Writing your ThesisPaul Oliver
Sage Publications: London
ix + 193 pp. Order this book?
When recently completing my Ph.D. thesis, I failed to find a satisfactory guide to writing and instead relied mainly on institution-based guidelines, help from supervisors and other theses. Writing your thesis provides a single source of reference in which most aspects of thesis writing are addressed.
The cover of the book captures the typical scene of academic writing with piles of books and laptops. Perhaps all that is missing is the inevitable coffee mug. The book is structured in two parts. Part one, The process of academic writing includes chapters on 'The research thesis', 'The role of the supervisor', 'Grammar, punctuation and conventions of academic writing' and 'Layout of the thesis'. Part two, Writing your thesis, is concerned with specific chapters in the thesis ranging from 'The preliminary pages and the introduction' to 'The conclusion'. The final three chapters focus on the practicalities involved with completing the thesis, publication of findings during the preparation of the thesis and the oral examination.
The opening chapter claims that, "this book will help you writing your thesis, from the moment you type your first word, to when you walk into the viva voce examination" (p3). In fact Oliver uses the first two chapters to seek to persuade the reader to undertake the writing of a thesis and highlights the creativity of academic writing. I wondered initially whether these chapters were necessary. By the time you pick up a book entitled Writing your thesis, you have probably made the decision to write one. However, the function of renewing enthusiasm for your thesis, as it did mine, is probably valuable in its own right.
The challenge in writing a book about thesis writing is that no two theses will be the same. The nature of the research, personal choice and requirements of different institutions means that any advice has to be given with the caveat that your thesis may differ from the given example. A frustration of many books is that they are either so precise that they do not allow for flexibility or, alternatively, they emphasise this flexibility to the point that it is difficult to take any useful points. Oliver largely deals with this very well and it is possible to pick out the points that are most pertinent to your situation or to identify why your thesis does not fit exactly with his recommendations. He indicates areas where there is not necessarily a correct way of writing but that, whatever convention you choose, the use must be consistent throughout the thesis.
Chapter 5 deals with many issues that came up in discussions with my supervisors and other research students. These include the use of first or third person, presentation of quotations and the use of appendices. There are useful tips such as preparing a list of verbs and to what they apply so that you can avoid repetition in your thesis. Chapter 4 offers advice on getting the most out of the relationship with your supervisors giving the perspective of both the student and supervisor. The importance of both parties making clear their expectations in, for example, level of detail in feedback from draft chapters is highlighted.
The quote used on the back cover highlights that the book is thorough and comprehensive and that it uses simple language. Perhaps my only irritation with the book is that the language is too simple. The 'Signposts to success' seemed a little obvious and idealistic. For example "Set yourself a series of staged targets in order to complete the thesis on schedule. Do everything possible to meet your targets" (p56). The real value of this book lies in the more practical advice that may make this possible. Overall the book offers some valuable advice, particularly on the layout and conventions of academic writing.
Dugald Baird Centre for Research on Women's Health, University of Aberdeen