Where writing went wrong in my master’s thesis
I sat in the front seat of an SUV for hours at a time on the road, with my laptop plugged into the cigarette lighter, trying to edit my thesis while on vacation down east. My deadline for submission was three weeks away. Simultaneously, I was working and re-working online learning modules for a TESL program while offline in the car and sending them for review to the instructional designer and development team at night when I had wifi in the hotels.
I visited Peggy’s Cove, Cape Breton, and Truro by day and from 10 pm to 1 am every night, I sat at my computer and tried to address all the concerns my committee had with my thesis. All the citation and reference errors required less concentration, so those I edited while in the car. Of course, this plan was less than effective, since I inevitably had to look online for the title of something I had cited which was not saved as a PDF on my hard drive. I was tired and frustrated with the amount of work I still had to do at the finish line.
I submitted my thesis three weeks later with two hours to spare.
When I’ve looked through the photos I took during those weeks, I don’t remember any of the details I’ve listed. My thesis didn’t ruin my memory of this:
But that doesn’t mean I will write the same way this time. I had no reference manager, my formatting was off, figures were added after the fact, and the table of contents wasn’t created with usage in mind. I also needed to be encouraged to write in my voice and provide context.
My organization this time
Before I began writing anything, back in the fall of 2017, I learned how to use Mendeley. Every reading experience has been bogged down by finding my reading, downloading it as a PDF into an appropriate folder, and updating Mendeley. For books that I couldn’t download or readings which weren’t digital, I searched the titles on the school library page and used the Mendeley Web Importer when I found the listing. I also upload every PDF into OneNote for annotating on my iPad. I hate this process each time I do it, but I did it. Every. Single. Time.
I began my proposal the way I intended to continue: I opened a blank document and began formatting it like a dissertation should look when it’s finished. I created appropriate headers and began adding sections to the document, using three levels of headings: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, References, Appendices…then I added a blank page after the abstract marker and created a table of contents. I opened Mendeley within Microsoft Word and started the bibliography. That was the moment when I was finally grateful for former me tracking all my references. Each time I cite something, the references populate automatically.
Even with a blank document with no “writing”, I had over 600 words at the start. I don’t like writing in Times New Roman, so my draft document font is Segoe UI. I prefer any sans serif font for writing except Arial – it makes the writing look childish to my eyes. I will eventually switch to Times New Roman when it’s time to proofread; I think my eye will pick up errors quickly because it won’t look familiar.
Google is my research friend. I mean Google, not Google Scholar. I knew there had to be a way to create additional “table of contents” pages. Professor Google did not disappoint. If you create a new heading label called “Figures” and another one called “Tables” and use the heading feature each time you create a table or add a figure, you can return to the beginning of the document and create these additional content lists which are hyperlinked, just like the Table of Contents page.
Why is this wonderful? If you delete a figure or add one later on, the List of Figures can be updated with two clicks. Not the case when you’ve entered them manually without headings.
I had a list of abbreviations in my master’s thesis, but I created it during those three weeks, at the suggestion of my supervisor. It was frustrating to find all the acronyms and abbreviations I had used. This is one of the first sections I completed this time around.
I mentioned that I had not used the Table of Contents effectively for my master’s thesis. I didn’t see the benefits of it then, but this time, as I began to add thoughts and ideas and parts of sentences to different sections, I first used the Table of Contents to help me jump around the document as I had inspirations. The more I wrote, the more I would think of something I might want to mention later or had forgotten to mention earlier in the document. I had these thoughts a few times before I started adding hyperlinks within the text, in addition to headings. This has helped me connect my ideas throughout this growing document and gives the reader an opportunity to read more or understand that I plan to explain myself further. Essentially, I am anticipating questions that my reader(s) may have and save them time. It’s been useful for me to thread my story and rationale, as well as remind the reader that I am revisiting certain topics. The hyperlinks look something like this:
Last summer I wrote a post about my frustration with people not “getting” my research. I’ve kept those realizations at the forefront and I added a section about the evolution of Twitter to my literature review. In fact, it’s at the beginning of my literature review,
because “Why Twitter?” It’s a less-than-intuitive platform and some things which are significant in researching Twitter may not be apparent to those unfamiliar with the platform and its evolution as a social media platform and live channel of news. I’ve also provided an overview of how researchers have approached Twitter since its beginning – the approach(es) have changed.
I struggled writing my research questions for my thesis and ensuring that the data I collected related back to them. My previous supervisor took a lot of time with me (weekly online meetings, lasting two hours) and recorded them for later viewing. This guidance was invaluable to me. One of the videos I re-watched over ten times so that I could understand what she was asking me.
I hope that I’ve learned enough from that process to provide my own set of checks and balances. It’s not only important to explain my research to a variety of readers, but also to visualise my process for the reader. I came across this template in LeCompte & Schensul and have used it in my proposal. In the first column I have listed all my research questions and then mapped the theoretical framework, data sources, data collection, and timelines. I like that I will be revisiting this table after my research is completed as a type of check-in – the ‘what actually happened’ section.
Ugh. This is a lot of pages and words. But I have time to edit my writing later and make it tighter. I would like to limit the final dissertation to about 240 pages, but not double the words. I want the writing to flow. I just did a word search in the document and the word “very” appears five times. I need to delete those, unless they are in quotations. As my friend Francine says, “find a stronger adjective or just get rid of that word.”
Feedback on my draft proposal
It’s not bad, actually. All doable tasks. Relieved. Subject in the email was “We are almost there.” The “we” is reassuring.
Items to complete
I made a list of tasks in my notebook. It’s a page long.
My gaps, in summary
As suspected, the theoretical framework section needs work. I need to bulk it up and be more direct about the journey I followed to get there.
Reflective practice: After so much reading, even more is required.
Provide an introduction to my literature review and explain why I’ve written it the way that I have. The order is deliberate but I haven’t been clear about my choice.
Paradigm wars – explain.
Be clearer about the right to be forgotten vs the right to be named – online ethics section.
Sketch my personal landscape. The only task that will be fun, I think.
All of this has been painful. This post looks neat and organized, but that is not how my head feels when I am in my proposal. I cringe in anticipation of reading it again. I am, however, better prepared for the end goal this time.
LeCompte, M. D., & Schensul, J. J. (2013). Analysis and interpretation of ethnographic data: A mixed methods approach. Lanham: AltaMira Press.