Changing word count perceptions



But is it just me or is anyone else realizing how much their perception on word counts has changed during this PhD process?

Undergrad- 3,000 word essays. At the time- wow, 3000 words? Is it possible?!
MSc- 3,000-5000 word essays and a 10,000 word dissertation. At the time OMG- 10,000 word dissertation?
PhD- 100,000 word dissertation. At the start, how am I going to write 80,000-100,000 word thesis?

Now, post viva, not trying to show off here, but I'm polishing and editing nine 10,000-15,000 word chapters and struggling to meet the word count of 100,000 words and finding it relatively easy to knock out sizeable chapters without even thinking about it.

I'm listening to undergrad and MSc students complaining about word counts and inside I'm thinking, spend a few minutes in my shoes and see how it feels! All relative I guess!

Anyone else notice this, or is it just me?!



I really noticed it when I had to write my upgrade report toward the end of the first year of my PhD. I'd written a 14,000 word dissertation for my MSc the year before and it felt like it took ages at the time and was a huge amount of words. My upgrade report was 13,000 words and it didn't seem to take as long to get that many words down. I'm only in my second year of PhD now but I'm not finding the final word count quite as onerous as I would've done at undergrad level. I've found that I can easily knock out 1000 words quite quickly, although have to go back and edit them for clarity sometimes.


The only input I can offer is that it took me about 9 months to write my opening 15,000 chapter. I was labouring over every paragraph and it seemed like such an uphill struggle. Chapter 4 of the thesis I wrote from start to final draft in 3 months and had to stop myself. I could have gone on for another 10,000 words. Chapter 5, which I'm writing at the minute, I've done 17,000 in 3 weeks. Granted this might not be brilliant writing at the moment as it is not final draft yet - but the point is 17,000 words was an effort but not a great physical effort. I just take it as a sign of development of the core skills in the PhD - reading, thinking and writing.

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I've found similar too - large word counts are not intimidating at all any more, in fact being told to write something in 3000 words just sounds ridiculously short to me now! My first year upgrade paper was about 15,000 words and felt fairly long then, but was already easier than my MSc dissertation had been. Now, knocking out a journal paper of 6-8000 words is not intimidating at all - difficult still, sure, but it's the structure and content and getting the argument right that are difficult, the word count isn't at all. Just shows how much we change during the course of a PhD!


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I noticed this a few months into my PhD actually, when I wrote 12k words in no time. My Masters dissertation was about 20k words, and while I completed it in about 2 months (which was very quick according to others), even now that feels very slow!

Good idea for a thread, Pineapple, since I've definitely found myself telling people how my writing speed has changed. But, since my audience wasn't PhD students I worry it may have sounded like I was trying to undermine their undergrad degrees or Masters! It is definitely a nice sign of our progress as academics.


Larry, I wish I had your sheer enthusiasm for writing! It sounds like you find it hard to stop yourself from engaging your passion. There are some interesting reflections from a social history professor at Cambridge here about writing - he's interviewed a lot of top writers to find out about their writing habits - everything from the type of chair they sit in to how many words they write in one session. Ignore the slightly odd format of the interview.


Hi everybody!

at this exact moment I am only procrastinating so as not to get on with a report I have to complete in the next couple of weeks!!!!!

So, I am actually facing the opposite problem... I am at the end of my second year, and writing is pretty much like in everyday life: I cannot stop talking!! I am aiming for a short PhD, I wouldn't like to exceed 60.000 words (without counting appendices, tables and references). I believe that short thesis are stronger, and I don't want to bore the examiners to death! But I produced a massive literature review that is about 1/3 of my aim! I tried so hard to make it more dense, but it was impossible. Then I moved to the methodology, and here again I went on and on...
I ve actually started worrying that a PhD is not long at all, and I will struggle to fit everything in such a tight word count! I really don't know if I am underestimating the whole thing :) I still haven't started the main analysis of the data but I can guess how it will go: analysing and writing for a gazillion years and a half, produce 5 books and then throw all of them in the bin. And then try to edit, oh gosh, and my supervisors roaring with my lack of structure. I try so hard to organise my writing beforehand but I get carried away talking about EVERYTHING humanity knows.


Hi Pineapple! I found that my thesis seemed an insurmountable challenge at the beginning yet when I had drafted my thesis it was a hefty 20% overweight. I seemed to have learnt how to waffle on too much with my writing skills during the writing phase and was quite despondent when I had to ruthlessly edit it for the final draft. However, this is an excellent skill to learn in order to keep the argument concise. Students whom I work alongside make me smile 'a wry smile' when they complain of their impending assignments of 3000-6000 words :p

This topic aside, how are your revisions going Pineapple? I often wonder how you are getting on.


Yep! I was totally thinking the same t'other day Pineapple29! I now have my complete thesis which is weighing in at just under 80,000 words, and I don't remember writing it! Well, I do obviously, but it hasn't felt lime a massive effort at all. It feels like one minute I didn't have a thesis, and the next its suddenly there! Contents, appendix the lot!

I think actually the editing is more stressful than the initial writing....

SO...who fancies writing an actual book next?! ;-)