A few things I’ve learned while writing a thesis

By: Amanda Holdman, MS student, Geospatial Ecology and Marine Megafauna Lab & Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics, MMI

“Never use the passive where you can use the active.” I recently received this comment in a draft of my thesis. While this pertained to a particular edit, it has since become my motto for writing in general – to stay active in writing. I knew before beginning this process, from my peers, that it takes time to write a thesis or dissertation, and usually much longer than anticipated, resulting in late caffeinated hours. My roommates have recently moved out, making it a perfect opportunity to convert my home into a great evening office. I needed fewer distractions so I unplugged the TV and set up a desk with ideal conditions for writing. I’m in a race against time with my defense set for only a month away, and getting into good writing habits has helped me smooth out a lot of the writing stress, so I figured I could share those tips.

  1. Write sooner

The writing process can be daunting due to its size and importance. In the beginning I tended to wait until I thought I had researched enough about the topic. But, I have now learned not to wait until all the data is in and the results are clear to start writing. Some researchers might argue that results are needed before one can put the proper spin on the introduction, but spin isn’t quite needed for a first draft.  Most of the writing can be actually be done before all the data have arrived. For example, I didn’t need to know the results of my observations before writing the manuscript about them; the rationale for having done the research doesn’t change with the results, so a draft of the introduction can be written without knowing the results. The methodology also doesn’t depend on the results, nor does the analysis that will be performed on the data, so a good framework for the results section can be written before all of the statistical tests are run. And before I know it, I have almost a full draft, just with quite a few gaps.

  1. Write Continually

Productivity begets productivity, so don’t stop writing. It keeps my mind working and my project moving. I try to write a little every day or set a goal word limit. (500 words a day is easily obtainable and you feel proud at the end of the day). Writing as frequently as possible for me has helped to reveal gaps in my knowledge or understanding. Vague and disoriented writing tends to reflect a vague and disorganized thought, leading me to dig through the literature for more clarity.

  1. Figure out how you write and edit

Some people are better writers when they first put their thoughts on paper and plan to go back and fix awkward sentences, poor word choices, or illogical sentences later. My perfection has always plagued me, so I always edit as a write, with one goal only: to make sure I’ve expressed the idea in my head clearly on the page. I don’t move on until the sentence (or thought) makes sense with no ambiguity in the meaning. Clarity of thought is always the aim in writing a manuscript, yet it is very difficult to come back to a section of writing days or weeks later and sort out a mess of thought if I don’t clarify my writing while the thought is still fresh in your head. This means I am constantly re-reading and revising what I’ve written, but also hopefully means that when I submit something to my advisor or committee it only needs simple revisions, thereby saving time by getting as “close to right” as I could the first time around.

 

 

 

  1. Develop a routine

It’s important to learn when and what makes us productive. For me, writing in several short bursts is more efficient than writing in a few, long extended periods. When I try to write for long hours, I notice my concentration diminishing around the hour mark, so I try to take frequent 15 minute breaks. For me, the most productive parts of the day are the beginning the end. It’s important to build momentum early, and have a routine for ending the day too. At the end of each day, I always leave myself something easy to get started with the next day, so I wake up knowing exactly where I am going to start.

  1. Find a template

Usually, when we decide on a date and deadlines for the final draft of our thesis due, we’re so frantic and pressed for time trying to get all the content, that we forget about the time it takes to make a draft pretty. My last HUGE time-saving tip is to find a colleague who has recently turned in their thesis or dissertation and still has their final word document. You can save time by reusing their document as a template for margins, page number position and other formatting guidelines. Everything you’ve written can easily be pasted into a formatted template.

  1. Keep your motivation near

Finally, always try to keep the end result in mind. Whether it be holding a beautifully bound version of your thesis or a first author publication, keeping motivated is important. Publishing is not a requirement for completing a thesis but it is an ultimate goal for me. I know I owe it to myself, the people who I have worked with along the way, those who have supported me in some way (e.g., my committee), and to the funders that have helped pay for the research. Plus, to have a competitive edge in the next job I apply for, and to get the most leverage possible from my masters training, it is important for me to finish strong with a publication or two. Visualizing the end result helps me to take action to finish my thesis and advance my career.

Now, I think it’s about time to stop writing about writing a thesis and get back to actually writing my thesis.

 

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