The mass amount of writing to do for a thesis is often so overwhelming that even getting started is extremely difficult. I battled my way through mine and felt it was a terrifying process. I would keep the first version to myself for so long, always trying to perfect it, as I thought I had to send a perfect draft. Then, I was genuinely terrified to send it, afraid my co-authors would think I was such a terrible writer. Yes, the imposter syndrome is real and often kicks in with writing.
What I did not realize at the time, and took me quite long to understand is that revisions and feedback are essential for good writing. And feedback early on is a massive time saver. After going through the struggle of my own thesis, I supervised undergrad and grad students in their thesis writing. I soon realized most of us have the same struggles. We all think we are terrible writers, most of us hate doing it, and, well, the struggle is real. I also realized there are some things you can do to make it better for yourself, and you could even start to love the writing process. For me, it even turned into a new career, and I now help others with their writing.
My advice is to keep these 10 steps in mind when you start writing your thesis.
1) Practice makes perfect
It may sound super unoriginal, but it really is true, especially when it comes to writing. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it. So try to write every single day. Even 15 minutes of writing can massively improve your writing. It helps you get in the right mindset and become confident in your writing abilities.
Additionally, you need to be exposed to lots of writing, so reading is just as critical. You are likely already reading lots of research papers. To improve your writing, try to determine for each article what you like about the writing style and what you dislike. It can really help you see patterns of good writing. Another great way of exposing yourself to writing is to offer to edit/proofread other people’s papers, theses, and abstracts. It is always easier to see errors or sentences that just don’t work in other people’s work than it is for your own. But by seeing it, you make mental notes to not make those errors yourself.
2) Do not start with an empty page
Nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper that you’re going to have to transfer somehow into a thesis that your committee is going to love. The thought alone will block you from starting. So don’t walk into that trap. Open your document and save it in a proper place. Make sure you have some sort of backup method set up, and then start.
Start messy by dumping ideas onto the paper. No perfect sentences, not good structure, just write the words. Once you have established the topics you need to cover, start structuring. Create an outline for the entire chapter, having some of your words ready in each section. Once that is established, you can begin the actual writing. But when you do, there is already something on the paper, you just got to expand it. It helps many people to start with the relatively easy section to write: the methods.
3) Good writing takes time
It takes time to write a good piece of text. No matter what it is. You are not going to be able to just write the perfect thesis in one go. You are not going to suddenly be a great writer. Nobody is born with the ability to write amazing prose. It is a skill you learn over time by doing it. So try, just try to write. Improve while you go, and you will find that it becomes easier (see also point 1). A thesis is difficult to write, lots of thinking needs to go into it, so it takes time, and that is okay.
4) Keep your audience in mind
Always, always keep an audience in mind. This means that you should never assume your readers already know the topic in detail and leave out crucial information. IIn particular with a thesis, the imposter syndrome may pop up and you feel stupid writing basic facts. This is often far from the truth. Unless your reader has done your exact research, they likely need that background as they have their own specialization.
5) Edit to perfection
Edit to perfection; read the text out loud to yourself, this really helps identify sentences that don’t work. There are apps for that if you feel awkward doing it yourself. Any well-written pieces you come across are revised many, many times before you got to see it. This is a crucial step in the writing process. Ideally, you want to leave pieces you have written for at least 24 hours, and then return with fresh eyes and revise as needed. If you do it too soon after writing it, you will not see the issues there might be.
6) Speaking of perfection: perfectionism is the enemy of a finished thesis
Many of us are perfectionists. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, it helps us do our work properly. However, when it comes to thesis writing, it can become a major trap. The problem is that there are always ways to improve the work. There is always more to write about. There is always more that could be revised. But what is important is that you get it done. At some point, it has just got to be good enough, as perfect as it can or should be.
7) Get feedback
Very important in all stages of your writing process is to get feedback. And don’t feel bad for requesting it or that the version you are sending is not perfect. I struggled for years to accept that, always wanting to send it when it was already so great, my supervisor would be like, wow, here are just a few comments, and it can go. But it never was like that, ever. Ask your friends, colleagues, and supervisors to have a look and comment on it. They will have great advice and might spot some clarity issues you simply missed as you have been working on it for so long.
8) You are going to think the introduction will be easy to write, which you can just do quickly at the end
It is not. Do not fall into this trap. Work on it early on, not just right before your deadline. Yes, you do know the literature, and yes, you do know what should be in it. But writing concisely about your topic is not easy, and neither is finding the right balance to only write what is really necessary. There are going to be many revisions, and also do not underestimate the time it takes to edit and format references. Which brings me to my next point.
9) Use referencing software
Learn how to use it, and never, ever, think ‘oh well, I can just do this manually’. This is going to cost you a lot of time and frustration in the end. I have done it and do not recommend it. I have seen others time and time again do it… afterward, they also did not recommend it. Years ago, it was often difficult to get access to referencing software like Endnote, which is costly. Luckily now there are multiple free options that you can use. Both Mendeley and Zotero are great options for these purposes.
10) Writing tools are your friend
Use tools to your advantage. For instance, a great writing tool we blogged about earlier is Scrivener. Even though most writing software has built-in grammar and spelling checkers, these are often not of the best quality. We recommend using Grammarly instead. There is also this handy tool called the Academic Phrasebank for when you are having trouble with your wording.
There are also many planning apps, like Trello and Asana that can help you schedule writing time, and organize what sections to work on and when. The Pomodoro technique, in which you focus for periods of 20 minutes after which you take a 5 min break, is used by many to help in concentration on the task at hand. There are many apps that can help you stick to such a schedule, or that can block your social media for some time.
Everyone works in a different way, find what is best for you, and get the best help you possibly can. You can and will finish that thesis!
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