Writing PhD Thesis using Flag-posting – and not in the patriotic sense

A few years back a very smart student of mine came to my office and asked the most insightful question I have, until this day, received from a PhD student about the writing process of the PhD. She simply asked: what is the most common comment you make to students about what they have to change in their written piece. Notice, she did not ask what is the most common advice I give, or what I wish people would do – but what is the most common practical issue that comes up in the writing process.

I had to think for a while – and then realised that the most common complaint I have had is lack of flag-posting. What is flag-posting, you ask? Many students do. Flag-posting is a type of writing practice in which you set out the main point of your argument at the beginning of a section or paragraph and then follow it up with evidence. In practical terms it means that a reader only has to read the first lines of each section and know what your main argument is — or that a reader only has to skip back to the first sentence of the paragraph he is currently reading if he gets lost in the argument.

Academics soak up the practice, and the necessity of it, through their education and work — and only too quickly forget the moment before they learnt it. So, what is the practical advise? Here is how you do it:

Before you start writing know what argument you will be making. Write it down in a row of simple sentences such as:

  • Socrates is a man
  • All men are mortal
  • Therefore Socrates is mortal

And there you have your structure for the chapter. Now, each section begins with one of those sentences, followed by why this is the case, all your evidence and your analysis and then ends with a rephrasing of the same sentence, just to make sure you did not loose your reader along the way. Then you start your next section with the next sentence and repeat the process.

And there you go: flag-posting. The most common suggestion I make to my students during their writing process.