5. Dissertation Writing – the Magic of Quick Capture

This is the fifth article in the fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles click here

In the previous Article we discussed research resources. In the next three articles we’re going in depth about writing, how to get words on paper. 


The first part of this ‘writing’ process is getting your ideas together. In fact, a large part of the quality of your end result is dependent on the amount of ideas you can generate. (Of course we’re not thinking about the end result at the moment, just the process that will get us there; one foot in front of the other!) 

Note that in the previous paragraph I said ‘amount’ and not ‘quality’. Really you want to have an abundance of ideas floating around. They will vary in quality and complexity, but the thing is to have your mind turning over the possibilities (see the Sixth Article in this series). Not only is it much easier to select a few good ideas from a multitude of options, but also the more ideas you have, the more likely you are to have some really good ones. Ultimately having, and writing about, lots of your own ideas is the difference between writing a dissertation and a literature review.

Quick Capture

Now, it’s all well and good having all these ideas (and hopefully the research process will have your brain bubbling up like the magic porridge pot) but it is absolutely imperative that you capture these ideas. In this article we’ll apply the popular productivity idea of ‘quick capture’ to making sure that you never forget an idea.

The basic idea of ‘quick capture’ is that whenever you have an idea, no matter where you are, in the bath, in bed, on the loo, you get it down.

Jotting stuff down when it comes to you will make the writing process (when you actually get to your desk) so much easier. Quick capture means you will never forget an idea, because it’s caught before it can fly away. Second, you will spend less brain power remembering old ideas, freeing up more to think of new ones and draw connections between ideas.

These ideas can be about anything to do with your dissertation. It could be the structure, or how one paragraph will link into another, or which quote you’re going to start a section with. You want to capture anything that might improve your project. 

Practical Tips

This idea of quick capture is simple, but needs to be taken seriously to be of any use. Practically, I’ve found three ways especially helpful for putting quick capture into practice. 

First, have a physical notepad or piece of paper always to hand.

This is something that Roald Dahl is well known for; he kept a notebook by his bed and wrote down his dreams as soon as he woke up. You could have a dedicated dissertation notebook, or you can use the back of your diary if you have one. Having a pen and paper on your desk, in your pocket, and by your bed will mean you’ll never not write something down because you couldn’t be bothered.

Second, use the notes feature on your phone.

Nowadays we always have our phone on hand so in many ways it’s your best friend for quickly capturing thoughts and ideas. Any kind of notes software you can access quickly is great. Choose whatever works for you. 

One option I like is to make a widget from the Google tasks app; with one touch, you immediately have a new task and can start typing straight away. This then syncs immediately to all your devices and you can copy and paste it straight into your diss docs when you’re next working on it.

Google Tasks Widget

A third option is to use the voice recording feature on your phone to get your ideas down.

The Android Recorder app

A great long ‘stream-of-consciousness’ paragraph, waffling away, can sometimes be exactly what you need to explain the idea, without all the mental filtering that goes on when you physically write things down. A brilliant feature of the android Recorder app is that it has a transcription feature built in, which rather cleverly picks out keywords from the dialogue. This means you can chat into your phone, and then not only will you have your late night ramblings typed up and synced into your Google Drive (https://recorder.google.com/) ready for your morning session, but they’ll even be easily searchable through the keywords.

(By the way you can get almost the same transcription and syncing functionality with an iPhone, using an app called Drafts)

Drafts for iOS

Conclusion and results

We all know there’s nothing worse than sitting down in front of a blank page and finding you have nothing to say, and using quick capture will mean this never happens to you. 

Writing things down immediately is a bit of a habit to get into, but once you’re in the swing of it you’ll find that you’re generating more ideas. You’ll spend less time wondering what to write about because you have a choice of relevant ideas, and more time writing, and your dissertation will be better as a result.

Next steps

As mentioned above, the idea of this quick capture to collect ideas. Then, when you sit down to do some in-depth work, you can move your thoughts from where you first captured them into their relevant place in your dissertation. In parallel with this process, you should also be jotting down some rough drafts of thoughts on different topics. This is what the next article is all about. 

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