can you cut and paste early text into your thesis?

Well of course you can. The question is, should you?

You wrote large chunks of text when you first started your doctorate. These writings were most likely to do with literatures, methodologies and research design, and the warrant for your research. Now, as you begin the process of writing the thesis text its very tempting to think you can make a huge gain by simply transferring that big heap of beginning text into the thesis. Highlight, copy, and you’re quids in.

But my answer to the question about whether you should do this not a yes. It’s a maybe, but leaning towards no. That’s disappointing for you if you were counting on the bank of words you’d prepared earlier.if you thought these pages were ready to go, if you reasoned you’d got a bit of the thesis already written. And you may be right. Equally, you may be terribly wrong.

Let me explain by talking about the literatures and then come back to other textual chunks at the end.

Why is it that your initial literature work may need quite a bit of rewriting? Well, here’s five reasons.

  • When you wrote your initial literatures text, you situated your study in the field to create your warrant and potential contribution, and established the work that you thought you would use during the research. Your argument was about what you were going to do and why. But now that you have finished the research your argument is now about what literatures helped you to construct the study, what literatures you used in analysis and theorisation and what literatures your work actually contributes to. And this argument and the associated literatures may well not be the same as when you started because:
  • You’ve subsequently found additional literatures that became important in the study, perhaps they were helpful in analysing and theorising your data. These literatures may have been around when you started but you just hadn’t found them. Or you didn’t know you’d need them. You may have landed on a new theoretical resource for example, or discovered a whole new and exciting line of scholarship and thinking. So all that now needs to get put into your existing literatures writing. And this may not, indeed is highly likely not to be, a simple matter of finding a spot in the original text and inserting the new. It is more likely that the new literatures change the way that you structure and argue throughout the relevant text (chapter or pieces of chapters).
  • There’s been new stuff published. And while it’s tempting to think that all you have to do is to add this in, what has been recently published may knock your initial framing out of shape. There may be work that you’ve come across that offers a more useful framing. There may be contradictory material that makes you rethink how you have understood relevant literatures. There may be more work like yours, but not identical, that means you have to rethink how you make your case. So any recent material may mean you have to reframe and restructure some or all of what you wrote. (Of course it may not, but you need to check)
  • You didn’t use all of the literatures you initially included and wrote about. What needs to be in the thesis literatures writing is the material that matters – the stuff that helped you design your study, make sense of your material and situate your contribution. If it turned out that some literatures weren’t important and you got by without them then leaving them in doesn’t make a lot of sense. Except you may need to note, if you are doing a field mapping, that they exist. So you have to get rid of what is superfluous, even if it hurts to remove text.

And very importantly,

  • The researcher who wrote the initial proposal is not the same researcher who is writing the final thesis text. The thesis writer has learnt a lot about their topic in the last two, three years. By the time you get to writing the thesis you are pretty close to being The Expert in your particular topic. And you need to write as an expert even if you don’t feel it. This is a very different authoring position than the more tentative and diffident beginner-researcher who started out. In the thesis you need to be evaluative, appreciative but critical, take an authoritative “hands on hips” stance – stand back to talk with confidence about your own and other’s work. So the entire “voice” of your early literatures writing may need to change, a lot.

Many of these five points apply to other sections of text that were written early. While your initial rationale for the study may well still hold, there may be additional contextual reasons why it is important. New statistical information, new policy agendas, new advances in the field. Your work contributes not only to knowledge (may have changed) but also social challenges (may be more urgent or reordered in priority), policy (may have changed) or professional concerns ( may be different). These have to be taken account of, and picked up again in the conclusion where you specify the implications of your work.

And your research design may also have shifted. What you initially thought about doing ( pandemic gah) changed. What you initially imagined to be a good design turned out not to be a great idea when you started actually getting into it – so you redesigned. What you thought was a good method wasn’t practical. What you thought was a good analytic approach turned about to be too orthodox and you came up with something much more interesting. Therefore you might well have to explain changes in your initial design. And thus means the literatures you draw on to talk about the research you actually did have to be included – and any old unused bits excised. That’s because your methodology and methods writing needs to be about the research that you actually did – that’s what the examiners are going to be presented with – not the research that you intended to do.

And ditto in both of the warrant and methods instances to the writer being a different researcher that the one who started out. Present you is much more knowledgeable than past you. So you see there are good reasons to pause before simply cutting and pasting in what you wrote some time ago. It may not be as relevant as it was. It is also unlikely to be the text of the same researcher/writer as you are now.

Tempting as it is to simply dump all of those early words in, do take some time to consider whether this really is the best move. While you may want to put your old text into a document as a kind of holding place, you do this knowing that those beginning words are something that you need to come back to with fresh eyes. And more of that next post.

Photo by Bekky Bekks 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, old text, rewriting, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to can you cut and paste early text into your thesis?

  1. dfptaylor says:

    Thanks so much for this, Pat. When I started writing up my results I found that to contextualise my findings I had to find and add literature that I had not included in my original proposal. You have helped me understand that my lit review now needs to be written from a totally different perspective – knowing rather than supposing. A great help!


  2. jj says:

    Very useful advice, thank you!


  3. Pingback: cutting and pasting early text into the thesis – part 2. | patter

  4. You know, this thorough explanation wouldn’t need much alteration to be useful to those starting to write a novel or a memoir. It explains why big-editing or rewriting is both crucial and exciting. When it’s done, it’s very far from done.


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