Getting the data chapters written

Getting writing done seems often to be a major problem for postgraduate researchers. A common scenario is that half way through the programme excellent progress has been made – large parts of literature review and methodology chapters written, most of the data collected and analysed, and perhaps a third of the thesis already in draft. It is then that researchers can get stuck, with not much more written even a year later.

The block seems to be writing the data chapters. This is serious because the data chapters constitute about a third of the thesis. They are the core around which the whole thesis revolves.

In some respects this should be the easiest part to write. In a classic qualitative study, the chapter titles and sections are already provided by the themes that have emerged from analysis. Half the number of words are the data extracts used to demonstrate the themes. The other half is the researcher talking about the extracts to explain how they do this. If the extracts are bigger, what you say about them is also bigger.

There is a particular writing style that needs to be acquired to do this well. But, once you have acquired it, you should be able to move quickly.

However, some researchers find this daunting and do all sorts of things to postpone writing about the data. I’ve seen so many theses where data chapters begin with several or more pages of literature before actually getting to the data. As an examiner, I’ve been reading through the literature and methodology chapters and am actually looking forward to seeing the actual data. What a disappointment when I have to browse through page after page before getting to it!! (Corrections then often require all of this stuff to be moved to the parts of the thesis where it best belongs.)

There is certainly a place for literature in data chapters – but only towards the ends of sections in response to, rather than leading, what has been said about the data.

One of the problems may be a false believe that you cannot write about your data until you have read more and more literature. You have become good at reading; and this can become an easy means of procrastination. Another means of procrastination seems to be endlessly perfecting the methodology chapter. It’s a bit like spending ages preparing to do something but never actually doing it. Running around in front of the data chapters, but not having the courage to go in. This might be why, in my opinion, many methodology chapters seem over-written.

There may also be a misunderstanding of what supervisors mean when they say that the data has to speak to the literature and theory. This is of course true; but it doesn’t mean that you can’t write about the data until all the literature and theory has been sorted out.

So, recently, I have been asking my students to write a good draft of all their data chapters before reading more and more. Where they are full-time PhD students, I am insisting that they do this by the end of their second year!

So far, the results of this advice have been excellent. They have been producing excellent pieces of writing – far from finished, but rich texts into which they can later put in how they relate to literature and theory. They have been taking notes as they go about how literature and theory might relate, but not stopping to read more and more. They have kept going and – so far – are getting the data chapters written.