by Molly Rookwood
Published at 2020-01-30
So, you’ve done your years of studying. You’ve written countless essays and papers and exams. You know enough about a specific subject that you could write dozens of pages about it, and now that your next step is to write your thesis, you’ll have to do just that.
At The Editing Company, we edit a wide range of academic writing, including academic theses. By the time we get to a client’s thesis, however, the writer has already completed the hardest part—the hours and hours of research, planning, and writing to complete the work itself.
I had the incredible opportunity to write a thesis while completing my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of King’s College. Not every undergraduate degree offers the chance to write a thesis, but most students in honours programs will have to fulfill a thesis requirement of some kind. For this blog, I will discuss what goes into writing a thesis as an undergraduate student.
While students in an MA or PhD enter their programs with specific ideas about what they plan to write their theses about, undergraduate students study such a wide range of topics that choosing a topic to focus on for a full year can be intimidating.
My first piece of advice on this subject is to not get too specific right away. Figure out a topic generally, and then start reading anything you can get your hands on to narrow it down. When I began my thesis process, I knew I wanted to write about Jane Austen, but the final topic, Austen’s social criticism as seen through her manipulation of the marriage plot novel structure, didn’t evolve until much later, after I had read dozens of scholarly articles and essays and books.
The breadth of your topic is also crucial to keep in mind. An undergraduate thesis is going to be shorter than a master’s thesis or PhD, so don’t try to tackle something too big, like all of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. It’s also longer than anything you’ve written before, though, so make sure it’s a big enough topic that it’ll take the appropriate amount of pages to work through. No yes-or-no questions, and nothing that you already think you know your answer to.
The biggest mistake that I see students making when they first start their theses is the idea that it’s simply a longer essay. Every program will ask for something different, of course, but a thesis should be a piece of writing in which you explore a topic at length. Take the five-paragraph essay idea you learned in elementary school and throw it out the window. In my experience, an introduction should be an introduction to your topic, rather than simply to your essay. What follows your introduction will vary depending on your discipline and many other things. A biology thesis will look very different from a history thesis, and neither one will look like the essay you learned to write when you were ten.
As a student, I always wrote detailed outlines for my essays. My outlines would include the section topics, the points I’d make, and the quotations I’d use. When I went to write my thesis, that approach proved impossible. There was too much to include, and because, as I discussed above, a thesis is an exploration to a question you don’t initially know the answer to, rather than an explanation of something that you do, any attempt at a highly detailed outline would be doomed by the questions you don’t yet have answers to.
What I found most useful was to instead create a loose outline for my project. I knew roughly what I wanted to say in my introduction and how I planned to divide my major sections before I started writing, but I held back from trying to force myself to stick to a strict outline. As I wrote, I found that my ideas evolved in a way that didn’t necessarily match my initial conception of the thesis, and because I had treated my outline as a guide to work off of, I wasn’t held back by my previous work.
Committing to work on a single project for a year can be daunting, and there will be times over the course of writing your thesis where you’ll become discouraged. The best way to avoid this is to make sure, early on, that you deeply care about your topic. I managed to come out of my thesis with a greater love and admiration for Jane Austen and her works than I had when I began, and that is because I picked a topic that I knew I could immerse myself in happily for months.
Once you have your topic and your research and your rough outline, my advice (if your topic allows this) is to jump around and to write the parts that most excite you before filling in the rest. If your topic is data driven, there will be parts that you have to write first, but if a certain section is frustrating you, try leaving it aside for the moment and working on something else instead. You’ll be able to return to the initial section with a clearer head, and whatever part you chose to work on instead might help you to think differently about the section you were stuck on.
Very little in my thesis ended up the way I expected it to. As I mentioned earlier, keeping my outline loose allowed my thesis to evolve as it needed to. The topics that I expected to put together didn’t always flow into each other, and I sometimes had to move entire pages around in order for my arguments to progress the way I needed them to. If I introduced an argument earlier than I planned to because it fit well in an early section, I sometimes needed to move the context for that argument to build the appropriate foundation.
Far more than any essay you’ve ever written before, a thesis is a project that shifts in ways you won’t expect. Because you don’t have your answers when you begin, you can’t know exactly where things will end up. A good thesis writer moves sections and rewrites as necessary. And a good thesis writer doesn’t hold too tightly to an expected conclusion. You may find, over the course of your thesis, that your conclusion is the opposite of what you expected it to be. That’s okay. That’s the process, and that shows that your thesis has been a process of learning and exploration. If, at the end of your thesis process, you’ve reached a conclusion that you never expected, then you’ve probably done a good job.
Molly Rookwood is a freelance editor and grammar-enthusiast based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Would you like to read more of our writing blogs? Check out our awesome collection of tips for writing!