Remember, you are not Proust.
For centuries in Italy, a university degree was only for the elite. Until recently, Italian undergraduates needed to write a thesis: a 100-400 page typewritten manuscript of original research, defended in front of a panel of professors. It was the only way into many careers.
For the masses of new students arriving at the democratizing universities of ’70s Italy a thesis was a daunting challenge. Many of them had little time and no access to the big libraries necessary for humanities research. Overwhelmed professors could barely supervise.
Umberto Eco was one of these professors. In 1977, just before he became famous for The Name of the Rose, he wrote a small handbook to help struggling students. How to Write a Thesis* has been in print for over 40 years. Used and beloved by generations of students in Europe and beyond, it was only recently translated into English. What accounts for the enduring popularity of the book?
Eco’s style is wry and funny, even when delving into exacting detail. But what makes this small book, full of old-fashioned advice about typewriting, index cards, and libraries, still relevant today is Eco’s belief in the almost magical power of the thesis journey as a true foundation for future challenges in life. It’s an irresistible love letter to research and the creative thrill of rigorous process.
Your thesis is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget. In the end, it will represent your first serious and rigorous academic work, and this is no small thing.
But it’s not just for academics. Anyone who researches or writes for others will find something useful here.
In many ways, Eco’s advice about approaching the challenge is more important than the details—which are often either outdated, or can vary by institution. Here is a summary of the broader advice.
1. The Purpose of a Thesis
Writing a thesis (a manuscript in which you address a particular problem in your chosen field) is a worthy activity that demonstrates that you have learned the skills of research, writing, thinking and argument developed at college.
Through study, students acquire the capacity to identify problems, confront them methodically, and articulate them systematically in expository detail. These skills will serve students for a lifetime. (Page xx).
The journey is more important than the end product. If you can’t commit to at least six months’ work to do it properly don’t start. (If you absolutely need the degree, you should buy a thesis, or copy an obscure one (!) It is illegal, and will take some good research work to avoid discovery.)
2. Picking a Topic
You must pick a subject that has not been satisfactorily answered before or about which you can say something new. You need to scope the thesis so that you can become the world’s authority on your question. This usually means choosing a very narrow scope, for which the sources you need to study are readily available. The rigor is what counts. Most students start too broad: prefer a monograph to a survey, an essay to an encyclopedia.
The topic doesn’t even matter, the process and skills developed are more important.
In fact, Marx wrote his thesis on the two ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, not on political economy, …. Also, considering that so many students start with an ambitious thesis on Marx and then end up working at the personnel office of a big capitalist business, we might begin to question the utility, topicality, and political relevance of thesis topics. (Page 7).
Do choose a topic and methodology that you have some background or experience with, and make sure you can read the key sources in their original language.
To sum up, write a thesis you can write.
As you choose a topic, consider that your audience is the thesis panel. So make sure you have worked with your advisor and that they support your thesis prior to the defense. Additionally, choose a narrow well-defined topic that you are expert in, but they are not.
3. Conducting Research
Your first step is to compile a bibliography of the sources you will need to read or at least be aware of.
A good researcher can enter a library without having the faintest idea about scholarship on a particular topic, and exit knowing more about it, if only a little more.
A thesis studies an object using instruments. In science the instruments may be experiments, in the humanities, they are likely texts. Always go to the direct source wherever they exist — original or critical editions, untranslated. You will also need indirect sources, usually critical literature.
Find your first few sources and use their bibliographies to get a sense for the landscape and hierarchy of the field. For each work you think you will need, create a reference. (Eco quaintly suggests writing each source on a separate index card to create a file of bibliographic cards you can bring with you to the library.). Whether you do this on paper or electronically you only need to capture the source details, location, and possibly a brief assessment of hierarchical importance.
Make sure that you are rigorous about following the bibliographic rules in your discipline. This will make it easy to complete your full bibliography at the end of your paper. Following bibliographic guidelines correctly not only ensures that anyone can accurately find the resource that you cite, but also is part of speaking the language of academe, of showing to your advisors that you are an “insider”.
…they are also rules, so to speak, of erudite etiquette. Their observance reveals a scholar who is familiar with the discipline, and their violation betrays the academic parvenu, and sometimes casts a shadow of discredit on an otherwise rigorous work. (Page 62).
You should now have a good list of the books/articles you have and also must find. This is your reading plan, keep track. Start to read while you are building the bibliography — this will help to set you up for the next stage in the process. If the primary texts are hard to understand, start by reading a couple of the general critical texts, then go to the primary sources. The exact order is not important.
And don’t be shy — ask for help.
You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.
4. The Work Plan and the Index Cards
The Work Plan
Once you have your bibliography, write down a working title, an introduction, and a table of contents for your thesis — first. Yes, first. You certainly will have to revise this. It helps to make sure you can articulate what the area of inquiry is, and it defines the limits of the thesis.
By proceeding in this way, you will first clarify for yourself what you want to do. Secondly, you will be able to propose an intelligible project to your advisor. Thirdly, you will test the clarity of your ideas. (Page 108).
The process is roughly:
Phase one: write an interim title that you might eventually use as the subtitle of the thesis — the question your research is addressing.
Phase Two: Break down the topic into logical sections that will become chapters. Then write the table of contents articulated in chapters, sections and subsections.
Your outline should probably contain
- The state of the issue
- The previous research
- Your hypothesis
- Your supporting data
- Your analysis of the data
- The demonstration of your hypothesis
- Conclusions and suggestions for further research
There are lots of different logic designs for your table of contents — how you approach structuring your subject. Once you have that structure — you can use it to guide your inquiry. This helps when gathering evidence as you can then hang each thought or piece of evidence to a part of your structure. The table of contents then becomes a kind of numerical grid to help you organize your research.
Phase Three: Try to draft an introduction. Outline what thesis you are proposing to demonstrate — and what you will do in each of the chapters. This introduction, which will be rewritten many times, gives you a starting point and keeps your wanderings in control. It also tests whether your ideas are organized. You should have a suspicion of where the thesis will go.
The introduction also defines the center and periphery of your argument, what you are expected to have deep expertise in and what you are not. This will become very important when you present your thesis to the panel. Your final introduction will be different and better. When writing your introduction imagine that a reader will only get to read it and not go further.
Don’t start writing the thesis until you have the table of contents. Then, when you start, you can start at any point.
At this point, it should be clear that you will continuously rewrite the introduction and the table of contents as you proceed in your work. … This is normal. If this were not the case, it would mean that all of your research did not inspire a single new idea. Even if you are determined enough to follow your precise plan from beginning to end, you will have missed the point of writing a thesis if you do not revise as you progress with your work.
Index Cards and Notes
Now for reading. You should own or have copies of primary sources and you should underline them selectively to keep a record of your interest. Use colors related to your work plan or abbreviations related to your structure and to indicate importance. Note passages you want to return to to reread — add adhesive page markers.
If the book is yours and it does not have antiquarian value, do not hesitate to annotate it. Do not trust those who say that you must respect books. You respect books by using them, not leaving them alone.
For secondary, critical resources, also underline, make notes, connect each underline to a topic in your thesis structure.
Beware the “alibi of photocopies”! …. There are many things that I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it.
For sources you don’t own or don’t have copies of (and ideally even for those you do) you should create reading cards. The reading cards, (extra large index cards) are for everything that you want to take from the book. Use them to summarize, make assessments, store quotes — anything you are gleaning from that book/article. You may need more than one per book. When writing your thesis, you should be able to find what you need on the reading card without having to return to the source.
Standard information on your reading card
- Precise bibliographic information for final bibliography
- Author information if not well-known
- Summary of book or article
- Passages to quote if not using a separate quote file (note pages precisely and always use quotation marks)
- Personal comments throughout using square brackets
- Abbreviation/s or color/s to correspond to work structure
Fill in cards for everything you read — even if only to remind you dismiss it — but also because many of the best ideas come from non-major authors.
This is academic humility: the knowledge that anyone can teach us something.
Depending on your research you might create additional index cards in addition to your reading cards. You could create index cards based on ideas, themes, or authors. If what you primarily need are illustrative quotes — make a series of quote index cards. Other index cards that are useful are connection cards that link ideas and structure, question cards for how to confront a problem, recommendation cards that note ideas provided by others, suggestions etc. Each card type should be a different color and have cross-references to other cards in the top right. The number and type of card you need is driven by the structure.
The point of creating cards is to allow for structural flexibility — to be able to connect and idea, or piece of evidence with something else, and then to be able to move it to another position.
Writing cards takes time, but it saves time at the end.
5. Writing the Thesis
Once you have done the research, it is time to write your thesis.
For whom should you write it? On one level, you are writing for your advisor and the panel. But a thesis is also a tiny gift to humanity — something new to add to past scholarship. It should be aimed at others who may need to consult it, and who may not be well versed in that discipline. For this reason, define all your terms unless they are absolutely canonical.
Selected writing advice
- Rewrite many times.
- “You are not Proust”, write short sentences.
- “You are not e.e. Cummings” — use the language and style of scholarship.
- The more paragraphs, the better.
- Don’t use rhetorical flourishes if you have to explain them.
- Always define a term when you introduce it.
- Don’t explain who someone is if they are well-known — although you should provide information in the text, or a note — at least a couple of dates for everyone.
- Use we instead of I — you are inviting a reader to accept your proposal — or use impersonal expressions.
There are two types of quotes — quotes from a text that you will interpret, and quotes from a text that will support your interpretation.
Rules for quotes:
- Quote your subject text a fair amount,
- Only quote critical literature when it supports your statements authoritatively (or says something new). Don’t cite someone for something obvious,
- Put your critical remarks around the quote if you disagree with it.
- Make sure author and source are identifiable. Quotes of 2-3 lines can run in the text in quotes — if longer put in a black quotation without quotation marks.
On your reading cards you paraphrased the author by summarizing their ideas. Make sure it is clear on your index card whether something is a quote or an honest paraphrase to avoid inadvertent plagiarism.
The most reassuring test of your paraphrases will come when you are able to paraphrase the text without looking at it. This will mean not only that you have avoided plagiarism, but also that you have understood the text you are paraphrasing.
Where you can, use a footnote for a bibliographic reference rather than an endnote. Use a footnote to add additional references, translations, debts, questions, cross-references. If the note is very long, it should be an appendix.
Finally, when writing or presenting — have confidence and pride.
On your specific topic, you are humanity’s functionary who speaks in the collective voice. Be humble and prudent before opening your mouth, but once you open it, be dignified and proud…. Naturally, you must work with a clear conscience. But this is another story. Here I am discussing a matter of style. Do not whine and be complex-ridden, because it is annoying. (Page 184).
The final chapter involves considerations for typing up your manuscript.
I’ll leave the final word to Eco.
What really matters is that you write your thesis with gusto. If you choose a topic that interests you, and if you truly dedicate to your thesis the time you have allotted, however short (we have set a minimum of six months), you will experience the thesis as a game, as a bet, or as a treasure hunt. There is the satisfaction of competitive sports in hunting a text that is difficult to find; and there is the satisfaction of solving an enigma in discovering, after long reflection, the solution to an apparently insoluble problem. You must experience the thesis as a challenge. You are the challenger. At the beginning you posed a question which you did not yet know how to answer. The challenge is to find the solution in a finite number of moves. Sometimes, you can experience the thesis as a game between you and your author; he seems to conceal his secret from you, and you must trick him, question him gently, compel him to say what he does not want to say, but what he should have said. Sometimes, the thesis is a game of solitaire; you have all the pieces, and the challenge is to make them fall into place. (Page 221).
You can pick up a copy of How to Write a Thesis here*
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