In most cases, the written PhD thesis is the principal way of clearly and cohesively conveying all the elements of your research. This means that however excellent your data collection and analysis are, your findings cannot be fully articulated and appreciated until they are somehow written down, either in the thesis, or in journal articles.
Unlike many of the other stages of research, which entail relatively straightforward actions of ‘doing’ something (such as experiments, interviews, or coding), writing is a far more reflective and creative process which requires consolidation of multiple ideas and theories, and the discussion of complex concepts. It is this stage that many PhD students find most challenging.
This article offers alternative, creative methods for finding and maintaining the motivation to write.
Revisit your previous writing
If you have been writing from very early on in your PhD, returning to previous essays or notes in your research journal can be useful for giving you prompts for your writing.
For example, something you previously wrote about an idea or theory may have since evolved through the course of your data collection and analysis. Restart your writing by making note of what has changed, how the research has developed, what issues it has addressed and what new questions it now raises. This piece of writing may contribute to shaping a discussion chapter at a later date.
Use other creative methods
The processes of data collection and analysis might raise more issues and subjects than you had anticipated. Putting these various elements into order can sometimes prove to be complicated and difficult to explain within the rigid conventions of academic writing.
Instead of trying to write from scratch, try to work through all your ideas using other creative ways. For example, you could organise your findings, research themes and literature with a mind map to help you make visual connections between the various issues you are addressing.
If you enjoy artistic methods, you could illustrate your research as a story into a comic strip or storyboard. Beginning with these creative visual representations of your research may open up new ways of thinking about it, which can later be translated into a written form.
Talk to friends (or to yourself)
Writing can be a lonely activity. It is easy to get too wrapped up in your own thoughts and own lose sight of what you actually want to say through your writing. Take a break from your computer and notebooks by seeking out real conversations with friends or colleagues. Get them to ask you questions so that you have an opportunity to talk to them about your research.
Verbal explanations and discussions are very different from written work, and they can force you to think about your work in a simpler, clearer way. Bring a voice recorder to record your conversations so you can listen back to them later (there are plenty of voice recording apps for most mobile devices). When you go back to writing, you’ll be bringing new perspectives and approaches to your work, and will possibly find it easier to transfer those thoughts into your writing.
Alternatively, you can also do this exercise on your own. Simply switch on a voice recorder, and talk through your ideas. You might feel a little silly at first, but you’ll be surprised at how many articulate thoughts and brilliantly clear sentences can emerge from speaking aloud!
Read, read, and read some more
We cannot stress this enough. One of the very best ways of finding inspiration to write and improve your own writing is by reading as much as you can, from as many varied sources as possible.
It is helpful to start with literature that is relevant to your research. Even re-reading favourite theorists and books that you’ve read before can spark new ideas or questions, which can be used as a prompt to start (or continue) writing.
However, don’t limit yourself only to reading within certain disciplines or genres. Read a journal article in a completely different field, for example, in a subject you’ve always been interested in but never formally studied. Browse ‘lighter’ reads in current affairs magazines or websites such as The Conversation (which features only writing from academics) to learn different writing styles. You might even look to pop culture material – novels, non-fiction books, poetry or magazines can offer alternative, interesting approaches and perspectives.
Although some of this writing may seem irrelevant to your research, you never know what new creative thoughts they may inspire for your own writing. If nothing else, you give yourself a mental break, so you can return to your work with a rested mind and fresh ideas.