What Not To Do while Writing a Thesis or Dissertation
Admittedly, there are so many things that postgraduate students should not do while writing a thesis or dissertation that a short post on the topic is little more than a drop in the ocean. Still, the following list focuses particularly on achieving the monumental task of writing a long research-based document, so it may prove helpful for students who are in the middle of this rigorous textual journey and who might at times find it difficult to see a clear light at the end of the tunnel.
• Do not begin writing a thesis or dissertation (or any part of one) without some sort of plan or outline, even if you can usually take this liberal approach with other kinds of writing. A thesis or dissertation requires a clear structure and a coherent argument, and it is best to keep these in mind as you write. Neglecting to do so can result in wasting many words, many pages and many hours of work.
• Do not fall into the trap of using the individual instruments of your research as the sole basis of your text’s structure. Research questions, different kinds of methodology and even chronological arrangements can be effective for organising specific sections of a thesis or dissertation, but presenting your findings, for instance, according to the items of a particular survey or questionnaire will lend the structure of the instrument to the results instead of connecting those results directly to the aims, themes and argument of your thesis or dissertation. As a general rule, only if your research actually focuses on developing the instrument you are using as a structural tool is such an approach successful.
• Do not put important ideas and discussions off until later. Often an idea or a development in a written argument occurs to an academic or scientific author at a certain point in writing a text because that is a logical place for presenting the material, though that fact may not have been clear until that moment. Go ahead and try a paragraph to explore the new idea or direction, and if it turns out that it will not fit there, you will have a draft for the place in your thesis or dissertation where it will work.
• Do not assume that you will remember the source you are citing or quoting and use that as justification for saving a little time by not recording the information you will need to relocate the source or the precise site of a quotation. Although it can interrupt a writer’s flow of words to stop and record all the bibliographical information about a scholarly source, noting something short and specific in parentheses as your fingers fly along will save a great deal of time and frustration down the road. (Donne, Flea, line 3) would work, and so would (3rd study 1982) or even (pink book 388) – as long as it means something to you, it will do its job.
• Do not detract from the impact of good evidence by presenting it poorly or from the effect of excellent aids to understanding by labelling or referring to them unclearly. For example, introducing the most surprising aspect of your findings at the end of a sentence, perhaps after the more predictable findings and a ‘but’ (as in ‘A and B matched the results of other studies, but the surprising finding was C’) will only bury them, especially if the sentence is a long and complicated one. Instead, place that surprise at the beginning of a new sentence and perhaps a new paragraph: ‘The most surprising result of my research was….’ If you are using tables and figures to present data and clarify procedures, be sure to lay them out effectively and label them clearly. They should also be referred to by number when you discuss them, and it is best to make it absolutely clear what you want your readers to see or understand in a table or figure (‘see Table 1 for the scores’ is a good example, and so is ‘Figure 2 shows this relationship’). Otherwise, confusion may be the most prominent result of your efforts.
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