies in the writing process. Reading each other’s contributions at different stages of the writing process will not only help unify the text; giving and receiving feedback will help you develop as a writer.
- If you write your articles together with other authors, remember to check what the PhD guidelines say about defining and documenting your individual contribution. Read more on co-authorship.
Writing on your own
- Find someone to share your writing with. Swap texts with other PhD candidates and familiarise yourself with writing support services at your university or library. It may be useful to ask one or more readers (in addition to your supervisor) to comment on your text, and the prospect of sharing your text with others can motivate your writing.
- Discussing and commenting on others' texts will also be an exercise in reading academic texts critically and providing fair response, which again can sharpen your attention to textual problems and their solutions in your own dissertation.
- Reading each other’s texts can be an inspiring practice for professional editorial procedures and prepare you for the process of publishing your research results.
- Do not wait to share your text until you think it is 'finished' or 'perfect'; find someone you have confidence in and share drafts with this person at a very early stage. It is easier to work on comments at this stage than later on.
Writing side by side
Writing can be fun, and it can be challenging. Sharing writing experiences can improve your insight about your workflow, and writing together can be motivating and can instil discipline.
Shut up and write! is structured writing in group sessions. Some follow the pomodoro model and write for 25 minutes before taking a 5-minute break; others combine sessions of 45 + 45 minutes. This can be a good way to safeguard your writing time, by keeping disturbances like e-mails and reference checking at arm’s length for a while. Sticking to a specific time schedule is good discipline, and many find that they become motivated and inspired by people working alongside them. Socialising in the breaks can be both pleasant and rewarding.
Several institutions in Norway organise such writing sessions, in-house and/or online. You can also arrange your own writing sessions with friends, colleagues and office associates. Find a time that suits you and agree on how to organise it.
Getting your research read
When writing, you should always think about you readers; who are they, what are they interested in knowing, and how can you attract their attention? Sadly, the quality of your text is not enough; you must first make the right readers aware of its existence. We provide tips on how to achieve this on our page about improving impact; the following are some points about how writing good metatexts can be helpful.
Title, abstract and keywords
Title, abstract and keywords are the primary examples of metatexts. Along with other metainformation, e.g. about authors and affiliations, they may attract the attention of potential readers. Furthermore, they determine which searches will retrieve your publications in databases and library catalogues. It is well worth paying extra attention to the information that will be indexed in academic databases.
- What readership do I want to reach?
- What databases do they use to find literature?
- What terminology are they most likely to know and use?
Use relevant terms in your title, abstract and keywords. Use synonyms, if necessary, to reach different readers. You can easily run a test search with your terms in academic databases of your choice.
The order in which results occur after a search are normally organised 'by relevance' by default. The criteria used to determine the relevance of a publication for a respective search, varies from database to database. Most frequently, however, the position and occurrence of relevant keywords play a significant role. Terms that are mentioned early, and are repeated throughout the title and abstract are given more weight than a term that occurs one time at the end of the abstract.
When composing the title and abstract,
- use relevant and well-established terms familiar within your target group
- Avoid catchy titles if they don’t provide the most relevant information
- place the most important terms first
- avoid acronyms, as they can be ambiguous
Academic databases usually use keywords to categorise publications into specific fields. Keywords should therefore be indicative; they should describe the topic, not the content. Good examples are place, timeframe, and general subject.
Academic Search Engine Optimisation
Articles that are highly ranked after a Google search, for example, are more likely to be read. On the following two websites you will find more suggestions for how you can optimise your title, abstract and keywords for such purposes:
Belcher, W. L. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks. A guide to academic publishing success. Los Angeles: Sage
Bruner, K. F. (1942). Of psychological writing: being some valedictory remarks on style. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 37 (1), 52-70.
Casanave, C. P. (2014). Before the dissertation. A textual mentor for doctoral students at early stages of a research project. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD. How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Harris, J. (2017). Rewriting: How to do things with texts (2nd ed.). Logan, Utah: Utah University Press
Murray, R. (2011) How to write a thesis. Maidenhead: Open University Press study skills.
Nygaard, L. P. (2015) Writing for scholars. A practical guide to making sense & being heard (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage
Nygaard, L. P. & Solli, K. (2020) Strategies for Writing a Thesis by Publication in the Social Sciences and Humanities. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429261671
Rekdal, O. B. (2014). Academic urban legends. Social Studies of Science, 44 (4), 638-654. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312714535679
Rudestam, K. E. & Newton, R. R. (2015) Surviving your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. (4th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE
Sword, H. (2017). Air & light & time & space. How successful academics write. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Thody, A. (2006). Writing and presenting research. London: SAGE.