Tips on Writing a Thesis or a Writing Sample

Writing a sample for graduate admissions or thesis can be a daunting task and much of what you do learn, you figure out in hindsight.  At what point do you graduate from writing a “good paper for your grade level” to the expectation that you will contribute something insightful and original to your field? Moreover, when do you stop writing to the preferences of one particular professor and start writing for an admissions committee, a conference session, a publication?

These questions are not easy to answer and part of the experience is figuring it out as you move forward. However, submitting a paper for graduate admissions or your department’s honors committee makes the stakes pretty high the first time around. Although things worked out in the sense that I got into a good English PhD program and have Distinction on my diploma, the process has humbled me with the realization of all the things I could have done better – and that others did do better than I did.

Here are a few nuggets of advice that I learned from writing a writing sample and honors thesis.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

A subject of inquiry that is too general starts as an open door for research and quickly turns into a thesis tidal wave that knocks you off your feet. Unless you are a leading scholar in the field, chances are that your knowledge of existing scholarship is not sufficient to tackle a big, philosophical question that has stumped your field for decades. Even if you are a brilliant super-genius prodigy, you still have to consider what you will have time accomplish AND what you can make a case for in the page limited allotted.  More likely, you would end up 1) with a “middle ground” thesis that is more contemplative than a direct, focused claim or 2) leave wide gaps in your research and your rationale. Think small scale, think specific, and think achievable based on time constraints.

Avoid the dreaded “compare/contrast” thesis.

I like to think my attraction to this type of paper was borne out of being compelled to pull multiple texts into one paper for literature survey courses just because they were written in the same time period. One thing that I really never realized until graduate school is that it’s hard to move beyond “useful observations” and into real criticism when you structure papers this way. Not only do you have to give a convincing context for comparing multiple primary texts, but you also have to come up with a more substantial claim than “hey look, I noticed this historical pattern.” Again, does the scope of your research really encompass enough to make that claim? Stay away from this by coming up with a specific argument that you can illustrate clearly – and choose texts based on their relevance to your argument, not because they might have once been a good combination for a survey course paper.

Peer review is your friend.

I’ve fallen prey to this logic many times: advice from your advisor is superior to that of your peers because your advisor > your peers. Well, for one, your advisor may be more a experienced researcher, but that does not mean her opinion is the only one that matters. Professors get busy during the semester and while many of them genuinely want to help their students, sometimes they do not have as much time to put into critiquing your work as you would hope. There are two very good reasons why you should peer review. 1) Getting a second opinion can never hurt, but too often writers tend to accept the advice of their academic superiors without question. Peer review allows for a more open discussion and equal exchange of ideas.  2) Reading your peer’s work offers perspective on your own. What are you doing less effectively than your peer? What are you doing more effectively? Answering these questions will help you as much as it will help your friend.

Ask critical questions.

Your advisor could give you anything from super-detailed criticism to general words of wisdom. To get the most out of working with your advisor, you have to come to meetings with her prepared. Comb your paper with a critical lens and come up with some direct and specific questions to ask. Stay away from, “is this section good?” or “do I need to revise my this part?”. Instead, come up with questions like, “I’m concerned that my reading of X doesn’t fit with my later interpretation of Y, do you think that point is effective?”. You are more likely to have a productive conversation with your advisor if you come in prepared.

Don’t become too attached to your writing at the expense of expanding your ideas.

Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I’ve put the effort into writing a full paragraph or section out in complete, well-phrased sentences, I get lazy when it comes to revising them. And I don’t mean checking spelling and grammar – I mean revising at the structural and analytical levels. This can lead to what I call “Frankenpaper:” a paper that includes patches and fragments of writing and ideas that were part of an earlier draft but don’t flow with later, more developed ideas. The best way to avoid “Frankenpaper” from the start is to free-write by hand or make a detailed outline to get your ideas out before you starting actually parsing out a full draft. You’ll be more likely to amend your writing if it isn’t all typed up in neat little paragraphs. If you get a brilliant idea after you’ve done the bulk of your writing, don’t hesitate to annex entire paragraphs and sections and rewrite them. Rewriting is never as difficult as it seems and it may even save you time in the long run struggling to make a paragraph work that, in the end, just doesn’t fit.

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