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Writing a senior honors thesis, or any major research essay, can seem daunting at first. A thesis requires a reflective, multi-stage writing process. This handout will walk you through those stages. It is targeted at students in the humanities and social sciences, since their theses tend to involve more writing than projects in the hard sciences. Yet all thesis writers may find the organizational strategies helpful.
That depends quite a bit on your field of study. However, all honors theses have at least two things in common:
In general, students who are at the end of their junior year, have an overall 3.2 GPA, and meet their departmental requirements can write a senior thesis. For information about your eligibility, contact:
It’s a good idea to review some of the honors theses other students have submitted to get a sense of what an honors thesis might look like and what kinds of things might be appropriate topics. Look for examples from the previous year in the Carolina Digital Repository. You may also be able to find past theses collected in your major department or at the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library. Pay special attention to theses written by students who share your major.
Ideally, you should start thinking about topics early in your junior year, so you can begin your research and writing quickly during your senior year. (Many departments require that you submit a proposal for an honors thesis project during the spring of your junior year.)
Say you’re interested in the efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and early 1980s. That’s a big topic that probably can’t be adequately covered in a single thesis. You need to find a case study within that larger topic. So…
Now you’ve got a much more manageable topic: Women in North Carolina Who Opposed the ERA in the 1970s and 1980s.
Why did some women in North Carolina oppose the ERA?
The senior year is an exceptionally busy time for college students. In addition to the usual load of courses and jobs, senior have the daunting task of applying for jobs and/or graduate school. These demands are angst producing and time consuming
If that scenario sounds familiar, don’t panic! Do start strategizing about how to make a time for your thesis. You may need to take a lighter course load or eliminate extracurricular activities. Even if the thesis is the only thing on your plate, you still need to make a systematic schedule for yourself. Most departments require that you take a class that guides you through the honors project, so deadlines likely will be set for you. Still, you should set your own goals for meeting those deadlines.
Here are a few suggestions for goal setting and time management:
In making a timetable:
Here is a sample timetable. Use it, however, with two caveats in mind:
|Early exploratory research and brainstorming||Junior Year|
|Basic statement of topic; line up with advisor||End of Junior Year|
|Completing the bulk of primary and secondary research||Summer / Early Fall|
|Chapter One Draft||October|
|Chapter Two Draft||November|
|Chapter Three Draft||December|
|Formatting and Final Touches||Early April|
|Presentation and Defense||Mid-Late April|
One of the biggest challenges of a lengthy writing project is keeping the creative juices flowing. Here’s where freewriting can help. Try keeping a small notebook handy where you jot down stray ideas that pop into your head. Or schedule time to freewrite. You may find that such exercises “free” you up to articulate your argument and generate new ideas. Here are some questions to stimulate freewriting.
In conducting research, you will need to find both primary sources (“firsthand” sources that come directly from the period/events/people you are studying) and secondary sources (“secondhand” sources that are filtered through the interpretations of experts in your field.) The nature of your research will vary tremendously, depending on what field you’re in. For some general suggestions on finding sources, consult the UNC Libraries tutorials.
Whatever the exact nature of the research you’re conducting, you’ll be taking lots of notes and should reflect critically on how you do that. Too often it’s assumed that the research phase of a project involves very little substantive writing (i.e., writing that involves thinking). We sit down with our research materials and plunder them for basic facts and useful quotations. That mechanical type of information-recording is important. But a more thoughtful type of writing and analytical thinking is also essential at this stage.
Some general guidelines for note-taking:
Keeping those rules in mind, here’s a template for the types of information that your note cards/legal pad sheets/computer files should include for each of your sources:
Interpreting the significance of a source:
You don’t need to answer all of these questions for each source, but you should set a goal of engaging in at least one or two sentences of thoughtful, interpretative writing for each source. If you do so, you’ll make much easier the next task that awaits you: drafting.
Why do we often dread drafting? We dread drafting because it requires synthesis, one of the more difficult forms of thinking and interpretation. If you’ve been free-writing and taking thoughtful notes during the research phase of your project, then the drafting should be far less painful. Here are some tips on how to get started.
There is not single right way, but this step—in some form or fashion—is essential!
Keep in mind that “working arguments” may change after you start writing. But a senior thesis is big and potentially unwieldy. If you leave this business of argument to chance, you may end up with a tangle of ideas. See our handouts for some general advice on formulating arguments and thesis statements.
Peter Elbow, in Writing With Power, suggests that writing is difficult because it requires two conflicting tasks: creating and criticizing. While these two tasks are intimately intertwined, the drafting stage focuses on creating, while revising requires criticizing. If you leave your revising to the last minute, then you’ve left out a crucial stage of the writing process.
See our handout for some general tips on revising.
Some specific advice for revising an honors thesis:
You may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of incorporating all this advice. Keep in mind that some advice is better than others. You will probably want to take most seriously the advice of your adviser since he/she carries the most weight in giving your project a stamp of approval. But sometimes your adviser may give you more advice than you can digest. If so, don’t be afraid to approach him/her—in a polite and cooperative spirit, of course—and ask for some help in prioritizing that advice.
See our handout for some tips on getting and receiving feedback.
You’re almost done! You’ve researched, drafted, and revised your thesis; now you need to take care of those pesky little formatting matters. An honors thesis should replicate—on a smaller scale—the appearance of a dissertation or master’s thesis. So, you need to include the “trappings” of a formal piece of academic work. For specific questions on formatting matters, check with your department to see if it has a style guide that you should use. For general formatting guidelines, consult the Graduate School’s Guide to Dissertations and Theses
Keeping in mind the caveat that you should always check with your department first about its stylistic guidelines, here’s a brief overview of the final “finishing touches” that you’ll need to put on your honors thesis.
In addition, in the bottom left corner, you need to leave space for your adviser and faculty readers to sign their names. For example:
Approved by: ______________________ Adviser: Prof. Jane Doe
Graciously, enthusiastically, and confidently. The term defense is scary and misleading—it conjures up images of a military exercise or an athletic maneuver. An academic defense ideally shouldn’t be a combative scene but a congenial conversation about the work’s merits and weaknesses.
That said, the defense probably won’t be like the average conversation that you have with your friends. You’ll be the center of attention. And you may get some challenging questions. Thus, it’s a good idea to spend some time preparing yourself.
First of all, you’ll want to prepare 5-10 minutes of opening comments. Here’s a good time to preempt some criticisms by frankly acknowledging what you think your work’s greatest strengths and weaknesses are.
Then you might want to try anticipating typical questions:
Should you get some biting criticism of your work, try not to get defensive. Yes, this is a defense, but you’ll probably only fan the flames if you lose your cool. Keep in mind that all academic work has flaws or weaknesses, and you can be sure that your professors have received criticisms of their own work. It’s part of the academic enterprise. Accept criticism graciously and learn from it. If you receive criticism that is unfair, stand up for yourself confidently, but in a good spirit.
Above all, try to have fun! A defense is a rare opportunity to have eminent scholars in your field focus on YOU and your ideas and work. And the defense marks the end of a long and arduous journey. You have every right to be proud of your accomplishments!
We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.
Kenneth Atchity. A Writer’s Time: A Guide to the Creative Process from Vision through Revision.New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.
Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. Fifth edition. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.
Peter Elbow. Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon, 1994.
Christopher Lasch. Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. Stewart Weaver, ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Fourth edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.
Kate Turabian. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, Dissertations. Sixth edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
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