Tips for Writing a Thesis in the Humanities

In the final year of my master’s program in English I was tasked with writing a thesis as a culmination of my time in grad school.

During the process I struggled with self-doubt, time management, and an entire host of other challenges I’ve since discovered are common to many young scholars in the humanities.

Hoping to help others in my program avoid these problems, I have written a list of things I wish I knew before starting research. While these are technically about the final project in my graduate program, I’d give the same guidance to a senior in college embarking on an undergraduate or honors thesis, or anyone working on a long-form piece of academic criticism or analysis in the humanities.

1. Write early, write often.

The first thing you'll do when starting a long-term research project is attempt to divide the semester into a period of reading followed by a period of writing. You'll likely set a hard date to begin writing, one that leaves you more than enough time to finish the project based on what you know about the length of your project and your personal work habits.

Assuming you’ve got a semester to work on the project, that date is at least three weeks too late. You should begin writing long before it's comfortable, while your research is still in its infancy. When it comes to long-term projects like theses and dissertations, the battles are won and lost on the page, not in your head. Giving concrete language to your ideas is the fastest way to sift through them and organize them, so you should be writing as soon as it is humanly possible (and maybe even before that).

Starting your paper early also has the practical effect of avoiding the dreaded “research hole,” a phenomenon in which you chase one seemingly relevant idea after the next until before you know it you're reading about underwater basket-weaving. This kind of behavior feels productive, but it's actually a form of procrastination, a way of avoiding the crucial moment when the cursor starts moving across the screen.

2. Don't be afraid to be wrong.

Because your thesis is the final piece of writing you'll do in your program, there's a temptation to make it feel more “right” than the papers that came before it. You should avoid this temptation at all costs.

Just like most writing at the graduate level, or even as a senior in college, the thesis is meant to be a proving ground for a certain set of ideas and concepts. You may think that your completed thesis will be an authoritative piece of scholarship (which it will be, in its own way), but it’s still a few steps away from the work of professional experts in your field. Though theses are guided by professional scholars (your advisors), they’re not peer-reviewed. It’s okay in your thesis to lead with interest and even confusion rather than firm expertise — as long as you don’t stray too far from the expectations of your advisor or committee.

Proceeding through your research with a sense of curiosity will allow you to find unexpected avenues of critique. These lines of questioning will problematize your own project in a way that will prove productive in the long run. Because you’re allowed a higher word count than you would be in a typical seminar paper, you always have more space to synthesize in future chapters. So don't be afraid to be wrong every once in a while when you’re writing.

3. Talk it out.

Moving from coursework into a long project can be difficult. Instead of bouncing ideas around in a seminar with people you trust, you’re stuck at the desk deciding for yourself whether or not a particular concept is worth pursuing. This transition can create a sense of intellectual isolation, and after a few weeks of writing you might find that you miss the environment of discourse and argumentation the classroom provides.

For that reason it’s very important to schedule regular conversations with people in your program — people other than your advisor. The psychological benefits of these meetings will be immediately obvious: they provide companionship, catharsis, maybe even a chance for commiseration. But there are practical benefits as well. The meetings can be a place to share research, hear outside perspectives, and implement new critical frameworks.

Try to be as specific as possible about the writing challenges you’re facing during these conversations. Talk about exactly why you can’t quite square this piece of criticism with that text, and ask if anyone has advice as to why this might be the case. First, this prevents your chats from descending into the realm of vague encouragement, or worse, program gossip. Second, you’re more likely to find those breakthrough moments when you get granular. Who knows — your friend might have just read the very piece of research that breaks your project wide open, so make sure to be clear about what you’re looking for or struggling with.

4. Write the introduction last.

Introductions are important. At their best, they provide a road map for your reader, a preview of the kinds of arguments you’ll be making in future chapters. They’re also very hard to write. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s almost certainly better to write the introduction last. While it might be tempting to use the introduction as scaffolding as you work on other chapters, it’s hard to say at the outset of a project what you hope to prove before you’ve been able to prove it.

Chances are you had to write a proposal or a prospectus before you started the writing process in earnest, so use that as an intro when you begin. Work on close readings and analysis, hammer out some of the finer points of your argument, and let everything sink in. By the end of a project (provided you’ve allowed yourself enough time), you’ll have a much better idea of its overall scope and direction. So capitalize on that experience and write your intro last. If you try to nail it down at the outset, you’ll probably end up rewriting it later anyway, so why not start somewhere in the middle instead?

5. Be confident, not arrogant, on defense day.

Your project will likely end with a presentation or defense of the research you've done throughout the semester. Defense day feels like a culminating event, and it's hard not to be nervous under the cold stare of your thesis committee, especially after three cups of coffee. Your instincts may tell you to come out of your corner swinging, but in this case your instincts are dead wrong.

You should proceed through your defense with confidence, but not arrogance. No one expects you to be the leading expert in your field after a single project, but you will have a range of knowledge after months of specialized research that even the professors on your committee may not possess. Your goal should be to clarify, not fortify, the positions taken in your paper. While the committee may seem scary, its members have likely developed a genuine enthusiasm in at least some aspect of your work, and they are more interested in finding a consensus between your position and theirs than in poking holes in your research. You should seek a similar sense of understanding.

On a practical level, though, the defense involves talking about what your paper could have done better, chapters it might have included if you’d had more time, and avenues you consider worth exploring in another context (perhaps through a critical lens you chose not to use). These are important lines of questioning, and they should be embraced. Rather than showing a lack of preparation, interrogating your own ideas demonstrates a level of mastery in your field; it’s evidence that you understand the critical discourse enough to be objective about your own findings.

No matter what strategies you use when you’re working on your thesis, you should try your best to enjoy the process. There’s no denying that it can be a stressful time, but it may be the last (or only) chance you get in your academic career to focus on a problem or area that speaks directly to your interests — on a personal, political, aesthetic, or scholarly level. Keep those interests in mind even as you encounter the hurdles and doldrums that attend long writing projects, and don’t let perfectionism get in the way of productivity as you close out the project.

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