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By Cally Guerin

It’s old and well-worn advice, but worth repeating at regular intervals: make sure you know what the key message is for any given piece of writing. The necessity of being absolutely clear about the ‘take home message’ holds true for a short conference presentation, a journal article, and for an entire thesis. Yet surprisingly often, particularly at conferences, it is easy to find at the end of hearing a presentation that you are left wondering what the main point was meant to be. The same is true of an early draft of a chapter or article. Of course, I’m not immune from this myself, and admit to having left audiences somewhat confused more than once in the past.

I think that this confusion about the central meaning of research comes largely from being bogged down in the complexities of data analysis, where vast amounts of information need to be processed and organized. Doctoral writers in particular have often collected piles of data and can sometimes be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information they are confronted by, and perhaps don’t want to leave anything out – every detail seems precious. But, as I’ve said before, what is deleted from the final version of writing can be just as important as what is left in (Leave it in or delete it? Dilemmas in writing the research story 27 March 2013).

As Mullins and Kiley (2002) demonstrate, and Carter (2008) later confirms, one of the most damaging responses a thesis can evoke in examiners is confusion about the main message that the research has established. If someone has read the entire thesis and remains unsure about the key argument, you’re in trouble. Holbrook et al. (2007) make a similar point in relation to literature reviews, highlighting that doctoral examiners are looking for the synthesis of lots ideas into a coherent argument. At various levels of the thesis, then, it is crucial to be absolutely clear about the central point the writer wants to convey. Luckily, there are a couple of tried and tested ways to focus thinking about the key argument or central idea.

One useful technique is to make sure that the introduction to the paper matches the conclusion (which is, of course, why it’s best to write the introduction last, when the conclusions or meanings of the data analysis have become clear). Although this seems pretty obvious, the trick is not to be too repetitive, but at the same time make it easy for the reader to see that the task the writer set out to do has been accomplished, and that he/she knows exactly what the point of the whole exercise has been. For long-term projects, the main message can shift in emphasis over time as the data is analysed in more detail, hence the value in revisiting this at the end of the writing process when preparing the introduction.

Another effective strategy I use in workshops and writing groups is to ask participants to write down in one sentence the main idea they want to get across for the particular piece of writing they are currently engaged in. Many find it quite difficult to explicitly articulate what this piece is trying to argue, and there can be lots of scribbling and crossing out and starting again, but most usually get there in the end. It sounds simple, but is often overlooked as part of the writing process when the focus tends to be on elaborating the discussion rather than being clear about the starting and end points. However, when the work has been fully digested, it is possible to state the take home message very clearly.

Is this lack of clarity about the take home message something you’ve observed? Have you got some other strategies for clarifying this in your own mind or when working with doctoral writers? (And I hope I’ve made it clear here that my take home message is: ‘Make sure you know what your take home message is!’)


Susan Carter (2008) Examining the doctoral thesis: a discussion. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 45(4): 365-374.

Allyson Holbrook, Sid Bourke, Hedy Fairbairn and Terry Lovat (2007) Examiner comment on the literature review in PhD theses. Studies in Higher Education 32(3): 337-356.

Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley (2002) ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education 27(4): 369-386.