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Writing a Thesis
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Thu, 24-Mar-2005
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Writing a Thesis. Article by Steven Strang, Ph.D.

General Advice

For most writers, the thesis is the longest manuscript they've written, so its very length is often the most overwhelming aspect of the task. Yet the task won't overwhelm you if you adhere to the following advice.

Think of the thesis as a series of small related tasks.

Do not think of the whole task. You don't have to "write the thesis"; instead, you have a series of tasks to perform, many of which you have probably performed in the past:

Do some research of the literature (similar in scope -- if not in exact procedure or techniques -- to research you have performed for various classes).

Summarize and perhaps comment upon the literature that you have examined. You have probably done literature searches for classes before.

Perform some experiments or do some fieldwork. Again, these are tasks you are probably already familiar with from classes.

Write up the results of those experiments or fieldwork.

Draw conclusions from what you have done.

See how your results and conclusions fit in with the literature and work in your field.

Put all these pieces together into a coherent whole, following a format that your department will give you or one that you will find in a journal in your field.

Edit your document carefully for format, spelling, grammar, and mechanics.

As always, consultants at the Writing and Communication Center (14N-317) are available to help you individually with any of the above steps.

Seen from this perspective, writing a thesis is merely performing a series of tasks with which you are already familiar.

Similarly, do not think "I have to write a whole thesis!"

Instead, think of writing several small pieces, each piece no longer than manuscripts you've written in the past. The only difference here is that you will be stitching all those pieces together into a whole document at the end of the writing process. One of the biggest mistakes thesis writers make is trying to write the whole thesis rather than writing it a piece-at-a-time.

In the same vein, do not put off writing the thesis until the end.

Another typical and costly mistake that thesis writers often make is trying to do all the other (more familiar) tasks first (e.g., performing experiments, conducting the literature search) before they write a word. This is not a productive approach. Start writing now, even if it is only your random thoughts about what you'd like the thesis to prove. As you search through the literature, for example, keep comprehensive notes. On a day when you can't get to the library or lab or when you've looked at all possible sources, start writing your summaries of the literature. Also write long notes to yourself about how you think your research will connect to the literature you've read. These notes will do two things: first, they may be a valuable source of information later on in the process; second, they get you writing. In short, any task that you are performing can be written about.

Try to write 15 minutes every day.

This writing may be the extensive notes mentioned above, a description to yourself of the experiment you performed today, or perhaps thoughts about the project as a whole. By writing every day you accomplish at least two things: first, you reduce anxiety about WRITING by proving to yourself that you can do it every day; second, much of what you write will probably be, either directly or indirectly, the source of material for your thesis.

Don't forget that you have written several successful documents before (or you wouldn't be at the stage of writing a thesis).

Regardless of what doubts you might have about your particular writing abilities, obviously the faculty have felt that your writing is satisfactory. Look again at earlier documents you've written to remind yourself of your successes. Remember that the staff at the Writing Center is available for consultation about any writing issue that may concern you.

You are not alone.

Almost every thesis writer, including many of the professors whose work you admire and whose guidance you seek, has felt overwhelmed by the task.

Don't isolate yourself during the thesis process.

Although it may feel difficult at first to discuss your fears or doubts, talk to other people in your department (other thesis writers, other students, faculty members) and/or at the Writing Center. You'll discover that they too have fears and brief bouts with writer's block. Sharing your feelings will get rid of much of the anxiety by showing that you are just like everyone else. Also, share suggestions about how to overcome obstacles.

Don't endure writer's block.

Most writers (professional as well as thesis writers) get writer's block occasionally. It's not a career-ending disease, but it can make life miserable. There are two kinds of writer's block -- the total block (you can't write anything) and the partial block (you can write, but the writing is very painful and difficult and is taking much more time than it usually does). Whatever you do, don't simply try to suffer through either kind of block; don't try to "gut out" the block. Instead, get advice. Fast. Not getting help will get you into trouble since part of any writer's block is caused by "deadline anxiety." The longer you put off solving your problem, the closer the deadline gets. So the block gets worse, not better. Where do you get help? Talking to friends and faculty members can help. Also, the Writing and Communication Center specializes in helping students and faculty overcome writer's block, so go there.

One final note: In deciding what goes where and what to include, you will have to make many judgment calls. There are no cut-and-dried formulas for making these decisions. You have to think carefully about the purpose of your thesis and who will be reading it. Ask your thesis director and/or department for advice on any such issues.


Kirkman, John. Good Style for Scientific and Engineering Writing. London: Pitman, 1980.

Lannon, John. Technical Writing. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Michaelson, Herbert B. How to Write and Publish Engineering Papers and Reports. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1986.

Pauley, Steven. Technical Report Writing Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Rathbone, Robert. Communicating Technical Information. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978.

Sternberg, David. How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Strang, Steven. Various unpublished handouts.

Vande Kopple, William. Clear and Coherent Prose. Glenville, IL: Scotts Foresman and Co., 1989.

Williams, Rosalind. Writing Guidelines, 3.081 Materials Laboratory 1. Unpublished handout.

Copyright for this article belongs to Steven Strang, Ph.D

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Steven Strang. Original Source of the article is located here: MIT's Writing and Communication Center

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