How To Get Started And Organize
As a student of higher education, I’m often asked for help in writing a Master’s Thesis or Doctoral Dissertation. At the end of March I will be discussing this very topic with students of the University of Metaphysics and the University of Sedona. Being a blogger, getting my thoughts down on paper tends to lead to writing an article here on Reflections. So let me share what I’ve learned and what I tell my students who are facing these projects.
Get Your Requirements:
One of the hardest things about starting a writing project is getting motivated when you don’t know where to start. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply put the steps into motion and get ready. Each University system has its own requirements for the format of your thesis or dissertation. Most provide a template or written instructions. So step one, find out what’s required for your institution.
With your instructions in hand, conduct a search online for completed and approved essays from others in your University system. Seeing how someone else “did it” can be a great example for what you need to do. Now I’m not saying plagiarize their work! All you’re doing is looking for how they formatted their essay and what they put in each required section as an example for what you will need to cover.
At the University of Metaphysics and the University of Sedona, you are given a set of instructions with general information about the format and process of setting up and working on your paper. And these instructions have changed over the years. So you may not find my papers to be exactly like the instructions for your papers. But sometimes seeing examples helps a student much more than reading a set of flat instructions.
I searched high and low when I was looking for information and insight behind writing my papers. There wasn’t a lot out there at the time and I struggled through the process. My first submission for my thesis was returned, in part because of that formatting and organization issue. But thankfully I had a basic idea and the feedback I received from the review committee filled in the blanks that I had just guessed at. Because of that struggle, I have placed my University papers online to help others like me, who might be looking for the same kind help I looked for.
So here are my three essays for example:
Master’s Thesis (PDF) – History of Incense
D.D. Doctorate Dissertation (PDF) – Walking Your Talk
Ph.D. Doctoral Dissertation (PDF) – Spiritual Psychology and Dealing With Grief
Initiate The First Steps:
Having an idea of what to do is just the first task. Now you need to put your effort into practical steps. You know you have to create a word processing file (assuming you’re using a computer to write your paper). So start there. Create the document, format the page numbers, header and footer. Create the table of contents and subject areas. Even if you don’t know what you’re going to write about, you do know the headings required in the outline. What you don’t know, simply use words for a place holder such as Title or Topic. Whatever has meaning for you.
The hardest part to writing your thesis or dissertation is coming up with a topic to write about. Here’s two pieces of advice.
- Don’t try to give it a title until after you start writing. Worry more about the subject matter than the name you’re going to give it.
- Choose a topic you have familiarity with, or a topic you have a passion for and want to know more about.
If you choose something you already know about, there’s a likelihood that you already have an interest in the subject matter. You can use your own experiences and your perspectives in defining the topic and discovering research to provide a historical evolution and current approach to the subject.
If you would rather choose a topic you aren’t intimately familiar with, that’s ok as long as you have a passion for learning about it. There’s nothing worse than writing about something that bores you out of your mind. So if you’re going to write on a topic that you don’t know a lot about, make sure it’s going to peak our interest.
Things to Consider:
Try to pick a subject that is somewhat unique. You can be pretty sure that others have written about holistic healing as an example. If healing is a topic you’re interested in, try to find an approach to that topic that makes it unique to you and your experiences.
Don’t go way out on a limb. You don’t want to choose a subject that is going to be so unique that there will be limited resource material to research. If you pick a broad topic you may have too much to search through. But if you try to delve deep into a general topic and focus on one specific modality or method, you may limit your material and what you have to write about.
Choosing Resource Material
Choosing the right research material is essential to writing a good essay. The better your resources, the better your information will be in your essay. Look for academic resources first. Material that has been well researched in its own right will provide some of the best and most accurate information. But don’t discount expert material written by practitioners of your topic. Even if they don’t the academic credentials, they have practical experience and that can go a long way to explaining your subject matter.
Look for material that not only describes a subject, but provides the history of the topic. Who started it? Where and when did it start? How did it evolve? How is it used today? Think of your research like a reporter on a story. Who, What, Where, When, Why and How are the key questions to be asked and answered.
If you are going to review controversial sources, identify the controversies up front. Why have you chosen this resource for your essay? Are you trying to bring up the concepts they present? Or are you presenting counter arguments to their claims.
When looking for experts in the field of your topic, try a good internet search to help get you started. Looking for magazine articles on your topic will provide you with a list of experts, and resource material. Studies at Universities on the topic of your research can also be resources for your paper. Whether it’s an eZine, a blog, or even a simple search on Amazon.com to find books or authors to look into can save you a great deal of time looking for source material. It’s better to go into your local library with a list of things or people you want to find, than to go and waste your time looking for something you’re not even sure about.
Then Begins The Writing
At some point you are going to have to write your essay. Every person works differently when it comes to writing. Maybe you like to research and take notes, then combine your thoughts and notes into your own format and words. I like to write what I know, or think I know to create a starting point. Then I research to either provide more insight into what I have written, or to correct what I thought I knew. Start with what works for you. Don’t struggle so much about choosing the write words to start with. You’re going to go back and change them later anyway. Just start with what you want to say as if you’re talking to your best friend on a topic that interests you.
Start with the Discussion area first. You don’t have to be formal at this point in your document. Make bullet points about what you want to cover, what you think you know or simply what you want to say. Here you are talking about your topic in general terms. What it is, what it is about. Put your thoughts to paper (or screen) and just begin.
It doesn’t matter where you start in the process of your writing. You are going to move things around, change the order from chronological to importance, or back again or any other varied order. What you want to do at this point is give your thoughts a place to formulate their vision and knowledge. Let the words flow, say what you think and at least get something written down. Don’t struggle over being formal. Just talk and write what you say.
As soon as you start writing comments from the sources you have chosen, start your Bibliography. If you wait till the end of the process you’re going to miss something or lose a piece paper with that title and author written on it. It’s a lot easier to take something out, than it is to try to remember “where did I get that?” You can always insert as you go, so don’t worry about trying to write all your sources down at once. Adding lines in a word processing document is as easy as hitting the return button.
By the same token, this is when you will also include any appendices you may use or refer to in your Discussion. Again, don’t leave it to the end of your writing simply because that section is at the end of the document. You can easily jump around with the click of your mouse. Even if all you’re doing is putting an instruction for what goes “here”, give yourself enough detail to remember what it is you’re referring to and why it’s used and where it’s used in your essay.
Completing Your Essay
Once you’re satisfied with the Discussion area, turn your focus to the other sections of your essay. By now you should be able to write the Introduction, Review Of Literature, and your approach Methods. You must write these sections before you write the section for our Findings. And you won’t be able to write your Summary and Conclusions, until you have written the Introduction, Methods and Findings.
The Introduction doesn’t have to be grandiose. You’re giving a high level over view of what you will be discussing in your paper. What is your hypothesis, what is it you are going to prove or disprove. So step back, go above the tree line and describe the forest. You don’t need to explain at this point what kind of vegetation make up the forest. Leave that for your Findings and Discussion areas. Be concise about what your paper will cover and perhaps include why you chose this topic. What were your influences and how have they formed your thoughts on this topic.
Writing the Review of Literature is a lot easier than you think it might be. All you will do here is briefly describe the resources you used for your essay and explain a little as to why you chose that for your research. Why was this author or this article, study or whatever important.
The Methods describes your approach to the topic. How you are bridging a gap between topics or approaches to the subject matter. Is your essay purely academic and based on research? Is your writing more personal and defines your own experiences and perceptions that are backed up by your research? How you approached your research will provide insight behind your findings and conclusions that your readers may need to understand as they review your work. So explain why you came at the topic in the manner you took.
Your Findings should be based on your research and not so much from your perspectives. What did you learn? This is more detailed than your Introduction, but may not be as specific as the detail in your Discussion. What did you “find” out about your topic is what you describe in your Findings sections. Cite some of your resources and what they have said about the topic.
Your Summary and Conclusions answer the questions you raised and outlined in your Introduction. Did your research answer all your questions or did it merely open new doors and avenues to investigate? If so, you may want to go back and re-read your paper and decide if you should expand on your Discussion. But if the new avenues completely take you down another path of research, then talk about that in your Summary and briefly explain why that direction is separate from this discussion. The key here is to end your essay by addressing the questions raised in the Introduction. Review your introduction to make sure you cover everything you brought up in that a section. If you miss something or don’t review your conclusions well, you may be rejected in committee review.
Edit and Read and Re-Edit and Read Again
When you have a good base written for each section, start editing. Here you start making your document formal and organized. Review what you have written, how it flows, how you think it should be organized. What areas need to be expanded and beefed up with reference material. When you’re happy with that. Re-read it again.
You must read your own essay! Each time you actually read it, you’re going to find little mistakes, or better ways of saying what you’re trying to express. You’ll expand some areas and in others you’ll think “I already said that” and you’ll remove some words, sentences or even entire paragraphs. Read it!
Anyone who has written a book and had it professionally published will tell you the biggest part in that process is re-reading the book. Over and over and over. And over again. This is key to making your words clear and concise, finding mistakes and ensuring your writing properly states what you’re trying to say. If all you do is skim over the text, you’re going to miss mistakes and risk rejection by your review committee.
Each time you re-read a section and edit it, you will need to re-read it again. Until you read a section and have no additional changes can you go on to the next step. A clean read through is what you’re looking for as your sign to move on.
Then, Spell Check! Don’t assume you caught your mistakes or typing errors. Mis-spelled words diminish your essay and make it look sloppy. So Spell Check! Once you’ve done that, Grammar Check! You may have written in conversational language, but that doesn’t guarantee your writing is proper or that will be accepted by a review committee. Do your self a favor and use your word processors spell and grammar checker!
The Final Step
The last thing to do to complete your essay is to…yes..read it. The entire thing from start to finish. You’ve read all the sections and edited and reviewed and re-read them. But now you have to put the entire Essay in context and read it from start to finish. Make sure it flows and answers questions. Make sure you haven’t contradicted yourself in one section by saying something different in another section. You may not notice you’ve done that until you read the entire paper through at least once. If you make changes, re-read it. The bigger the changes, the more important it’s going to be to re-read it.
You are going to be so sick and tired of re-reading and editing your work that you can’t wait to get it done! And hopefully that will motivate you to do just that. You’ve put all this hard work into your essay, it’s time for someone else to read it and learn as much as you have in writing it. If you stick to it, and pour your heart, passion and soul into your topic; you’ll have one great paper to share!
Created: 03/03/2012 – Updated: 03/07/2012
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