to Write a Thesis
B.A. and M.A. Students (and maybe Ph.D. students, too)
This draws on the advice in my book:
How to Write a B.A. Thesis: A Practical Guide from Your First
Ideas to Your Finished Paper
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Spring 2005)
A quick overview of the main points:
Now, let's get down to brass tacks.
Pick a general subject you
care about, one you want to explore.
Researching and writing a thesis is a major project
that takes several months. Doing it well requires self-discipline,
but it really helps to love the subject matter. To sustain your
interest and energy over the long haul, pick a topic that interests
you deeply, one you are excited about. The best way to begin is
to search for an interesting question. At this stage, you should
hunt for a good question, not the answer to it. Finding an answer
is the purpose of your subsequent research and writing.
Hone your project to a manageable
A successful thesis poses an interesting question
you can actually answer. Having found a topic that really interests
you, you need to locate an empirical or theoretical puzzle that
needs more exploration. Working with your advisor, narrow your topic
to a manageable size.
A topic is manageable if you can
- master the
- collect and analyze the necessary
- answer the key questions you have
Some problems are simply too big and unwieldy to master
within the time limits. Some are too small to interest you. This
is a Goldilocks problem, and the solution is to select a well-defined
topic that bears on some larger issue. You can begin either with
a large issue or a well-defined topic, depending on your own interests.
"Big Issue" to manageable thesis topic:
You might start with a grand-scale issue, such as "Why
has the U.S. fought so many wars since 1945?" Working
with your advisor, you could then zero in on a related but feasible
research topic, such as "Why did the Johnson Administration
choose to escalate in Vietnam?" As you answer this Vietnam
question, however, you can (and should) return to the larger themes
than interest you, namely what does the Vietnam escalation tell
us about the global projection of U.S. military power since 1945.
well-defined topic to the "Big Issue":
Perhaps you are already interested in a well-defined and manageable
topic such as the decision to create NAFTA. If so, then your task
is to clarify which larger issues your paper will bear upon. The
problem (and the opportunity for you) is that NAFTA bears on several
larger topics. You need to pick one that captures your interest.
Are you mainly interested in US decisionmaking? Or perhaps Mexican
or Canadian decisionmaking? Multilateral negotiations between big
and small countries? The role of public opinion? The role of business
lobbies or trade unions? The NAFTA decision is related to all these
larger issues and more. You cannot tackle all of them so you must
choose your focus. Your choice will shape the kind of research you
do on NAFTA, leading you to study the lobbying process, for instance,
or US-Mexican negotiations. Either would be an interesting thesis
about NAFTA, but they are different theses.
You can start with the big issue or the narrow topic.
Either approach is fine. A good thesis will connect the two: the
well-defined topic and the larger issue.
can I find the "right" thesis topic?
There is no magic answer, but here is a technique I find helpful.
I often ask students to propose 3 topicsbriefly, in writing,
and in order of priority. Why three topics? Because, believe it
or not, it is sometimes easier to jot down three ideas than to pick
just one. When you try to generate the "single best idea,"
there is a lot of pressure to pick exactly the right one. After
all, you will have to work on it for months. By contrast, writing
down 2, 3, or 4 ideas lessens the pressure since you are not committed
to any one of them. Equally important, you and your advisor can
talk about your multiple ideas. Your advisor will learn about your
major interests and, as you talk, together you may discover that
seemingly different ideas have a common theme. Once you have identified
this common theme, you and your advisor can then find a researchable
topic, which may be slightly different from any of the 3 written
ideas you presented.
Make sure you actually have
a thesis, that is, a central argument or hypothesis.
In the introduction to your paper, clearly state
a. the problem you wish to explain
b. your basic argument about it.
Your main argument should be brief and crisp. No matter
how complicated and subtle your overall paper, your basic thesis
should be expressed in clear, pointed language. This requires some
serious thinking to boil down your views and some intellectual bravery
to state them clearly, without weasel words. If possible, your argument
should be clearly differentiated from others. These alternative
arguments should be identified with specific scholars. The emphasis,
however, should be on developing your own position and evaluating
it honestly and rigorously.
It takes weeks, sometimes months, to develop a compelling
central argument. That can be frustrating. But remember, if you
knew exactly what you were going to say before you started work,
the whole project would be boringto you and probably to your
readers. Most of us begin with some general ideas and puzzling problems
and gradually work our way toward a sharper definition of the topic,
the argument, and the best ways to test it. Your advisor is there
to help at each stage along the way.
To put this another way, you should pose a focused
question and offer a coherent answer.
Take the elevator test:
How do you know when you have finally developed a clear-cut
argument? Take the elevator test. You should be able to tell a visiting
professor your basic argument and the rationale for it as you ride
from the lobby to the 4th floor. If you can do that, then you have
a clear argument.
Know the literature on your
subject. Compare your answer to existing ones. Show why yours
Learn what other scholars have said about your topic.
You need to explain
- What are the major approaches to
- Why are existing answers unsatisfactory?
- Why is your answer better?
Present these alternatives seriously, thoughtfully,
not as "straw men." Grapple with them intellectually.
Most important of all, as your thesis unfolds, show that
your answer is compelling and better than the alternatives.
Your answer probably relies on some major theory and
applies it to your particular question. If so, then show that this
theory actually applies well to your topic and leads you to a better
answer than the alternatives, not only in the abstract but in this
Frame your paper in several
coherent sections. Give each section a clear, succinct title.
The introductory section of the paper should do three
things. It should
the reader into the subject matter, probably with an
interesting opening paragraph, perhaps with a compelling anecdote,
concrete example, or real-life puzzle;
the topic you are studying, the basic material you will
cover, and your central argument or testable proposition; and,
finally, at the end of the introductory section,
your readers by giving them a "road map" for
the overall paper, explaining briefly what each section does.
As the paper unfolds, you should introduce each new
section briefly, saying why it is important to your overall argument.
Most sections should conclude with a few summary remarks and a transition
to the next section. Occasionally, it makes more sense to put the
transition at the beginning of the new section. Wherever you put
the transitional sentences, they should take the reader smoothly
to the next topic. That means you should tell the reader why
you are tackling the upcoming topic, how it matters to your overall
argument, and why it logically comes next in your paper.
If you use any case studies,
you must justify them in two ways. You must explain
a. why you have chosen to use
any case studies at all, and then
b. why you have chosen to use
these particular cases (out of the larger universe).
Some papers do not use case studies. They may simply
present a logical model, usually in mathematical form. Or they may
test their propositions by using large data sets (sometimes called
large-n samples). But many papers use individual cases to show how
the explanation works and to evaluate it in detail.
The cases chosen need not be typical. They can be
striking or unusual. But they must illuminate the general problem
under investigation. The reader needs to be toldin advance
and in plain languagewhy you are using these particular cases.
The best cases to use are often the hardest ones.
That is, they are cases where your own argument seems least likely
to apply but, in your judgment, still does. These hard cases will
be most convincing to readers because they show the power of your
argument and its generality.
If, for example, you wish to show that bureaucrats
have extensive power over policy outcomes, a "hard case"
would be one where high-level elected officials really cared about
the issue. (If politicians didn't care, then of course bureaucrats
would control the outcome. What does that prove? Not much unless
you could show that there were many such issues, all under the thumb
of bureaucrats.) The hard case is much more interesting. The toughest
case would be one where bureaucrats and politicians wanted different
outcomes and where politicians cared deeply about the issue. If
you could demonstrate that in such "hard cases" bureaucrats
still profoundly affected the outcomes, then you would have strong
supporting evidence for your general proposition. That is why you
need to select cases carefully and explain how they help test your
Circumscribe your argument.
Explain where your generalizations apply, where
they do not, and why.
As you work out your argument, you may decide to
formulate and test some generalizations. That is surely one of the
major goals of social science, and it is a rewarding exercise in
a thesis. If you intend to test some generalizations, it is crucial
to think about what kinds of evidence bears on them. You should
be particularly attentive to what kinds of evidence could actually
refute them. If any kind of evidence is consistent with your
argument, then you don't really have an argument at all. Back to
the drawing table.
Beyond this essential "pass-fail" test,
a thoughtful evaluation should ask,
a. "What conditions affect the impact of
a particular generalization?"
b. "What are the limits of this generalization?"
(Does my data allow me to say if the generalization applies broadly?)
As an example, take this important generalization
in the field of international relations: "Democracies do not
fight wars against other democracies." Your evaluation may
conclude that this generalization fails (or succeeds) entirely.
Or you may find that it applies frequently, but not always, and
only under significant limiting conditions. What are these limiting
conditions? Maybe you find it applies only to rich democracies,
or well-established democracies, or Presidential systems (as opposed
to Parliamentary ones). Such findings allow you to circumscribe
the generalization, or at least propose some limits to it. You should
also be aware of the limits imposed by the data you use. You may
tentatively confirm the generalization about democracies and war.
But if your evidence is drawn exclusively from the period after
1945 (or from a particular region), you may wish to add that we
cannot be sure if the generalization applies to other time periods
or other regions without further testing. Drawing such limits requires
hard thinking about your topic and your data. That is precisely
what is intellectually rewarding about doing a major project. Of
course, these are major issues to discuss with your advisor.
Write clearly and succinctly
in the active voice. Edit and re-edit your work.
Write in the active
Use plain language.
When in doubt, break long sentences into shorter ones, as
long as they are not choppy.
Write brief, coherent paragraphs, each with a single topic
Rewrite any sentences that string together prepositions.
Check to see if you are repeating yourself or using the same
words too often.
Use direct quotations sparingly and name the person being
Double-check the paper's opening paragraphs. They should
engage the reader.
Introduce your key questions and central arguments early
& clearly. Don't bury them.
Edit, edit, and edit some more.
Although this may be elementary advice, it is still
important to remember, and it is all too often ignored, especially
in writing early drafts.
are the main building blocks of your paper. Through them, you develop
your question, your answer, and your evidence in a well-ordered,
sequential way. Each paragraph should be relatively short and focused,
with a clear topic sentence that articulates the main point. Double
check any paragraphs that run more than five or six sentences to
see if you are cramming in too much.
(and re-editing) your early drafts is the key to making your
thesis sharper, deeper, and more readable. Don't be afraid to cut
extraneous material, even if it took you a long time to write. Remember,
you are not being paid by the hour. What matters is the quality
of the final product. It should be taut, clear, and polished. It
is painful to cut your own hard-wrought prose. I know, believe me,
I know. But your paper will be much better for it. To lessen
the pain, save these cuts in a "scrap file." That gives
you the chance to reinsert sentences or paragraphs if you really
can be a source of writing trouble. Do not overuse them.
When you are simply presenting data or well-known opinions, rephrase
the quote in your own words and footnote the source.
So, when are quotes really useful? In at least two
First, use quotes when you want to capture the speaker's
striking, memorable phrase. For example:
"When you come to a fork in the road, take it,"
was Yogi Berra's sage advice.
Second, a few, well-chosen quotes can illustrate
the viewpoint of a scholar, policymaker, or participant. For
In President John Kennedy's ambitious phrase, "We
will pay any price, bear any burden." Or
Senator Joseph McCarthy did more than call his opponents
misguided, he damned them as "communists" or "fellow
In a few cases, you may wish to use longer
quotations, running several sentences. They should be used very
sparingly and indented in your text. Introduce these longer quotes
with your own summarizing sentence so they make sense even if the
reader skips over them, which sometimes happens. For example,
to introduce a longer quote:
Churchill's Iron Curtain speech argued emphatically that the
Soviet Union threatened not only the Western security but Western
values: followed by indented quote from speech.
Finally, do not put quotation marks around "ordinary
words" unless you specifically wish to call attention to
a word's use or misuse, and you make your purpose and viewpoint
clear. Do not use quotation marks to be snide or ironic. For your
readers, that wears thin very fast. Here is an example of quotation
marks used properly:
What is often called "collateral damage"
is really the killing and maiming of innocent civilians, cloaked
in deadening, bureaucratic language.
The first page of your
paper: The poorest writing
in a thesis is often on the first page, when you are striving to
say something terribly BIG and IMPORTANT. However worthy the goal,
the danger is that you will begin with a vague platitude rather
than a crisp, compelling introduction to your work. Concentrate
on introducing your main question and saying, in a concrete way,
why it has larger significance.
One common problem is that these opening paragraphs
are written quite late in the game, after you have finished the
other writing and polished it. You haven't really had time to re-read
and edit the first page closely, as you have the rest of the paper.
It is perfectly fine to write these paragraphs last, but be sure
to edit them carefully. The goal is to raise your main question
and get to the heart of your argument quickly, certainly in the
first couple of pages. Too much introduction can bury the main point
of your paper. One useful technique: see if you can simply chop
off the first few paragraphs of your draft paper.
Concluding section of paper:
Your paper should have a concluding section, usually a succinct
one. It should summarize your findings, not retrace everything you
have done. Remember, it is a concluding section, not a summary section.
The main thrust should be the interpretation of your findings. Hit
the high points, and then say what they mean. What are your chief
findings? Why are they significant (that is, how do they matter
for policy, theory, moral action, or whatever)? What are the limitations
of your findings? Now is the time to reintroduce the larger questions
that animate you and say how your findings bear on them. Make it
a high priority to discuss these conclusions with your advisor.
In my experience, the main danger here is that you finally get to
this concluding section with only a week or two left before the
due date. The solution: begin discussing your conclusions with your
advisor when you are still writing the heart of the paper, when
your conclusions are still tentative.
Read aloud as you edit: These
good things will not all happen on your first draft, or even the
second. You need to re-read and edit, time and again. One of the
best ways to do that and to improve your writing is to read
it aloud to yourself.
If you are a practiced reader, you will have a good ear and will
be able to hear when your own prose does not sound quite right.
Guides to good writing:
Are there any good books on writing nonfiction like this?
You bet. The two most helpful are William
Zinsser's On Writing Well
and John Trimble's Writing with
Style. Unlike most books on writing, they are not only
readable, they are pleasurable. Buy either one, or, better yet,
buy both. Zinsser's book is not specifically about academic writing;
it is about writing good nonfiction. It is enjoyable, wise, and
filled with practical advice. So, too, is Trimble's slim book, which
includes examples from his undergraduate writing classes. Your thesis
will be better if you read Trimble or Zinsser before writing and
editing. You may also wish to review Strunk and White's "little
book," Elements of Style. It is a classic for a reason.
Establish a schedule with your
advisor and do it early. Give your advisor a clear written statement of your relevant academic background.
Since your thesis project has a
definite due date, you should establish a schedule for research
and writing, and agree on it with your advisor. Review this
schedule with your advisor as the due date approaches.
It is up to you to propose the schedule. Take my word
for it, your faculty advisor won't do it. Leave plenty of time for
faculty to read your drafts and then for you to revise them. After
spending months on research and writing, you will need time to polish
the results. Nothing will improve your work more than successive
Second, give your advisor a brief, clear description of your academic background and preparation for the BA Thesis topic you are working on.
Academic Background Form: Here is the form I ask my students to use, in Word or PDF. Filling out a form like this will help your advisor
know if your skills are well matched to your topic. Do you read French? Do you know advanced statistics? Have you lived in Turkey? Those may matter, depending
on the topic you choose.
Give credit where credit is
due: Cite your sources.
Cite your sources. If you use the exact words of another
author, put them in quotation marks and cite them, too.
Citation can be done in several ways. I explain them
and show how to avoid plagiarism in a short book:
Doing Honest Work in College: How to Prepare Citations, Avoid Plagiarism,
and Achieve Real Academic Success (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2004), Part II has chapters on each citation style,
with lots of examples. It should cover everything you need in your
at University of Chicago Press Site
To get faculty guidance early,
set out your key ideas in writing as soon as possible.
Give your advisor several items in writing as early
main background readings on your general topic; your advisor can
be very helpful with this bibliography;
b. your general topic of interest, which you will later refine
c. one-page summary of your basic topic and argument; if
you cannot state the point so concisely, you probably do not have
a coherent thesis at all;
d. a statement of plausible alternative explanations, and
how they compare with yours; eventually, you may wish to explain
why your explanation is better, why your interpretation is more
e. a list of the most pertinent evidence, including the cases
or data you are likely to use; your advisor can be a valuable guide
in point you to relevant evidence;
f. the basic outline for your paper, along with the
main arguments in each section.
Of course, no one can do all these at the beginning,
but do as much as you can and look for feedback. You will probably
start with a general topic and some basic readings and then narrow
your topic and focus your research and writing. The idea is to mark
off a manageable (but still significant) topic so that you can probe
it in depth.
My advice: try to do a and
in your first two weeks. That is, in your first sessions
with your advisor, discuss your general topic, your academic background,
and the initial readings you plan to do. Put these key points in
writing quickly. Then, over the next two months, work toward a clearer,
more manageable topic, a more focused set of readings, a statement
about what data you need to collect, and a statement about the major
alternative explanations. Again, put them in writing. Some may be
short essays, such as a 3-4 page annotated paper on alternative
explanations. After that, you can write an outline for your paper
and begin to write individual sections and tables. As you complete
these tasks, discuss them with your advisor and set your next task.
Frequent short meetings are best. They will give you the most feedback
and keep you on deadline.
Bring two copies of your draft
paper to each meeting.
Each time you visit your advisor,
bring two stapled copies of the paper to be discussed: one for
you and one for your advisor. Each copy should contain several
a. your name,
d. today's date, and
e. paper title (even if it is tentative).
should be numbered, and the paper should be stapled,
not paper-clipped. With this information on the paper itself,
your advisor can speak with you about specific issues on specific
pages and then keep a copy of your latest version.
If your written work is only a page or two, then your
advisor can read it at your meeting and discuss it with you right
there. If your written work is longer, turn in a copy before the
meeting (but always bring two copies to the meeting itself). Don't
bother putting your paper in a fancy binder. Nobody cares. Ask your
advisor if you should provide this advance text as a hard copy,
an e-mail attachment, or both.
For heavens sake, proofread
everything you turn in to your advisor. Nothing says "I
can't be bothered about this project" like a few missspelllings.
Obviously, you will run spellcheck. Do it every time before
you turn in a draft to your advisor. In addition, you must re-read
the paper carefully, looking for errors the computer missed, such
as using "there" instead of "their" or inadvertently
leaving out a word because of editing. We all make these mistakes.
That's why you have to proofread each time. If you want your advisor
to read your work with care, then you must do the same.
graphs, and figures are
often the clearest way to present your data. A simple table may
also be the best way to lay out your argument and compare it to
others. Think about these presentational issues and talk with your
advisor about them. If your paper has tables or figures, make sure
that there is not a page break in the middle of any table.
You will need to recheck this with each new version.
Save a backup copy of your research and writing on
your school computer or somewhere else. Safety first.
Before each meeting, think
about your agenda. What do you want to accomplish?
Your advisor will undoubtedly have specific issues
to raise, but so should you. Think about
a. which issues you need help on, and
b. which topics you need additional readings for.
Ask your advisor whether there are additional perspectives
you may have overlooked or need to explore further.
Also, remember to go over your central thesis with
your advisor in several meetings, as you develop that thesis. You
may begin with two or three vague arguments, but you will hone them
down as you do research, writing, and discussion.
The clearer you make your own agenda in meetings with
your advisor, the more productive those meetings will be. Learning
how to make such meetings fruitful is an important part of the thesis
project and a useful step toward managing large projects on your
leave without setting a tentative date for your next session with
Reread this advice as your
Some suggestions here are most useful when you begin
thinking about the thesis project, others when you start writing,
and still others when you are polishing your final draft. It really
does help to reread this advice as your thesis project develops.
It is hard work, but it can be a very rewarding
to include your own advice and tips for thesis writers.
Please send them to [email protected]
Prof. Florence Riffe of Ohio University for suggesting the most important
item, #1: "Pick a topic you really care
Prof. Robert Pape for five questions
every thesis writer should ask
For my advice on getting a good
recommendation for graduate school or a job, click here.