Manuscript March: The Drama of the First Draft

What is a first draft?

Maybe you’ve already produced one, maybe you’re working towards it, or maybe you’re thinking about how to start. But what is it, exactly?

Is a first draft something that is pretty much finished? Is it a rough collection of notes that you’ll still need to work on for years? Is it a shiny beacon of brilliance that requires just a little spit-shine before it’s submitted? Or is it simply a chunk of text that is about the right length?

I confess: for the first two years of my PhD (and this happened in the first 8 months of my Masters too, so you’d think I’d have learned my lesson) I naively thought of my thesis in terms of word count. “80,000 words and I’ll be done!” I’d say cheerfully. “Oh, I’ve written 40,000 words, I’m halfway there!”

When I had 80,000 words, and they were all roughly proportioned out to various chapters in a sensible way, I still didn’t have a thesis. What I had was a collection of inconsistent sections. Some chapters were quite polished. Some were cut-and-paste bits of text that I’d placed under the relevant heading and intended to do something with. Some had been written so long ago that my topic had evolved and left them irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the day I hit 80,000 words, I celebrated as if the hard bit was over.

Just kidding. I’m a student. I celebrated with a Sprite and an hour of YouTube time.

Unfortunately, the hard part wasn’t over at all.

By far the biggest psychological setback of my degree was the realisation that I wrote the right number of words, and I wasn’t anywhere near done. As it turns out, that’s a very common experience. As I’ve talked about my first draft dramas, I’ve heard from a lot of thesis writers – friends, colleagues, and graduates – who have been shocked by how long it takes to make a full-length draft work as a tight, cohesive thesis. Eva Lantsoght at PhD Talk quantified the hours she spent writing and rewriting her thesis, and I’m sorry to tell you, writing the first draft accounted for only a third of her time commitment. Rewriting is a huge job, and one that I certainly underestimated.

Does this mean that we should all give up in frustration? Of course not. But if I were to give advice to my past self, I would tell her to talk to her supervisor and get on the same page about what a first draft is. I would tell her to consider the first draft as a milestone, not a finish line. I would tell her to budget a lot of time for revisions. And I would share her Sprite on 80,000 Words Day, because writing that much is an achievement, even if it’s not the end of the road.

There is a lot to like about the revision process. You never again have to face a blank page. You have lots of ideas and expertise to work from. You can zoom out and look at your thesis as a whole, if that helps you. And if you get bored of revising one chapter, there are plenty of others to work on.

I think the key to surviving life after the first draft is to manage your expectations. The thesis is not done. The floppy hat of graduation is still a ways away. But at least it’s closer.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

2 thoughts on “Manuscript March: The Drama of the First Draft

  1. Agreed! I think it’s a real challenge to understand what the first draft actually means. And I also agree that you need to have celebrations along the way – when I handed in my first full draft to my supervisor my partner bought me a little present I’d been wanting for ages. Long live YouTube time and Sprite šŸ™‚

  2. So do you get more presents for subsequent drafts, orals, and graduation? This sounds like a great system.

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