Thesis writing as genre/as patterns of explanation
Thesis writing can be complicated as it combines various writing genres, which are then applied as required by the various thesis chapters or sections (Kamler &Thomson, 2006, p 84).
This is summarised in the following table:
|Thesis section||Narrative (what it is about)||Genre|
|Introduction||Here is what I am going to do and whyHere is my experience||Factual account + argumentFactual account|
|Literature Review||What other people have written about the topicHow my research fits in||SummaryAnalysis (possibly)
|Methodology||Here is what I did + to support my chpoiced: here is what other people have said about methodology||Factual account + summary|
|Findings||Here is what I have found: themes, graphs, questionnaires, results||Factual recount & summary, with small pieces of argument|
|Discussion||Here is what it means and why it is important||Argument|
|Conclusion||Here is what I did, what I found and some things that might happen next||Summary & argument|
Patrick Dunleavy (2003) refers to patterns of explanation instead of genres and distinguishes the following patterns:
Used when writing
- a guidebook
- a chronology
- a narrative – part of the literature review is mainly descriptive
- signposts: this is what I did in my thesis, at the start.., in the middle…., at the end..
Descriptive patterns mainly covers information considered as facts, where no personalised information is presented.
You use an analytic pattern when organising information, e.g. when
- presenting necessary or sufficient causes
- referring to influences
- organising a text according to more conventional categories (social/political/econ/education…)
- tracing out an algorithm
This works well if there are robust categories
- selects more, structures more
- key danger is formalism/fruit cocktailing
- narratives become more complex this way
The writing focuses on controversy and conflicting schools of thought
- explicitly multi-theoretical
- but not just literature review sequences
Is difficult to do when
- supervisor/department takes a strong, closed view
- capturing overall arguments entails having a sophisticated, holistic view
This generates more complex structures, as you are then combining two of the previous approaches. The tree main variants are
- analytic (first) plus descriptive (second)
- descriptive (e.g. narrative) plus analytic
- argumentative plus analytic
The thesis sections
As explained earlier, these different writing genres or patterns are applied differently in the various thesis sections of a thesis are set out. The following sets outs the various sections contained in traditional theses.
The first sections
The title, the abstract and the introduction are important points – they have to be self-contained documents for those who are not intensively interested. You are taking readers on a journey and need to tell them where they are going.
Front pages – tables of contents and lists of figures need to be accurate (use automatic features in Word).
The title has to clearly summarise your thesis (what you argue, what you found). Be specific rather than general. Do not have a title that is made up of a question, give the reader an answer. As an author, your position should be clear in the title (and in the whole text). The author has to have a position he wishes to establish. For instance, do not have a title saying How well is poverty covered by the Australian newspapers?, but instead something like The coverage of poverty on Australian newspapers as testimony of journalistic bias and of the role of NGOs in putting poverty on the agenda. Put the answer and the question of your research in your title.
Include the main point of your thesis. A sentence using key words of your document can be 80% of the title. Make the title interesting. Approximately, 20 words is a good average length for a title.
This is the most important part. It has to be a condensation, a concentration of the essential qualities of the paper. An abstract should capture the essence of the document and has to be a self-standing document.
Formula for writing abstracts
Provide information on:
- What do we know about the topic – literature?
- What is distinctive about your approach?
- What was done: methods, data?
- What was found, what does that mean in theory, in practice, what conclusions are drawn?
- What is the contribution to new knowledge – how does it add to the field?
Authors tend to overestimate what readers know. Anybody should be able to follow the argument.
- The progression of ideas has to be clear and ideas connected
- Look at theoretical words – do you use the same vocabulary as used in the title – are new words introduced?
- Use present tense to describe your research
- While you need sentences to show moves (e.g. the study explores…) – make sure they are limited to what is necessary.
The introduction and the abstract give information in different words and go over the same ground as the title. You need to repeat important information. An introduction should be about 4000-5000 words (for a 60-80,000 words thesis)
You have to show that you have a story worth telling.
It should tell:
- Why you studied the problem, why it is important,what you found – your contribution to knowledge – make it interesting.
- Show the state of knowledge before you started (you do not have to tell everything but show you know all the big fish in the pond).
- Define the gap in knowledge that the paper will fill, explain what you will cover.
- Set out your methodology/methods used
- Set out the structure of the thesis. Provide a road map for the thesis.
The literature review
The literature review aims to establish your research question, the main arguments you will develop. The review should be organised accordingly.
A literature review is not a list of authors and what they wrote. Literature reviews should not be annotated bibliographies. Write information (+ references) and not references (+information). What was said and why it is relevant is the only important information. This information needs to be structure in a clear narrative that supports the thesis.
How many references are required: roughly speaking for a PhD one cites about 50% of what one reads (+/- 200 references for a 200 pages document).
Common literature reviews problems:
- key studies absent
- not enough recent material, emphasis on outdated material
- not critical
- no discrimination between relevant and irrelevant material
- lacking synthesis
- not relating it to the research questions
- leading by author
- poorly structured
- incorrect interpretation of sources
For more read pages on developing the literature review
The methodology/materials and methods
This is the best place to go if you get stuck with your writing. You just need to write what you did to study the problem.
Purposes of the methodology section:
- Describe methods used for achieving the research objectives
- Indicate the sources of data used and how these were collected and analysed
- Possibly indicate the theories and principles underlying the approaches adopted in the research (unless you have a separate section for theory)
- Highlight any ethical issues raised by the research methods or process
Give the readers enough information on what/who was investigated. Include enough detail (what things, techniques, statistical analysis) to allow assessment of the validity of the results and to allow someone to possibly replicate your work.
Note that this section may be absent from a theoretical thesis.
For more read writing the methodology
This section should consist of a consolidated set of data. Inexperienced researchers often describe their results in chronological order; this is not always the way to go. You need to report your findings in context, with the research question in mind.
Only use material that is relevant to the research question. Over disclosure is the most common and serious defect of results sections. If you do not discuss it, delete it Aim for the simplest presentation consistent with keeping your reader adequately informed. Do not fall in love with data.
Note that in qualitative research, findings and discussions tend to be merged. The structure is set through headings indicating what is being discussed. See notes on writing results and discussion for more on these sections.
This is a major section – this is where you show your contribution to knowledge. A thesis centres around a contribution to knowledge. Your main contribution will be in the discussion, which should be a result of an argument built through the thesis.
The presentation of raw data is not in itself a contribution to knowledge. The discussion should be a result of an argument built through the thesis. Your title, abstract and introduction should have prepared the reader for your point of view.
- Do not slowly build up to a strong point, by starting with the weakest findings. Lead with the most important bit; it gives you a strategy for discussion.
- Has to be linked to research objectives
- Has to link back to literature, findings and concentrate argument
- Watch out for presentation of endless raw data
- An analysis is not just a summary of the findings
Generating a framework for the discussion section (Partridge& Starfield 2007, p 146):
- Write all things you know you did not know before doing the research
- Sort sentences out in groups
- Write headings for each group
- Write subheadings for each sentence
Think about including:
- Reminder of original purpose
- Statement of importance of results
- Examples from data which show results
- Comparison with previous research
- Review of methodology
- Reference to theory
- Conclusion that may be drawn
- Strength of study
- Whether results where expected or not
- Limitations of study
- Further research
Watch out if mixing results and discussion; you could be descriptive and not analytical enough.
The conclusion needs to include a survey of the results, their practical significance and potential for further research. The conclusion also needs to fit with was announced in the introduction.
Footnotes can be used to provide information that would otherwise interrupt the flow of your text, but you think are important enough to be there. Be careful however. If it is important why is not it in the text? If it is not why is it in there at all?
- To provide short important information that would interrupt the flow of your text.
- Be careful. Some disciplines do not like too many footnotes.
- Need to be numbered consistently.
You need to pay attention to references and make sure they are consistent and correct. Some common errors:
- a reference list that does not match in text references (references absent, different spelling)
- references that are not in a consistent format
- incomplete references
- mixing referencing styles
A sloppy reference is like waving a flag to examiners saying ‘this is sloppy work’ and examiners are likely to believe that the rest of the work may be just as sloppy.
If you use referencing software, problems of consistency should not arise, but check anyway!
Used to place important information which, if in main text, would stop the flow, E.g. data which you want to make available.
Appendices need to be named and numbered consistently.
Ensuring overall coherence
(adapted from notes of a workshop facilitated by Prof Patrick Dunleavy at University of Canberra, 2015)
What is most important is that the text flows, that all sections are related.
Chapters must evenly divide the text. Regularity best manages readers’ expectations. An ideal thesis has eight chapters, (because ‘seven’ is a magic number + or – two’). The structure would then consist of eight chapters of around 10,000 words each.
- Longer chapters become impenetrable and unpublishable, so maximum = 12,000 words
- Short chapters disappoint readers, so minimum size = 8,000 words. Merge anything less substantial.
Assuring the core
You need to realistically identify the thesis core: the clear value-added materials. This is where new facts are discovered or independent critical power is shown. This is your contribution to knowledge.
The core in the thesis must be over 3/5 if the total thesis. That is e.g. 50,000 words in an 80,000 words thesis. You need to cue and brand the core
- in your title
- in your abstract
- in headings and organizers
- in your rolling synopsis
The rest includes
- Pre-core materials. This is your lead-in, throat clearing. One chapter lead-in is ideal; two chapters lead-in may be ok; three lead-in chapters is bad.
- Post core materials – also one chapter minimum. This chapter sets the core in don’t end-load the thesis context/analyse/leads out.
Each chapter includes a series of sections as follows:
|Introductory text [no sub-head]200 to 1000 words|
|3.1: First main section [first order heading]2000 to 2500 words|
|3.2: Second main section [first order heading]2000 to 2500 words|
|3.3: Third main section [first order heading]2000 to 2500 words|
|3.4: Fourth main section [first order heading]2000 to 2500 words|
|Conclusions [second order sub-head]200 to 1000 words|
Overall coherence is really important. This is where you show your ability for logic and critical thinking. Once you have brought together the different pieces you have been working on, you need to check how they all fit together. Here is a set of points to look at:
- Check the overall structure of your thesis; does each section perform its proper function? Is your argument logically developed?
- Constantly reflect back on the purpose of the thesis. What are you trying to show? Are the themes, questions and objectives of the thesis evident throughout?
- Make sure your claims are clearly outlined, upfront and not buried in text.
- Use chapters, sub paragraphs – make sure they all have a clear heading summarising what is in the chapter or subchapter. Make sure each chapter is clearly linked to the next. Table of contents can show if there are problems in the logic of the thesis.
- Does the introduction correctly and clearly describe the thesis? Does it say why you did what you did, how you did it, what you found? Does it work as a road map showing the path to conclusions you make?
- Does the literature review fit with the analysis?
- Does the conclusion complement the introduction? Does it respond to aims stated in the introduction?
- Do the chapter conclusions provide a summary of achievement of each chapter? Do they show how your argument is progressing. Does each conclusion link to the following chapter?
- Does each chapter introduction situate the section/chapter in the whole thesis?
- Do you have standalone chapters that do not seem linked with the rest? Should some material be in the appendices?
- Where are important bits in your writing – how many words do you allocate to the various parts of the thesis? Does that seem appropriate?
Dunleavy, Patrick (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral dissertation or thesis. Palgrave Macmillan.
Kamler & Thomson (2006). Helping doctoral students to write. Pedagogies for Supervision. Routledge, Milton Park.
Lovitts. Barbara E.(2007). Making the implicit explicit. Creating performance expectation for the dissertation. Stylus Publishing: Sterling Virginia. (UC Library LB 2369.L6.2007).
Partridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors, Routledge: London & New York.
Tinkler, P & Jackson, C. (2004). The doctoral examination process: a handbook for students, examiners and supervisors, SRHE/Open University Press: Maidenhead.
Chandler, D. (1995) Writing Strategies. Aberystwyth University. This page offers some insight on strategies people use to start composing a text and is available from Http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/strats.html.
Doctoral Writing SIG, a blog on writing available from http://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/ Check for example Aitchison (2016), ‘Done all that work – but has this thesis really got anything to say?!: Strategies to regain perspective on research contribution’ 11 November 2016.
Dunleavy, Patrick (2015). ‘Becoming more creative in academic work – a menu of suggestions’, Writing for research (blog).
Ivory Research (n.d) How to transform your dissertation – an overview of what needs to be in a dissertation to make it successful.
Mewburn, Inger (2013). The Thesis Whisperer verb cheat sheet available at https://sites.google.com/site/twblacklinemasters/verb-cheat-sheet.
Morley, John (2012) Academic Phrasebank . Provides examples of sentences that operate as ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing. Available from http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/.
Sword, Helen (n.d), The writers diet. This great resource is available from http://www.writersdiet.com/WT.php?home. Check the The Writers Diet Test to help you write simply and clearly. Then check out the Intelligent Editing program (in resources ) that can help with consistency and style.
Popova, Maria (n.d). The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses: Walter Benjamin’s Timeless Advice on Writing available at http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/04/15/the-writers-technique-in-thirteen-theses-walter-benjamin/.
Resources for achieving a great look
Bonneville, Douglas (2013) 19 best fonts in 19 top combinations
Friedlander, Joel (2010). 3 Great Typeface Combinations You Can Use in Your Book
Lupton, Ellen (n.d.) Thinking with type is useful if you want to explore various uses of typography
Swartz, Corinne (2013). Typography Basics: Pairing Fonts for the Web