The PhD diary: one tool to improve your writing skills

Are you suffering from writer’s block? Does structuring ideas  give you a headache? This article gives you some ideas to help you to plan and manage your writing time using an indispensable tool for doctoral students: the PhD diary.

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.

Linus Pauling

Help yourself: write regularly

I started to understand my topic towards the end of my Masters thesis. As a result was, my text was a kind of a rough draft: I should have rewritten it entirely. But I had neither the time nor the energy. The text was disappointing and it did not accurately reflect the findings of my research. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t want to experience this with my PhD thesis, Richard said  when he contacted me.

When I asked him when he had started writing for the first time he answered: when I started to write my paper.

This testimonial shows at least one thing: writing helped Richard to understand his topic.

Like him, many students and PhD candidates never write during their research time. In actual fact, writing helps to activate passive knowledge: the more you know, the stronger the feeling you know nothing. How can you  understand everything you know if you never ask yourself?

Don’t wait  until you need  to write your thesis or your publications to start writing. Before you can write a clear, structured text, you need a lot of writing time.

This is why a PhD diary is indispensable for preparing your research.

What is a PhD diary good for?

  • To explore a topic. Brainstorm or mind map all of your ideas, and consider your topic from different perspectives.
  • To order your thoughts. Ideas need time to Order comes from chaos. Many people struggle with ordering their thoughts because the want to do three tasks at once: collecting ideas, sorting them out and ordering them – what is more, they try to do this mentally. Rather, write down all your ideas. Once you see them, it is easier to sort them out and to decide in which order you want to present them.
  • To make sense of information. You read a lot, you know a lot. But sometimes you might feel like you know nothing. Writing helps to link pieces of information to get a meaningful picture of your topic.
  • To record experience. Don’t rely on your memory. During the day, you read a lot, you hear a lot, you experience lots of situations. If you tried to remember everything, you would go crazy. Your brain deletes unnecessary information. If you want to keep it, do something with it. Write it down and write something about it.
  • To enhance creativity. Creativity is not only a matter of sudden inspiration. Connecting the dots creates new images, new ideas, and leads to new questions.
  • To think out of the box. Try new ideas. People often discard unusual ideas ( they think: this is a bad idea) whithout examining them. How can you judge if an idea is good or bad when it is out of context? As long as it is only in your head, it has no value. It needs to be written down. You have probably already had ideas which seemed to be brilliant but then, once put in context, turned to be uninteresting. The opposite is also possible. Give your ideas a chance! Write them down! And write something about them.
  • To flesh out ideas. Sometimes you feel that you have a genius idea. Go further, develop it, brainstorm about it, imagine ways to make it real, ask yourself what you would need to realize it.
  • To develop critical thinking or the development of a questioning attitude. Writing helps you to step back and to interrogate texts, statements, positions. And little by little to find your own position.
  • To increase ability in reflection and thinking. The more you write, the more you discover what you know, the more you pose questions, the more you are motivated to find answers.
  • To improve writing. The more you write, the less intimidating writing seems to be. You develop your own routine, you find your own voice.
  • To overcome writer’s block. One of the reasons for blocks is the sudden quantity of thoughts which need to be sorted out, clarified, structured. If you work regularly on your topic, the day you will have to write you paper or your thesis, most of the strucuration process will have been done.
  • Your diary can be a lifeline for your thesis: I often meet participants of my workshop after 2 or 3 years. They tell me how their diary saved their thesis: They had a low point in the middle of their research. After some 20 months, some they felt so demotivated that they wanted to quit their research. Going through their diary showed them how much they knew, how much they had done – and that motivated them again!

📌Always record the date. This will show you the evolution of your thoughts over time. Your diary witnesses your intellectual and scientific development – to see this growth is rewarding.

What can you write in your diary?

  • Questions, problems: often the simple act of writing down a question or a problem leads you to the answers or solutions. Even if you do not find them immediately, your brain will work out how to find them.
  • Thoughts, observations: record what sounds interesting or important in order to develop ideas about it.
  • Brainstorms or mind-maps about a topic. Ideas are rarely clear and structured from the beginning. Brainstorming or mind-mapping helps you to visualize ideas, to collect them, and to generate new ideas.

The best time to work with a clean sheet is long before you’re confronted with one.

Seith Godin
  • Texts related to your topic (for example about a particular question, an issue, a quotation).
  • Outlines: the outline is the skeleton of your text. Once it is solid, then writing your thesis will be easier than if your outline is unclear or mixed up. Creating a good outline is challenging and requires time. Take your time and write out all the options you can think of.
  • Feelings: good and bad feelings. If some conflict is occupying your mind, write about it. It can help to get rid of it and to find the calm you need to write. Positive feelings also deserve to be recorded: they will encourage you when you read them on bad days.
  • Weekly summaries (What have I done? What have I found? What should I do next week?).
  • Monthly, weekly and daily SMART goals.

A tip: use colours, symbols and pictures. They will help you to find what you are looking for more quickly. The brain retains colours and pictures better than words.

 Your diary:  your travel companion

The diary is not a lab notebook: it is not meant to be read by your supervisors nor by your colleagues.

The PhD diary is something very personal, where you write what you want, without judging your thoughts, without evaluating the quality of what you write, without paying attention to style, spelling or grammar.

The PhD diary is a paper notebook (A4 or A5 – avoid smaller sizes, they do not motivate you to write longer texts). Sometimes you need to produce long texts with complex, unnecessary sentences, superfluous words, in order to find one interesting idea. This is normal.

Four advantages for a paper notebook

First of all, you have noticed that the best ideas do not come into your mind when you are sitting at your desk, but when you are relaxed – talking with friends in a pub, walking around, waiting to fall asleep or while dreaming. Those ideas are fleeting – if you don’t write them down immediately, they might disappear ( possibly forever).

The computer’s perfect design leads us (unconsciously) to want to write perfect texts. You do not allow yourself to write messy ideas in the computer. But often you need to go through chaos to get structure.

The computer strains your eyes more than paper. If you have great ideas at the end of a working day at the screen, you’ll be more motivated to write for ten minutes in your paper notebook than on your computer.

Last but not least: you have probably noticed that you think differently when writing by hand than with your computer. So, if you work  all day on the computer, activate your other abilities writing by hand.

Read your diary from time to time

From time to time, look at what you have written: not everything in your records will be interesting, but there are surely ideas that you would like to realize.

I meet many people who never read their diaries before they start to write their thesis. And then they discover that they had great ideas which got lost in the mass.

Depending on how much you write, take time to read what you have written (e.g. once a week, twice a month). Identify ideas you would like to develop and do something with them as soon as possible.

Start now!

If you keep writing regularly in your diary, even just 5 to 10 minutes daily, you will see how your ideas  become clearer, sorted out, structured. Outlining your text and writing your thesis will be much easier .

If you don’t have a diary yet, buy a paper notebook and start now!

Do you already have a PhD diary? Share your experiences below, they will surely help other doctoral students!

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  1. In conclusion, transforming learning in the 21st century involves a holistic approach that leverages technology, embraces global connectivity, and encourages pedagogical innovation.

  2. Hey Martha, I am a PostDoc now for three years and I started my first diary actually during my master as my (apparently very good) supervisor told me to do so. I needed to develop my style of working with it and discovering its benefits on my own back then. I can just say, that my experiences matches every single sentence in your text. You put it perfectly on spot. By now I supervise students myself and I always tell them to have a diary with some explanation how to use it. I will recommend your text from now on, too!
    I may have one addition, where I feel many PhD students experience similar. Every now and then I wonder “what have I done the last weeks? I feel like nothing has happened”. Looking into my diary helps me to assess what I have done, to see that I maybe need to focus more on certain things to get these done and I can learn how long certain things take so I have a more realistic time estimate next time there is a similar task. (However, this boils in essence down to having weekly reports as part of the diary).
    Excellent work!

    1. Hey Klaus,
      Thank you very much for your message;
      I am glad to read that you have experienced the benefits of the diary during your research.
      And that you recommand it to your students!
      I agree with your additionnal remark – thank you for your remark, it will be integrated in the article!
      Kind regards,

  3. It’s a great source of knowledge; I think it will be helpful for lot of people who are looking for learning more about the dissertation thesis phd diary. Thank you very much for sharing this article.

  4. After the workshop I started with the diary.
    My works hast truly improved.
    Thank you for your advices and for your blog.

  5. That is the first tiime I frequented your web page and so far?
    I amazed with the rsearch you made to make this particular putt
    up extraordinary. Fantastic job!

  6. Thank you, Martha, I will try those techniques! It is such a relief to rad that I am not the only one struggling with writer’s block…

  7. Good, impressed with your website. I had no trouble navigating through all the tabs as well as related information ended up being truly simple to do to access. I recently found what I hoped for before you know it in the least. Quite unusual. Excellent task..

  8. Thanks for your post. I also believe that a diary helps a lot to keep track on my research.

  9. I am in the first year of a Ph.D., I have not started writing anything yet, I just read a bit of literature from time to time, but at the end of this second day of training, I sincerely believe that I must take the habit of writing daily what comes to mind and keep track of all my reflections and my questions, I think it’s very important.

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