Often, when writing a thesis (or paper, or presentation, etc.), we unconsciously adopt a writer-centric approach. By that I mean: we get so preoccupied with conveying all the information in our brains, that our whole writing process is motivated by the question what do I need to say?
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that motivation; after all, a thesis (in particular) is a sole-authored document that should reflect the author’s perspective and process. But it’s also important to flip the question, and ask: what do readers need to know?
A reader-centric approach prioritises the reader’s orientation, comprehension, and logical progression through the writing. When we adopt a reader-centric view, we metaphorically take our readers by the hand and say: here, I’ll make this easy for you. This is not only important for the general readability of our writing, but also for the thesis examination process – because examiners are readers too!
Here are a few things you can do to ensure that readers have an easy job following and understanding your writing.
Define your terms
It may seem obvious that you have to define any words, acronyms, or phrases that you’re using in a specific or unusual way. But because our own language becomes so familiar to us, this is something that thesis-writers often forget.
Defining your terms doesn’t necessarily mean creating a pages-long glossary. Often, it’s as simple as clarifying terms or spelling out acronyms in-text on their first appearance. But this needs to be done in a context-specific way. Even if you are using a common term – and even if you think its meaning is well-understood – it’s important to make clear what the term means to you, and in the context of your research.
Use your structure to ‘guide’ readers
When you write up your research, you’re usually already super-familiar with it; and you’ve experienced the research process in a way that may influence your view of how your write-up should be structured. However, a writer’s view and a reader’s view of an appropriate structure is sometimes quite different.
The key thing to remember is that readers shouldn’t get lost in a thesis. They need an accurate table of contents, a logical chapter ordering, and internal linkages that make the progression from one topic to another very clear. They also have limited attention spans, so it’s important to balance the word counts given to each chapter and topic in a way that again takes into account what readers need to know.
Want to know how experienced thesis readers think about structure? Our contributing author Dr Ian Brailsford wrote some tips on structuring a thesis here.
Work on your internal consistency
Good writing is internally consistent writing. This is especially important with a long document like a thesis. The various components of your thesis should be ‘aligned’ or in ‘agreement’ with each other, and each part should support the whole. For example, your research questions should inform your research design; and your discussion / results should call back to your research questions. This is about making sure that readers see the linkages between each part of your thesis (and each part of your research process). The whole thing should be well-integrated; not just a collection of standalone parts.
An internally consistent piece of writing also uses language in a consistent way. This means that, once you define your terms, you keep using them in the same way. This is particularly important if you’re working with terms that could have a lot of synonyms; or with terms that are emerging in your field. Once you have established what they mean in the context of your research, use them consistently so that readers become familiar with the language of your work.
Focus on clarity
Some academic writers seem to believe that the more complicated or obtuse their writing, the smarter it will sound. (I come from the field of literary studies, where a great many famous and respected academics are guilty of this.) Obviously writing style is a matter of personal taste, but many academics reject the use of needlessly complex writing.
Clear writing is comprehensible writing. Sure, some writers will waffle on for 3/4 of a page in one long cryptic sentence; but that’s not a style that thesis-writers should replicate. In a thesis, it’s much better to be understood than to hide behind a veil of vagueness. After all, examiners can’t recognize and reward your work if they can’t interpret it.
Here’s a tip: show your writing to a trusted person outside your field. They do not need to be able to understand all the words in your writing (because some will be technical terms unique to your field) but it’s a good sign if they can make sense of your sentences.