Tips for Writing Success

Computer

How do you become a productive writer? How do you finish a thesis/book/journal article/poem/other piece of writing?

Over the years, I’ve pondered these questions and employed various strategies to effectively start and finish! different writing projects. I don’t have just one answer and I fully realize that writing is very personal. What works for me may not work for you. That said, I’ve read the popular guides on effective writing and have participated in writing partnerships, groups, and retreats so I will offer some advice.

Tips for Writing Success

1. You can’t write well if you don’t feel well. Establish healthy routines in other aspects of your life. Even if you are in thesis/dissertation mode, you should still be sleeping, eating, and exercising regularly.

2. You don’t need a lot of time to write. Aim small. It’s better to have 1-2 hours of quality writing than 4 hours in which you just stare into space and pretend to write. I have two kids and can be really busy. I write in short time blocks all the time.

3. Have a strategy to help you focus. Like everyone else, I sometimes struggle with motivation. Creating a clear goal helps me get back on track. There are many different approaches (I’ve tried them all). You can set a timer for 30 minutes (write, 5 minute break, repeat), aim for a word count, or use other means to get yourself to turn off social media and get the job done. Some people like to establish section objectives for themselves, such as writing a specific paragraph before they do other tasks. Whatever works for you–just stick to it.

4. Don’t hesitate to work in unusual places.  I try to utilize my time, which often means I take out my laptop and write. I have worked at the Toyota dealership, karate school, the ham store, a doctor’s office, and other odd work spaces. Make the most of small windows of time.

5.Recognize that writing is a process. You will rarely write the perfect draft the first time around. Write, revise, write, revise. Getting some words down is the first step to a finished manuscript.

6.Write in stages. Depending on my mood, primary research conducted, and state of the current draft, I focus on different levels of writing, so to speak. Sometimes I write from a macro perspective, outlining my draft, or do free-flowing brainstorming to get started, bolding parts of my manuscript that can be filled in later. Other times I work on the nitty-gritty details, adding sources and smoothing out word choices and transitions. My point is that writing doesn’t have to be linear. You need a clear outline and a plan, but you can switch between the big picture and the building blocks (or as my adviser used to say, between the “forest” and the “trees”).

7.Never stop writing. The more you write, the better you become at writing.  Have a plan for your upcoming work. If you are writing your thesis, you should know what your next objectives/chapters. As my other amazing adviser once told me, tenure-track folks should aim to have projects at each stage of the writing process. This might seem like a lot. However, if you have a solid plan and you get moving, it is very doable.
Stages of Writing Peer-reviewed Journal Articles
1. Idea
2. Conducting research/writing the manuscript
[Presenting paper at conference]
3. Revise & resubmit/under review at a journal
4. Forthcoming
5. Published

8. Always meet your deadlines. I’m ending these tips with the big one. Be honest with yourself and prioritize writing to meet your deadlines. There will always be demands on your time. Recognize this and work writing into meeting your other obligations. Effective writing behavior combined with adherence to deadlines are the keys to finishing your manuscripts.

There you have it. I don’t have a magic potion for writing, nor am I a perfect writer. I choose projects that I find interesting and worthwhile, set deadlines for myself, and almost always meet those deadlines. Good luck!

The Art of Revisions

As you revise your thesis, remember that your adviser is trying to work with you to produce the best possible product. Be mindful of your adviser’s time. This means that you should give your adviser ample days to read and comment. It also means that you need to make all of the requested revisions before you send your thesis in for more comments.

The Revision Process
When you revise a draft with feedback, I recommend the following steps:
1. Take a deep breath and remember that your adviser is trying to help you.
2. Skim the feedback, but do not start making changes.
3. Create a revision plan for yourself.
4. First, make the easy changes. Go through any “Tracked Changes” and “Accept” (and, as needed, send quick clarification questions if you don’t understand a tracked change).
5. Then address easy-to-fix comments (like adding a year or fixing a typo).
6. Now move to the big edits, making sure to address each one.
7. Proofread your new draft and check citation formatting.
8. Create a quick list for the body of your email that explains the changes that you made.
9. Send in your revised draft with the list of changes made.
10. Thank your adviser.

If your adviser seems slow in responding, it is perfectly fine to email after 5 days or so, checking in about your latest draft.

What’s in a thesis proposal?

The thesis proposal is your first step toward finishing your thesis.  It should give your committee an overview of what you intend to do, supported by the justification, background, literature review, and theoretical framework for your proposed study. It is not a “preview” of your findings/results.

Proposal Components (*note: these may vary a bit by project & thesis chair)

  1. Introduction
  2. Statement of purpose
  3. Justification for the study
  4. Background for the study
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Method
    1. Research Questions or Hypotheses
    2. Methodology
    3. Sample
    4. Operationalization (how you will conduct the research)

Library

What is the process?

Manuscript

“Dr. Foss, I would like to finish this semester.”

I love to read or hear this statement.  But how does one finish? More importantly, does the person making this declaration understand what finishing entails.  (See here for MTSU dates and formatting information Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines).

The general process for writing your master’s thesis

  1. Brainstorm a few projects that suit your interests, strengths, and program.  Meet with your adviser and identify the project.
  2. Develop a statement of purpose and an outline of the project.
  3. Ask faculty to serve on your committee.
  4. Work on the proposal, making sure that you and your adviser are on the same page.
  5. Submit the IRB paperwork, if applicable.
  6. Send a draft of your proposal to your thesis chair/adviser.
  7. While you are waiting for feedback, work on other aspects of the thesis (i.e. setting up your study or gathering materials).
  8. When you receive feedback, revise accordingly, addressing every comment and suggestion. You will very likely have several rounds of revision.
  9. Defend your proposal.
  10. Conduct your primary research and write up your analysis.
  11. Send the findings/results and discussion to your thesis chair.
  12. While you wait for feedback, revise the first half of the thesis.
  13. When you receive feedback, revise, revise, revise–addressing every change. Repeat the revision cycle as needed.
  14. With your chair and committee, set up the defense.
  15. Defend your thesis. Bring copies of the signature form.
  16. Revise the thesis per the committee’s suggestions.
  17. Submit your thesis to Graduate Studies, following all of the university guidelines.

The Introduction: How do I start this thing?

Writing the introduction to your thesis can feel difficult. You want to grab the reader’s attention, set up your big question or driving purpose, and sound academic all at the same time. You want to give enough info about your topic without giving everything away.  So how do you do it?

I recommend writing the introduction after you’ve shaped the other parts of the proposal.  You’ll have a better grasp on the literature and understand how your project fits in.  It will also seem less daunting.

Some Approaches for the Introduction
I will use media representations of breastfeeding as the sample topic to show different approaches.

  • An event related to your thesis topic or that spurred the inspiration for your topic “In 2012, hundreds of mothers gathered on the lawn of Capitol Hill for the Great Nurse-In, a rally to celebrate breastfeeding.”
  • Legislation that dramatically impacts your thesis topic.                                                  “A mother’s right to breastfeed in public is protected by law in 49 states.”
  • Statistics about your thesis topic.                                                                                      “Although 81.1% of  U.S. women attempt to breastfeed, only 44.4% are exclusively nursing at three months.”
  • An example from news or entertainment on your topic–USE THIS SPARINGLY IF YOUR THESIS ANALYZES MEDIA (more below).                                                              “In the Game of Thrones episode “The Wolf and the Lion,” Lady Lysa Arryn openly nurses her school-age son, a groundbreaking moment due to the visual aesthetics and child’s age.”

Avoid These Pitfalls

  • Using cheesy generalized expressions “Since the dawn of time, women have been breastfeeding.”
  • Writing your introduction like an abstract “This study explores media representations of breastfeeding”–You will make a statement like this, but not yet. Introduce your topic first.
  • Describing your stream of consciousness and/or writing informally “When I think of breastfeeding in the media, I wonder. . . .”
  • Using media examples from your primary sources–i.e. for a study on TV’s representations of breastfeeding, I would not start the thesis with the Game of Thrones reference above.
  • Taking too much space to get to your statement of purpose.  The introduction should be concise and used as a stepping stone to the heart of your thesis.

It’s fine to try out a few approaches. When I wrote my dissertation, I had several files with different openings.  Remember, your introduction can change as you move from the proposal to the thesis.

Good luck!

From the Intro to the Statement of Purpose: Making the Transition

Toddler bed

This part is like the toddler bed (for non-parents, the step between a crib and a regular bed. Note the little railing).

So how do you create the bridge between the introduction and the statement of purpose? As discussed in my last post, your introduction broadly sets up your topic.  Within 1-1.5 pages, you need to get to your project.  In other words, this is not the place for pages of background.
Start with the problem/statistics/event/anecdote (rarely) for the introduction and then move to your study using 1-2 sentences to set up the gap in the literature. For a study related to media, this transitional part likely brings in media.
Here’s an outline using breastfeeding in media as the sample topic:

I. Case of woman being ridiculed for breastfeeding in public (as posted on Facebook)
II. Breastfeeding is protected by law
III. Gap between legal protection and public support–likely influenced by negative media representations
IV. Statement of purpose about exploring media’s influence on perceptions of public breastfeeding

Notice how the sections flow to each other and set up the current study?  All of this is on page one (and backed by scholarly literature, of course :)).

Remember that you need to quickly and clearly established what you are doing and why.

What’s the Plan, Stan? The Statement of Purpose

While this part is about the third section in the thesis/thesis proposal, writing your purpose statement should be job #1 in your overall process.  You can’t write a proposal (well) without a clear statement of purpose.

As one of my wonderful dissertation advisers taught me, every project has both a conceptual question and an operational question.  The big picture concept and the feasible one that can be actually addressed within the confines of your project.  You should identify both of these before you start writing your thesis.

So what do I mean?  My conceptual question could be “How do media portray breastfeeding?”  This is a huge umbrella of a question and good for the overarching concept.  However, if I use this question as my statement of purpose (“This study examines how media portray breastfeeding”) is is far too vague.  I’ve given my reader almost no information about my actual study.  This is not laying out a feasible study since I can’t study all portrayals of breastfeeding to ever exist in media.

Insert the operational question, a practical framework for the actual study I will conduct. For example, one operational question could be “How does prime-time fictional television portray breastfeeding?”  Rewritten as my statement of purpose, it becomes “This study examines breastfeeding portrayals in prime-time fictional television, 1970–2011” (I did this study. Here it is: Foss. That’s not a beer bong. . . Representations of Breastfeeding. Keep in mind that this research is written as a journal article, not a thesis).

For your statement of purpose, be clear and specific about what you are doing.  It should give readers an idea of the time-frame, sample, medium, and type of study (i.e. textual analysis, audience reception, experiment, you get the picture). Keep your statement to a statement.  This is not the place to give us a thorough history of your sample or a lengthy explanation of how important your study is.

If you feel confused about the statement of purpose, it can help to talk to a friend about your thesis topic. What would you say? Keep in mind that your friend likely isn’t interested in a 15 minute overview of hegemony or a full report of a Pew Research study.  You will get to talk about literature, background, and theory. . . .just not yet.

Writing the Literature Review

Bricks

Why bricks for the literature review?  Well, because a good literature review establishes a good foundation and sets up the reader for your study.  It should not read like a jumbled mess, but as a linear path, with each addition serving a purpose.

How should you get started?  Before writing a word of your proposal, you likely did some reading on the topic, took some notes, and began building your knowledge base in this area. Google Scholar is a good starting point for any project.  Type in your topic.

Google scholar with box

Once you find a relevant article, use the Google Scholar tools.  Here, clicking on “Cited by 25” would bring you to this screen:

Cited by

leading you to more articles, and so forth.

Once you have gathered relevant literature for your thesis proposal, it’s time to put it together. If you are writing your thesis in a media-related discipline, you likely have existing studies (or secondary literature) that addresses content and studies that examine media effects.  My advice is to organize the literature in these broad areas with subcategories within.  I recommend putting the content section first so you’ve laid out what the representations are before moving to how they might affect people.

Begin with a topic sentence and then use your words to weave your literature together.  What I mean here is that you don’t just want a grocery list of quotes.  You are steering this ship.

Tips for Writing the Literature Review

  • Begin every paragraph with a topic sentence beforejumping to the next citation.
  • Be mindful of chronology in the literature.  If a study is 30 years old, you need to recognize its age.
  • Let your words move along the thesis, telling us how secondary literature sets up your study. You are steering the ship.  It should not look like this:
    “Johnson found that “BIG QUOTE.” Anderson also said “BIG QUOTE,” which was illustrated by Newton “BIG QUOTE.”  We should know why each of these authors are worthy of inclusion in your literature review (Hint: it’s not to fill space).
  • Don’t write so many details about a study that we forget your purpose and your study.
  • Don’t cite anything you haven’t read. Use Interlibrary Loanand other resources to access the full article and book.
  • Always cite the original source.  Seek it out, read it, then cite it.
  • Be selective of what you include in your literature review.  Every citation should serve a purpose.

Conclude your literature review by establishing the gap in literature and how your study addresses that gap. Remember, this section sets up the foundation for your primary study!

The Method of Writing the Method

Like other parts of your thesis, there are different ways to approach your Method section. Obviously, studies can be qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods. While I will focus on the qualitative side here, for all approaches, you must effectively communicate to your audience what you are aiming to discover, what you will examine for the study and how you will examine it.

Structure of this section:
I. Research Questions
II. Methodology
III. Sample
IV. How you will conduct the research (operationalization)

Research Questions
These are the big conceptual questions that guide your study (and not super detailed questions that help you in your analysis).
Good example of a conceptual question:  How is gender constructed in prime-time television programs of the 1990s? (a nice broad question)
Poor example: What does the dialogue between Chandler and Monica tell us about gender in the 1990s? 
(not broad–this is an operational question)

Methodology
Which specific methodology will you use (i.e. focus groups, interviews, narrative analysis, discourse analysis, Critical Discourse Analysis, framing analysis, semiotic analysis)?  Using sources, lay out the methodology, defining key terms and applications. Make sure you clearly convey why this methodology is appropriate for your study.

The Sample
Here’s where you explain specifically what you will examine to explore your research questions. For audience studies, identify how you recruited, the demographics of your group, and other details.  With textual studies, specify exactly what text you will analyze (i.e. the pilot episodes of seven situation comedies that originally aired in prime-time in the years 1994-1997–NAMING THE SHOWS).  You should be so specific that other researchers could easily locate your sample.
In this section, give a brief overview of the text, explaining why you included it, at the same time, explaining why you didn’t go another route. Keep your synopsis of your texts somewhat brief. In your Findings section, you can add details of characters as needed. To justify your sample, you may incorporate ratings and awards to justify your choice. . . KEEP IT SHORT THOUGH.

How you will conduct the research (operationalization)
This is the place for the nuts and bolts of your research process, the map, if you will, of what you are doing. For audience research, outline how you will conduct the research (what you will specifically do for the interviews or focus groups, including incentives and the list of questions).  For text, describe all of the operationalized questions that allow you to answer your research questions.  Depending on the type of text, you might include details about aesthetics, language, dialogue, musical score, character relationships, clothing, text, images, camera shots, lighting, position, setting and other components that make up a narrative.  You may use secondary literature to set up what you will investigate for your analysis. For example, in looking at constructions of Roma (“gypsies”) in television, my co-author, Dr. Adina Schneeweis and I brought in studies on stereotypes of Roma in our operational section to explain why clothing and certain costumes were indicative of negative stereotyping.  See Schneeweis. Foss. Representations of Roma for our journal article on this study.

As I stated earlier, this section guides the reader into your analysis.

Defending the Proposal

After you’ve gone through a few rounds of revision with your adviser (or perhaps more than a few rounds), you’ll reach that glorious moment in which you are ready to defend your proposal.  You will send your proposal to the rest of your committee and figure out a date for the meeting (warning: this part may seem as difficult as writing the proposal :)).

The proposal defense is often the first time that the committee gets together with you to discuss your work.  Take this seriously, but try not to be too nervous. This team is here to support you and guide you toward your ultimate goal: a finished thesis and graduation.

So what happens at the proposal defense? After a bit of small talk and introductions (as needed), you give a short overview of your project, touching on each of the main areas of the proposal (introduction, statement of purpose, justification, background (as needed), literature review, theoretical framework, and method).  From this presentation, your committee should have a clear idea of your research questions, how you plan to pursue them, and how your project fits with the existing literature.

Following the presentation, your committee members will ask questions and offer feedback. Make sure you write down their advice. With that, the defense will be over and you move into a new stage–WRITING THE THESIS.  You know know that even with the finished proposal defense, you will revise the first part of the thesis as you venture into Findings land.  That said, CONGRATS on making it through part 1!