What I’ve learnt about writing a thesis

I am almost at the end of writing my Masters Thesis and have been struck with thesis fatigue, or what I like to call a case of the ‘can’t be fucked’. It starts after an intense period of my motivated self arriving at uni early everyday and doing heaps of productive work and then just as suddenly, motivated me is gone and it’s an effort just to drag myself out of bed in the morning, let alone do any writing or original thinking.

So, after my fourth consecutive day of doing almost nothing I decided to write down all the things I learnt when I wrote my dissertation. I figured that, after all, I finished a dissertation before and did well so I must know something about how to write a thesis.

Also this is a a new and different way to distract me from writing an actual thesis.

Some things I learnt while writing my thesis:

Writing seminars are almost always a waste of time

Writing seminars might be useful in teaching you some ideas about structuring your thesis or dissertation, if it is the first time you have done one. But you could easily work that out with your supervisor, as is this is what they are there to help you with, instead of spending all day at a boring workshop. Otherwise they are pretty much useless, as they will all tell you to ‘write something every day’ so you are better off spending an hour working on a draft than you are sitting at a seminar.

Trust your own methods
As well as being boring I always found writing seminars and talking with other people about how to write a thesis really anxiety provoking because everyone is always telling you things you ‘must’ do or you ‘have to do’ in order to get it done and often it involved doing things I would never do as part of my writing process. Like ‘free writing’, where you sit down and write whatever junk comes into your head because apparently this can produce some great ideas. And i’m sure it can, but mostly its shit ideas. I never free write, I have a system of how I approach writing, I do my readings, I organise my notes into themes, I create a draft plan which corresponds to my key themes and outlines my main arguments. I then organise my notes into chapters and number each point as it will appear in each paragraph, then I write the whole draft out by hand over one or two days. Then I type it up. This is how I have always done things, so having people tell me that I needed to set time to free write everyday makes no sense to me. I learnt from these seminars to only take on advice that is useful and fits into your process and otherwise to do things the way they work for you. You got to thesis level because you know what you’re doing, so back yourself.

Set a task list
I try to approach my Masters in a structured way, similar to what you would do at your job with a list of tasks which are prioritised. I always set myself tasks rather than amounts of time, that is I will set myself four or five things to achieve rather than say i’ll do 8 hours of study. I do this because I find if I say i’ll do 8 hours I might achieve nothing, but if i set myself tasks then as soon as i’ve done them I am free! I also try to set tasks that are achievable so I don’t set myself up to fail and be disappointed when I don’t get them all done.

Stay focused
Once you get going it’s easy to start reading everything that has a tenuous link to what you are researching. I find that I get bored of reading the same thing over and over in my thesis so I start to read wider and wider because it’s interesting. While i’m not against learning and drawing from lots of disciplines, this can become a very time consuming distraction if you don’t keep it in check. This also applies to redrafting, where you can spend hours trapped on a few sentences, reordering them or adapting them so that they are perfect, instead of focusing on the big picture of the overall argument or where your chapter is going. Try to do the big stuff first and then work backwards to the smaller things.

Make it easy on yourself
On days when I can’t be bothered doing my thesis at all, I try to make it as easy as possible so that I get something done. I’ll go down to the coffice (coffee shop office) or ill sit in the sunshine and read a book, or on my worst days ill set up my stuff around me in bed and not even get changed out of my pajamas. Whatever you can do to make sure that you get something done that’s the way to do it.

Get a referencing system.
That’s it. So much easier.

Be nice to yourself
I try to remember that doing a thesis is not my whole life, and I don’t need to feel guilty every time I am not working on it. I also try to remember that this is one of the only times in my life when i’ll be able to be flexible and make my own hours, take time off it’s sunny or spend the day in bed if I want too. Even though it’s hard I try not to judge myself and enjoy it as much as possible.


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