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Writing Your Thesis
Dr Sato Juniper Graduate Research & Scholarships sato. juniper@uwa. edu. au
Thesis • Effective academic writing is an important skill that is not automatic. It can be developed and enhanced by the use of careful thought, planning, and some simple techniques.
Sub-theses • Effective writing benefits both the writer and the reader • In a thesis, effective writing is vital (often the deal-breaker) • You can enhance the effectiveness of your writing by understanding and managing the relationship between yourself as the writer and your reader/s. • There some simple techniques that you can use to manage the relationship with your reader/s.
Recommended Resources A Guide to Scientific Writing (2 nd edition) David Lindsay (1995) Longman Books This readable book outlines some extremely useful principles of scientific writing, with excellent examples and suggestions. It has a good chapter on writing a thesis. Very highly recommended (should be compulsory? ) reading for all research candidates, including those in non-scientific disciplines. You Can Write (2 nd edition) Eammon Murphy (1985) Longman Books This book is a very “user friendly” guide to grammar and punctuation. It includes clear explanations of grammar rules, exercises (with solutions) and examples. Highly recommended for all candidates who are unsure of the rules of grammar and punctuation. How to Get a Ph. D (second edition) Estelle Phillips and D. S. Pugh (1994) This book includes much excellent advice on graduate research, including a chapter on thesis. All research candidates should read this. • All of these books are available for loan from Student Services
Features of good scientific/academic writing • accurate • precise, clear, brief in that order of importance; • effective structure, with all sections containing appropriate information; • simple, clear language; • short, correctly structured sentences and paragraphs; • correct spelling and grammar; • simple, clear illustrations; • easy to read and understand; • Interesting.
Sentences and paragraphs • A sentence is a group of words that makes sense on its own. It contains one main point, which should be at the beginning. A sentence must contain at least one verb. • A paragraph is a structured group of sentences. It contains one main point, which should be at the beginning.
Academic writing and fiction – key differences • The purposes are different • In fiction, the information may be hidden (eg in a detective story) or put in unexpected places for effect. • In academic writing the information has to be obvious (ie you have to avoid ambiguity and spoil the surprise)
• The houses themselves were substantial and very decent. One could walk all around, seeing little front gardens with auriculas and saxifrage in the shadow of the bottom block, sweet williams and pinks in the sunny top block; seeing neat front windows, little porches, little privet hedges, and dormer windows for the attics. But that was outside; that was the view on to the uninhabited parlours of the colliers’ wives. The dwelling-room, the kitchen, was at the back of the house, facing inward between the blocks, looking at a scrubby back garden, and then at the ashpits. And between the rows, between the long lines of ash-pits, went the alley, where the children played, the women gossiped and the men smoked. So, the actual conditions of living in the Bottoms, that was so well built and that looked so nice, were quite unsavoury because people must live in the kitchen, and the kitchens opened onto that nasty alley of ash pits. (From Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence)
• The conditions of living in the Bottoms were quite unsavoury because the people lived in their kitchens. This meant that the people tended to congregate in the dirty ash pits, which were next to the kitchens, rather in than the clean gardens at the fronts of the houses.
Hint – assessing your own fluency and paragraph structure Try this with a piece of your own writing: Read each paragraph carefully. In the margin alongside each one, write a brief note of the main point. . When you have done this for the whole section, these notes should be a coherent summary of the whole story for that section. This is a good test for fluency. If you are not able to identify the main point of a paragraph, you may have two or more paragraphs mixed together. Separate them so that each paragraph contains only one main point. This means that all the sentences in that paragraph relate to that point. For each paragraph for which you were able to identify a main point, look to see whether that point is written clearly in a sentence (topic sentence). If it is, where is it? It should be at or close to the beginning of the paragraph. If there is no topic sentence, write one and put it at the beginning of your paragraph. Now check the fluency again by reading only the topic sentences. Does the story flow coherently? Are your paragraphs in the right order?
Some thoughts to ponder Good writing is not difficult - the thinking is the really difficult bit • Many people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do. (Bertrand Russell) • Three minutes thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time. (AE Houseman)
• Data are not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding and understanding is not wisdom. (Russell Ackoff)
Data, knowledge, information and wisdom • Data: the stuff we measure and record • Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to how much, which, what, when, where, who questions. • Knowledge: application of data and information; answers how questions. • Understanding: appreciation of why. • Wisdom: evaluated understanding why it is (or is not) important, and what it means in the total scheme of things
Thinking Research Field (the research is about…) Mineral composition of the solar system Research Problem (why the research is needed) The composition of the moon is not known (and we really need to know this because…) Research Question (the question/s the research will answer) What is the moon made of? Thesis statement/ Hypotheses (your educated guess/es about the findings) The moon is made of 60% kryptonite , 20% iron and 20% cheese. Research Method What I did to test my hypotheses Research Results What I found Discussion/evaluation What my findings mean in relation to my hypotheses and other research, both past and potential
Thinking: Thesis Brainstorm Choose a section of your thesis that you would like to plan (ie that you have not already planned). This may be a chapter, a section of a chapter or even the whole thesis – you choose. In the middle of a large piece of paper, write the key point/thesis statement/main purpose of the section. Then, wherever you like on the paper, brainstorm the section. What are the ideas/concepts/information that must/could be included? Start anywhere and do not attempt to put the ideas in order. Use abbreviations and notes, ignore spelling etc and do not filter ideas at this stage. Avoid cop-outs such as “introduce x” Now, review your brainstorm. Circle the points that represent main headings or subsections. Mark subsidiary points. Cross out any points that do not relate to the main point you first wrote (save them for later).
The Thesis Storyboard Transfer your main headings or subsections to Post-it notes, one per Post-it. On a second piece of paper, experiment with the order of the Post-it notes until you arrive at a logical sequence of ideas for your “story”. Add more Post-it notes as you think of new points. Delete some if necessary (save them for later) When you are happy with the story, record the main points and use them as topic headings or topic sentences. Continue this process for each chapter, section and even paragraph.
Readers’ Expectations Effective reading is a process of anticipating what the author is going to say and expecting it as one reads (Tannen, 1979). From R. Lawe Davies Coherence in tertiary student writing: Writers' skills and readers' expectations Ph. D Thesis (UWA) • Readers actively seek a basis for predicting what will come next. • Readers make predictions that relate to both the topic and the organisation of text. • Readers expect to continue predicting from the beginning to the end. • Readers become confused and irritated when their predictions are not fulfilled. So, given that our task as academic writers is to be readerfocussed …
We can use techniques to help readers to predict and follow the stories we want to tell. Predictive statements and organisers are useful for this.
Reader prediction – topic & content • Readers’ predictions are based on both convention and what the writer tells them • Topic predictions may be fulfilled by word repetition, predictable word groups • Items that fulfil readers’ predictions need to be in a noticeable position – at the front of the text unit (the power of position). • Unpredicted/unpredictable topics increase reader difficulty
Position is pivotal, and so is signposting • The beginning of the paragraph or sentence affirms the topic (gets the reader comfortable). It is the most powerful position. • Each new idea is then linked firmly to the one before it with transition words or phrases (signposts).
Transition words and phrases • Transition words and phrases help guide the reader through the document. For example, consider the following: Ideally, a paragraph in a technical document should not contain more than about 12 lines. Another useful rule is that a paragraph should contain more than one sentence. However, sometimes this is not appropriate and the paragraph consists of a single sentence.
Predictive Statements and Organisers Predictive statements and organisers are statements or words that help a reader to predict the content and organisation of the information that will follow.
Predictive statements – 2 kinds 1. Explicit: This paper will present the key features of the Ph. D programme, then examine the value of a Ph. D degree, and finally will outline some strategies for students preparing to start a Ph. D. 2. Implicit: There are four main issues to consider when commencing a Ph. D: choosing a supervisor; choosing a topic; becoming an independent researcher; and preparing a Ph. D thesis. • Prediction: four sections in known order
Organisers • occupy a front position in paragraph or sentence • may be used to organise the whole piece of writing or a section • 2 kinds: unifiers and dividers
Unifiers and Dividers Unifiers signal continuity of the topic from one paragraph to the next. Repeated key words, or different forms of the same word, are useful unifiers: reproduce/reproducing/reproductive. Decide on some key words and stick to them. You can also (carefully!) use pronouns: it; they and adjectives this; these as long as the subject is 100% clear.
If the baby will not eat the banana, mash it with a fork
Unifiers and Dividers indicate to the reader that there is a change (even if ever-so-subtle) from one topic to another, and lead the reader through it. There are several different forms of dividers: Topic indicators: headings or organising statements Transition indicators §time indicators: In the morning; Later §information hierarchy indicators: First; Next; Another; Further; Finally… §sequence indicators: First; Second; Third; Last. §logic indicators Accordingly; Thus; Therefore; Conversely; In contrast…
Hint • It is important to repeat keywords • Use variety in the transition words, ie do not over-use the same ones, because it is irritating. • Thus, therefore, accordingly, consequently, so, it follows……
Fulfilling your readers’ predictions • Title/headings– use content key words • Introduction – fulfil the predictions from the title by using the same key words, in strategic positions; provide a clear basis for accurate prediction of the rest of the document • Body of text – topic key words and transition words and phrases in strategic positions; ensure that there are NO unpredicted topics. Ensure that the sequence is logical. • Conclusion – check that you have used all the key words and kept your promises.
Giving feedback on writing • Determine first what you are being asked to do. • Give feedback from your own perspective (“I don’t understand” rather than “this is unintelligible”) • Remember that writing is a personal exercise – be constructive • Be honest
Receiving feedback • Ask for feedback on your writing at every opportunity – the more the better • Be clear about what you want when you ask for feedback • Be open to the feedback you receive and do not deny the reader’s experience (it’s ok to disagree about what needs to be done) • Use every criticism as an opportunity to reflect on and improve your writing.