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Tips for organizing and writing your thesis (and pretty much all other writing)


Tips for organizing and writing your thesis (and pretty much all other writing) ... is appropriate; e.g., 'Previous work on Cretaceous orogeny in the Cascades. ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Tips for organizing and writing your thesis (and pretty much all other writing)

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)

  • 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 philosophyHierarchy 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
  • (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
  • http//

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
  • http//

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
  • 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//

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

  • Write this LAST!
  • Abstracts should be 1-2 pages and should be
  • 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

  • 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

  • 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
  • This section is likely to contain a lot of
    reference citations--put your thesis in context
    of existing work

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Only one purpose to convince the advisor
    (reader/reviewer) that you answered the question
    or solved the problem stated in the previous
  • 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
  • Note for some theses it may be important to
    include these in an appendix

  • 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. (Dont use 1000 words when 500
    will do)
  • Write your text around your figures

Use the proper tools (for your research AND your
  • Spreadsheets, analysis tools
  • Plotting programs
  • Graphics programs
  • 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
  • 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.

  • 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
  • Addresses the bigger problems of your research
    topic and how your study fits into solving those
  • Is NOT a conclusion section

  • 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

  • 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//
  • Plan ahead! (e.g. do you really need 50 color
  • Mechanics
  • Grammar
  • Usage
  • Punctuation
  • spelling

Shed light on your subjectclarity is everything
Avoid convoluted writing
Avoid ornate language, words you dont really
understand(look it up!)
Be professional! (or at least try really hard)
Resources for style, word use, etc.
  • How To Write A Dissertation or Bedtime Reading
    For People Who Do Not Have Time To Sleep
  • http//
  • 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

AGU Grammar and Style guide
  • Available on Geo dept. web site (pdf download)
  • Very useful!
  • Example
  • 3.2. Comprise Versus Compose
  • 1. Whole (subject) comprises parts (object)
    (must be active verb) The book comprises five
  • 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,
  • http//
  • More than you could ever hope to know about
  • http//
  • http//
  • http//

Resources from Chris Suczek
  • Use books, not just web sites to help your
  • 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
  • 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
  • Note content, style, form
  • Remember this paper likely went through many
    drafts too!

Getting over writers block
  • Gerrys 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 its a thesis proposal, check with all
    committee members to see what they expect should
    be included resolve conflicts early

  • FinallyIts an uphill battle(if at first you
    dont succeed..)

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Web sites
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