Writing your thesis – some tips and tricks

By Matthias Teeuwen Over the course of my studies I have received a lot of advice on how to best go about writing my thesis. In this blog, I have curated some of the more helpful bits of advice that have really helped me meet my deadlines, give structure to the way I work and to generally keep on top of things. I present them here in chronological order, but it is common to cycle through them a couple of times during the process because that is just the nature of writing a thesis: it changes over time.

Make a plan:

Start out by making a rough plan. I have used Gantt charts to this end and find that they give a nice overview of the time I have till the deadline and how all the elements of a research project stack up to form the final result. The basic idea of a Gantt chart is that it both shows the progression of your project through time as well as the logical sequence of steps you need to take. So take a moment at the start of your project to assign each task an amount of time you think you’ll need to complete it in, and think about which tasks need to be completed before you can continue to the next.

You can make a Gantt chart on paper, but I used a spreadsheet because I had to change it a couple of times throughout the process. I also entered some extra dates to my chart such as meetings with my supervisor or workshops and lectures that were relevant to parts of my thesis. This way I could synchronise finishing a chapter with a meeting with my supervisor, for example.

Break it down into bite-sized bits

This is one of the best pieces of advice I have heard: break your project down into small tasks that you can do in one day or one morning or afternoon. This really helps sustain your motivation throughout your project because it lets you work on your project without feeling overwhelmed by everything you need to do to bring it to successful completion. Moreover, it presents you with small completable tasks, allowing you to feel productive each day.

Some things are easily translated into smaller tasks, like: “transcribe interview 7” or “write methods section”. Other things are harder to break down: “write thesis” is a pretty massive task. So what I did was to make a comprehensive outline of everything I wanted to say in the thesis. I started by breaking it down into the obvious constituent parts:

I.   Introduction 
II.  Chapter 1
III. Chapter 2
IV.  Chapter 3
V.   Conclusion

Then I added subsections:

I.   Introduction
    a.   Description of the field
    b.   Research problem
    c.   Theoretical framework
    d.   Methodology
II.  Chapter 1
III. Chapter 2
IV.  Chapter 3
V.   Conclusion

Next, I fleshed out each subsection by adding a succinct sentence for each argument (or step in an argument) and each description or explanation that I wanted to include. Each bullet point below the subsection level roughly amounts to a paragraph in the finished thesis.

I.   Introduction
    a.   Description of the field
    b.   Research problem
    c.   Theoretical framework
        i.  Anthropology of ethics starts with the descriptive claim  
            that people everywhere are evaluative (Laidlaw, 2014: 3, 44-45). 
       ii.  Ethics are intrinsic to thought and action or analytically part 
            of ordinary life rather than limited to codes of conduct or to a 
            philosophical discipline (Lambek 2010b, Das 2012, Laidlaw 
            2014:119, Faubion 2011, Mattingly 2012; cf. Zigon 2007). 
      iii.  Anthropology of Ethics presupposes that people have freedom 
            (Faubion 2011:37, Mattingly 2012:162): 
       iv.  Ethical thoughts and actions have to be free by definition 
            otherwise they would be nothing more than the mechanical 
            workings of social structures and forces (Foucault 1997:117, 
            284, Faubion 2011:37).
        v.  Laidlaw specifically calls for a renewed interest in freedom 
            (Laidlaw 2014, 2002). However, ethical formations may also be 
            determined by preconfigured moral outlooks and involved in the 
            reproduction of moral systems (Robbins 2007).
    d.   Methodology
II.  Chapter 1
III. Chapter 2
IV.  Chapter 3
V.   Conclusion

My outline wasn’t fully worked out before I started writing, but for me it worked out in such a way that I was able to develop it one or two steps ahead of my writing schedule so that there was always something I could work on. In the end it is an iterative and cyclical process: in your outline you jot down some rough points you want to make in your argument , once you’ve worked those points out in writing you go back to your outline to update it and to see if the flow of the argument still makes sense.

Start writing

Or rather: stop reading. This might not apply to everyone, but I’ve found that I easily get stuck in the reading phase of the project, in the sense that I would just continue to read new chapters and articles because I was afraid that I would miss something. To break through this I had to put away all the literature I was reading and just start writing based on everything I’ve learned up to that point. If you do this, you might find that you’ll still need to dive into the literature again to address gaps in your knowledge, but you have at least started putting words to paper. Once you’ve got words on paper, even if they are not the right ones, you’ll at least have a text to work with, to expand and edit, and to slowly improve upon.

What has worked for me in this regard is, to either force myself to write for a set period of time (for example, by using the Pomodoro Technique and timer), or to sit down with pen and paper and write down everything I know on a mindmap or in an outline like the one mentioned above.

Once again, writing a thesis is an iterative and cyclical process, so don’t worry about getting it exactly right on the first attempt. It will improve everytime you reread and revise it so give yourself ample time for this. Lastly, I would encourage everyone to continue to find out what works best for you. The advice above is based on what worked for me but there are plenty of other ways for getting your writing done. So try out different approaches and find the one that works best for you.

Matthias Teeuwen is an alumnus of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit and has 8 years of exprience in research and writing, including two bachelortheses and a Research Master’s thesis.

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