The Bulk of the Thesis

Here’s my thing. I’ve mentored, I’ve supervised, I’ve taught, I’ve marked, and I’ve edited. I’m quite happy to see the teaching and marking part of my life go away. Neither are things I enjoy. But I hope to keep doing the mentoring or supervising in some way in the future. But the editing is the sort of thing I’ve done because someone asked me to do it, or needed me to do it. I never really thought of it as a career or even stable work. But here I am, again, doing editing. And you know what? I’m rather happy about that fact. I kind of like going through a document and making it better (though never perfect; there’s no such thing).

I bring this up because today I have started proofreading the bulk of a thesis. Or the ‘body’. The main part. The part that excludes the appendices, and references, and introductory sections, or even the conclusion. The main part of the thesis is where you show all the work you’ve done, discuss it in great detail, and demonstrate the entire point of your argument.

This might be anywhere from 20,000 words to 70,000, depending on what your subject and department are. Whatever the length of your thesis, however, the main part is going to form the majority of your words. And every one of them counts. You may have 70,000 words to play with, but superfluous ones (see what I did there) aren’t going to be appreciated by your examiners. You need to make sure that what you’re writing has a point. That it is clear and concise. If you can say it in 30,000 words, don’t take 50,000 just because you can. Most universities give maximums for theses, instead of minimums. That means that you can write any amount you need to for your thesis, but can’t go over a certain number. A lot of people find this very hard. It’s easier to write to a minimum, but much harder to know you only have a certain number of words to get your point across. So be concise (this paragraph is a bad example).

The bulk of your thesis could be 2 chapters or 7. The number is less important than what they constitute. You have to get a long list of things across in this part of your thesis. Your methodology (for most, unless you are amongst the fewer that put this in their introduction), your literature review(s), your data presentation, your analysis, and conclusions or recommendations (you will usually provide some manner of conclusions in your analysis chapter, then in more depth in your final conclusion chapter).

That is a lot to get into a thesis, and that’s leaving aside the introduction and conclusion chapters. But whatever number of chapters you have, and however many words you have for this part of the thesis, this part is often the hardest to write. Conclusions generally ‘write themselves’, because by the time you get to that chapter, you’ve been working on this for years, and analysed and thought about all your data for months. And the introduction is an intro to what you’ve already written in the rest of the thesis. An executive summary, basically. But the bulk of the thesis? That’s the important part. That’s the part your examiners really pay attention to. So that is the part you spend the most time on.

But don’t panic. Like any piece of writing, don’t ever set out to write ‘the bulk of the thesis’. Set out to write a 500 word section. Or a three-page sub-section. You will have your thesis outline already. You will know roughly what needs to get into each chapter, and then each section. Write them one at a time, in whatever order works best for you. And you will be very surprised that you end up at 50,000 words. Or 70,000. [Or a 100,000…oops.]

One small step at a time. You know your work. You know your research. You know what you need to say.

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