three thesis writing modes

It’s pretty common to hear academic writing described in three stages – (1) thinking and preparation or pre-writing, (2) writing, and (3) post writing revision. In the doctorate you do pre-writing until you get to ‘writing up’. And that’s when you write and revise.

But it’s not really like that – lots of thinking goes on as the thesis is being written and polished. And there’s been lots of writing in order to get to the point of thesis writing. The reality is that you think and write all the way through the doctorate, and most of that thinking and writing is directed to the final thesis text.

I’ve often wondered if there was a better way to describe the way that writing happens during the doctorate. Something better than pre-writing, writing and post writing revision. I think I’ve finally come across it in one of the many books about creative writing I’ve been accumulating.

Graeme  Harper tackles the problem of the three stages writing model in his book Critical Approaches to Creative Writing. (2019).

71TNomO7CsL.jpgThe problem with the very idea of three stages, Harper says, is that it’s linear.  The writing process  is represented as the writer moving through each stage in turn. One after the other. First of all you prepare, then you write and then you revise.

 But this is not what actually happens in practice, he says. While you might do a lot of preparatory work at the start of writing a novel, you may not actually stop doing thar kind of work for quite a while – you may well find that you have to go and search for additional information or do some additional plotting as you are writing. And you may find you are revising some parts of the text as the same time as you are writing new sections. It’s not a question of a neat sequence of steps, each distinct and separate from the other, but something much more messy.

Harper’s description of the creative writing process rang bells for me. His description of overlapping processes seemed a lot like thesis writing where there are often various types of writing happening at once.

Harper doesn’t stop with debunking the three stages approach. He offers an alternative framework for thinking about creative writing. Rather than serial stages, he proposes three modes of writing which are blended throughout a project. He calls these three modes foundation, generation and response.

  • Foundation is all of the work that underpins the actual writing – think of it as architecture or infrastructure, Harper says. Foundational work grounds and holds writing together.
  • Generation is writing new text. Generating text involves drafting and some redrafting until you get to the point where you have a whole working text. Harper says generation is best thought of as a process of initiation and creation.
  • Response is when you come at your text anew, reflect on it in its entirety and refine it. Response takes something which is not yet fully fashioned and fashions it. Response is the writer reflecting on their own text, but could also include other readers’ responses too. Harper argues that response also encompasses thinking about how the final text will be published and distributed for wider public response.

Now the key to Harper’s argument is that these three are not linear stages. They operate as a kind of plait. While foundation might be dominant at the start of writing, the other two are also often involved.

I reckon Harper’s three modes of writing are helpful in thinking about writing a thesis too.

In the doctorate we can therefore think of:

  • Foundation as – reading and noting, keeping a research journal, field notes, transcripts, data files, records of analysis, mind maps, plans, spread sheets, storyboards, emails, blog posts, writing for supervision purposes, annual reports and reviews, chunks about specific aspects of research…
  • Generation as – producing a research proposal, writing a confirmation or upgrade paper, writing a conference paper, journal article or book chapter, writing the thesis text…
  • Response as – getting feedback on and refining the research proposal, a confirmation or upgrade text, a conference paper, journal article or book chapter, and the thesis text. Developing a publication plan from the thesis…

We can see that these three modes helps us to see the writing going all the way through the doctorate. And to see that each mode of writing is important and can’t be ignored. Failing to do enough foundational work means that both the generation and response writing stages will be stymied. They won’t have the necessary strength to stand up. And failing to spend enough time on response, thinking that generation of text is sufficient, means that the writing will be incomplete and unrefined.

And an added bonus. The three writing modes can be used to begin to (re)think how writing gets done in the doctorate. Harper’s three modes shows time marked not by linear stages but by the various kind of texts that need to be produced at different times.

I imagine a doctorate might go a little like this.


OK, so I’m not the best at illustrating but I’m sure you get the idea.

But perhaps you might like to play with your own doctoral timeline, thinking about the ways in which the three modes of writing might occupy your week and year variously, depending where you are up to in the path to the final doctoral thesis.

And perhaps you too will find Harper’s three modes of writing a more helpful way to think about the writing that has to be done – all the way through the candidature – in order to produce a good thesis.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, creative writing, foundation, generation and response, Graeme Harper, three modes of writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to three thesis writing modes

  1. Ken Clayton says:

    I’m a fairly new postgraduate researcher and only stumbled across your blog a couple of months ago. I just want to thank you for the content. I’ve found it enormously helpful in a couple of areas of study.


  2. Felippe Medeiros Oliveira says:

    Another great post. You can’t imagine to what extent your help improve students writing.


  3. Sharyn Anderson says:

    Dear Pat

    Am I allowed to provide the link to this page to my HDR writing group?

    Regards Sharyn PhD Candidate Language and Learning Adviser Deakin University Warrnambool Campus.



  4. sherranclarence says:

    This is a really helpful – and beautifully creative – approach to thinking about and doing thesis writing. I have shared with our online group at Rhodes, and I am sure my own students will find this helpful. Thank you 🙂


  5. Vilive says:

    Thank you for this information, I ‘am currently writing my proposal and at times I found myself moving to and fro this process which often left me thinking that I am not moving forward at all.


  6. Megha says:

    Thank you for inspiring us all in continuing our journey of tedious and sometimes melancholy writing especially during a long PhD Thesis writing stage.


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