Posted by: Dan | May 2, 2010

How to Write a Thesis…

…or at least this is how I do it.

Given that some people have asked me about the method I use to write, I thought I would write my process down here.  I would be curious to hear how it compares to others.  What follows could be employed for everything from writing term papers to writing books.

(1) Thesis Question

As soon as you know that you will be writing, begin to think about a question or an argument that interests you (if this is for a term paper, begin thinking at the start of the course, if it’s for a Masters thesis, begin thinking at the start of your degree).

(2)Rough Outline

As soon a you think of a question or argument that interests you, begin to compile sub-topics and necessarily related questions into a (very rough) outline.

(3) Research

Research like a crazy motherfucker.  Seriously. You need to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of your topic (or as close as you can get to that) so bury yourself in the appropriate literature.  However, you also need to be creative so read widely.  If, for example, you are writing on the question: “Is there a counter-imperial element to Paul’s writings?” then you need to know the ins-and-outs of Pauline scholarship.  However, it’s also very useful to read what others outside that guild have written about Paul.  This is because so-called outsiders sometimes glimpse elements that ‘insiders’ overlook.  Further, read others who have written on this topic (say on counter-imperial politics more generally) as they will enrich your reading and your thinking.  So, to continue the example, it’s worth looking at the liberation theologians and the ways in which they employ the biblical texts, it’s also a good idea to look at what social and political theorists have written on the subject, and so on.

As you research, continue to expand or correct the (very rough) outline you created.  You will discover sections that you need to add and you might wish to drop other sections that you discover to be no longer relevant.  You will also discover that you may need to tweak the order of your various sections.  It’s always good to ask yourself: “Why does this section follow from the prior section?”  Additionally, you may find that your original thesis question was too vague or not really where you want to go, so you should clarify that while engaging in this research.

It’s also good to go back over things you have already read in order to see how your prior readings apply to your thesis (after all, you’ve probably already been reading around this topic, if it is something that interests you).  This is why it’s useful to build a library and read every book with a pencil in order to trace arguments and note areas that jump out at you.  Referring back to your own library allows you to do a lot of research very quickly.

In this raw research phase, I tend to type quick bullet notes and leave these notes organized first by author then by book (this comes in handy later).

This stage takes the bulk of my total writing time — probably about 60% of it.

(4) Organize your notes: Part I

Once your research i done, your general outline should be pretty clearly established.  You should know the flow of your argument and all the major sections contained therein.

So, at this stage, I print off my rough notes and go back and use a pen to write in the margins beside each bullet point what section that point belongs within.  I then create a new text document, with all my section headings and cut and paste the notes into their relevant sections.  While cutting and pasting, I also underline the key words or points made in each note so that I can easily see what is important.

(5) Organizing your notes: Part II

With this done, I turn to my first major section and once again print a hard copy of the document.  I then look at the various subsections that make up that section and, once again, write that in the margin next to each bullet.  I then repeat the process of creating a new document, with all the subsections marked and cut and paste the bullet points into their appropriate spots.  As you do this, you may find some points that actually fit better into other major sections and so you can move these around accordingly.

(6) Organizing your notes: Part III

The flow of your argument, and what you want to write, should be getting increasingly clear at this point but there is still one more stage to go.  Once again, I print off a hard copy of each subsection and, using a pen, I mark the key point or theme of each paragraph within that subsection.  Then, creating another text document with each paragraph labeled, I go back and cut and paste the bullet notes into their appropriate paragraphs.  Again, because your argument is getting clearer all the time, you may find notes that fit better in other sections, so make sure to take the time to cut them out and move them to that place.

At this stage your argument should be crystal clear.  You should know exactly what you want to say and you should know why each section follows each other section, why each subsection belongs where it does, and why one paragraph leads to the next.  I realize that this is a painstaking process but it really pays off not only in terms of the richness of your own thoughts (you’ll have spent a lot of time thinking about what you are going to write by this point) but also in terms of the clarity of your writing.  Clarity is priceless — it’s the difference between a B grade and an A grade (regardless of how ‘smart’ your argument is).

Also, given that this takes time, and given that you won’t always be writing but will probably want to takes some breaks to read (and eat and sleep and all that other stuff), it’s a good idea to continue doing some reading around your topic while engaging in these last three stages.  It’s easy to continue adding notes to various sections as you organize them.  This will continue to enrich your paper and will allow you to stay on top of any new scholarship that appears in your field while you are writing.

Stages (4)-(6) of of this process probably take 25-30% of my total writing time.

(7) Write!

Now you know what you want to say and when you want to say it, so all you need to do is say it.  Once again, I print a hard copy of my now extremely well organized notes and I write a first draft, working from paragraph one, of subsection one, in section one, all the way through to the end.

Of course, sometimes writing comes more naturally than at other times and so, if you ever start feeling blocked or too tired to start a new section or continue whatever part you have in progress, it’s nice to give yourself a break by going back and rereading and editing a previous section.  If you do this as you write, you will have already edited your thesis several times before you even finish it.

At this point, because everything is organized very thematically, it is handy to also have a copy of your very first rough notes (organized by author and book) because referring back to that will ensure that you don’t quote somebody out of context, and it will help you to remember the broader arguments of the authors you decide to engage in more detail.

Again, you can still continue to read literature that is relevant to your subject as you engage in this process.  However, at this point, I tend to focus my reading on sections that I have yet to write.

(8) Edit

You have now completed a very polished draft of your thesis (given the multiple edits you did while writing).  However, I still go over the whole thing at least two more times after I finish writing.

Once those edits are done, I will put everything down for a week and try not to think about it.  Then I will go back to the thesis and edit it twice more.  This will help me to see points where my thoughts are either unclear (perhaps they are clear to me, because I’ve been buried in this subject for a year, but I need to ask if they are clear to the reader who is picking this thesis up for the first time) or where they need to be refined.

And that’s it.  Given all the prep work, the writing and editing tends to go quite quickly for me.  I would estimate that steps (7)-(8) take about 10-15% of my total writing time.

So, voila, follow these steps and you should get a 4.0.  Not only that, you may find that somebody wants to publish your thesis.



  1. wow – you are really organised! This does sound like a good process… I think I follow a rather similar pattern, although I haven’t been properly intentional about it

  2. I’m actually relieved to hear that there is a proper amount of labour that goes into your writing. It would be so dispiriting to hear that your writing is brought about effortlessly, while others–like me. Sigh.–cobble together papers painstakingly. Thank you for the insight, btw.

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