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Separating the wheat from the chaff


How different is writing a research thesis and an article for general reading? A few tips.

Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

EMEND WITH EASE: Using a word processor to write your thesis has it's advantages.

The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean.

R.L. Stevenson (1850-1894)

How do you start writing a thesis? First, you should draw an outline, and then, build on it gradually. You may have a mountain of information gathered through hard work. But be realistic, as all that cannot go into your thesis.

It is often a heartbreaking experience to reject what you collected the hard way. The size of a thesis has to be limited, in tune with the norms. You cannot incorporate all your material into it. What are precious gems to you may be unwanted stones to others.

There is no hard and fast rule relating to the length of a thesis. However, the length of your composition may be estimated before you put pen to paper or start tapping at the keyboard. A Ph.D. thesis may run from 75,000 to 1,00,000 words, but a postgraduate dissertation may be as short as 5,000 and may not exceed 25,000. The size of an M.Phil. dissertation may be somewhere in between.

There are, of course, fine theses that do not conform to these numbers. It will be adequate if a postgraduate thesis is in the form of a small addition to existing knowledge, but a Ph.D. thesis should necessarily make a substantial contribution in the form of new knowledge or a worthwhile innovative step.

First not the best

Your first draft is not your best draft. You have to apply a cold, critical eye to it and improve the text. Repeated revision will help to correct errors in construction, improve diction, boil down fat, ensure precision and clarity, elucidate matter that may challenge easy comprehension and add more useful data.

One convenient method is to edit the draft imagining that someone else has written it. You may read it out to a friend and ask him to rate it in terms of ease of comprehension. Accuracy of the statement is of supreme importance in a thesis. Nothing should be vague or nebulous. If you introduce any graphics, discuss it in the text.

There is one clear distinction between an article and a thesis in use of vocabulary. You may find that authors of popular writing make use of synonyms to kill monotony. For example, instead of repeating the word teaching, they may use instruction, coaching, training, schooling, tutoring and education, ignoring the fine differences in the shades of meaning.

But in a thesis, it is imperative not to go for variety at the expense of precision. There is no harm in repeating the same word or phrase over and over again, if that is what you intend to convey to the reader. You are not aiming at a literary masterpiece for aesthetic pleasure.

But the text has to be readable. Each paragraph can carry only one main idea. Transition from one paragraph to the next has to be smooth. You should not "stutter" through disjointed statements. An effective storyline should also be made through a common golden thread running continuously through the chapters.

Begin from anywhere

You need not necessarily start writing from the beginning of the first chapter, proceed strictly on the expected sequence and reach the last line. Start writing where you are comfortable. We find that the child starts speaking before knowing anything about grammar. Sequencing need not be a blind rigour. You may write the various parts, arrange them logically and fill any gaps.

There are remarkable advantages in using a word processor for preparing a thesis. It is easy to edit the contents or modify the form progressively by changing a word, interchanging the positions of sentences or paragraphs through the "cut and paste" function, changing the font and case (upper/lower), searching for a word in the text through the "find" command, replacing a word with another through a "replace" command, checking the spelling, copying part of the text for e-mail transmission to another scholar without having to retype, quick formatting, saving copies of your text at different stages of its development in separate files so that you can go back to an old stage that you realise was better, automatic numbering of pages or changing the page set-up to suit another paper size without the hassle of retyping.

Also, you can take prints at different stages. Prints may be necessary for two reasons. It may not be easy to get the sense of the whole write-up or edit the text running to several pages, by looking at a computer screen that shows only part of a page at a time. Further, it is essential that you keep backup copies of your write-up either in print or otherwise, since none can rule out the possibility of a breakdown of the machine resulting in the loss of precious material.

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