The ABC's to writing your thesis or dissertation
By Ann van der Merwe
Published September 20, 2011
Your thesis or dissertation is likely the first time you will write something of such length and scope. Let’s be honest, it’s a challenge, even for those with a natural inclination toward the written word. So, if you are looking for a few practical tips on how to actually start writing and organizing your thoughts, consider the following.
1. Begin small…and in the middle
When you first start writing, try not to think about how each piece will fit into the larger whole. At some point, you will need to connect everything, but pondering how you will accomplish that in the early stages can be overwhelming. More importantly, it can keep you from moving forward. Instead, choose a chapter or topic and work on turning some of your notes into sentences and paragraphs. You do not even need to concern yourself with the order of ideas within a given chapter at first. Just get your thoughts on paper.
2. Write according to your own strengths
Of course, people have varying approaches to getting their thoughts on paper. Some are most productive when they write quickly initially and revise heavily later; others may spend more time unpacking language and information more deliberately at first and do less editing in the long run. Either of these approaches can yield an excellent result, so play to your strengths – whatever they might be.
Jennifer Eberhardt, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, has found it tremendously helpful to acknowledge that as a writer she is “slow, methodical and a perfectionist.” She goes on to share, “I’ve found that I’m happier and more productive with my work when I do not try to swim upstream regarding my inborn working process.” In fact, she adds, “I've found that accepting the fact that I find writing difficult has actually had the effect of lightening the pressure I place on myself to do it well.”
3. Use writing as a tool
Also, keep in mind that the act of writing can actually be helpful in organizing your thoughts. Initially, it might feel awkward to write before you have your ideas fully formed, but putting words to paper forces you to clarify what is swimming around in your head. Ursula Crosslin, a Ph.D. candidate at The Ohio State University, finds this approach very useful. “I want to wait to write until I have every question answered, every organizational strategy completed, every idea firmly nailed down,” she says, “but I need to remember that most often those things won’t happen unless I write my way through them.”
4. Take time to think
Of course, it is also important to reflect on what you are writing as you do it. As Crosslin says, “I need to allow myself to see thinking time as a necessity and not a luxury.” This is especially true as your project grows. Once you reach a stage where you start fitting ideas together and consider how effectively they are contributing to your overarching message, you need time to mentally digest what is before you on the page. Set things aside for a while, read them again later, ponder them, and then revise as you see fit.
5. Master the footnote
One specific challenge you will likely face will be what to include and what to omit from your final document. You may find a number of thoughts noteworthy or interesting, but they may interrupt the flow of your writing. Footnotes or endnotes are the ideal place for such information; they allow you to incorporate relevant tidbits without taking the reader on an unnecessary tangent within your text. If something is truly ancillary to your work, of course, cutting it may be the best option. If you want to include it without derailing your narrative path, however, put it in a note.
6. Cite as you write
The bibliography you will compile for your thesis or dissertation is probably longer than any other you have ever created. As such, it is especially important to cite every piece of information from another source as you add it. Abbreviated citations, such as an author and page number, are perfectly fine; you can easily flush out the rest later. Avoid the temptation to rely on your memory, though. You may think that you will never forget the source of a particular passage, but keep in mind that months will pass while you are working and you will be looking at dozens if not hundreds of sources. So, take a few extra minutes to add citations as you work; it will save you hours of searching in the long run.
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