When should I start writing?
When undertaking my research degree and during my time working in research administration I often heard the catch-cry from research supervisors of “start writing as soon as possible”. I remember thinking at the beginning of my Doctor of Philosophy, what do I have to write? I haven’t read enough yet. I don’t have a plan. Even when I began to formulate a plan for the structure of my literature review and confirmation proposal I still did not feel ready to write. So, when should we start writing? What do supervisors mean when they say, “Start writing as soon as possible”? When is as soon as possible? When is it too early? When is it too late? What are the benefits of writing early? The answers to these questions lie in our ability to balance the need to read the literature, plan our writing and begin writing the research.
Hold your horses!
It is advisable to start writing as soon as possible but it is also important to ensure that writing efficiencies are built into the writing process. At the extreme, beginning the writing without reading the literature or structuring a writing plan is obviously an inefficient way to approach writing. Of course there will be some initial writing in the note taking and planning stages but the writing needs to be balanced against the development of the conceptual plan which informs the writing. The pressure to write should not impact on careful reading, note taking and planning. The more developed the plan the more efficient the writing process is likely to be.
Of course, and this is where the balancing occurs, it is important not to wait too long before writing. If you are not careful the reading and planning stage can go on forever and consume valuable time in the candidature process. It is also important to realise that writing can inform and refine the planning. It is often only through writing that the plan and scope of the research becomes clear. This part of the writing process has been described as writing for understanding.
Write to understand
The initial process of writing usually involves exploratory writing. This is writing that helps you to understand your project and how it relates to the literature. In most cases just reading is not enough and it is only through the process of writing that you come to more fully understand your topic. This writing can then be developed through editing, supervisor feedback and revision to become writing to be understood.
Write to be understood
The next process of writing involves drafting and re-drafting to ensure that the initial writing – your argument and supporting points can be understood by others.
How to balance a wayward horse?
When trying to balance writing for understanding and creating efficiencies through effective conceptualisation and planning, one strategy is to undertake smaller sections of writing to better understand the literature and inform the planning process. This type of writing can occur very early in the process, even at the note taking stage. Rather than just reading the literature and taking notes it can be useful to research and take notes around a particular topic and then write up a small piece addressing the important issues and significance of this literature to your research project. This type of exploratory writing can then be used to inform the development of your project and may even make up a section of the confirmation proposal or the final thesis.
I hope my thoughts around when to start writing have been helpful. Please find some additional resources below that you might find of use.
Resources – writing a literature review
Aveyard, H. (2014). Doing a literature review in health and social care: A practical guide. McGraw-Hill Education.
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination. Sage.
Machi, L. A., & McEvoy, B. T. (2016). The literature review: Six steps to success. Corwin Press.
Pan, M. L., & Lopez, M. (2008). Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Pyrczak Pub.
Ridley, D. (2012). The literature review: A step-by-step guide for students. Sage