A senior thesis is a big undertaking, and getting started can quite easily be the hardest part. What the writer must keep in mind, though, is that once she begins she must maintain perspective on the project as a whole. That is to say, once she’s picked her topic and begun to gather her research material, she mustn’t forget that she is eventually going to have to write (comprehensively!) all of her major findings as well as defend within her writing the logic of her research. Two simple ways to achieve this perspective is to refine one’s research down to answering one (however complex) question and to begin writing during the research process.
Narrow Down the Thesis Topic
It’s easy to lose track of oneself midway through an extensive project, to be interrupted every so often by, “Wait, what am I doing? What is it I’m trying to say?” It is at these moments that a very clearly defined thesis topic will keep the writer right on target. An easy way to attain such a clearly defined topic is to phrase it as a question. For example, a topic like “Literature and the French Revolution” sounds very interesting, but it is also very broad, and it could be taken in any number of directions.
Let’s say the writer is more interested in the impact the Revolution had literature and not the other way around; she could phrase the question like, “In what ways did the French Revolution change literature?” This is still very broad and could be refined by making more specifications: In what ways did the French Revolution change literature in France? What effect did the social reconstruction of the French Revolution have on French drama? This last question would do a lot to keep the writer from getting sidetracked and help her focus on the social aspect of the Revolution and its impact on a specific kind of French literature — drama.
This isn’t to say that asking other questions is detrimental to the project — quite the opposite. A good thesis will ask and answer lots of questions, especially if they are posed as countering arguments. Perhaps the writer wants to argue that the social aspects of the Revolution affected French drama more than, say, its violence. In this case she needs to address the question “What effect did the Revolution’s violence have on French drama?” while keeping in mind that this is in relation to the topic question.
Write While Conducting Research
Of course the student who write his work will have her notebook handy to take notes in once she begins to conduct her research, but she should consider using it for more than scratching down quotations. In addition to taking notes out of research material, the notebook can be used to write down any thoughts, questions, predictions, or connections relevant to the project. When a break from the books becomes necessary, these thoughts can be expanded on the computer screen — the writer shouldn’t worry about proper grammar or brilliant turns of phrase but simply write whatever it is she’s thinking. This will help her stay on track and, hopefully, will also keep her excited about the topic. These blurbs she writes will also help her to structure her thesis later on in the process when she sits down to write it formally (she may even be able to draw from these early musings verbatim!). It’s always a good thing to have past material available if and when writer’s block sets in.
In the end, though, the key to writing a thesis is to write. This can be hard — one may feel that she’s not phrasing herself correctly, or she’s not sure if she’s ended up where she planned with her research. The only way out of this fix is to continue writing (after all, there generally are no extensions on turning in a thesis!) — if the phrasing isn’t right, move on and come back to it later, or keep writing it differently until it does sound right, but don’t sit on it for days! If the student has written herself into a corner, she needs to write herself out of it. For this reason getting started early is always a good idea!