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The thesis writing process

Writing a thesis or dissertation is generally a matter of progressively refining chapters in the light of their internal consistency and their relationship to other chapters. This cannot be done quickly because previous chapters may have to be revisited several times to ensure a streamlined storyline. Most students underestimate the time it requires.

When to start the writing process

In some subject areas it is normal to write the thesis or dissertation as one goes along. In other subject areas, particularly for exploratory projects, the thesis or dissertation has to be written towards the end of the work in order to know what has been discovered. In both cases, editing progress reports is likely to save considerable time.

It is not usually productive to try to write chapters in order. Start with a chapter or several chapters that are currently fascinating you or that you have already come to grips with in your mind. Then develop them in whatever way is easiest for you, be it text on a computer, scribble on blank sheets of paper, or as a 'mind map'.

The emphasis at this stage should be on producing a coherent structure, rather than on grammar or style. Important as grammar and style are, do get the coherence right first, or a lot of time can be wasted. Then put the writing on one side for a time so that you can come back in an editorial mode, with a fresh perspective.

Feedback and rewrites

An unfortunate but common mistake is for students to write a chapter, submit it to a supervisor*, rewrite to accommodate comments, and then assume that the revised chapter is completely finished, never to need further modification.

General information

You see, the 'storyline' of an entire thesis or thesis can never be clear from a single chapter. The full thesis or dissert­ation is required, at least in draft. No supervisor will finally 'approve' a chapter in isolation. The scene-setting chapters are most likely to remain unchanged, but the analytical and interpretative ones depend too much on one another. The word 'approve' is in quotes, because it is formally the student's not the supervisor's responsibility to decide when a thesis (or chapter) is ready for submission.

Updating drafts is so easy on a computer that some students produce them copiously. So negotiate with supervisors about how many drafts they are prepared to comment on and in what detail. Most supervisors have to set some limits.

Backing up

Throughout the writing and editing process, be meticulous about keeping backups. Only someone who has had a hard disc crash really understands the importance of this.

Documenting literature

It is crucial to show where the work described in the thesis or dissertation fits in with the wider body of knowledge. So it is worth reading or re-reading the group of pages on literature.

Layout and presentation

Requirements for page layout and general presentation of a thesis or dissertation are normally laid down by the institution.

Most students choose to start writing in this layout and so prepare the final versions of their theses or dissertations themselves, although professional copy editors and typists can support to varying extents. If you need help, make enquiries well in advance of your deadline, because such individuals inevitably find that certain times of the year are busier than others. The departmental secretary or the students' union should be able to make recommendations.

Time scales in thesis/dissertation writing and quality versus quantity

Although most students underestimate the time that a thesis or dissertation takes, it is worth pointing out that many students spend longer on it than necessary, either trying to bulk up the quantity or toying with unnecessary stylistic refinements. Remember that quantity is (almost) irrelevant, although there are normally maximum limits set by the institution and the work must be of a standard which reflects the period of registration. A thesis or dissertation is judged on its quality, i.e. how original an significant it is for the award concerned and how competently the work has been carried out, as judged by any educated reader. The most important educated readers are of course external examiners.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.