Writing a thesis – tips and trip ups

Allison Cartwright is our ECS Publications Officer. Here, she looks at the challenges of a writing assignment and has some tips that have worked for her… 

Writing can be one of the most difficult tasks. It’s hindered me over the past 8 years at uni. On hearing the word ‘essay’, I prove the ‘fight or flight’ principle by feeling instant panic. I don’t mind talking, but writing is different.

Or is it? Recently (and I wish I’d found this out sooner) it became clear that it’s acceptable to write in a similar way to how I talk. My role as web publication officer for the ECS has given me the chance to test this. Chatting is fun and so I figured it would make writing less laborious.


Gift of the gab

So why didn’t I write like this sooner? Part of the problem was a fear people would be judgemental. Most people tell me I talk too much. Many question my work ethic, highlighting my endless chatter. With this kind of feedback, I was afraid to write in a conversational manner.

There was also a concern that this style wouldn’t be suitable for examination. It took some persuasion before I would write this way for an academic audience (even though it was an academic who was pushing me to write my thesis using this method).

Since employing this tactic, readers of my thesis seem happier, as the text has passion and narrative. Submit work that’s easier to read and there’s a greater chance an examiner will view it with a kinder eye.


On your marks

What are my tips for penning a thesis or assignment? Start by looking at the mark scheme. The area with the highest scores should demand the most time and effort.

This may not mean they are the largest sections though. For example, you may spend a lot of time doing data analysis for the results section, but only present two graphs. This may get you a lot of marks, even though it is 1 or 2 pages.


Keep it simple

Next up – content. Think of the reader. It’s one thing to write everything you know on a topic, but would anyone want to read it? Keep it simple by making the key points. It may help to list the main points before starting to write.

It’s easier to work backwards and give the reader the information they need to understand your main findings. Be careful with your use of acronyms and jargon.  It may make the work seem ‘smart’ but if the reader can’t easily understand it, you may suffer as a result.


Mapping the route

Planning is key. You need to have researched the topic and understand how you got to the final points. Think about your own journey to finding that information.

I often like to clarify the basic. For example, I worked with two bacteria species: Escherichia coli and Enterococci faecalis. Even in that one line, there’s a clarification that the presented species names are indeed bacteria.

Many of you will know that, but I only knew of E. coli before my PhD, E. faecalis could have been anything, maybe a little dung beetle?

E coli coloured

Build the scaffolding

Once you know the key points, it’s an idea to create a document with the points as titles. These can be removed later but it solves the problem of staring at a blank page.

You can then start to fill in info under each title and reference later by inserting (ref) throughout the work. It can help to jump between sections. Bored or uninspired? Start adding info under a different title and return later.

You just need to sit down and write. This was something I found hard, so ask a friend to help. My office door led into the lab, so the technicians kindly threatened to tie me to my chair every time I left the office after only  5 mins.

Alternatively, why not set a reward or punishment to ensure you meet your writing target. My  reward was an ice cream after dinner if a target was reached. If not, I made myself write at the weekend or miss swimming to make up the time. Forgoing swimming was probably the most severe punishment I could give myself, so I only failed the writing target once.

ice cream

Express yourself

Final point – don’t be afraid to express your opinions. As scientists, we’re meant to give a balanced view of contrasting literature, particularly in discussion chapters. This may highlight the level of research you‘ve done, but it can help to have a stance, or even a final note on how you think the research field will progress. It shows you’re fully engaged with your work.

After editing, get feedback. Don’t worry if you get drafts that look like a blood bath. This just means someone has taken an interest in helping your work have maximum impact. Writing is a craft, it takes practice.

One of the best compliments I’ve received relating to my writing is, “I can hear you talking to me through the piece.” Focus on the compliments, as it’s easy to give too much weight to criticism.

So all I can do now is wish you good luck with your writing!!!






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