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Slash and burn!


In September, I had a first, very rough draft of my thesis. One of the issues was the number of words in the drafts (approaching 100,000), which somewhat exceeded the permitted word limit of 80,000. My task was to try to edit and organise my material more concisely without losing the most relevant content. In an earlier post, “Getting excited about my thesis,” I described how I came to see the draft as a number of containers, or buckets, each with mixture of content.

The first thing I did was to think again about what the underlying argument of my thesis is. What is it I am actually addressing. Over the past three years, I have read and gathered a lot of information and learned a lot. Although much of it is interesting, by no means all of it is relevant to my thesis. In order to decide what is and is not relevant, I had to know what it is I am trying to say and what contributes to that argument.

Having sorted out what I am saying, I then looked at the material again and how I had structured the first draft. I had followed a fairly standard model of introduction, lit review, methodology, findings… but I realised that this might not be the best structure to support my methodology and argument. I was using three distinctly different approaches to the problem I was addressing, which meant I was looking at different bodies of theory and different methodologies. I decided to divide the thesis into three sections, which would enable me to address each approach separately, and draw connections between them.

During October, I focused on the first two sections, which were the best developed of the original drafts. By the end of October, I had my revised drafts (currently awaiting supervisor comments), but the original word count had swelled to 110k.

Radical measures were needed. I first focused on the essential content – the literature and methodology – and the word count increased a little more! I needed to do something more drastic. I printed out the remainder of the content, reminded myself again what the focus of my thesis is, and started working through the material with a blue pencil, putting lines through everything not directly relevant to my argument.  I still have a way to go, but over the past fortnight, I have reduced the word count by about 25k and I am beginning to see how I can bring ideas together which were previously hidden in the undergrowth. The material being removed is not uninteresting, in fact some is very interesting and may well form the basis of articles or conference papers, but it is not part of the argument I am making in my thesis and therefore has no place there – much the same as some garden weeds may look quite pretty in meadowland, but in a garden may hide or choke the plants that are meant to be there.

Hopefully, having cleared the weeds, I can begin to construct a more coherent argument, and lose more words in the process. Who knows, I might even reduce the word count enough to include the still missing discussion chapter.

No doubt careful editing can deal with small numbers of excess words, but dense undergrowth needs a chainsaw and flamethrower!



  1. Phil Greaney says:

    Hi Liz.
    My acid test – which might not be applicable for you or your readers – was how easily and quickly I could describe what I was doing to someone with no knowledge in my subject matter. Being able to do was an unforgettable moment (it happened to me in an art gallery in London, for some reason). I think that’s when I got both to the gist of my work and what it meant in the wider community. This happened to me in the final year.
    I agree wholeheartedly with the principle of writing to word limits. We become, sometimes irrationally, attached to things we’ve worked hard to write; sometimes they just don’t fit and we should break clean from our emotional attachment and nurture an emotional attachment to the stuff that works. I wrote to word count and deadline throughout (sorry if this seems a little nerdy or self-aggrandising – my PhD path was far from that, despite my best efforts).
    I wish you luck with the pruning – I think it can be an invaluable exercise and it sounds timely, too.
    Bonne chance

  2. ailsa says:

    oh it all sounds so familiar!

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