Honours Thesis Writing Tips

As department head, the last couple of years I have sent out a message in the Spring to students who will be writing their honours thesis (aka “senior thesis”) the following year. Part of the message is specific to our program, but part of it is a more general set of tips for anyone starting to go through this kind of process. Our honours theses are typically about 50-60 double-spaced pages (~12,000-15,000 words), and in terms of academic credit, the equivalent of a full-year (two-semester) course. I’ve now supervised close to 20, so have some experience, and last year’s students seemed to find these tips helpful. Or at least mildly amusing. But I certainly don’t feel like I have the process totally mastered, so welcome insights in the comments section.

Acadia Politics Honours theses, with Diefenbaker mug. Photo: Andrew Biro

Acadia Politics theses, with Diefenbaker mug.
Photo: Andrew Biro

So, here are a few (ok, seven) tips on writing an Honours thesis. But all of the advice really boils down to: think of yourself as becoming a researcher and writer, and work to become a better one.

1. Use the internet. The internet provides a whole lot of advice for aspiring writers, including aspiring thesis-writers. You can find “how to write” tips from everyone from Stephen King to Walter Benjamin. Many of them actually offer good advice, although some may seem questionable (Dan Brown hangs upside down; Hemingway advises “Write drunk; edit sober”). Literaturereviewhq.com is one example of a blog with lots of good advice and resources for academic writing in particular (not just literature reviews). Gradhacker is another, aimed at graduate students, but honours thesis is not that far off. It has my all-time favourite: Katy Meyers, “Write damnit” (April 3, 2012). If you read nothing else on the internet, read this.

2. But not too much. I haven’t researched this exhaustively, and I’m sure you could spend a lot of time combing around such sites but, as with everything on the internet, it’s best to try to avoid getting sucked down the rabbit hole for hours on end. A general rule when doing interviews is that once you find yourself generally getting more of the same, it is time to stop. The same applies here. And for all the advice you find, online and off, use your judgement. Writing is an idiosyncratic process that is at least a little different for everyone; follow the tips that work for you and discard the ones that don’t. (Note: instructions from your thesis supervisor don’t count as “tips.” Don’t ignore them.)

3. Make time for your thesis. A thesis is a big project. One of the things about managing a big project is that by the time it is more “urgent” than any of the smaller projects you have to do, it is too late. One way to avoid the problems associated with this is to schedule a regular time to work on your thesis: a few hours weekly or even daily if you can. Know that Tuesday and Thursday evenings, or every day from 9 to 11, or whatever, is the time when you will work on your thesis. If you wait for a time when you have nothing else to do, or if you wait for “inspiration” to strike, you are almost guaranteed to get nothing done. Very often just sitting in front of a blank screen, or a pile of books with a notepad, knowing that you are not going anywhere for a couple of hours, will get you going.

4. Take care of the little things. For those days when you just can’t do any heavy intellectual lifting, there are more routine but still important things that you can do. Make sure the document that will become your thesis is formatted exactly the way that Research & Graduate Studies wants it: they are strict about this, and you don’t want to be trying to figure out how to get “mirror margins” in the last hour before the thesis is due. If you are using bibliographic software, enter the info for the sources you will be using. (Acadia students: Refworks is a bibliographic software program available free via the library website.) Learning to use bibliographic software can be a real time saver (especially if you are going on to graduate school), and saves you the painstaking work of formatting references.

5. Write. Another pitfall for thesis writers is to wait until they think they know everything before they start writing. “Research” and “writing” are not two separate stages. It will always be tempting to think that there is “just one more thing” you need to read before you are ready to start writing. Resist that temptation. You are already ready to start writing (you’re just not ready to stop writing yet). You should be writing all the time, even if it is “just” notes, drafts, partial outlines, etc. Writing early and often is important because you don’t really know what you know until you start writing it.

6. Rewrite. A related point is that almost nothing comes out just right the first time. Count on the fact that everything has to be edited, revised, rethought, re-written. Students often make the mistake of taking “revisions” to mean “corrections” as if it were just a technical matter of fixing errors. It is that as well, but revising is also a generative process where your ideas become clearer to yourself. In my experience, the difference between a decent thesis and a very good one is very often determined by whether or not the student has sufficient time (and energy) for a thorough revision of the whole thesis. Often insights achieved later in the writing process can affect what was written earlier. Unlike a course paper, where (usually) you know what your argument is going to be pretty much from the start, the scope of a thesis, and the fact that you are picking the topic, means that it is much more of a process of figuring out what you want to argue as you are writing it. This is why it is so valuable to finish a draft well before the “deadline.”

7. Put your ideas out there and talk to others about them. Having someone else read your work, or just willing to listen to you talk about it, can also be very helpful. Staying inside your own head allows you to take mental shortcuts, and to use concepts in your writing or make research choices without fully understanding them. Talking to other people and trying to explain what you are doing (and why you are doing it that way) is a great way to clarify things for yourself. Having someone who you can trust to edit your written work ruthlessly is invaluable.

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