We discussed the different parts the report consists of, and turn our attention now to the actual writing process.
Getting started with the writing can be difficult. The editor window is empty, and it can be overwhelming to come up with good sentences. There are different approaches to start writing, and we capture some of them in this section. Most probably you will use more than one, and switch between them once you get stuck.
Focus on describing your thoughts and putting them down on paper. Don’t spend any time on making your document pretty, or be too much concerned about other details that do not affect your arguments. You can take care of this in the later rounds of editing and formatting. It may therefore also be wise to use a very simple editor in the initial writing phase, without any formatting or disturbing functions. Some writers make the initial sketch of an argument with pencil and paper.
Don’t be afraid to throw stuff out. It may seem like a good idea to take care of all sentences you have written and not delete them. But sometimes an editor full of sentences that you don’t like but don’t want to throw away either is holding you back. Don’t be afraid to start with a fresh attempt and delete something. If throwing away still feels wrong, make a directory with the name trash and copy your text in there.
Planning the Report Structure
Planning the structure of your thesis can be one way to get started. Below we present the main elements of a thesis, which are most likely also relevant for yours. If you have detailed questions about the structure, ask your supervisor.
The task of the abstract is to summarize the content of the thesis, so that potential readers can decide if they should read it or not. It should say something about the problem addressed, outline methods used and summarize results.
The abstract is a summary, not an introduction: The most common mistake of abstracts is that writers start to argue for their viewpoint, advertise for the remaining parts of the work, or motivate their work. Instead, an abstract should summarize in a neutral way. Motivating your work is the task of the introduction, and argumentation should be done in the main part and the end.
The introduction gives the reader the first impression of your work. Here you can show that you have a clear idea about your thesis. The introduction is also the ideal place to tell the reader what is special about your work and stimulate curiosity.
The introduction should include a summary of the work and its main content and arguments, similarly to the abstract, but in much more depth and also more details. In contrast to the abstract, an introduction should contain a motivation for your work.
After reading the introduction, the reader must know why you have done the work, why it is interesting, what the main points are and how you have structured the presentation and discussion in the remaining chapters.
The Background Chapters
The background chapter summarizes all subjects that need introduction and are later used in the thesis. Often, one chapter simply called Background will do, with sub-sections for each subject that requires introduction. In some cases you may spread the background in two or even more chapters. You may then assign all of them to a part called Part 1 – Background, but there are no formal constrains. It is only important that a reader sees clearly what constitutes background material, and that background material is explained before you start describing your own work.
Since you will often start your work by reading others’ work that constitutes background material, it is a good idea to start writing parts of this section early. Don’t be afraid of some of the material does not make it into the final version. It provides a good training for writing.
The Main Part
The main part is made up from the chapters that cover your work. There is no strict rule how these chapters need to be structured, it all depends on what suits your work best. Usually, these will be around five chapters, but more or less is fine.
During the writing process, you may have to revise the structure of the chapters. Sometimes you find that sections can be combined, or that a section should be split into several ones. Changing the section structure is often less dramatic as it may sound. If you have well-written paragraphs (more on that later), restructuring sections is easy.
The end of your report consists of several elements:
A discussion of the results.
A summary of what has been done.
An outlook into the future, for example future work or improvements.
While the first two are in practice mandatory, the outlook in the future is optional. You may structure these parts as separate chapters, or within a single chapter.
Planning has its limits. You need to plan what to write and where to spend your effort, no question. But don’t attempt to plan too much, that is, plan too many details. At some point, you need to get started with writing the actual content before you can decide if the planned structure actually works.
How many pages? One common question is the number of pages the report should have. This is difficult to answer, since the number of pages really does not say anything about the quality of a thesis. In the end, you should use the number of pages that you need to present and discuss your work appropriately.
Creating Graphs, Figures and Tables
Good figures are hard to make, but they are valuable when explaining something to the reader. You should therefore invest time to create good figures. This can also help to understand a problem or subject better yourself, and it can be a good way to overcome troubles with writing in the beginning.
Introduce and Explain all Figures
You must introduce all figures in the text. If possible, you should place the figure after you have introduced it in the text. Make also sure that you explain all relevant details of a figure. In diagrams, tell the reader what the axes are, in which direction time goes or which notation you are using. Spend effort and walk the reader through the figure, element for element. Also, use long captions under a figure to explain the main points of the figure, even if it is a slight repetition from the main text. Sometimes readers skim through a thesis, and long captions are an entry point that can convey important results.
Describe the Problem
After working on the same problem for a while, it may become obvious to you and you instead focus on the solution or technicalities that kept you busy during the last days. Therefore, always start by writing about the problem. Try to explain the problem you are trying to solve to others, and see if they get it.
A common problem is that an argument is not fully developed, and that you leave the actual point you should address unsaid. In scientific writing, you should make sure to include your main point explicitly and not leave it up to the reader to complete your paragraphs in their thoughts. Rather say something important twice than not at all! Some students also forget to write what they regard as “obvious”. However, not everything obvious to you may also be obvious to the reader.
Make Your Point
To make sure that you make your main points, manage them actively. Have a separate document with the main arguments and results of your thesis, and try to formulate them as explicitly as possible. Your supervisor can help with that. Then, make sure that these arguments are visible in the final version of the thesis, and occur at the appropriate places in the abstract, introduction, main part and the end.
When You Feel Stuck
Explaining to Others
A useful skill is to imitate a person that does not know what you know. You have to ask the question which information or issue you want to convey to the reader, write them down, and then refine once you find out what else is needed so that all information is presented in a proper context.
When nothing else helps and you feel stuck, try to write down your thoughts for a while, like 10 minutes. It’s not allowed to delete anything while you write, and you should not focus on language or technicalities. After the time is up, have a look at the result and see if you can take parts of the result as a starting point for developing your arguments.
Have a Walk
Sometimes just going out for a walk and talking to yourself may help to sort your thoughts and develop an argument. Have a notebook with you to write down good points. Just do it out in a park or in nature so you don’t get hit by a car.