Tips for organizing and writing your thesis (and pretty much all other writing) Liz Schermer (with help from all other Geo dept. faculty and numerous web sources)
Outline • General aspects and philosophy • Organization • of the whole thesis • Within the thesis • Writing style and form • Getting started, keeping going • (personal advice from writers) • Resources
General philosophy:Hierarchy of importance • Content • the message given • Style • the way that message is presented (structure, language, and illustration) • Form • the appearance of the message (grammar, punctuation, usage, spelling, and format).
General philosophy • (1) A research paper (or thesis) is an attempt to persuade. • (2) The key to persuasion is organization. • (3) A picture is worth a thousand words. • (4) Don't use a thousand words where five hundred will do. • (5) If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, again. *Thanks to Bill Carlson*
A thesis is an original contribution to knowledge • An advisor/reader will expect that: • you have identified a worthwhile problem or question which has not been previously answered • you have solved the problem or answered the question. • http://www.sce.carleton.ca/faculty/chinneck/thesis.html
A thesis is an attempt to persuade • A reader/reviewer will ask: • what is the research question? • is it a good question? (has it been answered before? is it a useful question to work on?) • did the author convince me that the question was adequately answered? • has the author made an adequate contribution to knowledge? http://www.sce.carleton.ca/faculty/chinneck/thesis.html
Know your audience • Explain abbreviations, unusual terms • CLEAR writing • Explain assumptions, limitations • For a journal article, know the usual audience and scope of papers • For a grant proposal, learn what kind of expenses are allowable, write to the specific goals or questions of that agency
Keep to the point • A concise paper or thesis requires keeping the main points in mind--ONLY include background information, data, discussion that is relevant to these points • For a proposal, focus on the aspects for which you request funding
Style and structure • Organization • Emphasis • Depth • Transitions between sections
Organization: the key to persuasion • Start by writing down the single most important concept. • Outline the critical observations and reasoning that support that concept • Test your organization by careful evaluation of the outline • Expand the outline to greater detail, then test it again • Write the body of the text : methods first, observations next, interpretations last. • Write the contextual elements: conclusion first, introduction next, abstract last. • Insert carefully composed transitional sections, paragraphs, and sentences. • *thanks to Bill Carlson*
The outline is the necessary framework • Use the MS Word outline tool • Keep going back to “outline view” throughout the various drafts of your writing • (more on this later)
Organization of the thesis • Abstract • Introduction • Background and Literature review • Problem statement/research question • Methods • Data presentation • Interpretation • Discussion • Conclusions • References **Different types of writing might have more/less emphasis on each of these elements
Questions on each section? • Details and main resource:http://lorien.ncl.ac.uk/ming/Dept/Tips/writing/thesis/thesis-intro.htm
Nested hourglass model • The whole thesis • Each section, subsection • Most paragraphs • Broad focus at beginning, end; specifics/narrow focus in middle
Organization of the thesis • Abstract • Introduction • Background/Lit. review • Problem statement/research question • Methods • Data presentation • Interpretation • Discussion • Conclusions • References
Abstract • Write this LAST! • Abstracts should be 1-2 pages and should be self-contained • Model after a paper in your field • Written to attract readers to your article or thesis, gives a good initial impression • Summary of the contents of the thesis • Brief but contains sufficient detail • motivation for the work (problem statement) • project objectives • techniques employed • main results and conclusions
Introduction • Write this second to last! • This is a general introduction to what the thesis is all about -- it is not just a description of the contents of each section. Briefly summarize the question (you will be stating the question in detail later), some of the reasons why it is a worthwhile question, and perhaps* give a brief overview of your main results. • * often done in journal articles, but not usually in theses
Introduction • Topic? • Defines scope and limitations of study • Importance? • Background? • Arrangement of thesis? • You probably wrote this for your thesis proposal; REWRITE IT AFTER body of thesis is written • Look at examples in published literature in your field • This section is likely to contain a lot of reference citations--put your thesis in context of existing work
Background • A brief section giving background information may be necessary. Your readers may not have any experience with some of the material needed to follow your thesis, so you need to give it to them. A more informative title is usually better, e.g. “Regional geology of the North Cascades”
Review of the State of the Art(Literature review) • Limited to the state of the art relevant to your thesis. Again, a specific heading is appropriate; e.g., “Previous work on Cretaceous orogeny in the Cascades." The idea is to present (not analyze) the major ideas in the state of the art right up to, but not including, your own personal brilliant ideas. You organize this section by idea, and not by author or by publication. • Some advisors think this section should come after the problem statement (next section) • Some advisors do not expect a long lit. review for the thesis proposal or the thesis--be sure you ask your committee!
Literature review • Provides context for and details about the motivation for the project • States why the problem is important • Sets the scene for the work described in the thesis • Describes what others have done and hence sets a benchmark for the current project • Justifies the use of specific techniques or problem solving procedures
Tips for literature review • Make it a point to keep on top of your field of study by making regular visits to the library and to the electronic journals websites. • When reading a technical paper, jot down the key points and make a note of the journal or technical publication where the paper was published. • Devise a cataloguing system that will allow you to retrieve the paper quickly. (e.g. use ENDNOTE) • Make sure that you have read and understood cited work • Organize your content according to ideas instead of individual publications. • Do not simply quote or paraphrase the contents of published articles. Weave the information into focused views. Demonstrate your deeper understanding of the topic. • Do not be tempted to summarize everything you have read; only include those relevant to your main points.
Research Question or Problem Statement • a concise statement of the question that your thesis or paper tackles 2. justification, by direct reference to previous work, that your question is previously unanswered. This is where you analyze the information which you presented in the “state of the art” section 3. discussion of why it is worthwhile to answer this question. 4. Highlight the section with a heading using words such as “problem” or “question”
Data and interpretation • No standard form. But still organized! • One or several sections and subsections. • Methods, Data, Interpretation sections are separate • Only one purpose: to convince the advisor (reader/reviewer) that you answered the question or solved the problem stated in the previous section. • For a proposal: describe methods, preliminary data, types of data to be collected
Data and Interpretation • Present data that is relevant to answering the question or solving the problem: • if there were blind alleys and dead ends, do not include these, unless specifically relevant to the demonstration that you answered the thesis question. • Note for some theses it may be important to include these in an appendix
Methods • Depending on your topic this may be one paragraph or a long section • If measurement error is important to your study, state how this was assessed.
Data presentation • Draft your figures first: (A picture is worth a thousand words) • Make captions stand alone • Use enough figures to present the data that justifies your interpretations and conclusions. No more, no less. (Don’t use 1000 words when 500 will do) • Write your text around your figures
Use the proper tools (for your research AND your writing) • Spreadsheets, analysis tools • Plotting programs • Graphics programs • ENDNOTE • Writing resources • Start learning these before you collect the data (e.g., during the thesis proposal process)
Focus on one important thing in each paragraph Each paragraph needs a topic sentence Contents of paragraph should only relate to that topic Use Outline view to see and revise this
Interpretation • Keep separate from data, clearly distinguished by paragraph, section, and/or words like “are interpreted to show”. • Depending on your topic, it is often useful to subdivide interpretation into a “local” or small scale (directly flows from your data) and a “regional” or “big picture” scale, that flows from consideration of your data with that of others. This latter type is usually included in the “discussion” section.
Discussion • Look at discussion sections in papers in your field. See what they cover. • Usually is a broader scale interpretation than just your data (relate to previous published results) • Addresses the bigger problems of your research topic and how your study fits into solving those problems • Is NOT a conclusion section
Conclusions • 1. Conclusions • 2. Summary of Contributions • 3. Future Research • Conclusions are not a rambling summary of the thesis: they are short, concise statements of the inferences that you have made because of your work. It helps to organize these as short numbered paragraphs, ordered from most to least important. All conclusions should be directly related to the research question stated
References • All references cited, including those in Tables and Figure captions. No more, no less. • Use consistent style throughout (e.g. “et al.” OR “and others”, not both) • Use ENDNOTE program (start NOW building your library database)
A few words on form • Format: Typography, layout • Follow the Grad. School guidelines for a thesis, journal guidelines for a paper • http://www.wwu.edu/gradschool/pdfs/Thesis_Guidelines.pdf • Plan ahead! (e.g. do you really need 50 color figures?) • Mechanics: • Grammar • Usage • Punctuation • spelling
Avoid ornate language, words you don’t really understand(look it up!)
Resources for style, word use, etc. • How To Write A Dissertation or Bedtime Reading For People Who Do Not Have Time To Sleep • http://www.cs.purdue.edu/homes/dec/essay.dissertation.html Example of a term to avoid: • ``this'', ``that'' As in ``This causes concern.'' Reason: ``this'' can refer to the subject of the previous sentence, the entire previous sentence, the entire previous paragraph, the entire previous section, etc. For example, in: ``X does Y. This means ...'' the reader can assume ``this'' refers to Y or to the fact that X does it. Even when restricted (e.g., ``this computation...''), the phrase is weak and often ambiguous.
AGU Grammar and Style guide • Available on Geo dept. web site (pdf download) http://www.geology.wwu.edu/dept/resources/thesiswriting.shtml • Very useful! • Example: • 3.2. Comprise Versus Compose • 1. Whole (subject) comprises parts (object) (must be active verb): The book comprises five chapters. • 2. Parts (subject) compose (make up) a whole (object): These chapters compose this book. This book is composed of three chapters. • Never use comprised of; change to composed of.
Resources from Dave Hirsch • Columbia Bus. School style manual, after Chicago Manual of style. Contains info on punctuation, capitalization • http://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/news/media/style.html#hyphen • More than you could ever hope to know about hyphens: • http://www.grammartips.homestead.com/hyphens1.html • http://www.grammartips.homestead.com/hyphens2.html • http://www.grammartips.homestead.com/hyphens3.html
Resources from Chris Suczek • Use books, not just web sites to help your writing: • Elements of Style • USGS Suggestions to Authors • the Glossary of Geology, • one or more style manuals (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press), • maybe even a thesaurus and a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms.
Getting Started • Prepare an extended outline. • Use MS Word “outline” tool • List each section and subsection • For each section and subsection, write a brief point-form description of the contents. • Review with your advisor. Look for • unnecessary material? Remove it. • missing material? Add it • It is much less painful and more time-efficient to make such decisions early, during the outline phase, rather than after you've already done a lot of writing which has to be thrown away.
Choose a good role model • Papers in your field • Author who consistently writes clear, important papers • Note content, style, form • Remember: this paper likely went through many drafts too!
Getting over writers block • Gerry’s pile of poo theory • write something, anything and mold it afterward (BEFORE you give it to your advisor) • Quiet that voice in your head that says “this sucks”--just get something on paper for a start • Start the pile of poo early enough so you can leave it for a day or so, then come back to it. • Have confidence that you know more about your project than anyone else does, you just need to convey that knowledge
Keeping going • Write as you go (e.g., “previous work”, “geologic setting” can be done in year 1) • Share writing early and often with your advisor. • Deal with procrastination. Keep lists of tasks, broken in to small manageable pieces, including writing tasks (a few pages at a time). • Identify a time and location where you can write with good focus and few distractions, and take advantage of it regularly -- at least weekly, possibly daily. • *thanks to Juliet*
Giving written work to your advisor/reviewers • It may just be a draft, but proofread it first. A spell-check is not enough. • Preferably proofread hours or days after you wrote the text • Outlines are a good place to start • If you want comments or need a reference letter, give him/her time. • If you are aiming at a non-geologic audience, give it to a friend or 211 student • If it’s a thesis proposal, check with all committee members to see what they expect should be included; resolve conflicts early
Web sites • http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/thesis.html • http://www.sce.carleton.ca/faculty/chinneck/thesis.html • http://www.cs.purdue.edu/homes/dec/essay.dissertation.html • http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/anth595/thesis.html • http://lorien.ncl.ac.uk/ming/Dept/Tips/writing/writeindex.htm • http://www.geology.wwu.edu/dept/resources/thesiswriting.shtml • http://www.wwu.edu/gradschool/pdfs/Thesis_Guidelines.pdf