Twenty Tips for Senior Thesis Writers



1. Begin* with something unresolved, some question about which you are truly

curious. Make clear to yourself and your readers the unresolved question that you

set out to resolve. This is your governing question, the question that directs the

structure of the piece.


Keep your eye on your governing question. You might want to put that question

somewhere where you will see it every time you sit down to work -- e.g., on a piece

of paper you attach to your computer, your bulletin board, or the wall. This will

serve as your lighthouse, your beacon on the horizon that helps you stay on course.

You need not be bound to the original form of this question; you may need to revise

it or supersede it several times as you move along. Keep a record of how your

governing question evolves.

 *Although it is important to "begin" your focused exploration with a governing question and to make that question clear early on in your thesis, you need not -- in fact, probably can not -- begin the entire research and writing process with a question. It takes a lot of work -- reading, talking with people, thinking -- to generate and focus your governing question.




2. Show your readers what leads you to pose your question in the first place. Your

governing question derives from competing observations, i.e., observations that

appear to you to be in tension with one another and to indicate an apparent puzzle,

problem, discrepancy, oversight, mystery, contradiction, or surprise. In the

introduction to your piece, let your readers know how what you observe leads you

to ask the question you ask.




3. Identify your subordinate questions. Just as the thesis as a whole is a response to

a governing question, each chapter, each section, and each paragraph of the thesis is

a response to a subordinate question. Subordinate questions are the questions you

will need to address or resolve on the way to addressing your governing question.


Make clear to yourself and your readers the subordinate questions to which each

chapter is a response. When you are having difficulty developing an idea or

structuring your piece, make a question outline, i.e., an outline in the form of

questions. Write out the questions to which each paragraph is a response; questions

tend to beget more questions and to form a natural pecking order and nesting order.





4. Freewrite. Write brief, uncensored pieces to loosen your mind (like stretches

before running) and to let yourself follow the playful, associative, non-linear logic of

your mind. Often we don't follow that associative logic very far because we dismiss

it early on as entirely illogical and useless. While it is true that in our final product

ideas need to be in the form of linear logic so that others can follow our thinking, we

need to draw upon our associative logic in the creative process. Associative logic is

the logic of dreams, of those times when our mind is free to wander (e.g., just before

we fall asleep, in the shower, while we're driving), and of those generative,

free-flowing conversations that lead us seemingly -- yet not entirely -- far afield from

where we started. If we follow our mind's wanderings and associations far enough,

they often lead to something creative and useful. Freewriting -- without thinking

about whether what we are saying is elegant or grammatical or concise or logical --

promotes the generation of ideas and of creative connections between ideas. Think

of freewriting as soil, not seed. Soil is the muck that nurtures a germinating idea

rather than the perfect seeds that become the actual sentences and paragraphs of the

final product.






5. Do focused, or prompted, freewriting. Sometimes freewriting works better with a

focus and/or a running start. Consider using the following questions and sentence

stems as prompts for your freewriting. Complete the sentence and continue writing

from there.




     1. When I started this course/paper/project, the thing that really

     interested me was . . .




     2. What makes it hard to engage with what I'm doing is that . . . .




     3. Of all the stuff I'm doing these days, what really interests me is . . .




     4. The questions I find myself thinking about these days are questions

     like . . .




     5. If I had to put my paper into the form of a single question, it would be .

     . .




     6. The observations I make that lead me to pose that question are . . .




     7. I want to know . . .




     8. I want to figure out how . . .




     9. I have a hunch that . . .




     10. I wish I could say in my paper that . . .




     11. I doubt I can say in my paper that . . .




     12. If things were as neat and tidy as I'd like them to be, . . .




     13. I'm stuck. I'm stuck because I can't figure out . . .




     14. [A letter to a friend or to your reader] Dear ____, I'm trying to write

     this piece about _____. And do you know what? . . .




     15. What stands out to me about all the stuff I've been reading is this idea

     that . . .




     16. Dialogue between me and the experts (this exercise comes from

     writing teacher Eileen Farrell):




     This author/professor/theorist/expert says . . .


     And/but I say . . .




     He or she also says . . .


     And/but I say . . .




     17. What I've been reading makes me wonder . . .




     18. I'm learning that . . .




     19. What makes my question hard to reckon with or difficult to resolve is

     that . . .



     20. One way in which I could attempt to reckon with those difficulties is .

     . .




     21. If I could say what I really want to say, . . .




     22. If I could approach this project in the way I really want to, . . .




     23. If I could write about the question that really interests me, . . .





6. Work in 15-minute stretches. We tend to approach big jobs by thinking we need

big amounts of time. We say to ourselves, "I need to write this paper. It's 1:00 now.

I'm free until dinner at 6:00. That's five hours. I should get a lot done." But in fact, we

barely make a dent. We brush our teeth, do our laundry, water our plants, pay a few

bills, straighten our room, make a list of errands, hang out with our friends, chat on

the phone. But we spend very little time on task (the task of writing). That's because

few of us can work for five solid hours on one thing, especially something as

difficult and anxiety-provoking as writing.


Especially if you are having difficulty getting started or staying with writing, try to

work for very small stretches of time. Most of us can do anything for fifteen minutes.

Work for fifteen, break for five is not a bad guideline. You may be surprised at how

much you can get done in fifteen focused minutes. It is much better to work for

fifteen minutes and get something done, however small, than to keep thinking for

five hours that you should be working and be so daunted or scared that you get

nothing done and then feel discouraged, demoralized, and guilty.




7. Employ the SOS strategy: specific, observable steps. (The phrase "specific,

observable steps" comes from Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen, authors of

Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do about It.) Think in terms of specific,

fifteen-minute tasks that you can picture yourself doing and completing. "I am going

to take fifteen minutes to write down a list of a questions that my thesis will need to

address"; "I am going to take an inventory of all the things I can say, all the things I

wish I could say but don't know if I have the evidence to support, and all of the

hunches I have"; and "I am going to write a memo to myself about what makes my

question a hard one to answer" are examples of such tasks. "I'm going to work on my

thesis for five hours between lunch and dinner" is an example of a plan that is

neither specific nor observable: with such a vague intention, there is nothing specific

you can picture yourself starting, doing, and finishing.




8. Use the So/And Even So Exercise. Whenever you find yourself saying "I have

only fifteen minutes, so I can't do anything productive," try saying, "I have only

fifteen minutes, and even so . . . I could make a phone call/jot a few notes about

what questions I might address in this paper/skim the beginning and end of this

chapter to identify the question the writer's addressing."


The So/And Even So Exercise can also work when you are feeling tired, sad, lonely,

scared, discouraged, overwhelmed. It is my version of an exercise that comes from a

friend who used to coach beginning adult runners. He told them they didn't need to

run every scheduled running day but that they just needed to suit up -- put on their

running clothes and running shoes -- every running day. If they said to themselves,

"I'm tired/busy/sad/lonely/, so I can't run today," he asked them to say, "I'm

tired/busy/sad/lonely, and even so, I could suit up." The idea is that if you put

yourself in a position to work, you often find that you can -- and even want to -- do

some work.


When you find yourself saying things like "I'm sleepy, so I can't work on this"; "I

haven't called my best friend in a week, so I can't work on this"; "I have rehearsal in

half an hour, so I can't work on this"; "I really want to see a movie, so I can't work on

this"; "I'm scared I'm going to fail, so I can't work on this," try replacing the "so" with

"and even so": " . . . and even so, I could work for fifteen minutes on tracing the line

of thinking that leads me to pose my questions"; "I could brainstorm for fifteen

minutes about questions I might want to address in my paper"; "I could skim this

chapter to see if I can get the governing question that the writer sets out to address";

"I could read for fifteen minutes to see how this author defines this tricky term."




9. Save often. Just as you need to save often when you're working on a computer,

you need to save often (in your brain) when you're reading and studying. The way

to save your thoughts is to jot them down. Otherwise your ideas may get deleted,

especially if you have a power surge (get caught up in another idea) or a crash (fall

asleep). (Interestingly, the Macintosh Users' Guide makes this save-frequently

analogy in the other direction. A section called "Save Your Work," reads, "Since work

that exists only in memory is lost when you shut down the computer, you need to

save your work so you can come back to it later. If you don't save your work, it

disappears -- like thoughts that are lost unless you write them down.")


Believe that some notes are better than no notes. As you read or listen, jot down

even brief notes about what is standing out to you, puzzling you, or bothering you.

These need not be extensive or grammatically correct or stylistically elegant notes.

Their purpose is two-fold: to help you do something active with the material to

make it your own and to leave you with enough of a record of your reading and

thinking that you can recall it later.


Write notes to yourself. One way of saving often is to keep a thesis journal or

memos folder on your computer. Use your thesis journal or memos folder for

freewriting (prompted or unprompted) (see #5 and #6 above). Also use your journal

or folder to write your notes in the form of brief memos to yourself about your latest

response to, or further questions about, or musings on a particular question. If your

word-processing program allows you to keep two windows open, keep a memo

window open whenever you are writing at your computer (no matter what you're

working on). This double-window approach allows you to catch those fleeting

thoughts that fly through your mind in the middle of whatever else your doing.


Create two thesis journals or folders: one on your computer (i.e., a folder for memos

-- see above) as well as one for hand-written entries (i.e., a notebook, big envelope,

manila folder, or big piece of paper on the wall) to record thesis thoughts that come

to you in moments when you're not at the computer. Great ideas don't always come

at appropriate or convenient times, so you have to log them in as they arrive. You

may do some of your most creative thinking in the spaces in between your official

work sessions and end up jotting some of your best ideas on cocktail napkins, the

backs of old envelopes, scraps of paper, and receipts. Just make sure you have once

place or "bin" where you keep them all together. Some people keep one such bin for

the introduction, another for the conclusion, one for each chapter, and one

miscellaneous file for what writing teacher Larry Weinstein calls "gems without a







10. Let your reader in on your reasoning, your thinking, your understanding. Let

your reader know what you want him or her to take away from or learn from a

chapter and from your thesis as a whole. Don't just present data. Show your reader

how you want him or her to make sense of the data, what you want him or her to see

as meaningful about all that data. Show your reader the inferences you make, the

things you see as you read between the lines.






11. Make a point. Many senior thesis writers tend to rely on summarizing,

describing, narrating, and categorizing and never get around to making a point.

While an elegant and clarifying summary, or a careful and sensitive description, or a

well-chosen and illustrative narrative, or a new and intriguing categorization may be

a contribution to your field, chances are you will be expected to develop some sort

of argument or point, that is, to use your summary, description, narrative, or

categorization in the service of an analytic response to some unresolved question or

problem. If you find yourself relying on summaries, descriptions, narratives, and

categorization, ask yourself, "What larger question is this in the service of?"






12. Reckon with the complexity of your question. You don't necessarily need to

resolve your question completely. Sometimes it is enough to talk clearly about how

and why things are complex rather than to clear up the complexity.






13. Show the subtleties of your thinking. Many students rely on variations of "and"

to connect their ideas: "and"; "in addition"; "also"; "next"; "another example"; "later";

"plus"; "besides"; "yet another thing." It is as though they knit one very long piece

with a basic knit-one-purl-one stitch and then decide after it is long enough that they

will cast off, add a few tassels, and call it a scarf. That is fine when we are just

learning to knit or to write, but to construct complex garments and arguments, we

need to make more complex connections between things.




Don't say "and" when you mean to form a more precise connection: "even though";

"seems like, but"; "is insignificant unless we consider"; "is based on the problematic

assumption that"; "does not adequately address the question of"; "goes even farther

and demonstrates that"' "despite its problems is nonetheless useful for"; "but this

definition differs in one critical respect"; "addresses that question but does not

address the matter of." An analogy or metaphor can also help you clarify a

connection between ideas.






14. Use chapter titles and subheads as important signposts for your reader and as

ways of challenging yourself to summarize your thoughts. To name is to know.






15. Let readers of your draft know the questions you have about the draft. While

you may also want to give your adviser and friends carte blanche to respond to

whatever strikes them in your drafts, sometimes specifying some of the questions

you have helps you feel less vulnerable to getting feedback. You can ask people to

tell you what they see as your governing question, or to name three things they

learned in reading your chapter, or to tell you what they liked most and what they

had the most trouble with, or to tell you where your argument is weakest and where

it is strongest, how the tone works in a particular place, etc.






16. Accept that anxiety and anxiety-management are part of the writing process.

Upon the completion of his doctorate, a graduate student commented that 80% of the

time and energy involved in writing a dissertation goes to anxiety management. You

can't wait until you are not afraid or not anxious to begin writing. You need to find

ways to write even when you're anxious. Writing in your thesis journal about your

fear or anxiety can be a way of keeping yourself company in your fear, discovering

what your fear is about, letting the fear be there without letting it stop you from

doing what you need to do. In addition to writing about your fear or stuckness,

working in 15-minute stretches, taking frequent breaks, getting regular exercise,

meditating, using the SOS strategy, using the So/And Even So Exercise, and talking

with people are all ways of managing your anxiety.






17. Take frequent breaks. To sustain your focus and concentration, you need to pace

yourself. Pacing requires well-timed breaks. Take a break before you get to the

"breaking point," that is, the point at which you are so exhausted that you collapse

or so frustrated that you avoid getting back to the task.




Many people say, "But my 'little' breaks inevitably last for hours." You can avoid the

potential for dangerously long breaks if you a) develop a repertoire of refreshing

activities; b) experiment with breaks of different sizes; and c) develop a sensitivity

to when you need a break and to what kind and what length of break you need at

any given point. Your repertoire of breaks might include talking with a friend,

meditating, dancing in your room to a favorite song, reading the mail, making a

phone call, getting something to eat or drink, taking a brief nap (notice how long is

"just right" for you), reading a novel or a newspaper, doing the dishes, taking a walk,

doing some artwork, starting a letter to a friend, getting exercise, or running an

errand. When you take a break, ask yourself what exactly you need right now. Do

you need a change of activity (e.g., to do something physical rather than something

sedentary or to work on an art project rather than a problem set)? Do you need a

change of environment (e.g., to get some fresh air or to work in a friend's room)? A

change of perspective (e.g., to talk with a friend or to see a movie)? Sleep?

Company? Nourishment? Distraction? Entertainment? Notice which sorts and sizes

of breaks are most responsive to particular needs. Sometimes only a long break will

do. But frequent, brief breaks can be surprisingly restorative.






18. Think of your work in terms of relationship, a process of continually

connecting and re-connecting. Things get out of perspective when they fall out of

relationship: we cannot tell how big or small things are unless we see them in

relation to something else. To keep your work in perspective, or to bring your thesis

back to scale once you've lost perspective, try to stay in relationship with, i.e.,

connected with




          your curiosity and your caring (also known as your interest,

          your passion, your desire to understand or to know) -- by

          remembering what drew you to your question in the first





          your question -- by freewriting, being playful with ideas (see

          #5 and #6 below).




          your coaches (i.e., teachers), colleagues (i.e., fellow students),

          and loyal fans (i.e., friends) by talking with them about your

          ideas and about your experience of trying to write.




You may find the following three metaphors of connecting and reconnecting helpful:


          Engaging, disengaging, and reengaging gears. Imagine your

          mind and your project as two gears. To turn, they need to

          engage, to mesh. Questions are the cogs of the gears, the

          means by which your mind engages with your project. You

          prepare to write (or read) by remembering the questions your

          piece is addressing (or discovering the questions an author is

          addressing) and by generating questions of your own. These

          questions set the gears in motion. Whenever your mind

          disengages (i.e., you lose your concentration) use these

          questions to help you reengage.




          Relating (to your project). Relationships, whether with your

          studies or with people, share common phases and themes:

          Getting acquainted. Courtship. Falling in and out of love.

          Disillusionment. Negotiating new terms. Staying in touch.

          Getting reacquainted. Remembering what about the other

          initially attracted you, appealed to you. Remaining curious

          about the other. Finding common ground. Negotiating more

          formal relationships, i.e., those based on something other than

          love or friendship.




          Practicing Zen (an approach to everything in life, including

          one's writing, reading and studying). A Zen approach to life

          involves mindfulness (vs. mindlessness); being present (vs.

          being absent); and cultivating an abiding awareness of your

          relation to all you do and encounter in your life.




          When your attention wanders, as it inevitably will, just notice

          that it has, and bring it back to your task. Don't judge yourself

          or your behavior ("There I go again being such a poor writer

          (or reader). I never keep my focus. I have such a short

          attention span. I bet I have the poorest concentration of

          anyone. I can't believe I am so distractible. I must be doing

          something wrong. Everyone else in this class (or this library,

          or the world) knows how to keep their focus. I'm just not a

          good reader. . ."). Such judgments waste your precious time

          and energy. When you lose your concentration, just notice

          what you are doing, and then bring your attention back to

          your focus.






19. Negotiate with yourself. When you seem to be sabotaging your own efforts to do

what you intend, listen for internal voices that express your competing needs,

desires and fears. Part of you might be saying, "Me, I really do want to do well on

this project. I want to get down to work." But another part might be saying, "Me, I'm

going to make sure I get some time to hang out with friends no matter what." And

yet another part might be saying, "Me, I'm afraid I'm really not competent to do this

project. I'm afraid that if I work on it now, I'll just discover that I really don't know

what I'm doing or that I can't do as good a job as I want to."




At times like this, it is as if our behavior is being guided by an internal committee

whose members each have a vested interest in their own particular preferred

activity. The committee as a whole has trouble either accomplishing a task or

enjoying itself wholeheartedly because its members keep quibbling over which

activity should have priority. Worktime tends to be compromised by the desire to

rest or play, and playtime tends to be contaminated by guilt and anxiety over not





To work and play with less internal conflict, you need to form alliances among

various parts of yourself -- for example, among the part of you that aspires to do

your best, the part that values other things in life besides achievement, and the part

that is afraid of failure, compulsive working, loneliness, or other potential risks of

engaging with your work. To form such an alliance requires that all of the separate,

uncooperative, "me/I" voices join to create a generative "we/let's" voice (e.g., "Okay,

we have a lot of different things that matter to us. Let's figure out how can we get

going on this project and also help manage our fear about not being good enough

and also guarantee that we can have time to play"). In creating a "we/let's" voice,

you bring together all of your energies in the effort to live a life that feels whole and

true to the complexity of who you are.






20. Let yourself be surprised in the process of writing your thesis. True learning

involves a transformation of sorts, and we all know how disorienting

transformations can be.










 Burka, J. and Yuen, L. (1983). Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do about It.

Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.


Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.


_______. (1981). Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process.

New York: Oxford University Press.


 Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer within. Boston:



_______. (1990). Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life. New York: Bantam Books.


Lipson, A. and Perkins, D. N. (1990). Block: Getting out of Your Own Way: The New

Psychology of Counterintentional Behavior in Everyday Life. New York: Lyle Stuart.
















These worksheets provide prompts for freewriting, i.e., questions and sentence stems that give

you a running start when you sit down to do some focused freewriting. Focused or prompted

freewriting is uncensored writing that is done in the service of creativity, of generating ideas

and potential links between ideas.






                        Connecting with Your Curiosity


What really interests me is . . .


     (OR, alternatively, When I started this project, the thing that really

     interested me was . . .)


     (OR, alternatively, What really drew me to this topic in the first place was. . .)






















                           Putting Vague Thoughts

                          into the Form of Questions


Here is a list of questions -- large and small, near and far, grand and modest, and in

no particular order -- that I might want to consider in my thesis:






















                     Identifying Your Governing Question:

If I had to put my topic into the form of a single question, that question would be . . .

     (OR, alternatively, What I really want to know is . . .)






















                           Questions and Prompts

                            toward an Introduction


                          So What and Why Bother?:

          Identifying What Makes Your Question a Question at All and

                  What Makes It a Question Worth Addressing




 My governing question derives from competing observations*, i.e., observations

that appear to me to be in tension with one another and to indicate an apparent

puzzle, problem, discrepancy, oversight, mystery, contradiction, or surprise. The

competing observations that give rise to my governing question are . . .




. . . on the one hand . . .


























. . . but on the other hand/and yet . . .
























This problem/puzzle, discrepancy etc. and my governing question are of interest to

other scholars/researchers because . . .




















*Any given paper might be a response to more than two competing observations.
























                           Questions and Prompts

                          toward a Historiography or Literature Review


Who else (or what other body or bodies of literature) has attempted to address my

governing question (or related questions)?


















The question they asked was . . .

































The way they approached their question was to . . .


















What they ended up saying in response to the question they posed is . .


















What remains

unasked/unresolved/overlooked/unexplored/unaddressed/misunderstood is . . .
















My project addresses that gap by . . .












                           Questions and Prompts

                          toward a Methods Section


I can think of my methods as being, in part, the actual tasks (e.g., library research,) I will need to undertake to approach the question I am posing. Those tasks are (and I will try to be as specific as

I can) . . .
















Other methods I could potentially use (i.e., other tasks I could potentially

undertake) to approach the question I'm posing are . . .
















My reasons for choosing to use some of the methods I list above and not others are ...
















Terms I will need to define to do this research include . . .














Some of the methodological issues/problems/challenges with which I will need to

contend are (these include both questions others might ask about how I am

approaching my question as well as questions I myself have about how I am

approaching my question) . . .
















I might respond to or deal with those methodological issues/problems/challenges

by . . .














                           Questions and Prompts

                              toward a Chapter (or Section of Thesis)


If I had to put this chapter into the form of a single question, that question would be .

. .




















Here is a list of other questions I need to address in this chapter:












                           Questions and Prompts

                             toward a Conclusion


The headway I've made toward resolution of my governing question is . . .
















What remains unresolved is . . .
















It remains unresolved because . . .
















My research has implications for . . .
















For instance, my research has methodological implications for future research, that

is, implications for how we frame the questions in this field and implications for the

methods we use to address those questions. Those implications include . . .
















Other implications include (e.g., implications for specific practices or policies,

implications for how we interpret results of previous research) . . .

















                         Reckoning with Complexity


What makes my question a particularly complex* one with which to reckon is that . .





































I will attempt to reckon with those complexities by . . .



















*Remember: You do not necessarily need to clear up all of the complexity, but you at least need to be

clear about how and why things are (and remain) complex.








                             Narrowing the Scope


It is beyond the scope of my paper to . . .


























Therefore, I won't consider/explore/analyze that issue in depth in this piece. For the

purposes of this paper, I will . . . (e.g., assume . . . /work on the premise that . . .

/summarize others' thinking on this matter . . . /refer the reader to . . .)

















I make that particular assumption/work on that particular premise/summarize that

particular person's thinking/refer the reader to that particular literature because . . .












Here are some of the ideas that I might not be able to include in this thesis or paper

but that deserve safekeeping because they are brilliant and precious thoughts -- or at

least interesting thoughts -- that might come in handy for some other project:














































                          prepared by Sheila M. Reindl

                         c/o Bureau of Study Counsel

                             Harvard University

                5 Linden St., Cambridge, MA 02138 (617) 495-2581

                          1989 (revised 1994, 1996) From: