Let’s be honest, PhD theses can be boring. The subject matter and technical language is necessarily complex, so writing one that remains engaging can be tough.
It’s worth it though.
Sure, you probably won’t fail if your writing is dull, but anything that makes the examiner’s life easier can’t be a bad thing. Right?
Put yourself in their shoes for a second. You’ve agreed to examine a thesis. When it arrives, you open it and see that it’s poorly written. You’re struggling to stay engaged. Their subject is difficult to understand at the best of times. Now it’s almost impossible.
Don’t become that student.
Writing in an engaging way is one of the most effective tools you can learn as a PhD student. Write your thesis clearly and the examiner can focus on what you’ve written. Make it boring and they’ll focus on how you’ve written it.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
Four tips to make your writing more engaging
If any of you have an interest in copywriting, you’ll recognise some of these. As I developed The PhD Proofreaders, I was forced to learn copywriting. As I did, I saw that it had amazing benefits for thesis writing.
Isn’t copywriting about selling stuff in ads? Yes and no. It’s about conveying a point as clearly and simply as possible in order to sell something. An idea, a product, a lifestyle. Whatever.
What’s that got to do with a PhD? Simple: one of the jobs of your PhD thesis is to sell yourself. Doctor you.
I wished I could have realised this earlier.
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1. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Phrased differently, do what you say you’re going to do. If you spend your introduction saying, ‘I will do a, b and c’, you better make sure the text that follows actually does a, b and c. If it doesn’t, you are misleading the examiner. This won’t just confuse them, it’ll shatter your credibility. They’ll think you’re scatty.
We can extend this: don’t make claims that you haven’t backed up. This is something I see all the time in PhDs I proofread: a bold claim with no supporting evidence or reference. Your examiner won’t appreciate this. What’s more, it’ll confuse them.
Going further still: don’t over-promise on your contribution. The chances are that your contribution is small and specific. That’s fine. Don’t feel the need to overstate it by claiming you are doing something you aren’t. It’s dishonest; the examiner will see straight through it.
2. Spend time in your reader’s head
One thing that copywriters spend a lot of time doing is imagining things from the customer’s perspective. They understand their needs.
Your thesis should be the same. Understand what your examiner is likely to know already before reading your thesis and, just as importantly, what they aren’t likely to know. This will have an impact on how much detail you go into particular sections. Is a particular theoretical idea common knowledge in your field? Does your examiner come from your field? No need to spend too long talking about its every detail. Be concise, move on.
Alternatively, is your examiner from a different discipline? Are there certain things you take for granted but someone outside the discipline may struggle with? Go into a little more detail. It’ll help them follow along.
Your job when you write is to make the reader’s job as easy as possible. To do that, you need to know what they already know and what they need to know.
3. It’s not the words, it’s the ideas they convey
The job of a thesis isn’t just to showcase your study to the reader. It’s to show your reader that you’re worthy of calling yourself Doctor. This doesn’t discount the importance of the study; you can’t have one without the other. But it does have an important implication:
You need to write as if you’re already a Doctor.
Put as much effort into writing your thesis as you did in designing and carrying out the research. Speak with an authoritative voice and convince the reader that you know what you’re doing. Speak with conviction and stand by your decisions. Don’t get lost in the authors. Find your voice.
4. The four Cs
This one’s simple.
Is what you’ve written
- concise (not necessarily short)?
No? Keep editing it until it is.
Yes? Doesn’t matter. Keep on editing to make it clearer, more concise, more compelling and more credible.
Great writing can’t make up for a poor study, but poor writing can let down a great study.
There’s more to writing than these four tips, but follow them and they’ll help you take what you’ve got and elevate it. They’ll help you give the reader what they want, when they want it. Follow them and your reader won’t have to hunt for your voice and won’t be confused.
Which strategies do you adopt to keep your reader engaged?
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