What is a thesis? For whom is it written? How should it be written? – Part Two


The text must be clear. Good grammar and thoughtful writing will make the thesis easier to read. Scientific writing has to be a little formal—more formal than this text. Native English speakers should remember that scientific English is an international language. Slang and informal writing will be harder for a non-native speaker to understand.

Short, simple phrases and words are often better than long ones. Some politicians use “at this point in time” instead of “now” precisely because it takes longer to convey the same meaning. They do not care about elegance or efficient communication. You should. On the other hand, there will be times when you need a complicated sentence because the idea is complicated. If your primary statement requires several qualifications, each of these may need a subordinate clause: “When [qualification], and where [proviso], and if [condition] then [statement]“. Some lengthy technical words will also be necessary in many theses, particularly in fields like biochemistry. Do not sacrifice accuracy for the sake of brevity. “Black is white” is simple and catchy. An advertising copy writer would love it. “Objects of very different albedo may be illuminated differently so as to produce similar reflected spectra” is longer and uses less common words, but, compared to the former example, it has the advantage of being true. The longer example would be fine in a physics thesis because English speaking physicists will not have trouble with the words. (A physicist who did not know all of those words would probably be glad to remedy the lacuna either from the context or by consulting a dictionary.)

Sometimes it is easier to present information and arguments as a series of numbered points, rather than as one or more long and awkward paragraphs. A list of points is usually easier to write. You should be careful not to use this presentation too much: your thesis must be a connected, convincing argument, not just a list of facts and observations.

One important stylistic choice is between the active voice and passive voice. The active voice (“I measured the frequency…”) is simpler, and it makes clear what you did and what was done by others. The passive voice (“The frequency was measured…”) makes it easier to write ungrammatical or awkward sentences. If you use the passive voice, be especially wary of dangling participles. For example, the sentence “After considering all of these possible materials, plutonium was selected” implicitly attributes consciousness to plutonium. This choice is a question of taste: I prefer the active because it is clearer, more logical and makes attribution simple. The only arguments I have ever heard for avoiding the active voice in a thesis are (i) many theses are written in the passive voice, and (ii) some very polite people find the use of “I” immodest. Use the first person singular, not plural, when reporting work that you did yourself: the editorial ‘we’ may suggest that you had help beyond that listed in your acknowledgments, or it may suggest that you are trying to share any blame. On the other hand, retain plural verbs for “data”: “data” is the plural of “datum”, and lots of scientists like to preserve the distinction. Just say to yourself “one datum is ..”, “these data are..” several times. An excellent and widely used reference for English grammar and style is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler.


There is no need for a thesis to be a masterpiece of desk-top publishing. Your time can be more productively spent improving the content than the appearance.

In many cases, a reasonably neat diagram can be drawn by hand faster than with a graphics package, and you can scan it if you want an electronic version. Either is usually satisfactory. A one bit (i.e. black and white), moderate resolution scan of a hand-drawn sketch will be bigger than a line drawing generated on a graphics package, but not huge. While talking about the size of files, we should mention that photographs look pretty but take up a lot of memory. There’s another important difference, too. The photographer thought about the camera angle and the focus etc. The person who drew the schematic diagram thought about what components ought to be depicted and the way in which the components of the system interacted with each other. So the numerically small information content of the line drawing may be much more useful information than that in a photograph.

Another note about figures and photographs. In the digital version of your thesis, do not save ordinary photographs or other illustrations as bitmaps, because these take up a lot of memory and are therefore very slow to transfer. Nearly all graphics packages allow you to save in compressed format as .jpg (for photos) or .gif (for diagrams) files. Further, you can save space/speed things up by reducing the number of colours. In vector graphics (as used for drawings), compression is usually unnecessary.

In general, students spend too much time on diagrams—time that could have been spent on examining the arguments, making the explanations clearer, thinking more about the significance and checking for errors in the algebra. The reason, of course, is that drawing is easier than thinking.

I do not think that there is a strong correlation (either way) between length and quality. There is no need to leave big gaps to make the thesis thicker. Readers will not appreciate large amounts of vague or unnecessary text.

Approaching the end

A deadline is very useful in some ways. You must hand in the thesis, even if you think that you need one more draft of that chapter, or someone else’s comments on this section, or some other refinement. If you do not have a deadline, or if you are thinking about postponing it, please take note of this: A thesis is a very large work. It cannot be made perfect in a finite time. There will inevitably be things in it that you could have done better. There will be inevitably be some typos. Indeed, by some law related to Murphy’s, you will discover one when you first flip open the bound copy. No matter how much you reflect and how many times you proof read it, there will be some things that could be improved. There is no point hoping that the examiners will not notice: many examiners feel obliged to find some examples of improvements (if not outright errors) just to show how thoroughly they have read it. So set yourself a deadline and stick to it. Make it as good as you can in that time, and then hand it in! (In retrospect, there was an advantage in writing a thesis in the days before word processors, spelling checkers and typing programs. Students often paid a typist to produce the final draft and could only afford to do that once.)