1. Planning your Thesis
1.2 Starting out
1.3 Brainstorming and prewriting
Struggling to plan your thesis? Take a look at my guide to structure in academic writing. (It’s aimed at undergrads, but it’s a good refresher if you’re in a fix.) Or get in touch about a one-on-one planning workshop, in-person or via video call.
1.1 Myth-busting in academic writing
About to start your Master's thesis or PhD dissertation?
Let’s first address some common misconceptions about academic writing.
“My thesis is the best place for me to showcase everything I've learned.”
Nope. Academic writing is about drilling down and weighing into the particulars of a given text, scenario or debate. It's not about regurgitation. If you find yourself laying out every piece of material you've learned in your reading, lectures, seminars, etc., you're going to struggle to build a thesis that stays on topic and truly engages your reader.
Remember: your reader is looking for your ability to synthesise large amounts of material into a single stream of analysis, not hide behind walls of scattered information. However brilliant that point you wrote down in your notes, if it doesn't belong in this thesis, leave it out.
It's not about being comprehensive; it's time to be selective, focused and critical.
“I'll get better marks if I show off my expansive vocabulary.”
Nope. Overwriting is just bad practice. If you're still clicking the Thesaurus button in Word, it's time to stop.
By all means, use the technical and specialised language of your subject, but don't for a moment think that writing 'utilised' instead of 'used' is going to bump up your mark.
Over-flowery language and over-long sentences and paragraphs are not the hallmarks of good thesis writing. They're places to hide, and your reader will be wise to them.
You want your academic writing to have punch and muscularity.
Think more like Hotspur in Henry IV Part I:
I had rather hear a brazen can'stick turn'd,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree;
And that would set my teeth nothing on edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry:
'Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.
Go ahead, grate that axle-tree, and get rid of any mincing poetry once and for all.
“It's the 21st century. I can let my laptop handle my spelling and grammar.”
Nope. Grammar is the barometer of quality. And your laptop can't always be trusted to catch your mistakes. (Did you interview a mature student or a manure student? Both will get past Word’s spelling and sense checks.)
Leaving in errors that could easily have been remedied is an alarming sign that you haven't edited or even read back through your thesis. And you don't want to be testing your reader's patience when they have a stack of marking still to get through.
“I'm an arts/humanities student, so it's not like there's a right answer or anything. I can write my thesis any way I like.”
Nope. Granted, you’ll have a lot more leeway than a sciences student running statistical analyses. But all academic writing, whatever the subject, is a discipline.
So whether you're analysing the political impact of the 1988 rebellion in New Caledonia, or the neo-Fascist messaging you've uncovered in the X-Men comics, there are still loops to jump through if you want to keep your argument strong, logical and coherent.
Next: Starting out