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How (not) to write a terrible scientific thesis

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting
How (not) to write a terrible scientific thesis

So it’s time to write up your thesis. By now, you probably consider yourself an expert on your topic or you hate the sight of it (or both!). Either way, hundreds of typewritten pages are all that stands between you and graduation/freedom.

One of your first requirements will be to review the current knowledge on your subject. In Australia we call this a literature review or a ‘lit review’ (Ed. note: We call it this in the US, too) because we have a fondness for abbreviating everything. There are many, many online resources suggesting how to write a literature review. Most of these offer helpful hints on what information to include, how to analyze published papers and establish the importance of the topic, and what sources to look for. However, very few (if any) will tell you how to write a thesis that doesn’t make your examiner wish for an early death. But fear not—that’s what this article is here to address.

“Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.” George Eliot

My main tip to anyone tackling a thesis or any other long written work is: simplify. In primary school and high school, long words were great. The more long words you knew, the smarter you were. That’s why spelling bees exist. A tendency to use as many long words as possible usually goes uncorrected at University or College, unless you had a professor that preferred a certain style of writing. So when it comes to writing a thesis, you might think that this would be a great opportunity to bust out that rocking vocabulary you’ve been cultivating your whole life. It isn’t.

“Say what you have to say, and then stop.” Rudolph Flesch

Consider the following example regarding pink elephants and unicorns:

  1. Recent data would suggest that in some cases, it is possible for pink elephants to have a more noticeable level of shiny adornments than unicorns. Prominent researchers in this field have speculated on the causes of this discrepancy. However, a definite correlation between empirically measured data using a Shiny Assay and the pinkness of the elephant is yet to be fully elucidated, and it may well be dependent on several external factors present in the unicorn mileau.
  2. Pink elephants may be shinier than unicorns. The reasons for this have not yet been discovered but could be environmental.

Both paragraphs essentially contain the same information, but which do you think an examiner would rather read?

“Men of few words are the best men.” William Shakespeare

There’s no doubt that the English language can be a poetic and beautiful thing. Scientific letters to the Royal Society penned in the late 1700s are written in the flowery, ornate style that was expected at the time, for example:

As frequent mention is made in the public papers from Europe of the success of the Philadelphia experiment for the drawing the electric fire from clouds by means of pointed rods of iron erected on high buildings, it may be agreeable to the curious to be informed, that the same experiment has succeeded in Philadelphia, tho’ made in a different and more easy manner, which anyone may try, as follows: Benjamin Franklin, 1752 ‘A letter concerning an electrical kite.’

Apart from an obvious love for commas and long sentences, scientific letters in the 1700s were meant to tell a story; to fascinate the well-bred gentlemen educated enough to read them. In the modern age, anyone involved in research is presented with a deluge of scientific information that can be almost impossible to sift through. It’s no longer necessary to entertain and delight your reader with tales of electric kites. Nobody wants to sit through 400 pages of prose to get to the actual reason why the thesis is being written: your results. Your tiny niche of scientific discovery is where you need to shine. And it’s no good if you’ve bored your audience to tears long before you get there.

“If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” George Orwell

Consider that whoever is reading your thesis has probably ingested as much caffeine as humanly possible to get through it and doesn’t want to read the same page three times to work out what in the world you’re trying to say. Trim the dead wood. Make your writing style short, effective and to the point. If your sentences are so long and garbled that the reader has forgotten the beginning when they reach the end, you have a problem. Don’t use long words just to sound smarter. At best they will give your writing a detached, vague feel, and at worst you’ll end up with something resembling word salad. After you write each page, go back and look for ways to make it simpler and clearer. Even better, find a non-scientist to look over your general introduction—if your writing is clear and easy to read, an intelligent lay-person should at least be able to understand the general background of your project.

“The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Dr Seuss

In summary, writing a thesis is usually difficult and painful. You don’t want to inflict further pain on the examiner who must navigate his/her way through it. After all, if you’re not enjoying a book you can set it aside., but that’s not an option with a thesis.

Your results and your grasp of the science should be the most impressive part of your thesis, not your vocabulary.

What pitfalls do you think need to be avoided when writing a scientific thesis? Let us know in the comments below!

Featured image by Mary Vican.

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  1. LUZ MARIA GARCIA PEREZ on April 5, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    I love it!!! I’m gonna share it with my students

  2. Bart Ford on March 23, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    “Start as close to the end as possible.” – Kurt Vonnegut

  3. Thayaparan on March 2, 2016 at 11:29 am


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