When you’re in the middle of research for your senior thesis, you know your topic so well that figuring out where to start when discussing it feels impossible. You’ve spent months or years exploring a topic to the point you can write and talk about it for hours. But a thesis that reads like an over-eager, disjointed monologue does not interest a reader or help her understand (and love) your topic. Letting the ideas tumble out of your head and onto paper without culling and organizing information will create more work for you—something no one wants, especially with tight deadlines.
Others struggle to start or maintain momentum with their writing. It’s common to find starting difficult because of stress, anxiety, or knowledge paralysis. Forcing ideas out of your head and into a cohesive, linear argument is challenging.
In both cases, the stakes are high: leaving a thesis unfinished or poorly written will delay graduation and prolong tuition payments. Get ahead of (or mitigate) that stress by incorporating these tools into your thesis-writing process.
Goal #1: Finish a Draft
The first goal is simply to get words on paper and finish. It’s surprisingly hard to do. There’s an endless list of potential distractions. But you can’t get a grade for an incomplete thesis, so finish you must. Here are three tips to help you submit a thesis you’re proud of.
1. Find Your Focus
People lose focus for a variety of reasons, and there are tools to mitigate them all. If you’re using your computer to write, it’s hard to resist checking social media—then losing track of time for hours. Consider an app that will block social media sites and keep you on task such as Cold Turkey Writer or FocusMe. If you have trouble writing for a minimum amount of time, consider a tool like the Forest app, which is designed to visualize your progress (and your distractions) – and helps the environment while you work. Cold Turkey and Forest both have free versions available and an option to purchase the premium version for a small one-time fee, while FocusMe has monthly, annual, and lifetime subscriptions, depending on how long you think your projects will require its help.
2. Track Your Tasks
Completing your thesis requires project management. Try simple apps like Outliner or more robust project management apps like Trello or something in the middle like ToDoIst. Remember that a more robust program or more detailed outline might not be better. Some people get so caught up in meticulously listing steps it hinders their progress—and some people make such a show of tracking their work that the process overshadows the project. Consider how you work best and choose a tracking method accordingly.
3. Accountability for Action
If planning and managing your thesis as a project and blocking distractions don’t help you write, try accountability apps that will penalize you for failing to meet your goals. Though graduating late or killing your GPA for an incomplete or low-quality thesis should be enough motivation, such distant consequences may not be enough to prevent procrastination. Try setting goals with StickK or BeeMinder, which integrates with ToDoIst and a few other apps.
Goal #2: Do It Well
Once you feel confident that you’ll finish your thesis, your next goal is to improve its quality and clarity. Managing your research, organizing your information, and streamlining your presentation contribute to a strong thesis. Here are three ways to improve your final work product.
1. Research Repository
Keeping track of your research and your thinking is difficult, but it’s vital to creating an accurate bibliography and connecting your ideas to each other. Now that most research is conducted online, web clipping and organizing tools will help you create your electronic research folder. You can organize by topic, combine ideas, and move thoughts around. You can also share your research with your academic mentor or research advisor—or your friend who always calls you out when you aren’t doing your best work.
Try tools like Mendley, Evernote, or OneNote to manage your research. Mendley is specifically designed for academic research projects. Zotero will sense online research and help you capture it. These tools will help you track, organize, and cite your research. Evernote and Mendley have free and premium versions that provide additional storage. Zotero is free, and OneNote is included in Microsoft Office subscriptions.
And when you’re finished writing, use an online plagiarism checker like Academic Help just to make sure that nothing got lost in the shuffle.
2. Overhaul Your Organization
Your thinking will evolve as you learn and get a clearer picture of your main point. You may need to rework your entire structure to better deliver your message and persuade your audience. Aside from re-thinking your approach, the actual task of organizing and re-organizing text can be tricky. If you’ve used Microsoft Word’s built-in styles, you can drag and drop in the navigation pane to re-arrange your sections. But if you need to see your themes or do more organizing and re-writing, consider apps like Gingko or Scrivener. They’re outlining and organizing tools that will help you visualize your work to make it easier to see how your ideas connect to each other. Scrivener has extra literary-focused features, should you want tools like mind-mapping that will improve your fiction projects, too. Gingko has a limited free version and a pay-what-you-want monthly upgrade, and Scrivener costs just under $50 for a license.
3. Cut the Clutter
When you’re writing about something you know and care about, you aren’t thinking about whether your sentences have unnecessary words. But cluttered language will take away and distract from your point, which is especially perilous if your reviewers don’t know as much about the topic as you. WordRake editing software will help you identify needless words and unwieldy phrases to shorten your document while delivering the same message, making it easier for readers to understand your thesis.
My Senior Thesis Experience
I know WordRake strengthens theses because I used it on mine. When I was writing my thesis, I already had access to WordRake through my internship. After completing my first draft, I ran WordRake on different sections of my thesis. WordRake suggested valuable improvements throughout my work; here’s where I found it helped most.
The Abstract Section
Abstracts have tight word limits, which can be difficult to meet given the length and complexity of a thesis. WordRake helped me tighten my abstract by identifying a few unnecessary phrases. WordRake also made two bad edits, which I realized were because the software interpreted something I said differently than how I meant it. Rather than Reject these edits, I rewrote the sentences in a way the software accepted. If software has trouble understanding me, I risk that a human reader might, too.
The Methods Section
The methods section of a thesis is transition-prone. While a few transitions might help the flow of your writing, including too many makes readers feel like you’re hand-holding—never a feeling you want to give intelligent people who determine your thesis's acceptance. Scanning for transitions yourself helps, but I benefited greatly from WordRake identifying transitions that didn’t add to my explanations, leaving me with a clearer, more succinct methodology.
It’s easy to insert more of our opinion than necessary in our discussion section. Phrases like “it is obvious that” and even words like “clearly” make their way into our writing because we’ve spent so much time with the research and data that our findings are obvious and clear to us. But our readers don’t want us to tell us something is obvious, they want us to show it to them—plus, it’s awkward if something you think is self-evident isn’t to one of your reviewers. WordRake cuts “it is obvious that,” “clearly,” and dozens of other phrases we use when we tell readers instead of showing them.
You’ve put months or years into your thesis; make sure your final product reflects your effort. Do your research, write and revise your thesis well, and run it through WordRake to catch edits you’re too close to the subject to see. It helped me earn a 3.9 on my thesis, and I’m sure it can help you write a strong thesis, too.
Here’s a list of ten tools that can help minimize distractions.
The library at the University of Notre Dame gathered this highly useful list of resources.
And when you’re ready to edit your thesis, read our checklist on what to look for.
About the Author
Caroline Engle is WordRake’s Marketing Communications Specialist. She convinced WordRake to hire her as an intern after placing in editing competitions and writing a novel in a month. When she isn’t editing or writing copy, coordinating conference logistics, or helping improve WordRake’s functionality, she’s reading, going on ten-mile walks, or looking up flight prices. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.