writing the thesis from the middle

This is a guest post from Dr Milena Popova, a rogue scholar and activist. They offer one-to-one academic tuition, and tweet as @elmyra.


As I hit the start of the second year of my PhD, one of my supervisors casually said to me, “Oh, you should probably aim to write your literature review this year.” It is very common for supervisors to suggest the literature review as the first thesis chapter to actually see daylight. And in many cases it makes a lot of sense: you will have spent a large chunk of your first year reading and familiarising yourself with the state of your field. The jump from reading to writing can be rather daunting, and a literature review may be within your comfort zone at that stage. And depending on your research design, you are likely to be deep in data collection in your second year, and therefore have nothing to actually write about yet. So in the interests of getting you to write *something* (which is an excellent idea!), many supervisors push for a lit review early on.

If this works for you, that’s great, but I’m here to tell you that there’s more than one way to write a PhD, so if the “lit review first” approach doesn’t work for you, there are others. Despite my supervisors’ best efforts, I wrote my thesis from the inside out.

Personally, I struggle to work from the theory down, and so I knew that any lit review I wrote in year 2 would have to be rewritten pretty much from scratch once I knew what my data actually said. A certain amount of editing and rewriting is inevitable in a PhD, as your ideas develop and you work out what you’re trying to say over time (and there’s a chapter in my thesis that I did rewrite three times), but some rework is avoidable. If, like me, you prefer to work from the data up, writing your thesis from the inside out might be the approach for you.

What I mean by writing the thesis from the inside out is writing the data chapters first. For me, those were the three case studies that formed the core of my research. Having more or less completed those chapters, I then wrote my literature review and discussion chapter side by side in my third year, followed by the conclusion and introduction at the very end. This approach has several advantages. For me, the data chapters were much more concrete, and having written them first meant I knew what the data was and what it was saying. That then gave me the foundation to build the theory on. Writing about my data early on also meant I developed a much better understanding of it, as the writing process became an extension of the analysis process. This approach also forced me to plan and do my data collection and analysis in a way that allowed me to start writing about the data early on. I was able to split the data collection into three separate stages (one for each of the data chapters) and do different tasks for each of the chunks in parallel.

Once I was past the data chapters, something I found important and helpful was to write the lit review (finally!) and the discussion chapter side by side. This allowed me to make sure that anything I was relying on in the discussion chapter had been adequately covered in the literature review. It’s a bit like Chekhov’s gun: if you’re going to shoot someone with it in Act 4, it had better be on the mantelpiece in Act 1. The final layer of this inside-out writing were the conclusion and introduction, which I also wrote more or less side by side, but really, the introduction came last because that was the point at which I knew what I was introducing.

The inside out approach won’t work for everyone. You may find it easier to work from the theory down than from the data up, or your data collection and analysis may be structured in a way that doesn’t let you do any early writing about your data. The important thing here is to be open to experimentation (both as a PhD researcher and a supervisor), as that is the only way you get to work out what works for you. I use the inside out approach for most of my research writing to this day, and I wouldn’t have found out that it was the right approach for me if my supervisors hadn’t trusted me when I said, “Um, I think I’m going to write something else actually.”

Milena’s approach is one I often recommend to PhDers too.  I completely agree that it helps to know what you are going to write about, your results, before you structure your argument and your text. 


Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

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, IMRAD, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to writing the thesis from the middle

  1. Sarah says:

    This post really resonates with me – I too started my thesis writing with the data chapters, then discussion, then introduction, then conclusion, then finally the literature chapter. Doing it this way meant I only had to write the literature once and because I knew the literatures so well by that stage it was largely done in a week.


  2. John Perry says:

    This is exactly the position I have just arrived at! This blog post is incredibly reassuring right now!!


  3. John Perry says:

    I have just arrived at this position myself, and this post is incredibly reassuring.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carol says:

    Thank you for this post. I started with Chapter 2 on the suggestion of my supervisor and now attempting Chapters 1 and 3. At first I had concerns about chronology but this system is working quite well.


  5. Rachel says:

    Really interesting. Before you went into the field, had you done any writing on your literature reading to inform your data collection?


    • Milena Popova says:

      I had done a lot of reading and a small amount of writing (a short conference paper). My theoretical understanding definitely shaped my data collection, but equally my data guided my further reading. I did a lot of my analysis in the process of writing, which in turn made obvious some gaps in my theoretical framework – which I could then address through further reading.

      Liked by 1 person

    • milenapopova says:

      I had done a lot of reading but only limited writing (a short conference paper). That reading did guide my data collection, but equally, the data guided my further reading. I used the process of writing about the data as part of my data analysis, and that highlighted some gaps in my theoretical framework – which I could then address through further reading and incorporate that into my analysis.


  6. mjcurry1 says:

    In the U.S. system where students don’t enter doctoral study with an already articulated research proposal this advice really doesn’t jibe with what they need to do–they need to write literature review(s) to identify their research topic and construct a gap in the research that justifies their research design for their proposal. It is inevitable in my experience that what the data says to writers will require going back to the research and the theoretical literatures but in our system you can’t start with data-no one would approve you to collect data without a justification for doing so and that tends to be grounded in a lit review.


    • pat thomson says:

      I read this as already having happened. Reading, question, empirical work all completed. Having completed field work the thesis was then begun in the middle. Ism that right Milena?


      • milenapopova says:

        Yes, to an extent. I had done a lot of reading – but writing from the inside out also helped me identify the gaps in my theoretical approach and guided me to further reading.


  7. Melanie Beckett says:

    I took this approach too, largely by accident. Immersing myself in the data has helped enormously to inform what should go in the lit review and I feel the thesis will end up being much more sound having been built upwards from the data. I will (hopefully) also be able to better defend it all in the Viva as a result. Thought I was doing it backwards so this post is reassuring but thinking about it this approach makes much more sense in retrospect. And I didn’t want to have to write the lit review all or again from scratch. Result!


    • Clinton says:

      The timing of this blog could not have come at a better time. I have been bouncing around my literature landscape that, in itself, is riddled with discourse and a melting pot of a-theoretical concepts to the point that, without having any data or what it is saying, I have been struggling to decide what elements of the literature is likely to be contextually relevant and necessary to my research.
      This inside out approach might just prove to be the key to unlocking my impasse – thanks.


  8. Clinton says:

    The timing of this blog could not have come at a better time. I have been bouncing around my literature landscape that, in itself, is riddled with discourse and a melting pot of a-theoretical concepts to the point that, without having any data or what it is saying, I have been struggling to decide what elements of the literature is likely to be contextually relevant and necessary to my research.
    This inside out approach might just prove to be the key to unlocking my impasse – thanks.


  9. Jane SHAW says:

    I launched my research from a position of blind ignorance. I initially read a number of frightfully earnest ‘how to’ handbooks, the ones that recommend this PhD method or that – and was more than confused.
    So, I did it my way. My lead supervisor was quite happy to let me do so. It was risky, but a doctoral thesis is not the place to find yourself a brand new voice. Being comfortable with how you write is a major factor in how happy you feel in this onerous and taxing process, especially as it goes on for years.
    I started *in medias res,* (‘in the middle’) and worked backwards and forwards between past and contemporary instances. While it was the hardest thing I’ve ever written, it taught me a great deal. Not only about my writing in general, but also the thinking habits I’ve fallen into over years.

    Maybe a thesis based in scientific data is possibly simpler to write up than an arts and humanities one? Like Clinton, I bounced around the literary landscape. Given my topic field (ancient Greek myth), a standard classical lit. review would have been impossible. I threaded it through the text. There’s a long Intro, and when it came to the theories (as many as there are theorists in the field) (a) I selected the four main exponents whose schools of thought typified the 4 angles I was after overall, and (b) each of the following six chapters presented one or two who had built on their predecessors, or contradicted them. The arguments have been going on since forever, and there’s no theoretical one-size-fits-all. My effort’s a slant on the critical discourse pathway, a broad picture as well as an analysis. There was also a need to ensure the tone was even throughout. Sudden changes of ‘voice’ can sometimes creep in, depending on who you’ve just been reading. Plus, I ruthlessly reduced the overlong word count, and then decimated it again. It’s important to decide what to leave out, as well as what to put in.
    The final chapter summarised the findings, but it was also worked over and over, to clarify my context. To avoid the deadly ‘so what?’ question, I repeatedly wrangled the penultimate and final paragraph. Perhaps, being more familiar with generating journo and narrative prose, I simply *had* to have a ‘slug line’ – a memorable phrase that wrapped it up.

    One minor item – don’t leave admin issues or tech queries to the last minute. Having given notice of intention to submit, tidying-up, inspection, and printing, all took time. I made the deadline, but only just!

    Now it’s all over and gone. In waiting for the viva, I feel a definite gap in my daily life. However, I would like to register my grateful thanks to you, Pat, and all your guest writers, for the timely posts and advice. Couldn’t have done it without you.


  10. This post is very useful!! I can see how it works writing from the middle. It seems to make much more sense. I guess we all have gone through proposal approval so we have done some work on the literature, but the final piece is, at least for me, quite different than the one I started with. So it does make sense!!
    I have been working through some of my chapters taking Milena’s professional advice and I have to say she is excellent in what and how she does it. She poses good and challenging questions that makes you think deep about your text! I guess these ‘challenging’ (in the good sense) is what we need at the final stage when we are doing the ensemble of the pieces to craft the whole picture, our puzzle. I can only recommend her professional advice to anyone that feels needs it, you won’t regret it. The quality of her thinking can be seen in this post!!
    Thanks for sharing your experience and Part thanks for sharing this with us!
    Happy weekend 😃


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