Phd Dissertation How Many Words Should A 15

One of the most popular posts on the Thesis Whisperer is How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy. Last year a Twitter follower brought to my attention a post called How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day by the fiction writer Rachel Aaron.

I did a double take.

Can you really write 10,000 words a day? Well, Rachel says she can, with three conditions:

1) Know what you are going to write before you write it
2) Set aside a protected time to write, and
3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing

I read the post with interest. Much of what Rachel did conformed with what I suggest in my earlier post, but I couldn’t bring myself to really believe Rachel’s productivity claims. To regularly write 10,000 words: It’s the dream, right? Imagine if you could reliably write 10,000 words a day, how long would it take to finish your thesis… A week? How about a journal paper – a day?

Impossible!

Or so I thought.

I’m now a 10,000 words a day believer because I have been watching students write even more than this in a single day at the Thesis Bootcamps we run at ANU.

The Thesis Bootcamp formula was developed by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone of the University of Melbourne. Thesis Bootcamp (and the veteran’s days which follow) is a total program designed to help late stage PhD students finish their thesis document (In some countries this document is called the ‘dissertation’, but I will use the Australian term ‘thesis’ here). The Thesis Bootcamp concept is simple – put a whole lot of PhD students in a room for a whole weekend and set them the goal of writing 20,000 words each.

Yes – you heard me right.

At every Thesis Bootcamp we have run, at least one student will achieve this goal, and many write many more words than they thought they would. In a previous post Peta Freestone and Liam Connell wrote about the ideas behind Thesis Bootcamp. In this post I want to reflect on Rachel Aaron’s threefold advice and put in the context of thesis writing.

1) Know what you are going to write before you write it

Composing a Thesis requires you to do different types of writing. Some of this writing is ‘generative’ in that it helps you form and articulate ideas by… just writing as much as you can, not as well as you can. It works best when you don’t second-guess yourself too much. The philosophy is ‘make a mess and then clean it up’. Perfectionist writers have a problem doing this, which is why we see so many perfectionists at our Bootcamps.

At Bootcamp we teach our students to focus the generative writing energy to productive effect. An important step in this process is for the student to spend at least a week making a ‘Thesis map’  before they come to Bootcamp. The map is essentially a series of sub-headings which the students use as prompts for composing new text, or re-using existing text.

Students, particularly those in the humanities and arts, tend to agonise over the Thesis document ‘structure’. I think the anxiety stems from the idea that ‘Thesis structure’ is some kind of perfect platonic form they need to discover.

It’s important to realise that structure is made, not found. Thesis structure is strongly influenced by disciplinary precedent and the content of the Thesis itself. A history PhD it might follow a timeline from the past to the present; a science PhD might echo the order of the experiments that have been performed. But multi-disciplinary PhDs, or PhDs in ‘polyglot’ disciplines like education, do not have comfortable traditions. This means you’ll have to make the structure up. Try the following technique:

  • Try to capture an overview of the Thesis by completing the following sentences from the work of Rowena Murray):
    • This Thesis contributes to knowledge by…
    • This Thesis is important because…
    • The key research question is….
    • The sub-questions are….
  • Decide how long your Thesis will be. Most universities have a maximum word count. Aim for your Thesis to be at least 2/3 of this total (it’s likely you will write more than this, but this gives you some wriggle room).
  • Make a document with chapter headings and word counts next to them. Include an introduction of 2000 – 3000 words followed by up to seven chapters of equal length and a conclusion of around 4000 – 5000 words.
  • Under the conclusion heading write a rough list of points you think will go in there (hint – these should be answers to the research questions you have posed). Study these closely – have you got data, theories, evidence and arguments to support these conclusions? These concluding points, singularly or in combination, will form the ‘key learnings’ of the Thesis – the knowledge and ideas you want your readers to absorb.
  • Each chapter should have at least one key learning in it, maybe more. Under each chapter heading note the key learnings in the form of a brief synopsis of up to 300 words. This synopsis is like a mini abstract that explains what the rest of the chapter will be about.
  • Then make a list of the material you will include in the chapter as dot points. Don’t worry about the gaps and stuff you haven’t written yet – just make a note of them. These should be short sentences that will act as subheadings
  • Now ask yourself: If, at the end of the chapter, I want the reader to be convinced of the validity of this key learning, what needs to appear first? What comes next? And so on. Rearrange or write new subheadings as you go until you have arranged all the subheadings of the chapter in a way that tells the research story.

Following these steps will help you to create the Thesis map – but it’s important to remember that this is merely an aid to writing, not a plan set in stone. You can change, add and move stuff around as you write.

In our Thesis Bootcamps we ask students to just pick a spot on this map and start writing as fast as they can, not as well as they can. Does this generate perfect thesis ready text? Not necessarily, but many students say that the writing they produce at Bootcamp is clearer than the writing they did before it, when they are worrying over every word. I think the thesis map is a big part of this clarity because it keeps the focus tight.

This organising technique works best for very late stage thesis students, but it can be a way of creating order at any time in your journey and working out what you need to find out or write more about. I’ve made a downloadable cheat sheet which shows you my own Thesis map, generated by the above method so you can make one of your own.

2) Set aside a protected time to write

I’ve written so much about this, so I wont rehash it all here. If you are interested in some techniques and ideas for creating protective writing time, have a look at the following posts:

3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing

I think this is the ‘secret sauce’ in the 10,000 words a day recipe. Rachel Aaron did some deep analysis of her productive writing days and compared these to the occasional not-so-productive days. The days Rachel was able to write 10,000+ words were the days she was writing scenes she had been ‘dying to write’ – she called these the ‘candy bar scenes’. Days where she found it hard to muster 5000 words a day she was bored with what she was writing:

This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

In the fiction world the answer to Rachel’s dilemma was simple – make the boring scenes more interesting! Unfortunately in Thesis World this is not always possible. There will always be parts that are functional and unexciting; I call these the ‘dry toast’ sections – you need to do a lot of unproductive chewing before you can swallow.

There’s a term that describes this process in gamer culture – ‘grinding’. Grinding is being forced to perform the same action over and over again before you can ‘level up’ in the game and get more powers / weapons / armour or whatever. The level up is the pay-off.

One of the most genius ideas Liam and Peta incorporated into Bootcamp was the squeezy lego blocks. We give these out for each 5000 words written in a particular colour order: green, blue, red and gold. The blocks clip together to make a little lego ‘wall’ that the students can display at their writing station. When first presented with the idea of the blocks the students laugh, but all too soon, they are typing furiously with single minded purpose – to get the next block. We have a little ceremony every time someone gets a block, clapping them as they walk up to write their name on the board. It’s cheesy, but it works to turn writing from a source of pain to a celebration. So think about how to reward yourself for every 5000 words written.

Up for the challenge? Have a look at the testimonials on our ANU You Tube channel. I’d love to hear about other ways of doing writing marathons and what you think about this kind of ‘binge writing’.

If you are an ANU student, click this link to find out how to get involved in Thesis Bootcamp on campus.

If you are in the UK, Dr Peta Freestone is available to run Thesis Bootcamp in your university.

Related Posts

Rachel Aaron’s post ‘How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day‘

“How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy”

Video testimonials on the ANU Youtube channel

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Writing 25,000 words in 8 days. Possible?

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posted about 9 years ago

So, I have to have 25000 words, which I'm guessing will be the size of this chapter, written by 3 June. I have all the research done, and I have the structure of the chapter, and I'm basically just going to 'search' on my computer when I get to each section and keying the subject/topic in and looking at all my research on that area and then writing it from that. I've just written a princely 154 words so far in 20minutes.:-)


It is more a creative exercise than a research one, about presenting my research well. I'm talking about writing 3000 words per day each day until next Wednesday night. Is it possible? How many words of PhD standard is the most you've written in a day or week?

I'm sort of buzzing now as I look at all my info and the only problem is what to leave out. But having a deadline will definitely help me, I think.

I'll keep a little daily diary here if I think of it!

posted
27-May-09, 08:38

edited about 24 seconds later

posted about 9 years ago

======= Date Modified 27 May 2009 08:53:36 =======
Hmm....that's a tall order and whether it is possible depends on how quickly you can assimilate your research notes. I tend to research and write together so I can't really say if it's possible to just write-up 3000 words a day, but I'm pretty sure it is. I do remember writing my Master's thesis (obviously not PhD quality) in 2/3 days from rough research notes. You'll simply have to glue your bum to your desk chair, and switch off all distractions.

You'll probably make lots of mistakes, so set an hour aside each day to re-read what you've written.

I'm actually attempting a similar feat of 15,000 words in two weeks, but with a lot of research unfinished.

Edit: just to add, why does it have to be 25,000 words?

posted
27-May-09, 09:35

edited about 17 seconds later

posted about 9 years ago

That is a lot, although I once did 2500 words in a day which isn't far off 3000 - don't know if I could do that for eight days straight though! I think if you even had the bones of your chapter done in the 8 days that would be great, is there some reason you have to hit the full count by June 2nd? If not then just focus on getting the chapter done you can try to add more words later!

posted
27-May-09, 09:41

posted about 9 years ago

That does sound like a lot. I have managed about 1500 a day before, but I was clear about what I was going to say. It can probably be done, working very concentrated and long hours.. but that kind of regime for eight days? No, not impossible, but it sounds extremely hard!!

posted
27-May-09, 09:45

edited about 12 seconds later

posted about 9 years ago

Personally, I can't do more than about 1000 words per day of PhD quality.  I know others that can do a lot more, so I suppose it could be possible depending on the individual. I always find that other things get in the way, like supervisor meetings and Cash In The Attic/Homes Under The Hammer, etc.  Best wishes though!

posted
27-May-09, 09:48

edited about 8 seconds later

posted about 9 years ago

2000 a day for a couple of weeks I'd say is perfectly achievable, if exhausting, if you're just writing up notes. To push it up to 3000 I think you need to separate your working day (which is obviously going to a pretty long one for the next 8 days!) into three sections of 1000 words, making sure you take proper breaks and get as much sleep as possible each night. Good luck - I don't envy you!!

posted about 9 years ago

Wow, that is quite some feat! If I'm on a roll I can normally manage around 2-3K a day, having said that, I wrote 1.5K yesterday and was worn out and everything I tried to write after that was utter rubbish - so I'd agree, you'd have to split it up and make sure you get good breaks in. I tend to splurge it all out then spend another week going back over it to edit and turn it in to English lol. I wrote the whole first draft for my MA dissertation in 8 days and that was 20K words so it is possible, but its exhausting. Hope you get it done ok :-) I thought I was hard done by having to get my board paper written and submitted by the 15th at around 10K words lol

posted
27-May-09, 12:18

edited about 11 seconds later

posted about 9 years ago

Aodhán - from your other posting it looks like you have to do this for your thesis resubmission. Of course you can do it! You have very clear goals set out. Write exactly to those goals and don't change anything else!!!

posted
27-May-09, 12:20

edited about 12 seconds later

posted about 9 years ago

Oh! and cancel EVERYTHING for 8 days. literally. Then, on the 3rd of June, hand it in and go to the nearest pub/cafe/shop and get a massive glass of wine/disgustingly chocolatey cake/crazy beautiful thing you don't need (or preferably all). Then go home and sleep for a couple of days. After that, the next phase of your life starts!

posted about 9 years ago

nice advice from A116!!! Sometimes I do approximately 2,000 words per day but again it depends on what I'm writing about.
Sometimes I become depressed and dont write anything for days.
Then miraculously I come out of this no-writing-no-working phase and then get back to it.
You'll be ok.
cheers satchi

posted
06-Sep-11, 21:33

edited about 28 seconds later

by CarriKP

posted about 7 years ago

Did you manage to reach your daily goal? I'm interested because I'm trying to finish a Master's diss with a fairly close deadline 8-) - I also have done the research.

posted
06-Sep-11, 23:23

edited about 6 seconds later

posted about 7 years ago

I remember reading this book (wish I could remember what the title was and the author... it was a book on PhD writing or research writing anyway) and the author was saying how she once reneted a log cabin and basically got everything written in 10 days cos she was just in the log cabin with no distractions whatsoever. Now that's great if you could afford to go off and rent a log cabin and you weren't worried about Jason or Leatherface coming after you but I think you can borrow her logic in the sense that try and find a setting in which you won't have distractions and tell your friends and family you've got to get this done so no distractions for 5-7 days and just sit there and get it done. Still sounds like a huge amount to try and get done and esp. if you're stressed but definitely a quiet environment, adopting a 9-5 approach and just sitting there and saying 'this has to be done' helps!
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