Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Tips on thesis writing: Working around the lazy reader

Rob Zubek is defending soon, and today we had a long chat about his dissertation and a little bit about dissertations in general. Correct me if I am wrong, but there is this unescapable question -- How much of a two hundred page document is going to be really read by people, esp the folks on the committee? Of course, every word of it, and twice so, I think. Cause I will say really important things. But there is the reality of two hundred pages and busy schedules. So here, is a set of tips to get your points heard, even if the reader is short on time, tired, or just plain lazy. These are things Rob and I conjectured, and we dont know much about how the world works, so any comments are welcome:
  1. The Chapter one, introduction, is the most likely to be read. So say everything you have to say in this chapter.
  2. Footnotes are exciting, so intersperse key ideas throughout in them. Footnotes with exclamation marks are extremely powerful, use those sparingly.
  3. Bullet points are hard to avoid, even when the document is casually being skimmed. Keywords with bullet points are a way to engrain important phrases in the reader's mind. A smart reader can understand by reading a small fraction of the prose that follows if they were primed with those bullet points. Hooks in the memory. Sophisticated learning science types call this scaffolding.
  4. Quotes draw attention, cause if you are quoting someone, they must have said something really cool and probably were many times smarter than you (or some poor guy who said something stupid, or funny, or crazy - nobody quotes the mediocre). Assembling an array of interesting quotes is an important part of sounding/being scholarly, and if your reader has any such aspirations, you have got his attention. Blockquotes are interesting -- they definitely are easier to spot, but are not so powerful since the amount of text in them can be daunting.
  5. Examples and anecdotes are interesting, too. Some people like to collect anecdotes and you get those. Plus if someone was seriously reading it, working hard, the example might help, well, illustrate.
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Blogger klenk said...

I don't think footnotes are exciting...i think footnotes are where "extra" pieces of information not part of the core argument should be kept. Therefore if I'm trying to get a feel for someone's argument, I would not expect a footnote to hold an exciting point that reinforces the work as a whole.

Do you really read every word of every academic paper you pick up? That seems absurd, but maybe you have more free time than me. I see academic record as important for when someone wants to continue on someone else's idea or rebel against it. And those people should be able to read every word and gain from it. But the person who is passing through the field (this can be as broadly or as narrowly constrewed as you want), everyword is hardly important.

12:18 PM  

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