Six tips for improving thesis documents

Today I read a draft of a document that a student on our professional doctoral programme sent to me and thought how often certain themes are continuous flaws in the ‘production’ of a thesis.  Here are six tips for helping those drafts along:

1. Always have a ‘working’ title

The document draft had no title at all so it was difficult for me as a reader to orient myself to the topic the student was covering and I wondered if the student could actually say what the topic was, if asked.  this was a wasted opportunity to consider what the focus of this research. Those who do not relay this in writing in theses will not ‘feel’ the focus as researchers.

2. Produce an abstract in every draft. It helps the researcher and the reader to orient the research.

The same points apply with regard to producing a large paragraph of what the research is about conceptually, what the aims and objectives of the doctorate overall are, what the research questions are being considered in this document, what methods were used and what the empirical focus is, what was found and what the contributions are to current knowledge generally on the topic and the doctorate as a whole in particular. Look at this blog for advice on writing an abstract..

3. Introduction: Begin with the conceptual.

In this document the student did this and it was really great to be oriented as a reader straight away in the introduction.  Unfortunately the introduction then swung between different concepts. Keep the conceptual/theoretical focus clear. Then tell the reader what is known and what is to be covered in the document.

4. Introduction: say what the research questions are and explain how the document is structured to show how the research was conducted, what was found and what the elements mean to the overall study.

5. ‘Chapter’ headings. In this document we needed headings and sub headings to be used as signposts to the reader of what is to come next.  We did not have ‘Research methodology and methods’ as a heading at all so it was rather a shock to come across an extensive description of the case study organisation. Headings and sub-headings are great signposts to the flow of the argument. Use them thoughtfully and also think of them as drafts…. sometimes we put them in then forget to change them when we have changed the text underneath the heading to have different meanings.

6. Diagrams. Always label diagrams. In this document there was nothing to say what the diagrams meant and there was no explanation underneath.  Never ever put in a diagram and leave it up to the reader to make the connection between your study and the content of the diagram.

This was a very early draft of a document and there were no findings, discussion or conclusions. That is not a problem.  Well done to this student for beginning to write and having the courage to send it to me for comments.

That’s it for now. Keep writing and crafting. you don’t always need your supervisors’ feedback to continue. Read the text aloud to yourself to see if it makes sense.


PS one professor with an impressive writing record said that he ‘touches’ his research piece five times a day.  This might be excessive but some doctoral students do the touching so infrequently.  The document won’t write itself!