Positive Thesis Perfectionism and the Pursuit of Excellence

November 18, 2012

Thesis perfectionism is often seen as a problem for thesis writers, but is it really?Can perfectionism be positive? In the right circumstances, it can be.

Conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom says that thesis perfectionism is a bad thing. If you worry too much about getting it perfect, then you won't be able to write anything. Or if you do write something, you'll never be satisfied and will get stuck in an endless cycle of writing and rewriting and never finish.

So you end up with advice telling you not to worry about the details. To just get words down on the page. To come back and edit later. Just get something done. (See the worst thesis writing advice ever [and what to do instead]).

This works only as a short-term fix for writer's block. If you don't think too much you can probably write 1000 words in a couple of hours, but eventually you will run out of momentum and be back where you started.

Or if you do manage to write several thousand words, it will be a mess of poorly structured thoughts with depth and no supporting detail. This is very hard to edit! So the temptation is always to move to writing about something fresh to get that momentum going again. Following this path you can end up with 6 chapters all in a state of "70% done", but nothing actually finished and in a submissible state.

The more you write, the more detail is left for later. The harder it becomes to make any progress, and the more stressful life becomes as the months tick away.

But this is normal, right?

What is perfectionism?

Thesis perfectionism has been given a bad name, but that's only because it's misunderstood.

If you're never happy with what you've written, is that perfectionism? Or is it something else?

Often, it's just a lack of confidence, or being indecisive in what you are trying to say. So you write and rewrite but still aren't happy. Or you worry so much about whether it will be good enough in the eyes of the examiner that you are too scared to write anything.

Just getting more on the page, then, isn't going to help. What you need is the confidence to make a clear, assertive statement which you know you can defend.

This comes from knowing that you've taken the time and care to verify what you're saying. Knowing that the evidence is there (and knowing where it is). Understanding the consequences of the argument you're making, and questioning yourself in a constructive way. In other words, taking time and care over the details.

Absolute perfection is unattainable (if you write 100,000 words there will be a spelling mistake somewhere),  but excellence is attainable, and there's nothing wrong with aiming for it.

The pursuit of excellence

The first attempt

It's true that you shouldn't worry too much about your first attempt at a sentence or paragraph. All you need to get started is some idea of what you want to say.Because we don't think in perfectly formed sentences, the first version is often a bit clunky. That's OK. As long as you know what you're trying to say, you can then work to improve it.

But if you edit immediately, while the thought is fresh in your head, it is much easier than writing 10s of thousands of words and then coming back to sort out the mess.

Exploring many options

There is no one right answer, no one right way of expressing an idea. So you can and should explore many options without being too attached to any one. The key is to immerse yourself in the idea and give it deep thought.


Whatever idea you're trying to express, immerse yourself in it. Stay with it.

Look at what you've written. Do you know what point you're trying to make? Does it make sense? Is it true? Have you really cut through to the essence of the argument? Is there another, better way to phrase it? Do you have the references and evidence to back up what you're saying?

Sometimes you might get stuck. This could be because;

  • If the thought isn't yet clear in your own head, you have no hope of communicating it effectively.
  • If you don't have the references to back up what you're saying, you can't write with confidence.

If you don't have a strong foundation, then it might feel like writer's block. But actually what you need to do is spend some time either finding the information or clarifying what you want to say.

Whatever section or idea you are working on, stay with it and do what's necessary (whether finding the evidence or just spending more time thinking) to be able to write about it with confidence.

Then you can actually complete the section knowing that you've done the work to give your writing a solid foundation.

Constructive self-criticism

You will have to defend your work, but you can strengthen your defence by anticipating criticism.

Question your own results and interpretation, and the address those questions in your writing (or change your interpretation if you find a major flaw).

This is not the same as self-doubt. Self-doubt is stops you doing anything, but self-criticism is essential.

Care and pride in your work

When looking at literature, my view was always that I wouldn't cite anything that wasn't of a high standard.

I took time and meticulous care over my figures, to get them just right.

I looked after my writing, I nurtured it, and I gave every section the time and thought it deserved. I did it well for the sake of doing it well, and not for external approval, and so I finished each day happy with what I'd done, which made the next day easy to start.

Of course it was balanced by the need to finish. I still aimed for a minimum of 500 words a day, I just made sure they were good quality.

In anticipation of the comments...

I know that many will disagree with this approach. They will say that there's no point worrying about the details because some things might not end up in the final thesis. To them I say, "so what?"

It's the nature of research and writing that some things you put effort into won't be useful in the end. But if you at least put time and care into each idea then you can cut it decisively if you know you gave it a good shot and it didn't work out.

Some details are more important than others, and you must prioritise and not let yourself get sucked into spending day after day on irrelevancies, but the details do matter. You will have to take care of them eventually, so you might as well do it now.

Positive Thesis Perfectionism

Sometimes thesis perfectionism can help you get things done faster, because you have taken the care to do things well the first time round.

I was never a very good physicist, but finished my thesis in 3 months, passed with zero corrections, and found the writing-up phase the least stressful and most enjoyable part of the whole process.

The key is to find a sense of relaxed control. To be able to take the time to do things well, irrespective of deadlines, yet still aiming to complete every section you work on.

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