Thesis tips

How to Write your Introduction, Abstract and Summary

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These are the most important components of your thesis or report.  Put your biggest effort into getting them perfect.  Most professors read the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusions chapters of a thesis first, then they dive into the main body text afterwards.  This means that you have to be particularly careful in wording these sections, since there is some content overlap.  If you just copy and paste text between them, people will notice and it won’t leave them with a very favourable impression.  Many people read technical reports in the same order – in fact, some people actually never read anything but the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusions!   Read the rest of this entry »


Using figures and tables effectively…

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You may be wondering why I’m devoting a post to such an apparently trivial aspect of technical writing, but the truth is, it’s really important and most people do not do it particularly well.  There are three key aspects to consider when it comes to using figures and tables effectively: relevance, citing and formatting.  We’ll discuss all three.

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Content Preening – or how NOT to torture your reader…

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In this post I am going to talk about content preening, as this is where we all typically have the most to learn.  Ensuring quality of content is undoubtedly the most difficult aspect of technical writing; it’s a problem I see in every single technical document I review. I even see it in most of my own early manuscript drafts. (I imagine my colleagues see it in my late drafts, too! :-))  Like every other aspect of good technical writing, there is nothing magic about getting this right.  Any of us can do it well – we just need to make the effort.   Read the rest of this entry »

Consistency – an important step in the preening process…

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In my earlier posts I talked about preening the final draft and the importance writing proper paragraphs.  As you go through your final draft, one thing to check for is consistency.  Here are some tips on how to handle the most common consistency problems…   Read the rest of this entry »

The “four drafts” approach to speed writing…

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If you’re like me, one of the main things that stresses you out about technical writing is never feeling that you have enough time to do it well.  Most people have totally unrealistic expectations of how long it will take them to write a technical report.  I know that from first-hand experience.  Many years ago I did my Masters part-time while holding down a full-time job. After two long years of working on weekends and evenings I finally finished my lab experiments, so I decided to take two weeks’ vacation to write my thesis and get my life back.  I sat down at the desk the first morning and started writing – not outlining mind you – back then I didn’t know that I was supposed to outline first… After about an hour of scribbling and struggling with the overwhelming task ahead of me – it gradually dawned on me that this was not going to be a two week job, it was going to be a six MONTH job!  I hopped in the car and ran out to pick up some beer and movies.  I decided that I might as well enjoy that two week vacation because I knew that the next six months were going to be pure misery.

That thesis did end up taking me about 6 months to write, but today I could easily do it in two weeks.  It’s not only because I am now much older (and thus a tiny bit wiser).  It’s because, over the intervening 25+ years, I have developed strategies for writing reports quickly and efficiently.  I already told you about one key strategy in my first post – planning and outlining.  In this post I am going to tell you about the “four drafts” approach to speed writing.  Hopefully you will find it, or some adaptation, saves you time as well.   Read the rest of this entry »

Say – what the heck is a paragraph anyway?

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Whether you’re writing a term paper in an undergraduate history course or a PhD thesis in biochemistry, you’re going to need to know how to write a proper paragraph.  Paragraphs are the fundamental building blocks in any formal document and yet most students haven’t got a clue how to put one together.  It’s not their fault – likely no one has ever explained it to them before.  Over the years, I’ve found that about 99% of university students adopt one of the following three (improper) strategies to decide when to start a new paragraph.   Read the rest of this entry »