Writing a Senior (Honors) Thesis – Second Semester

You should spend most of the second semester organizing, writing, and revising your thesis. The following sections will offer advice and suggestions to help you accomplish these tasks. Like on-campus construction projects, your thesis requires a lot of hard work and you will be happier if the work is over before summer.

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Saving

Computers fail. It happens everywhere, everyday. Inevitably, your computer will fail and you may or may not lose a portion or the entirety of your work. To avoid disaster, save your work early and often.

To avoid the heartache and headache of having to re-write large portions of your thesis, always save your most current draft (and any notes) somewhere online. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  • Print – A decidedly low-tech yet effective way of ensuring your most recent version will not be lost in the event of a system failure.
  • Press CTRL + S or Command + S – Get in the habit of saving your work using the keyboard after you finish a paragraph. Once you hit “Enter” or “Return”, use the keyboard controls to save your work. It will save your work and give you peace of mind.
  • USB (Jump) Drive – Cheap and reliable as long as you do not fall in a pool, lake, or other small-to-large-sized body of water.
  • E-Mail – Tedious but effective if your e-mail provider has a large storage size. This is especially useful if you work on a public computer.
  • Box – With your @wisc.edu e-mail account, you also have a limited amount of free space on which you can save anything. Use that space to keep updated version of your thesis and your most essential documents. uwmadison.box.com
  • Online backup – A number of free and for pay online storage systems have appeared in recent years, such as Dropbox or Carbonite.

Outlining

Before you begin writing, put together an outline of your major sections or chapters, excluding the introduction and conclusion. Outlining is only possible once you have read the secondary literature, perused the available primary sources, and developed a workable thesis.

The purpose of the project outline is twofold. First, an outline will help you break down your thesis into a collection of smaller, simpler arguments. If your thesis cannot be broken down into smaller parts, the thesis is too specific or you have not thought about its subject enough. Adjust accordingly. Second, an outline will create a feasible workflow. The hardest part of writing is starting. With an outline, you can focus on the easiest sections first and work up to the harder ones.

An outline should help writing rather than make the process more confusing. With this in mind, keep the outline simple. Avoid paragraphs altogether. Instead, focus on writing short, declarative sentences. Ask yourself, “what are the fundamental arguments I need to advance and defend for my thesis to work?” These arguments should provide the skeletal framework of your outline.

Writing

Unfortunately, the reading, brainstorming, and organizing does not write the thesis. At some point, you have to sit down and put words on the page. During the research process, you may feel as though you have not done enough research or that the perfect document lies right around the corner. Chasing the perfect document is a sure fire way to avoid writing a thesis.

The earlier you start writing the better. Academics often acknowledge that the best works are those that are started early and go through the most revisions. The soul of history writing comes from reflection and revision, not the first draft.

When you are writing the first draft, do not edit and revise as you write. Instead, try to get your ideas on the page. You will not get the phrasing right the first time. Moreover, you might have to dump entire paragraphs altogether at the end.

If you struggle with staying on task, develop a system for getting words on the page gradually. Once you begin writing, try to write at least one page or for one hour, whichever comes last. This process will guarantee a gradual accumulation of pages and a great deal of thoughtful engagement with your thesis. In addition, this plan will keep you from marathon writing sessions the night before a deadline.

Start with one of the body sections. Do not write the introduction or conclusion until after you have drafted the entirety of the body. By starting with the body sections, your argument will coalesce organically and you will not have to shoehorn your data into an untenable and poorly conceived argument.

Resist the temptation to walk away when you come to problematic paragraphs. Instead, try to overcome difficult sections in one session. That way, when you return to writing, you will not have to start with a sticky section, which will make the whole process easier to restart.

Tips for Data Organization

  • Centralize. Centralize. Centralize. – Keep all of your data in a single location, either online or in a folder. Keeping your data in one spot will save you time later when trying to find that killer quotation you read three months ago.
  • Hard Copies – If your documents are digital, print them out. Using digital copies leads writers to ‘write to the documents.’ You are more likely to reproduce the language and structure of the document rather than use the document to strengthen your own argument.
  • Physically Lay out the Data – Whether on the floor, a wall, or a bulletin board, laying out your documents in chronolog order can help you visualize your project.
  • Ask a Professional – The library offers information and tutorials about citation management software, such as RefWorks, EndNote, and Zotero.

Revising

Revision is more than reading what you have written. Revision is an active thought process with the goal of improving your writing. Approach revision with specific goals for improvement.

During the first reading, focus on big picture issues. Do you clearly state your argument? Is each paragraph devoted to a single idea? Does the topic sentence of each paragraph focus on this idea?

The second time you read, consider the section’s organization. Does the sequence of paragraphs, and sentences within them, make sense? Often times, writers arrive at a topic sentence after writing a paragraph. Make sure you move those sentences to the beginning. Additionally, consider combining, dividing, or entirely deleting paragraphs. If you are particularly attached to a set of sentences, put them in a footnote.

In the third reading, once you have addressed the big picture, read one more time and focus on errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Commenting

During the semester, you will have to read and comment on another thesis. The process for commenting on another’s work is not the same as the process for revising and editing your own work.

Editing Another’s Writing

  • Ask the writer the type of feedback she/he would like. – Since all writing processes are different, drafts tend to vary in quality. With this in mind, ask the writer where the section fits in the larger project, and what type of comments will be most useful to her/him. If a writer wants to know if their argument is cogently presented, do not comment on the font. For the first draft, concentrate on their argumentation. On the second or third draft, once the argument has been figured out, provide suggestions on style and/or organization. On later drafts, especially the final draft, point out spelling and grammar mistakes.
  • Read once without commenting – This will keep you focused on major issues, such as argument and organization, rather than minor mistakes, such as word choice and punctuation.
  • Focus on one aspect. – Nothing is more confusing than a paper that is illegible due to excessive comments. Instead, keep your commentary simple, direct, and specific.
  • Provide critiques and compliments in tandem. – Giving a piece of writing to another person is often very unnerving. It is helpful to mention what a writer did well at the same time you are critiquing their work. If you are overly critical, the writer might refuse all of your suggestions or might get discouraged.
  • Clarity is King/Queen. – When providing comments, make sure the writer can understand them. Underlining phrases and placing question marks in the margins without explanation might be more confusing than helpful. Instead, write short notes to the writer. If you think the word choice is inappropriate, suggest another word. If a phrase is awkward or confusing, say so. If you think the paragraphs or sentences should be reorganized, offer an alternative organization. By taking a little time to put ink to paper, you will be doing the writer a lot of good.
  • Use standard proofreading notations
  • Meet with the writer. – After you have read and commented on their work, discuss your comments in person. Having a conversation about their work and your suggestions will provide greater clarity.

Styling

Developing a writing style takes years. Unfortunately, you do not have enough time to create your own style. However, you should try to give your writing as much style as possible. While writing, and especially during the revision process, focus on the following aspects:

Simple Style Suggestions

  • Passive voice – A historian should identify and analyze a series of events in the past. Passive voice complicates this process. Some passive constructions (for example, “after the bill was ratified”) leave out the subject entirely. Other constructions (“the bill was ratified by Congress) needlessly separate subject and verb. For the sake of clarity, avoid passive voice altogether and stick with active voice.Compare the following sentences:
    Example 1: There was a hope among the students that construction on campus would end before summer.
    Example 2: Students hoped construction on campus would end before summer. “To be” verbs Avoid using the “to be” verbs was, were, is and are. Although grammatically correct, using verbs besides “to be” verbs will make your writing more dynamic and varied.
  • Past tense – To avoid confusion, write strictly in the past when referring to the past. Conventionally, historians write about scholars and their work in the present tense.
  • Repetitions – A writer should strive for a variety of diction. Repeated words and phrases make for boring reading. Look closely at the first and last sentences of each paragraph and make sure their word choice, length, and style vary.
  • Confused Words – Make sure you have used the right word. Commonly confused words: then/than, led/lead, affect/effect, it’s/its.
  • Strong Topic Sentences – Your strongest sentences—the ones with the clearest idea and most punch—should start your paragraphs. Don’t bury them!

Introduction and Counceling

It is easier to the write the introduction and conclusion of your thesis after everything else has been written and revised. Only at the end will you know exactly how all the sections fit together.

The goal of the introduction is advance your argument and indicate how you will defend it. First, grab the reader’s attention. A particularly unique story or quotation usually helps. Second, introduce your topic and your argument. Finally, describe the organization of your thesis and how this sequence will support your argument.

In the conclusion, simply summarize your argument and explain the ways you have proven it. Then, indicate the implications of your thesis and how it changes our understanding of the past.

Submitting the Thesis

To finish your thesis, you will need to fill out and submit the following forms:

In addition, you must upload a digital copy of your thesis.

Presenting

The History department requires each thesis writer to present their research at a senior thesis symposium. If you have not presented your work before, you will find the following tables useful for organizing your presentation. If you have presented your work, read the following anyway.

Content and Form

  • What is the take-away message? – What do you want the audience to learn and remember about your thesis? Why is your thesis important? Focus on presenting a single idea or argument. Remember, you are not expected to discuss all of the nuances of your thesis.
  • When in doubt, tell a story – If you are unsure about what to present, tell the most interesting story from your thesis or discuss how you became interested in the topic in the first place.
  • Be creative! – Once you have decided what you want to present, develop a creative, unique, or memorable way to present it. You can create a short video, re-enact a historical event, or build your own laser light show. Any way you decide is fine as long as you cogently communicate your message. The form must fit the message. For example, dressing as an ancient Roman soldier for a presentation about Japanese tuna consumption after World War II might be too abstract for our purposes.

Visuals

  • Are the visuals relevant? – Only use visuals that directly relate to the material you are presenting.
  • Bring hard copies – A hard copy of your presentation will let you present even if the computers and projectors malfunction.
  • PowerPoint – Keep it simple. Use simple backgrounds themes, avoid lots of text and animations, and choose a large (>20) size font. A PowerPoint should enhance your presentation, not distract your audience.
  • Maps – If you are working on a particular region, city, or foreign country, consider providing a map. You can distribute one physically, bring a wall map, or put it on a PowerPoint.
  • Documents – Show off the types of documents you are using to your audience, especially if they are manuscripts, old printed works, or in a foreign language.
  • Pictures – Feel free to include pictures of the personalities that figure prominently in your thesis. This is an easy way to bring your project to life.

How To Talk

  • Plan for Breaks – Schedule breaks to take a sip of water or to catch your breathe.
  • Make Eye Contact – And not just with one person.
  • Put Away Distractions – Do not bring pens, keys, coins, and other distractions to the podium.
  • Project and Inflect – Speak to the back of the room rather than into podium or the front row.

Reading a Paper

  • Observe time limits – It takes about 2 minutes to read a single, double-spaced page. Plan according to the limits. You can always add more detail during the question and answer session.
  • Practice – Read your speech out loud at least once before the symposium, preferably in an empty room or to an audience. It takes longer to speak to someone and requires different inflections to speak to someone than just to read aloud.
  • Print paper at size 14 Font – A larger font will be easier to read. Your eyes and audience will thank you.

Once you have submitted your thesis, make sure you print and bind a copy for yourself. Then, enjoy a job well done.