Books, Phd

PhD advice book reviews, Part 3: “How to write a thesis” by Rowena Murray

When I bought this book I knew that its focus was solely on the thesis-writing process, so I wasn’t surprised that there wasn’t a section on drafting a research proposal. “How to write a thesis” 3rd edition by Rowena Murray, 2011 is therefore aimed at current PhD students as opposed to prospective students.

The book is extremely easy to read, with student feedback included explaining how various students used the book. The students were from a broad range of subjects and found different sections of the book more useful than others, so this book would be suitable for both science and humanities PhDs. I personally really liked these testimonials and think that more non-books should include them. They all seemed to have a similar thread: they read the book as they started to research and plan their theses, put it to one side and then picked it up again in the middle of their research to help with structure, and then again at the end to make sure they were ticking all the right boxes.

The message throughout the book was based on these two premises:

  1. “Find out what is expected of you as a thesis writer.
  2. Write from the start and keep writing throughout your research.”

Murray cleverly likens the thesis-writing process to that of creative writing, and details writing techniques that authors such as Stephen King have used. One of these is free-writing, whereby you write for a short, specified period of time without editing or critiquing your work. The objective is to get words on the page and then edit later, avoiding a case of writer’s block. As someone who likes to write fiction in my spare time, I found this tip very helpful and it gave the PhD writing process a recognisable framework of writing.

The book also provides advice to help students write 1000 words an hour, consistently. There are lots of prompts throughout the book to help you write an outline of what you plan to include in each chapter/ section; and I think this is a brilliant way to organise your thesis-writing. Chris Fox is an author and Youtuber who posts regular videos about how he plans ahead and is able to write 5000 words a day of his books. If this is something that you’re interested in, for either academic or creative writing, you should watch his videos. (He isn’t mentioned in the book, this is my own personal recommendation).

The sections on structure and writing the literature review are excellent. If you are stuck with how to write your literature review, I highly recommend that you read this chapter. The book explains how to find literature, which literature to include; and also how to properly analyse works, even down to advice on structuring your sentences and paragraphs. I don’t think this section could be any more in-depth, and I will most certainly be using this section when I come to write mine!

If you’re at a point of your PhD in which you feel completely lost, the book lists ten steps to writing your thesis quickly, outlined below. I think this is a good overview of the process and will hopefully help you out of a sticky mess!

  1. “Take stock
  2. Start writing
  3. Outline your thesis
  4. Make up a programme of writing [a schedule agreed with your supervisor detailing deadlines for submitting various sections, along with word counts]
  5. Communicate with your supervisors
  6. Outline each chapter
  7. Write regularly
  8. Revise
  9. Pull it all together
  10. Do final tasks”

As I said, this book is definitely aimed at current PhD students as opposed to prospective students. I am confident that I will be coming back to this book many times throughout my writing process for advice. If you’re a Masters student looking for help with structure, this book might help you too. Strongly recommended!

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