Cronin's thesis writing tips
A thesis proposal must be approved before you start writing your thesis. Do not unilaterally decide to write your thesis on a different topic after the thesis proposal has been approved, even though the subject may seem related. If the topic of your thesis research has changed, as sometimes happens, have the new topic approved by your graduate thesis committee.
Dr. Cronin has served as advisor for many successful MS thesis research projects, at Baylor and at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It is a very good idea to study recently approved theses to gain a better understanding for the acceptable style, scope, and content of a MS thesis developed under Dr. Cronin's guidance. Many of these thesis documents are available electronically via the web page about Cronin's past students. Dr. Cronin is not your copy editor. If you have difficulty writing coherently, you might consider (1) pursuing a different career that does not involve technical writing, or (2) hiring a scientific copy editor. Dr. Cronin is not your copy editor.
The art of writing is in the re-writing. The art of writing is in the rewriting. The art of writing is in the rewriting.
Do not even consider handing-in a thesis draft to your advisor that has not been extensively re-written after the initial draft.
Some suggestions and common problems in style, grammar and punctuation
(an ever-growing but incomplete list; also see Chapters 30-32 & 35 of Day and Gastel, 2006)
- Leave 2 blank spaces after colons (:), semicolons (;), and periods placed at the end of a sentence. Microsoft Word will not do this automatically for you -- you have to do it yourself.
- Do not use colons (:) or semicolons (;) unless you know how to use them. If you do not know, and would like to, I suggest you pick up a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, which is available at any good bookstore.
- Do not use hyphens (-) between words unless you know how to use them. If you do not know how to correctly use hyphens, and would like to, pick up a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style.
- The first sentence of a paragraph is the topic sentence. Make certain that the rest of the sentences in the paragraph relate to the topic sentence.
- Do not begin topic sentences with prepositional phrases. A prepositional phrase begins with a preposition (e.g., above, after, along, against, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, during, for, from, in, into, on, off, over, through, to, toward, under, until, with, upon, within, without, except), ends with an object, and generally has a trailing comma.
- Paragraphs contain more than one sentence, and generally more than two sentences. The number of sentences in a paragraph, beyond the minimum, is determined by the topic of the paragraph; however, it is unlikely that a coherent paragraph will contain more than 5-7 sentences.
- Avoid beginning sentences with prepositional phrases. Do not begin two successive sentences with prepositional phrases.
- Strive to write sentences that have a very direct, linear structure. "The dog named Otto has fleas" is preferable to "I was shocked to discover that pesky little fleas have inhabited the hairy forrest on the back of my precious canine friend Otto."
- Strive to write simply. Avoid unnecessary or redundant words. Be sure that any adjectives and adverbs that you choose to use are necessary.
- Use appropriate geoscience terminology, but try to avoid needless jargon. The stylistic goals are clarity, completeness, and simplicity in service of transmitting information effectively.
- Accept and act upon the fact that scientific writing is not the same as the style of writing that is taught in creative writing classes. Scientific writing is not like writing history or a novel or a letter.
- Write in the active voice (e.g.,"We ate dinner.") rather than in the passive voice (e.g.,"Dinner was eaten.") whenever it is practical.
- Avoid the use of personal pronouns, such as I, you, he, she and we unless such usage is absolutely necessary. Please note that this is not a prohibition, but a strong recommendation to avoid personal pronouns. Do not use "the author" as a way of referring to yourself. Self-reference may be acceptable in the acknowledgements.
- Do not write very long run-on sentences.
- Do not use possessives when referring to inanimate objects, and avoid the use of possessives when referring to scientists.
- The word "data" is the plural of the word "datum." In science, data are reproducible observations and should always be described with some sense of the corresponding uncertainty. The uncertainty is sometimes conveyed only by the choice of significant figures, while in other instances a more formal estimate of uncertainty is provided explicitly. Scientific data are the functional equivalent of scientific facts.
- The words "interpret," "infer," and "assert" are used to communicate different degrees of connectedness to data. An interpretation is our understanding of the meaning of data, or of the relationships between different data. An inference is based on incomplete or non-definitive data. An assertion is made based on a person's overall understanding but is not tied directly to data.
- Do not assert the validity of any facts that you have not developed yourself without citing the literature reference of the source of the fact.
- Any work that is referenced in your text must be included in the References list at the end of your paper.
- Any work that is included in the References section of your paper should be cited in the text.
- The following are some tips if you make illustrations for your paper:
- Lines/curves in illustrations that are much less than 1 point wide tend to disappear upon reproduction. So make all of the lines in your illustrations greater than or equal to 0.75 point in thickness.
- Halftone gray areas in illustrations tend to turn to black upon reproduction. Avoid the use of halftone gray.
- Color illustrations generally become unintelligible upon reproduction with a black-and-white laser printer, or after being copied using a black-and-white photocopier. To test whether your color choices are good, photocopy the color illustration with a black-and-white photocopier and verify that the information content is still preserved.
- Foreign phrases, such as "in situ" and "et cetera", should be printed in italics.
- Do not use "et cetera" or "etc." at the end of a list of items. These terms, which are Latin for "and so on," do not add any meaning to your text.
- Footnotes are not generally used in geoscience papers, except to note that an author has changed address or is deceased. The few journals that still use footnotes are general science journals (e.g., Science and Nature) that must accommodate a number of conflicting styles of paper.
- Scientists do not (a) claim..., (b) believe..., or (c) consider something a "mystery". Science does not involve mysticism. Science is a system that uses observations, reproducible experiments, hypotheses, theories, and natural laws to identify facts and to elucidate relationships. Scientists do not believe in anything related to science -- in fact, scientists are skeptics until a given idea can be demonstrated to be a viable hypothesis.
- Be certain that all of the sentences in your paper are informative. There is no room in a paper for flabby, uninformative sentences.
- Example of a flabby, uninformative sentence
"Many scientists have worked on various aspects of this problem, and have proposed several different ideas to explain their observations."
- Example of an informative sentence
"Smith (1986) performed a trend-surface analysis on fold axes within 50 km of the San Andreas fault, and identified a dominant trend oriented parallel to the fault trace."
- Outline your paper before you write it, so that the paper will flow logically from beginning to end.
- Proofread your paper for typographical errors, spelling, style, punctuation, readability, organization, and completeness.
- The easiest way to check spelling is to read the text backwards, focusing on each word individually
- Note that computer spelling checkers will not catch a typo that forms another correct word.
- If the text is not easy to read out loud, it is not easy enough to read.
- The initial outline of your paper should be derivable by outlining the final text.
- etc. means et cetera, which means "and so on." There is almost never a good reason for using etc. in a scientific paper, because it is not an informative abbreviation.
- et al. means et alia, which means "and others." It is often preferable to just use the English equivalent; however, some journals require the use of et al.
- e.g. means exempli gratia, which means "for example"
- i.e. means id est, which means "that is"
- c.f. means confer, which means "compare"
- Time abbreviations (no trailing period is needed after these abbreviations)
- a (annuus) means year
- ka (kilo-annum) means thousand years
- Ma (mega-annum) means million years
- Ga (giga-annum) means billion years
- Distance abbreviations (no trailing period is needed after these abbreviations)
- m means meter
- km means kilometer (103 m)
- cm means centimeter (10-2 m)
- mm means millimeter (10-3 m)
- µm means micrometer or micron (10-6 m)
Some Useful References
Bates, R.L., 1988, Writing in Earth sciences: Alexandria, Virginia, American Geological Institute, 50 p.
Bates, R.L., 1986, Glossary of geology [3rd ed.]: Alexandria, Virginia, American Geological Institute, 805 p.
Bishop, E.E., and others, 1978, Suggestions to authors of the reports of the United States Geological Survey [6th ed.]: Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 273 p.
Day, R.A., and Gastel, B., 2006, How to write and publish a scientific paper [6th edition]: Greenwood Press, ISBN-10: 0313330409 and ISBN-13: 978-0313330407, 320 p.
Malde, H.E., 1986, Guidelines for reviewers of geological manuscripts: Alexandria, Virginia, American Geological Institute, 28 p.
Miller, J.I., and Taylor, B.J., 1989, The punctuation handbook: West Linn, Oregon, Alcove Publishing Company, 89 p.
University of Chicago Press, 1982, The Chicago manual of style [13th ed.]: Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 738 p.
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