How to write a killer Thesis statement

how to write thesis statement for a research paper and how to write thesis materials and methods and how to write thesis manuscript how to write thesis aims and objectives
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Murray How to Write a Thesis SECOND S ECON D S EC ON D E DITION EDITION E DITION How to Write a Thesis How to Write a Thesis provides a down-to- Praise for this edition: earth guide to help students shape their “This book has filled a huge theses. It offers valuable advice as well as gap in the market…Using practical tips and techniques, incorporating wonderful examples, this useful boxed summaries and checklists to help students stay on track or regain their way. book will not only help The book is the culmination of many years of students build up a writer's work with postgraduates and academics and ‘toolbox’, but will also build covers all aspects of the research, writing and confidence and empower editing involved in the process of successfully thesis writers.” completing a thesis. PROFESSOR WILLIAM J. KERR, In this book, the author moves beyond the Department of Pure and basics of thesis writing, introducing practical Applied Chemistry, WestCHEM, writing techniques such as freewriting, University of Strathclyde generative writing and binge writing. This edition now deals with the range of different Praise for the previous doctorates on offer and integrates more edition: examples of thesis writing. Building on the Rowena Murray success of the evidence-based approach used “Rowena Murray's down to in the first edition, there is also new earth approach both coverage of Masters theses and undergraduate recognises and relieves research projects, along with outlines of some of the agony of useful generic structures for social science and humanities projects. writing a PhD. The advice in this book is both practical How to Write a Thesis is the most grounded guide available to students on the and motivational; How to practicalities surrounding thesis writing and sometimes it's ‘PhD-saving’ should be recommended reading for, and by, too.” all supervisors. D R CHRISTINE SINCLAIR, Lecturer in the Centre for Write Rowena Murray is a Reader in the Department of Educational Academic Practice and and Professional Studies at the University of Strathclyde. She has Learning Enhancement at the developed a Thesis Writing course, runs consultancies on Writing University of Strathclyde for Publication, and has published books on many aspects of academic writing. She is also the author of How to Survive your Viva (Open University Press 2003) and Writing for Academic Journals (Open University Press 2004). a Thesis Cover design Hybert Design • www.hybertdesign.com www.openup.co.ukIntroduction: How to write 1000 words an hour The need for this book What the students say A writer’s ‘toolbox’ • • Principles of academic writing The literature on writing Disciplinary • • • differences Thinking about structure Prompts Enabling student • • • writing Writing in a second language Grammar, punctuation, spelling • • Goal setting Lifelong learning Audience and purpose Timetable for • • • • writing Checklist: defining the writing task • The need for this book This introduction unpacks the theories and assumptions that underpin this book. It brings together what might seem to be a disparate collection of topics, all of which can impact on your thesis writing. The aim is to help you under- stand the context for your writing – an important first step in any writing project – and to learn from the literature on academic writing. Although there is abundant research on writing it has not been fully integrated into the research process: . . . what knowledge there is concerning the actual PhD process is scant. (Hockey 1994: 177)2 INTRODUCTION The British literature on the academic writing role is similar to that on research: patchy. (Blaxter et al. 1998b: 290) The terms ‘scant’ and ‘patchy’ suggest that there is work to be done on establishing how best to manage the thesis writing process. In fact, much of the literature emphasizes the importance of ‘the research’, with the writing process receiving less attention. However, useful lessons can be drawn from existing research, and there are established strategies that you can adapt to the writing of your thesis. Basic premises of this book are that you have to: (1) find out what is expected of you as a thesis writer; and (2) write from the start and keep writing throughout your research. What this constant ‘writing’ involves will vary from one person to another, but there are core principles which – if you know what they are – help you to write regularly and effectively. Writing a thesis is a completely new task for most postgraduate students. It brings new demands. It is a far bigger project than most students will ever have undertaken before. It requires more independent study, more self-motivation. There is much less continuous assessment. It is likely to be the longest piece of continuous writing you have ever done. However, writing a thesis is not a completely new experience. It does build on your previous studies. Skills you developed in undergraduate years – and elsewhere – will be useful. Time management is a prime example. The subject of your thesis may build upon existing knowledge of, for example, theoretical approaches or the subject itself. The discipline of study, or regular work, is just as important as in other forms of study you have undertaken at other levels. Early writing tasks • Noting ideas while reading • Documenting reading • Writing summaries • Critiques of other research • Draft proposals • Revising your thesis/research proposal • Logging experiments/pilot/observations • Describing experiments/procedures • Sketching plan of work • Explaining sequence of work (in sentences) • Sketching structure of thesis • Outlining your literature review • Speculative writing: routes forward in project • Design for first-year reportWHAT THE STUDENTS SAY 3 Passively accepting that a thesis is one of life’s ‘great unknowns’ is not a sens- ible course of action; like any other writing task, it can – and must – be defined. One of the first – and best – books to outline the whole process for the PhD is How to Get a PhD by Phillips and Pugh (2000). What Phillips and Pugh did for the doctoral process, this book does for the doctoral, and masters, writing processes. The two books can be seen as complementary. This book focuses on that writing process and provides activities, prompts and hints and tips for writing at each stage in thesis writing, right from the start. Writing a thesis should not be one long catalogue of problems; once you have a repertoire of writing strategies, you can get on with writing, recognizing that at some points in your research you have factual or descriptive writing to do, while at others you have to develop more complex and persuasive modes of writing. You can also use writing to develop your ideas, consolidate new know- ledge and refine your thinking. This book gives you strategies for all of these, so that thesis writing becomes a series of challenges that you work through, gradually establishing what type of thesis it is that you are writing. Writing your thesis with these strategies to hand should maintain the intellectual stimulation and excitement that brought you to research in the first place. Although the terms ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ have different meanings in different cultures, the term ‘thesis’ is used in this book to refer to both under- graduate and postgraduate writing projects. Since these projects can vary in length from 8,000 words, for undergraduate projects, to 20,000 words, for masters projects, to 40,000–50,000 words for professional doctorates, to 80,000–100,000 words for PhDs, readers are prompted throughout this book to develop frameworks and timescales to suit their own projects and within their institutions’ guidelines and regulations. Similarly, while the person who works with a thesis writer can have many titles – tutor, advisor, etc. – the term ‘supervisor’ is used in this book. What the students say The researchers found a discrepancy between graduate students . . . and faculty as to what constituted effective scholarly writing, discovering that students wanted to learn how to write more concisely, follow a prescribed format and use correct terminology. Faculty, on the other hand, felt that students needed to improve their ability to make solid arguments supported by empirical evidence and theory. (Caffarella and Barnett 2000: 40) This is an interesting dichotomy. Then again, why would we expect two very different groups to have formed the same expectations? Presumably research students are still learning what it is they have to learn.4 INTRODUCTION Even when the subject of writing is raised in discussion between student and supervisor or among students – as it should be – there is no consensus about what they need to know. What do those who have started or completed a thesis say, looking back, that students need? The answers to these questions are multifaceted; they may even be contradictory: Looking back • It takes a long time to strike a balance between what you want to do and what the supervisor wants. You can waste as much as a year. • It’s difficult to get supervisors to give priority to your project. Supervisors are sometimes not that interested. This is a problem for all students. • Isolation can be a problem . . . It can come with any of the other items on the list of problems. • Start with a plan. Six months or a year can drift away very quickly. It’s important to write as you go along. These responses show how writing is related to, and can be influenced by, all sorts of factors: Problems with writing • Ownership of the project • Managing your supervisor • Isolation • Planning Students report that they look for lots of different kinds of advice and help. Many, if not all, of their concerns can be related to their writing. Some will directly affect their writing practices and output. What is provided in the way of support and development for writing seems to vary enormously, from institution to institution and even from supervisor to supervisor. Some of these problems can be interpreted as the result of students’ lack of awareness: of what’s expected, of what is involved in writing and of what the educational experience involves. There is, often, the additional problem of lack of research training, although formal training is commonplace in some higher education systems and is becoming more common in others (Park 2005). We must assume that supervisors want their students to complete their theses on time (as long as the work is up to standard). They are not out to put barriers in your way. However, their role is complex and is sometimes leftA WRITER’S ‘TOOLBOX’ 5 implicit for too long. Supervisors are not always aware of specific writing problems or established writing development practices. Some admit that they don’t know what they don’t know about writing. They have all completed a thesis themselves and therefore have knowledge of the writing process. They will have probably published papers and/or books. They may have supervised the writing of many theses. However, the amount of reading they do about academic writing is likely to be variable. Some own up to having forgotten what their own research and writing apprenticeship involved. This book takes a holistic approach to the total process of writing a thesis. While focusing on writing, some of the related topics raised by students will be addressed. The aim is to help you complete this particular task while, in the process, developing strategies and skills that will be useful in other writing contexts. You can use these strategies at any stage in the process, not just at the start, although they have particular importance at the start, in getting you to start writing. Students and supervisors who read drafts of these chapters said that what students look for is more direction, not just questions to ‘stimulate their think- ing’. They want to be directed to good writing style. They want to develop the skills of argument. Students may not be able to say this right from the start; they may not know what they need. They may only understand that this was what they needed when they get to the later stages in their projects, or right at the very end. This book aims to help you develop your understanding of the writing pro- cess – not just the finished product – through reading, writing and discussion with your peers and supervisor(s). A writer’s ‘toolbox’ . . .there was a view among the student writers . . . that good writing came spon- taneously, in an uprush of feeling that had to be caught at once . . . I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behoves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work. (King 2000: 62 and 125) These two statements reveal the journey on which this book hopes to take readers. Your point of departure is the popular misconception that good writ- ing happens when it happens, that writers should wait till they are inspired and that, if they do, the writing will ‘flow’. Your destination is the develop- ment of a ‘toolbox’ of skills that writers can use for different writing projects and for different stages in any writing project. By the end of this journey you6 INTRODUCTION should be able, using these skills, and with the confidence they bring, to ‘get immediately to work’ on any writing task. Stephen King’s toolbox image chimes with what writers say in writing groups, as they are developing their writing skills over a six- to twelve-month period. They find that they procrastinate less, and they certainly do not wait for any kind of ‘uprush’ of inspiration, but are content to get something down on paper immediately and then work on that to produce a finished piece. This represents quite a change for many writers: a change in behaviours as much as a change in conceptions of writing. It may seem inappropriate to use creative writers throughout this book, since they are different from thesis writers in so many ways. They have always wanted to be writers. They write all the time. They have come to know what works for them. How can that help you? However, what is helpful, particularly when their subject is the writing process, is that they have developed and refined tools and tactics that we can use and adapt. They can teach us that we can fit writing into our lives and still ‘have a life’. More importantly, they can show us different ways of learning how to do this. The material covered in this book has evolved over fifteen years of thesis writing and research supervision courses. It has been tested in writers’ groups, where postgraduates and academics have commented on drafts of this book, requesting, for example, that specific topics be dealt with and that lists of cogent questions designed to prompt reflection be replaced with guidance to prompt action. The book covers the three main stages of thesis writing: Chapters 1–4 deal with strategies for getting started, Chapters 5–7 with working towards closure, and Chapters 8–10 are the endgame, pushing the thesis towards completion. Each chapter in this book takes as its focal point a different strategy for writing. Of course, a good thesis writing ‘toolkit’ is more than a source for a certain number of words, just as a thesis is more than a simple total of a number of words. Clearly, length is one – and some would argue the least important – criterion. It gives no indication of the quality of the work or of the writing. Quality in the writing is far more important than the number of words. However, quality comes through many, many, many revisions. In the early stages of such a long writing project as a thesis, it is not appropriate to aim for that type or level of quality. Early stages, early writings and early drafts will surely lack the qualities expected in the final polished product. Writing that is sketchy, incomplete, tentative and downright wrong is an inevitable part of the research and learning processes. This is why you have supervisors. Writing is as good a way as any of testing your ideas and assumptions. Learn- ing strategies for and developing a facility for generating text have, in them- selves, proved to be important processes, more important, some would argue, than learning the mechanics of writing (Torrance et al. 1993). Being able toA WRITER’S ‘TOOLBOX’ 7 write ‘on demand’ is also a confidence booster for novice writers. It stops them from procrastinating and helps them get started on those early drafts that are, after all, called ‘rough’ for a reason. The title of this chapter is so important because it raises one of the key issues: it is possible to become productive, lifelong writers using a variety of strategies. Adopting these strategies will be a more comfortable process for some writers than others; the strategies may initially appear useful at some stages in thesis writing and less so in others. The title of this chapter may also prompt interest- ing discussion among students and supervisors as to what does constitute ‘good’ writing practice and a ‘quality’ written product. Productive writing, however, may require you to use more than one tool, perhaps several quite different tools at the same time. For example, 1000 words per hour is a feasible rate of writing when you know what the content is to be. If we have a detailed outline, we can ‘write to order’. However, for thesis writers who are still learning about the subject, this may not be possible. They will have to sketch structures. They will have to make choices before or during writing in any case. They have to live and write with uncertainty. With thesis writers in mind, this book includes strategies for generating text with and without structure. It also provides prompts for additional thinking about structure, since thesis writers may not be conscious of how to use a generic framework as a starting point; generic frameworks can help you shape your unique thesis structure. In other words, this book is based on three key principles: (1) learning comes through writing; (2) quality comes through revision; and (3) regular writing develops fluency. With these objectives in mind, it is possible to build up to writing 1000 words an hour, even though the whole thesis is not written in that way. There may be some debate about whether the ‘learning’ involved is about your topic or about your writing, but both apply. They are, in any case, interconnected. Over the longer term, perhaps by the end of this book, it will be possible to write 1000 words an hour. This is not just about speed writing. With the strat- egies and concepts in this book, the writer will be better equipped to decide when, and what, he or she can and cannot write at this rate. Writing 100 or 1000 words in an hour or a day will be an active decision rather than a ‘wait- and-see’ passive process. The ‘wait-and-see’ approach has another potential disadvantage: you may learn less about writing; you may not develop as a writer. There are those who think that writing ability is innate, that it is not learned. However, the fact that writing is not taught – beyond a certain level of school or undergraduate edu- cation – does not mean that it cannot be learned. The 1000-words-an-hour method may require a certain level of writing ability; but the argument of this book is that the ability can be developed. This takes time. Like the novice runner who, after a few short runs, asked, ‘When does runner’s high set in?’ – expecting the effect to be immediate – you have to work at it to see the benefits. It might also be a good idea to improve your keyboard skills.8 INTRODUCTION An analogy for word counting is taking your pulse while you are exercising or training: the number of heartbeats per minute tells you more accurately how hard you are working than does your own impression of effort. You may feel that you are really toiling up that hill or round that track, but if your heart rate is already in your training zone – say, 160 beats per minute – then you know that you do not have to increase your workload. You may be working hard enough already to achieve the desired effect. For any number of reasons, you may not be able to interpret ‘effort’ as actual output. Having a concrete measure can help you adjust your perspective. With writing, counting the number of words is a way of getting a more accurate measure of output. We may feel that we are, or are not, doing enough writing, yet if we have 1000 or 100 words an hour – whatever the rate we set out to achieve, whatever we judge a realistic rate to be – then we know we are making progress. As with exercise, taking the ‘heartbeat’ of our writing can save us from trying to do too much and from feeling guilty about not having done ‘enough’. More importantly, it can become a way of establishing momentum: we can track the regular flow of our writing. A rate of 1000 words a day produces 5000 words at the end of the week that were not there at the start. This can be a powerful motivator. Setting a realistic pace, and calibrating it from time to time, is important, as you start to build regular writing into your life. Again, finding some way of measuring output can provide insight into the goals set: are you trying to do too much? If you want to work up to writing 1000 words an hour – having never done so before – should your goal not, initially, be much less than that? How much would be sensible? A thesis is ‘incomplete’ for a number of years. It is helpful to have a sense of work that has been completed, even if not to a final stage. Since closure (discussed in Chapter 6) is deferred, again and again, it is helpful to create ‘mini-closures’ along the way. The writer has to find some way of marking progress. It does not matter too much which method you choose for defining your writing targets. Do the best you can. Counting words, setting goals and acknowledging increments are ways of recognizing your progress. The beauty of counting is that it is simple and concrete. Not everyone will be fascinated by numbers of words. There must be some writers who would find this approach too simplistic. Some will be disgusted at the apparent reduction of their highest ideals – original research, tough con- cepts, first-class writing skills – to a set of sums. But this is just one way of establishing a set of patterns for an extended writing process. It is not the only way. There can be more than one. For me, the fact that I just wrote 442 words of this chapter in 20 minutes, between 9.05am and 9.25am, will not grip every reader, but it does tell me what my actual pace of writing is just now and it does show me that I have achieved something, in writing. In fact, given that 1000 words an hour is a high – in my view – rate of output, I can reassure myself that I am being productive. The question of whether ‘productivity’ –A WRITER’S ‘TOOLBOX’ 9 with its associations of other contexts – is enough, I ignore for the moment. Quality will come with revisions. I also recognize that I am – and others may be – able to write this way with some subjects and not others. I have worked on thesis writing for fifteen years, but thesis writers may have worked on their subject for as little as fifteen weeks, fifteen days or fifteen minutes. Theoretically, most students and super- visors will probably say ‘Thesis writers need more thinking time; they can’t just churn out text at the rate of 1000 words an hour.’ They – students and supervisors – might add, ‘And it’s just as well – it would all be rubbish.’ It might, in one sense, be ‘rubbish’: students might, in the early stages, rush out writing that is tentative, full of uncertainties, rambling and wrong. But is this ‘rubbish?’ Another way of reading such writing is to say that the student is still learning to write and using writing to learn. Rambling writing may indeed signal rambling thinking, but it may also be a first step, for students, in understanding their subject. I can hear supervisors and students saying things like ‘But what is the point of doing bad writing?’, and my response would be, ‘Isn’t producing writing that you’re not happy with, that you know you have to redraft many times before you submit it for public scrutiny, an acceptable part of the writing process?’ Does this make our writing ‘bad writing’? Or is it more accurate – and helpful to the novice – to call it writing-on-the-way-to-being-good-writing, i.e. a draft? But if not this, then what? The ‘arithmetic of writing’ • How will you measure your written output? • How will you identify the pace of writing that suits you? • How will you establish momentum in your writing? There are many ways of doing this, but if counting words, or pages, seems so unusual – if not wrong – to a thesis writer or supervisor, what does this say? What does it suggest about how they conceptualize writing? How will they define increments and stages? How will they break that down into actual, daily writing practices? These questions are not simply meant to be rhetorical – although they are frequently treated as such – but are meant to prompt discussion so that thesis writers develop their own answers. Whether this point represents a real shift in thinking – even reconceptuali- zation – about writing or whether it’s just a way of renaming things, there is a point to be argued here about making explicit what are often left as assump- tions about writing practices and products. Opening up the multiple draft writing process for discussion, for example, can boost students’ confidence. They realize that producing ‘bad writing’ is sometimes part of the process and10 INTRODUCTION may, at times, be such a necessary part of the process that we would do well to find another name for it. Supervisors shape thesis writers’ conceptions of writing, but students can develop a number of different tools for writing without going against what their supervisors recommend. It is not the purpose of this book to create con- flict between students and supervisors. However, given the potential for debate about writing, perhaps it is understandable if writers do not agree all the time about what works best. Given the range of strategies available – though super- visors and students may not have heard of them all – it is inevitable that there will, and should, be discussion of ‘what works best’, what that means and how we know. It is to be anticipated that out of any set of new strategies one, or more, will seem immediately sensible and practical to the individual writer, while another will seem pointless and inappropriate for a thesis. For example, writing on demand is a theme of this book. Helping students to find ways to force their writing, throughout the three or six years, is one of its goals. If we accept that having a range of strategies – or at least more than one – is, in principle, a good idea, then there is every chance that some of the strategies in this book will not only be new, but may also seem counter- intuitive. We have been writing in our own particular ways for so long; presumably, something has to change if we are to write a much larger and much more complex document. However, initially that ‘change’ in writing approaches, that simple broadening of our options, can seem uncomfortable and just too challenging. A thesis requires the writer – or pro- vides opportunities for writers – to experiment with new techniques. If a thesis is different from any other kind of writing, you need to consider other strategies. When asked to try specific activities for forcing writing by writing without stopping for five minutes, writers often ask, ‘What can I write in five minutes?’ In fact, this question is frequently rhetorical: ‘What can I possibly write in five minutes?’ Many people report that it takes them thirty minutes to ‘get into’ the writing. Before we go any further, that is worth noting as a future talking point in itself: what are people doing in those thirty minutes of ‘warm-up’ time? Do they have routines for getting themselves started? Does that really have to take all of thirty minutes? Can that really be the only way? Aren’t other options available? The purpose of this activity is to prompt writing, even at an early stage, when the thesis writer may not have a clear idea of where his or her project is going. The temptation at this stage – for obvious reasons – is to aim for a coherent proposal statement and thereafter other formal writing. However, examining – and adapting – your writing practices and assumptions is an important part of the writing process. For this activity you can also take time to react to the propositions so far covered in this chapter and to consider how they might help you write your thesis.PRINCIPLES OF ACADEMIC WRITING 11 Writing activity What can I write in five minutes? 1 Write continuously, non-stop, in sentences on this question: What do you think of the idea of writing 1000 words in an hour? 2 Count the number of words you wrote. You may not be able to write 1000 words an hour yet. The point is that you can write – to order – X number of words when given a prompt and a time limit. This effect can be extended. Using all the tools in this book, it is feasible to write 1000 words in an hour, even for a thesis. Forcing writing, writing quickly without stopping, writing immediately without planning has potential benefits: There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly . . . I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to set in. (King 2000: 249) The point is not just to keep up enthusiasm for writing – though that, too, is important – but to keep a focus on what you are thinking, forcing your- self to find a way to ignore – or defer – any ‘self-doubt’ that may occur. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with self-doubt, unless it con- stantly stops you writing. In fact, self-questioning is probably a key skill for researchers. Principles of academic writing There are principles of writing in each academic discipline. It is up to you to locate and learn them. Find out what they are. You can do this by reading examples – publications and theses – and discussing your developing under- standing of core principles in your discipline with your supervisor and peers. As you read examples of academic writing in your discipline, it might help to ask the following questions: • What are the conventions of writing in this discipline? • What language – nouns, verbs, links, etc. – do writers use? • How are debates represented? • How is the researcher represented, if at all?12 INTRODUCTION • How is structure revealed? • What are the options in style and structure? Just as there are dominant issues in the debate in your discipline, so there are terms that are in and out of current use. Whether you see this as a matter of intellectual ‘fashion’ or not, it is up to you to recognize the language in which the conversation you are entering is being conducted and to use, interrogate or challenge it as you see fit. The literature on writing I presume that most thesis writers do not need a detailed survey of the literature, but might query approaches that are not underpinned by research and scholarship. The relevant literature is wide-ranging in approach and out- come, and the following overview is intended to demonstrate different schools of thought. • Boice (1990) found that a daily regimen of writing makes academics productive writers. • Brown and Atkins (1988: 123) defined the problems thesis writers face: – Poor planning and management of the project – Methodological difficulties in the research – Writing up – Isolation – Personal problems outside the research – Inadequate or negligent supervision. • Elbow (1973) challenged the traditional view that we must first decide what we want to write and then write about it, arguing that we can use writing to develop our thinking. • Emig (1977) argued that writing is a mode of learning. • Flower and Hayes (1981) argued that cognitive processes – how you think – affect composition. • Herrington (1988) defined the functions of writing tasks in educational settings, indicating, perhaps, what we might expect to have learned from them as undergraduates: – Introducing academic conventions – Introducing professional conventions – Showing knowledge of relevant conventions – Exercising independent thinking, actively engaging with the materials of knowledge (pp. 133–66). • Hockey (1994) explored the psycho-social processes of thesis writing and the doctoral experience.THE LITERATURE ON WRITING 13 • Lee and Street (1998) argued for an ‘academic literacies’ approach, suggest- ing we should set about systematically learning the discourse of our disciplines. • Murray (1995, 2000) argued that many different approaches and practices, working together, are needed for the development of a productive writing process, i.e. cognitive, psycho-social, rhetorical. • Swales (1990) made a case for learning the ‘genres’ of academic writing and Swales and Feak (1994) demonstrated a genre-based approach in a textbook for non-native speakers of English that has relevance for native speakers. • Torrance et al. (1993) found that neither learning about the technical aspects of writing nor developing cognitive strategies for writing were as effective as strategies for ‘generating text’. A theme in the literature is that there are writing tasks throughout the thesis process, aimed at developing the thesis as an integral part of the research process. If this integration is successful, the student can become a ‘serial writer’, i.e. develops the writing habit, learns to find ways to fit writing into a busy schedule and makes writing one of the parallel tasks of professional life. Developing fluency and confidence requires regular writing. When we write regularly, writing is still hard work, but not as intimidating. Other writing tasks become easier to do; it becomes more difficult to procrastinate. The key is learning how to focus. The end result is that you can be confident about your writing, knowing that you can meet deadlines. Herrington’s (1985, 1992) naturalistic (i.e. looking at what student writers actually do) studies show how students construct themselves in the discipline, but also show that each course represents a distinct discourse community. It could be argued that each thesis is potentially situated in the same way: the thesis sits not just within the distinct discourse community of the discip- line but, in fact, within a smaller, though no less complex, sub-set of that disciplinary discourse. Should supervisors explicitly, not just implicitly, seek to develop these different knowledges and functions in their students’ writing? Herrington (1992) has provided evidence that academics do take on this role in under- graduate education, through guiding, posing questions, making suggestions for revision processes that are familiar in the traditional student–supervisor relationship.14 INTRODUCTION Disciplinary differences On questions of theory and method, in particular, I would remind readers that these concepts mean very different things in different disciplines . . . In most subject areas, however, the synergy between hypothesis, theory and method is absolutely central to the thesis’s success. (Pearce 2005: 74) Even the words ‘theory’ and ‘method’, so central to research, can have very different meanings in different academic disciplines. Within your discipline there may appear to be a particular meaning attached to each, and you may find writing about them straightforward. Alternatively, you may find that these words denote areas of complexity that you do not yet understand. Writ- ing about these core terms may, therefore, depend on which discipline you are working in, the type of work you are doing and the method – if that is the word you are using – that you use in your research. Some of these issues you will work out in your discussions with your supervisor. For your thesis, the import- ant question is not whether there are disciplinary differences – there are – but what the characteristics of writing in your discipline are: How to analyse a thesis • Scan the contents page. What type of structure is used? Experimental/narrative/other form of logical progression? What are the approximate relative lengths of chapters? Is this structure reflected in the abstract? • Read the introductory paragraphs of each chapter. How is progression from chapter to chapter established? • What are the main differences between chapters? Look at structure and style: long/short sentences and paragraphs. Look at the language used: what are the key words? Types of verbs used: definitive, past tense or propositional? If you are coming to research and thesis writing after a gap from study, then you may benefit from a kind of ‘academic writing induction’. Your supervisor may be prepared to provide you with an overview of writing in your discipline and may help you with analyses of completed theses. If so, the trick is to focus not on the content, which is tempting when the thesis is in your and your supervisor’s area of study and research, but on the way in which the content is articulated. You may find that this type of discussion produces more questionsDISCIPLINARY DIFFERENCES 15 than answers. Do not be afraid to ask what you might think are fairly simplistic or superficial questions: Ask your supervisor • Why does the author use this term in this sentence? • Why is that phrase repeated so often? • Why is that section so long? • Why is this other section so short? • Why is that chapter divided up into so many sections? • Will using the word ‘limitations’ not weaken the thesis? • Why does the author not just say what he/she means? Once you start to analyse thesis writing in your discipline, you will notice that there are certain ways of writing about certain subjects. You may also notice that there are differences between different sections: there may be a factual, descriptive style of writing for reports of experimental studies or indi- vidual analyses of texts or transcripts, and a more discursive style for interpret- ations and syntheses of results. The more factual writing can be done as you do your experiments or analyses, so that details and differences are recorded as you do the work, and, potentially, more accurately than if you let time elapse between experiments and writing. Noticing such differences can help you see where different elements of your thesis will go and how you will write them. Of course, your thesis may be unique, unlike any other thesis, even in your discipline, yet it may share certain features that will help your reader find his or her way around it. At the end of the day, you can use existing thesis writing conventions as a framework or formula for your thesis, or you can transform existing conventions. The key is to write, in your introduction, what you do in your thesis, how it is set out and, perhaps, why you chose to do it that way. In some disciplines, such freedom is not an option, but in others you can, literally, invent your own structure. However, there may be a set of core elements that examiners look for: some kind of forecasting statement at the start, for example, or certain kinds of linking and signposting devices between sections or, more importantly, a clear indication of your thesis’s contribution and how you have laid out evidence for that claim throughout the thesis. In the humanities and social sciences one of the challenges that thesis writers face is locating writing: where is writing? In the sciences and engineer- ing, the structure of writing more closely mirrors the research process and writing practices may be more integrated in research. It can be easier to see that for every research task there is a writing task. However, in the humanities and social sciences students have to invent not only their own research question16 INTRODUCTION and thesis structure but also find the writing practice appropriate to their work. They have to find a place for writing in their research. In certain disciplines there are assumptions about student writing. For example, in the humanities it may be assumed that students who are about to start writing a thesis have certain writing abilities already: Assumptions about thesis writers in the humanities • They can already write well. • Attempts to improve writing are remedial. • The first writing students submit to supervisors is a draft chapter. • Progress is indicated and assessed in terms of completed chapters. • They are natural ‘loners’ and independent thinkers. • With good students, supervisors make few comments on writing. • Students know how to correct problems in writing when they are pointed out. • Drafting is key (but rarely discussed). Some of these assumptions may operate, of course, in other disciplines. Some of them may be closer to the truth than the word ‘assumption’ implies. With any unspoken assumption, it is difficult to know how generally accepted it is. However, because they are not all helpful to the thesis writer, it is worth dis- cussing these assumptions with supervisors. Exploring your and your super- visors’ reactions to these assumptions might be a useful way to initiate more detailed and relevant – to your thesis – discussions. You might find that you learn a lot about thesis writing, specific to your discipline, in this way. In the visual – and other – arts, there are other forms of thesis, other definitions of what constitutes ‘research’ and other modes of examination. Thesis writing may involve a form of ‘active documentation’ (Sullivan 2005: 92). You may not have to provide as much justification of your work as is the norm in other disciplines. However, as with any discipline, it is your responsi- bility to check the institutional requirements and, probably, you will still have to demonstrate some knowledge of the culture of research. Beyond that, you may not simply have to give an account of the context for your work but also to define its creative component. Defining what is required in the written form is, as for any discipline, a key initial task. The thesis writer has to find answers to questions about how practice-based research might be conceptualized as a dissertation argument, and where this theorizing might be located: within the realm of the artwork produced, within a contextual form such as a related ‘exegesis,’ or in some combination of the two. (ibid.: 92)DISCIPLINARY DIFFERENCES 17 ‘Exegesis’ refers to an explanatory text which some see as unnecessary, because the art work should speak for itself and stand on its own, but which others see as requiring the intellectual apparatus of any other advanced study or research: Exegesis is the term usually used to describe the support material prepared in conjunction with an exhibition, or some other research activity that comprises a visual research project . . . exegesis is not merely a form of documentation that serves preliminary purposes, records in-progress activity, or displays outcomes: It is all of these. (ibid.: 211–12) In one sense, this is quite like the research and writing produced in any discipline; in other senses, and perhaps in practice, it can be very different. Like other disciplines, the visual arts use many different forms of inquiry and frameworks for conceptualization. Students often feel that they have to start from scratch in designing their theses, with each student inventing a new structure. However, some would argue that, in terms of structure, the differences between one thesis and another are minor, even superficial. In fact, one reader has asked, ‘How are these different?’ Nevertheless, the headings on the right-hand side will look alien to some students in the humanities, social sciences and business. Yet there are similar- ities with the left-hand column. Some will see the two columns as completely different; others will see them as much the same. Generic thesis structure Humanities and Social Sciences Science and Engineering The subject of my research is . . . Introduction It merits study because . . . My work relates to others’ in that . . . Literature review The research question is . . . I approached it from a perspective of . . . Methods When I did that I found . . . Results What I think that means is . . . Discussion There are implications for . . . Conclusions The point is that we can adapt the generic thesis structure – on the right in this box – to many different contexts. It can be used as a framework for many different types of study. Its apparent ‘home’ in science and engineering should18 INTRODUCTION not prevent us from making use of it as a starting point, at least. Nor is this structure just for experimental research. Every study has a method. Every study produces ‘results’ – outcomes of analyses, of whatever kind. Some writers, in some disciplines, may feel that ‘translating’ the scientific template is not a valid option; the headings do not translate into chapters, and this is unhelpful. That may well be true. You might not have such chapter headings and divisions. However, it is a starting point. It can be seen as repre- senting the ‘deep structure’ of many different types of thesis. It may, there- fore, help writers develop initial statements on what are key issues for any thesis. The generic structure is a tool for writing and thinking. As a template, it can help us answer the key questions for a thesis. Whether or not this shapes chapters is another question. We may not all be drawn to it – some will be alienated by it – but even if you use it as an antagonist, it will prompt you to sketch alternative structures. If this structure and strategy seem wrong to you, that may be because you already have the germ of an idea for your thesis structure. Capture that on paper now. You then have some ideas you can discuss, and possibly develop, with your supervisor. Thinking about structure In order to develop further your thinking about structure, at an early stage, you could discuss the following questions with other writers and, of course, with your supervisor: • Does your discipline have an implicit/explicit generic structure? • Are there any books/support materials on thesis writing in your discipline? If the idea of ‘generic structure’ strikes you as strange – since each thesis is different – then it might be a good idea to discuss this concept further. • Have you discussed the overall structure of your thesis with your supervisor and/or peers? • If you think it is too early, in your research, for this discussion, think about and discuss how the work you do in the early stages relates to the production of a thesis. If you do want to use a ‘non-generic’ structure, then you should research – and discuss – that too. • Will you be inventing a completely new structure? • What are the precedents for this in your discipline?PROMPTS 19 Prompts At the very start of the thesis process, most writers feel they have nothing to write about. The instruction to ‘just write’ seems absurd. Many will feel they have not really ‘started’ anything, while they are still reading and thinking about their project. The problem with this state of mind – or concept of thesis writing – is that it can continue for just a little too long. It is possible to think that you ‘have nothing to write about’ for many months. In fact, the more you read, the more certain you may become that you have nothing to contribute to the debate, and therefore nothing to write. In order to combat this reluctance to write – since it cannot continue indefinitely – the chapters of this book have ‘What can I write about now?’ sections. These are to be used as prompts – by students and/or supervisors – for writing throughout the thesis, from start to finish. Any prompt can be used at any time. They can be adapted, or rewritten, to suit the individual. The main point is that writing occurs, text is generated. This approach antagonizes some supervisors and students: the word ‘quality’ is the focus of their concern. Will the writing activities proposed here produce ‘good writing’? Possibly not. But, as was proposed earlier – and it is worth repeating because the ‘quality question’ is paramount – we have to question the practice of applying the ‘quality’ criterion so early in the thesis writing process. Is quality – in structure, style and content – feasible at this stage? The quality of your writing – on all of these criteria – will be a focus for later discussions and revisions. This means that you should determine and discuss what the ‘quality criteria’ are at any given stage in your thesis writing process. However, it cannot be assumed that this issue, or the proposed discussion, is straightforward. The concept of differentiating ‘quality’ criteria may not be central to your supervisor’s practice, in providing you with feedback on your writing or, more importantly, in establishing criteria for you before you write. This means that you may come up against surprise, incredulity or open hostil- ity to the concept. Alternatively, your supervisor may respond very positively to the news that you have been reading and thinking carefully about thesis writing. It is likely, however, that some of the concepts and practices proposed in this book will be new to some supervisors and you may find that, as with other aspects of your research, you have to participate in a debate about writing matters. Discussing the pros and cons of thesis writing strategies is no bad thing; you may in the process gain additional insights from your supervisor’s experience and practice as a writer. Naturally, your supervisor may at any time alert you to any features of your writing that need to be improved. These early writing tasks often act as a kind of diagnostic test. Your knowledge of and ability in writing will be tested at every stage. You may feel that hard criteria are unfairly applied to very early