A friend for lonely days at the terminal

Enjoy Writing Your Science Thesis or Dissertation!
December 8, 2000

Do aspiring academic writers need to be told that pen, paper and Post-Its are helpful? If so, this book is pitched at the right level. And anyone who has dealt with students getting to grips with a large project will probably feel that it is. There is always somebody solving the simplest problems of organisation, time management and note taking for the first time, and he or she will find every single one of them discussed here.

Aimed at science students, the book contains advice applicable to all disciplines. The authors’ stress throughout is on planning the writing, keeping meticulous records, and being prepared for the worst in order to do your best. They clearly have a wealth of experience of what can go wrong, and anyone who followed all their advice would avoid a host of pitfalls. How many people learn that more than one back-up disc is essential only when they lose all their words?

The self-contained chapters cover every aspect of writing an undergraduate or postgraduate dissertation, from abstract to bibliography, and extend beyond the writing proper to topics such as dealing with a supervisor and preparing for a viva. Resources, layout, proofreading and a helpful guide to use of English are all here, and are all clearly subdivided and laid out. The book does not actually tell you how to find a research problem and then solve it, but you feel sure the authors would have done so if they could.

One complaint, aside from the amateurish cartoons, is the lack of any bibliography or guide to further reading. No "how to" book is quite as inclusive as this one aspires to be. A pointer to, say, Strunk and White on style or Edward Tufte on design of informational graphics, never goes amiss. More broadly, any amount of procedural and practical advice, however well-taken, still falls short of providing ideas about how to develop the craft skills of a good writer. These may not strictly be necessary for a thesis, but a reference to accounts of writing informed by recent work in cognitive science, such as Mike Sharples’s intriguing How We Write , would be a helpful signpost for those who actually get interested in the process they are, however reluctantly, bound up in.

That said, the book is a worthy addition to the list of efforts to help scientists get over what many find the most painful part of their professional formation. Researching a thesis is often an isolating business, and writing it up tends to be the loneliest part of the process. As well as pulling together the results of months or years of intense effort and struggling to make sense of them, the writer has to remember the many conventions of the form, as well as the intricacies of local custom.

Daniel Holtom and Elizabeth Fisher’s book is just what he or she needs: a text by authors who have clearly been there, helped others do the job and, most importantly, are on the thesis-writer’s side. Will anyone enjoy writing a science thesis or dissertation after reading this book? Unlikely. Will they find it helpful? Certainly.

Jon Turney is senior lecturer in science and technology studies, University College London.


Enjoy Writing Your Science Thesis or Dissertation!

Author - Daniel Holtom and Elizabeth Fisher
ISBN - 1 86904 090 0 and 207 5
Publisher - Imperial College Press
Price - £12.00
Pages - 8

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