Writing a Better Thesis, Dissertation or Journal Article

“It is your job to prevent people from reading your article in stupid ways.”

I love that quote from Belcher (Writing your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, p. 363).

It sums up that not only are you responsible for writing your article, but for also making sure it is set out in a way that ensure readers can make sense of it.

And I think the same is true of theses, and dissertations – it is your job to make sure reviewers read your work correctly.

So, how can you do that?

In previous posts about writing (grants) I have argued not to write like Santa gave you words for ChristmasAnd the advice there is to keep words to a minimum where possible. As well as to involve a diverse group of people in the pre-submission writing, and review processes. And these bits of advice are also backed up by Belcher where she says, reviewers seem to not understand your article (p. 363) and that writing journal articles is very much a western approach to writing (p. 265).

Some other observations Belcher makes about writing journal articles, that I think are relevant to theses, and dissertations…

Reading will influence your writing style – I totally agree with this. And have previously written about the role of reading in improving your writing. And, other than writing, the next best thing you can do to improve your writing is to read. But, as Belcher points out, what you read will influence your writing style. Read newspapers, you’re write like a journalist. Read novels, you’ll write like a novelist. Read biographies, you’ll write like a biographer. So, that means if you’re writing a journal article, read journal articles. If you’re writing a thesis or dissertation, read theses, and dissertations.


Some writing styles are better than others – Belcher does a thorough analysis of different writing styles, and their potential or likely suitability to journal writing (pp. 264 – 266). I am not in a strong position to argue against her analysis – she has WAY more experience with things than me. However, I disagree on some points for both journal writing, and theses or dissertations.

  • Newspaper structure – Agreed. Journal articles, and dissertations cannot be written exactly like newspaper articles. Journal articles and theses mostly have defined sections, and headings. Newspaper articles do not. But what you can use from newspaper articles is informative headings. Headings that encourage further reading. Not click-bait. But further reading. You can also put the most important information first. Knowing your reader will skim or skip, having important information first will help get your reader further into your article or thesis or dissertation, and (ultimately) citing it.
  • Magazine structure – I disagree here with Belcher. I think academic writing could be vastly improved through the use of storytelling and narrative. I think one of the reasons so many articles are skipped and skimmed is because they are boring. Take a risk and include narrative and storytelling elements. Worse case the reviewers will tell you to remove it. Best case, you’ll have an article, thesis or dissertation that is much more widely read.
  • Blog structure – Here I agree with Belcher. They are informal and individualised. So not useful for academic writing. BUT they are useful for developing and testing your ideas. So, if you want to improve your writing and thinking – write blogs. It is free to do. You don’t need anyone’s permission, and you can do it anonymously too.
  • Mystery novel structure – the worst of all! Don’t bury the lede. Don’t hide the most important part of the article or thesis. If you want your work to be read and referenced, it needs to convey its usefulness within the first words people read. And that is the title, and maybe the abstract.

Reviewers won’t read your article or thesis in detail. Belcher encourages authors to write assuming people won’t be reading carefully (p. 363). Heck, I’m advocating people read articles out of order, so I should be advocating writing in a way that facilitates that reading approach. That means using headings and subheadings. And not just Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. But headings within those. Not to mention figure, and table titles that convey meaning too. And meaning is more than your data or your interpretation of your data. Meaning also includes the assumptions you made arriving at your conclusions.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He knows the challenges of implementing an awesome PhD program as well as what it takes to complete a PhD. He is passionate about the #pracademic applications of PhD training, not just the academic outcomes. He is driven by the challenge of making a PhD to in-depth knowledge and what an MBA is to Business.

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