How to write the perfect thesis: lessons from Ernest Hemingway

The first draft of anything is shit.

Those aren’t my words, they’re the words of Mr Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century.

I thought it was appropriate given how so many people feel about their thesis.

One of the reasons writing a thesis is so hard, is that after years of study and research, exams and the occasional essay, you suddenly have to become a full-time writer.

Since everything hangs on the success of this one document, you want to write the perfect thesis. What better way than to take lessons from a great writer?

Writing the perfect thesis

Lesson 1: write a lot, throw most of it away

Hemingway also said,

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to throw the shit in the wastebasket”

He clearly had a liking for the s-word. Anyway, if one of the great writers had such a high shit-to-masterpiece  ratio, you need to write a huge amount to produce anything worthy of the perfect thesis.

But don’t let that discourage you. You have to be willing to write the shit in order to find the gold.

Not writing anything will only leave you with perfectly useless blank ┬ápages. Sentences that exist are closer to perfection than those that don’t. So write without fear and worry about perfection later.

Lesson 2: rest while you still have something to say

“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

You can only stay at your peak for so long. Stop while you still have something to say, and it’ll be easier to get started again.

You’ll only feel good about stopping if you’re happy with what you’ve achieved, which in turn is only possible if you know what you were aiming for.

How much is enough for today? Define a target, achieve it, and you can rest satisfied.

Lesson 3: hold some knowledge back

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water”

Not all possible thesis content is of equal value.

If you focus on the very best content you have, you can write a thesis packed full of fantastic, relevant information.

Writing every single thing you know or citing every paper you’ve ever found is just silly.

Lesson 4: relax

“For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can”

Some people spend their lives seeking perfection; mastery of an art to an unsurpassable degree. You shouldn’t beat yourself up if you never reach it.

If the pursuit of perfection drives you to practice writing day and night, great, but if it holds you back from writing the next sentence, then it isn’t helping you.

Maybe perfection isn’t the best target after all. Maybe it’s enough to write well, rather than perfectly.

Relax, and just write. Then look at what you’ve written and make it better if you can. Ultimately, what more can you do than your best?

If you like this post, you can help other people find it by clicking on the Facebook like button under the photo of Hemingway, or one of the sharing buttons below :)

If you’re new to the site, you can also check out this lecture I gave at the University of Nottingham last year!

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