Three little-known keys to writing a thesis

Experience and research have uncovered three keys to writing a thesis, as the following quotations (with emphases added) show.

Have a `thesis’ of the thesis

A review of 139 examiners’ reports … revealed that rarely were theses criticised for `bad writing’ in the sense that most people understand that phrase. That is, theses were acceptable in terms of the mechanics of presentation: sentence structure, paragraphing, spelling, grammar, etc. They also were not criticised for failing to conform to conventions of the discipline about referencing or presentation of data. What frequently was criticised was the students’ failure to take a clear philosophic stance or to reach a conclusion. Examiners called upon students to state clearly their hypothesis and their conclusions. If students adequately communicate the `thesis’ of their dissertations, they usually avoid unnecessary length, lack of coherence, repetitiousness and confusion in their writing.

Supervisors need to emphasise throughout students’ candidacies that they are striving in the thesis to communicate one big idea; that there should be a `thesis’ or centre to which everything in the document contributes. (Nightingale 1992, p. 174)

Have a research problem which is gradually refined as the thesis is written

Educational research and our own experience … suggest that it is extremely important for the beginning researcher to define the research problem at a very early stage in the research process. Defining a research problem is often found to be a most difficult and frustrating task. The reason for this lies primarily in the fact that undergraduate students are by and large not compelled to define the problems they work on; such problems are presented to them by lecturers, and the notion that defining and articulating a problem is a demanding intellectual process in its own right is often poorly developed amongst undergraduate students. Yet it is a crucial preliminary step in the research process, and one which the postgraduate student, who has recently emerged from the security of undergraduate life where problems appear to exist self-evidently, must confront and overcome. It if is not, and the research proposal remains vague and ill-defined, the student’s subsequent activities of researching and note-taking will lack focus, be more time-consuming than is necessary, and largely ineffective. (Zuber-Skerritt & Knight 1992, p. 196)

Start writing a first draft early, based on preliminary conceptual maps

Another crucial phase in the research process is the transition from analysis to synthesis; that is, from the collection and analysis of literature or data to the writing of the first draft. Many postgraduate students attest to the psychological difficulties they must overcome before writing of the first draft can proceed; for many the task appears insuperable, and much time can be wasted at this point as the student prevaricates and justifies this prevarication by asserting the need to continue the phase of analysis. Most supervisors have heard the plaintive cry: ‘I still haven’t read enough!’; this is frequently a symptom of nerves as the awesome moment approaches when the student must lay aside the security of index cards and plunge into the writing phase. Our experience suggests that problems particularly arise when the postgraduate student is unaware of the stages and steps through which research and writing normally proceed. This manifests itself as an attempt to write a final draft without the intermediate steps of constructing a flowchart of ideas (or a conceptual map), writing a first rough draft, revising and editing, and then rewriting. In the attempt to move immediately to writing the final draft, the student becomes preoccupied with the fine details, stylistic niceties and attractive presentation, often at the expense of development of ideas or argumentation; as a result, the writing process is inhibited, and the product is often characterised by unevenness of thought and argument. (Zuber-Skerritt & Knight 1992, p. 200) [That is, constructing drafts of a flowchart of the sections of a chapter or the subsections of a section is useful early in the process of reading the literature, with several consequent revisions. Rarely has a student not read enough to start writing the first draft of these frameworks.]

Another trap for student writers is that they believe they need long periods of time if they are going to try to write anything. Waiting for the significant piece of free time to come along makes procrastination easy. Two helpful strategies are to encourage students to set attainable sub-goals so they use short periods of time efficiently. For instance, rather than trying to write the whole section on methodology, a student could set the sub-goal of writing only the description of a key piece of equipment. Of course, if she or he had been writing all along, there would be at least a rough draft of this which would simply need to be refined.

Another helpful strategy for writers who often face interruptions to their work is to leave themselves `pick-up points’. This means that they do not work until they are at the absolute end of something, but quit when they can still see what will come nest. They jot down a few notes about what they expect to write next, and when they come back, there is no blank page facing them.

Finally, supervisors who have several research students or whose departments have a group of novice researchers should encourage them to exchange drafts of their work frequently. The more commentary, the more often a student is asked, `What did you intend to say here?’, the better the chances of a well-constructed thesis.(Nightingale 1992, pp. 176-177)

In-text References

  •  Nightingale, P. 1992,`Initiation into research through writing’, in Zuber-Skerritt,O. (ed), Starting Research – Supervision and Training, Tertiary Education Institute, Brisbane.
  • Zuber-Skerritt, O. & Knight, N. 1992, `Problem definition and thesis writing – workshops for the postgraduate student’, in Zuber-Skerritt, O. (ed), Starting Research – Supervision and Training, Tertiary Education Institute, Brisbane.


  1. Sanjeev says

    Could your please email the PDF to

  2. enow nkem says

    Just to say thanks ,for providing an answer to many writing huddles we face

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