Thesis writing

Foundations | Research design | Argument | Writing | Presentation

Theses are made up of several essential elements.


A good thesis:

  • Is located within a larger field, demonstrating knowledge and identifying its place within that field.
  • Identifies a gap in the existing scholarship and shows how this particular research addresses that gap.
  • Informs readers about what to expect from the study, its scope, aims and objectives in its introduction.

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Research design

The research design must be appropriate to the objectives and address the questions identified in the foundations.

Innovative or unconventional methodologies or modes of analysis need to be justified to demonstrate you were knowledgeably informed in choosing this approach.

Results should be defensible, and any possibility of bias or distortion in the data identified. Present your results in an appropriate manner with adequate interpretation of the results.

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Develop a well-structured argument supported by research

  • A good thesis has a well-structured and focused argument, with clear links among diverse aspects of the argument.
  • Research materials from authoritative sources are analysed, critiqued and integrated to support the argument of the thesis.

Refer to previous research

  • Relate your results back to the existing literature, explaining convergences and divergences.
  • Discuss these fully and convincingly, so that each point is clearly articulated.


  • Conclusions must be clearly linked to data and evidence, not based on speculation or opinion.
  • Address the stated objectives of the thesis, even if the outcome differs from what was anticipated.

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Your thesis should be:

  • Well-written and engaging for the reader.
  • Elegant, lucid and focused.
  • Within the word limit and concise.
  • Clearly and logically structured.
  • Thought provoking and interesting.

Structuring your thesis writing

  • Every paragraph should have a main idea or topic sentence.
  • Every sentence within a paragraph should support the main idea.
  • Every paragraph should support the main argument of a chapter.
  • And, in turn, every chapter must support the thesis as a whole.

Both the research and written argument of the thesis should be of a publishable standard.

Thesis writing guides

Several thesis writing guides are available from the Library.

See also:
White, B. (2011) Mapping your thesis: The comprehensive manual of theory and techniques for Masters and Doctoral research. doi:AN 384475.

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  • Presentation should be of a high standard with meticulous attention to detail, including spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • Use the recognised referencing style for your discipline, and be consistent.
  • The format and presentation of the document must follow the Guide to Theses and Dissertations
  • For detailed information about the presentation and submission of theses or dissertations, please consult the guidelines for Masters and Doctoral candidates.

Thody, A. (2006). Writing and presenting research. London: Sage Publications.
Woods, P. (2006). Successful writing for qualitative researchers. London: Routledge.

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Overcoming writer's block: Common problems and solutions

Not ready to write?

  • Get ready to write by writing! Writing as you go helps focus ideas and direct your reading.
  • As you formulate ideas, you discover what else you need to know, enabling you to read with focused questions in mind.

No time to write?

  • Just 15 minutes of concentrated writing per day can keep you in touch with your project.
  • Regular short bursts of writing can help overcome anxiety and writer's block, as well as improve motivation.

Not enough to say?

  • Use questions to open up your writing.
  • Formulate your basic idea into a simple statement, and ask different kinds of questions of that statement.
  • Anticipate and ask questions from the viewpoint of your intended audience.

Too much to say?

  • Work on the structure of your thesis by formulating a detailed plan and sub-headings.
  • Then concentrate on one subheading at a time rather than on the entire thesis.

Perfectionist tendencies?

  • During the writing process you will take on the dual roles of writer and editor by repeatedly writing and editing text until you are satisfied.
  • However, if you try to create and edit at the same time, it’s easy to get stuck.
  • By editing each sentence as you write (or even before you write it) you'll end up in conflict between writer and editor.
  • Separate these roles by consciously writing without editing as you go.
  • Writing requires rewriting – it’s unlikely to be perfect the first time!

Problems with writing "academically"?

  • Academic writing conventions (e.g., paraphrasing and the use of elegant logical connections between sentences, paragraphs and sections) become less troublesome with regular writing practice.
  • You will gain fluency and confidence in expressing your ideas in your own words, adding authority to your writing and making it a pleasure to read.

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Practise writing

Research journals

  • Keep a research journal and jot down ideas, questions, references and thoughts to explore.

Exploratory writing

  • Write to explore a question.
  • Once you have been producing exploratory writing for a while, try to pick out sections, ideas, sentences or key phrases that you could use to formulate more academic writing.

Set targets

  • Make a daily writing target that you can realistically adhere to.
  • Start with a minimum of 15 minutes a day and work up from there.

Feeling stuck?

  • Record your ideas, or get a friend to interview you on the piece you are working on.
  • Reread something you have written that you liked and use your writing practice to explore it further.
  • Revisit the initial impulse, the idea, the author, the particular thing that inspired the topic or question in the first place. Write about it.

The drafting process

  • Expect to write multiple drafts of your thesis.
  • Each subsequent draft, amended in response to your supervisor's comments, will refine and focus your argument further.
  • Work on one chapter at a time, but limit the time you spend on each chapter before moving on. This way you will build a sense of the whole, even as you work on the separate parts.

The working outline

Map out what you want to say as clearly as possible, keeping in mind:

  • what your reader needs to understand to be convinced of your argument
  • the conventions within your discipline

There are different ways to outline your ideas:

  • Old to new
    Readers often prefer to move from what they already know to what they don't know.
    Start by reviewing what is likely to be familiar to readers, then move to the less familiar material you are introducing.
  • Shorter and simpler to longer and more complex
    Present easier to understand material first, then lead readers through to your more complex material.
  • Uncontested to more contested
    Start with material readers are most likely to accept, even if you have good evidence for your more contestable claims.
  • Chronological order
    Useful when discussing historical events or developments within a discipline.

Bryant, M. T. (2004). The portable dissertation advisor. California: Corwin Press.

  • Readers do not approach your work sentence by sentence; rather they want to grasp your argument as a whole.
  • When you’re writing, concentrate on developing your argument before focusing on the fine details.

Steps to revising

Checking your claims

  • Check your claim is clearly made in the introduction and conclusion.
  • Do the main claims of your introduction and conclusion support each other? If your claims are vague, amend them.

Examining your argument

  • Identify incoherencies in the argument as a whole. Write a list of the key points made.
  • Do all your key points add up to a convincing argument? Do you repeat ideas unnecessarily?

Editing and proofreading

Paying careful attention to spelling and grammar will ensure readers see the thesis as professionally and thoughtfully written.

  • Lack of attention to these details will quickly irritate a thesis marker.
  • The spell-check won't pick up everything! Pay attention line-by-line to spelling, typing errors, grammar, consistency of spelling, and punctuation.
  • Look for repeated words and for explanations or examples that are surplus to requirements.
  • Arrange early to get help with editing or proofreading.

Cryer, P. (2006). The research student’s guide to success. 3rd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Last updated : 8 March 2023
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