Some new books on writing

There’s a LOT of books out there on how to do a thesis/dissertation (some of them written by me). I’ve managed to plough through a couple of new books on the subject recently and this post is a compilation of my reviews plus one reader review from Jasmine Jenson at the end. There’s still a bunch of books sitting in my pile, so if you have a desire to read one and provide a review please send me an email!

Writing a Watertight Thesis: a guide to successful structure and defence, by Mike Bottery and Nigel Wright

In this short book, Bottery and Wright attempt a Herculean task: to lay out a formula to ensure your thesis gets a passing grade. A worthy goal and certainly there’s a market for such a book, given how anxiety provoking the examination process can be. Both authors are education academics at the University of Hull in England and the book does reflect their humanities background while aspiring to be a guide across disciplines.

As implied in the title, the book starts with a ship building analogy. The authors claim that a watertight ship and a watertight thesis share similar principles: both need to be designed for a particular kind of environment, use appropriate materials and be well structured. To ensure success, a thesis and a ship need to be tested before being launched to make sure they don’t sink.

I like this ship building analogy and found the first two chapters, where this approach is laid out in detail, much more successful than the rest of the book. The second chapter on making a research proposal steps you through a formula for a ‘big book’ style humanities thesis with a couple of useful exercises. This chapter would see most people in the humanities, through their first thesis milestone / confirmation presentation. If I’d paid money for this volume I would have been satisfied I got my money’s worth in this proposal chapter alone.

After a cursory discussion of working with your supervisor, the next couple of chapters focus on working through research questions and sub-questions. The authors claim this approach will work for other disciplines, but I am not so sure. The approach to research questions certainly wouldn’t work for people in creative practice based disciplines like architecture and design. I’m not sure it would work for people in history or philosophy either, let alone people in the sciences who are usually working on a series of papers rather than a ‘big book’ thesis.

The feeling that this book is not truly transdisciplinary intensified as I worked through to the end. There are chapters that deal with structuring the beginning, middle and end of the thesis, which is a good idea and if you were to follow the advice in social science or education you would certainly reap benefits. The chapter on doing a Viva seems like a very useful summary, but the final chapter on academic publishing is so short and perfunctory I am not sure why it is there at all, but the advice about doing a journal paper is sound enough.

I have some specific issues with the chapter on the examiner point of view, which raise more general questions about this book for me. Given there is a lot of research work on how examiners approach examining a thesis (which I have drawn on when writing about examination here, here and here in particular), it’s strange that the authors have not made reference to this literature in this chapter, or their bibliography.

In fact, given there is a big literature on all aspects of writing a thesis, I found the lack of sources for this book confusing. It’s like this book exists in a vacuum, drawing mostly on the experience of the two authors who may or may not have read the research and advice from others. There are many similarities between this advice and advice offered elsewhere, but this similarity is never acknowledged or contextualised. I am not accusing the authors of plagiarism, more pointing out a curious lack of interest in the work of others. More attention to how the authors’ advice conforms with, or differs from, the exisiting advice might have enriched this book and given the reader a few jumping off points to explore further, given the book itself is quite short.

So, should you buy this book? If you are in education or social science it’s a concise, reassuring guide that would be helpful, especially if your supervisor is not providing much direction. It does encourage a rather ‘vanilla flavoured’ style of thesis writing that would result in a work that sits firmly in the Dead Hand of the Thesis Genre. However, I don’t have a problem with this as following advice in this book would result in a thesis that no one could complain about, at least in education / social science. A finished – and safely passed – thesis is a good thesis after all: perfect is the enemy of done! If you are doing your PhD by publication, or in the creative practice based disciplines, this book will not be that useful and people in sciences might look elsewhere for more appropriate help, which comfortably segues to my next review…

Mastering writing in the sciences: A step by step guide, by Marialuisa Aliotta

Many books on writing are written by education scholars like myself, so it is refreshing to come across a book on writing by a practising scientist. Aliotta is a Physicist and aims her book squarely at the scientist audience. Ironically, while keeping her focus on the working scientist, Aliotta has produced a book on writing that may well be successfully transciplinary in a way that Bottery and Wright’s book is not. Unlike the previous book, Aliotta acknowledges sources and provides links to other works, including this blog, which contextualise her work in the advice genre. Where she has taken the advice of others, she has definitely made it her own, adding value and giving readers other avenues of advice to explore should they want to.

The book follows a production model of writing in five stages: pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing and proofreading. The chapter on note taking has a useful grab bag of techniques, including the literature review matrix and a modified version of the Cornell template. The only place I really differ here is the advice to take notes in long hand – I agree it tends to make information ‘stick’, but in terms of processing your notes to writing it introduces a transaction cost that will slow you down. The short chapter on drafting has one of the only descriptions of mind mapping that I have seen in a writing book, which is a great addition, as are the suggested exercises at the end that would help you action the advice in the chapter.

The chapters on revising and editing are chock full of good tips and strategies which will help the novice writer find many ways in to doing this difficult work. These chapters are too short to make you into a great editor, but they will help you on your way to being a good enough editor of your own work. Chapter 7 is a fantastic summary of some of the technicalities of presenting scientific research that will answer many of the commonly asked questions. This chapter will help you produce a ‘camera ready’ manuscript to impress your co-authors and journal editors. The worked out examples in chapter eight are gold, demonstrating the kind of fixes that are common to first drafts, demystifying this process significantly. Scientists will probably love the templates offered towards the end of the book, which would act as sure structural supports for journal papers in the sciences but perhaps have limited use beyond that purpose.

In summary, I liked this book and think it’s a very worthwhile addition to my library, but should you buy it? Certainly, if you are a scientist you will find it very useful. People in other disciplines will get good value out of more than half of it. My only gripe is the price – nearly $50 – which quite frankly surprised me when I looked it up because the quality of the paperback I was sent was not fabulous. It looked like some poor print on demand books and was actually quite fuzzy. I have poor eyesight and found it difficult to read for any length of time. Mr ThesisWhisperer suggested the book had been written in TeX, using computer modern as the font. Given the author is a scientist, I think this theory is probably correct. It would be easy for the publisher to fix and at this price point, I would expect them to do this before they publish, but margins are tight in the industry and perhaps they missed this quality step. Maybe borrow it from your library and then buy it as an ebook if you end up loving it.

Finish Your Thesis or Dissertation! Tip & Hacks for Success, by Kevin Morrell

This Review is by Jasmine Jensen: a PhD candidate in the Chemistry, Physics and Mechanical Engineering School at Queensland University of Technology. She is researching clay materials for their potential use in supercapacitors. Her other interests include chemistry education, science outreach and playing the violin. She can be found on Twitter as @jasminerjensen .

I was writing up some of my thesis (*cough* procrastinating on twitter *cough*) when Inger asked if anyone could review a copy of Finish Your Thesis of Dissertation! Tip & Hacks for Success, by Professor Kevin Morrell. I have read a few books on writing a thesis before (usually seen on the Thesis Whisperer blog), and jumped at the chance to read another one.

Morrell himself suggests in the book that this may be more suitable for undergraduate/honours or Masters students, and I would have to agree. Having already written a Masters thesis, most of the information and tips were definitely not new to me. However, I think this book is a good, broad over view of what to expect for someone who has never written or been exposed to a thesis before. Many of the examples in the book are drawn from an business and management research background; however it is possible to relate most of the tips to other research areas.

I read an ebook version of Finish Your Thesis or Dissertation! (the Kindle version is selling for approximately AU$5 currently), which was about 190 pages. The writing style is quite conversational, and I found that I would read big chunks quite quickly and not realise I had gotten so far. I really appreciated this style of writing, as I imagine a lot of the intended readers would be busy and might not think they have enough time to read another book. With this one, you probably do!

Some of the content covered ranges from starting out with creating a research question, how to set good goals and routines, writing an abstract, what journals are and how to find “good papers”, basic formatting and proofreading. I particularly liked a section on what to do if things went wrong – although the examples are not really applicable in my research area of chemistry, I liked the sentiment behind the examples of reframing your methodology and research questions. I especially liked how Morrell focused on not panicking, but fixing the problem.

My main issue with this book, is it seems to have a very abrupt ending. After a section on proof reading and preparing your thesis for submission, and then some tips from other supervisors, there’s just a final section basically going “The End!”. I can appreciate that writing something longer might seem like repetition etc but it just seemed odd after the rest of the book being so conversational and talkative in style.

There are other books which focus more specifically on certain points of the thesis writing journey. For example, some focus more on writer’s block, or perfecting grammar, or the literature review process. This book is good if you want something to give you a general guide to all of those things and more (and sometimes refers to other books or videos that can assist in more detail). Overall, I think it would be a good starting guide for students about to undertake a thesis for the first time, and isn’t necessary to read the book the whole way through to get some benefit (I must admit to skimming through the examples of successful research as they were all business based).

Thanks Jasmine!

Stay tuned for more reviews in coming months. If you’re interested in buying some books to help you with various stages of your research, I keep an updated Big List of recommended books for your thesis here. ANU students please note that Harry Hartogs bookstore on campus has used this list to top up the stock in their store on campus, which now has an excellent reference section up the front.

Related Posts

The two best books on doing your thesis

How to write a lot

5 ways to declutter your writing

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One thought on “Some new books on writing

  1. Helen Scott says:

    Thanks for taking the time to review these books – really useful. I’m doing my PhD “with” publication. Do you recommend any books to guide someone through that process?

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