Home > Articles

Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation: Getting Started

Need to get started on your dissertation? This chapter discusses strategies for beginning the writing process and suggests ways of avoiding the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.
This chapter is from the book
  • “What?” thought the Emperor. “I see nothing at all. This is terrible! Am I a fool? Am I not fit to be Emperor? Why, nothing worse could happen to me!” ... And he nodded his satisfaction as he gazed at the empty loom. Nothing would induce him to say that he could not see anything.

    —“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Andersen’s Fairy Tales

WHAT DOES THE STORY of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” have to do with the purpose of this book, which is to help graduate students write theses or dissertations? In the well-known tale, two swindlers arrive at the Emperor’s palace, claiming that their cloth is invisible to anyone who is stupid or unfit for his job. The reality, of course, is that the cloth doesn’t exist. The swindlers pretend to spin, but they are actually spinning nothing at all, well aware that few people, even the Emperor, will be brave enough to acknowledge that they can’t see anything. Similarly, many graduate students, uncertain about what a thesis/dissertation is supposed to accomplish and having only a vague idea about how to write one, are afraid to acknowledge their uncertainty, fearing that they will be judged unworthy and unfit for graduate school. Insecurity is the reason some students, like the Emperor and others in the palace, sometimes pretend to understand what for them may be a mysterious undertaking. They ask few questions and begin the process of searching for a topic and drafting a proposal without a clear sense of purpose. Many have only a general notion of a topic they may like to explore, are unaware of what is involved in transforming a broad subject area into a workable thesis/dissertation topic, and have little idea of what a proposal is supposed to look like. Anxiety causes some students to avoid writing as long as possible, engaging in extensive reading and note-taking as an avoidance strategy or procrastinating in other ways. Some develop writing blocks, even if they have never had difficulty writing in other situations.

What graduate students should also realize is that professors rarely receive formal training in teaching writing or in supervising students in research. Presumably, students are supposed to figure things out on their own through a sort of intellectual osmosis between academic minds. Some are able to find an advisor who is concerned about teaching and is aware of students’ inexperience in undertaking a large project such as a thesis or dissertation. But many students are not so fortunate.

This book provides theoretical and practical insights into the process of developing a topic, drafting a proposal, and developing it into an effective thesis/dissertation. It also addresses practical issues, such as taking notes, selecting an advisor, and working with a departmental committee. Having worked with graduate students from a variety of disciplines, I have developed a number of approaches to thesis/dissertation writing that students will find helpful. Most important, I have learned that when students understand that scholarly work involves interacting with the ideas in an academic community and that a thesis/dissertation involves entering the conversations of that community, they are able to write with less difficulty.

This chapter discusses strategies for beginning the writing process and suggests ways of avoiding the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.

Difficulties Associated with Writing in Graduate School

The fact that so many students experience difficulty in writing a thesis or dissertation can be traced to a number of misconceptions about the preparation graduate students receive before they begin and about the nature of the task itself. Other factors contributing to student anxiety include the entrenched elitism associated with writing a culminating work and unrealistic expectations for originality.

Graduate Student Preparation

Although considerable scholarship has been published over the past 25 years about the “process” of helping undergraduate students learn to write, little attention has been devoted to the writing tasks graduate students face. Hence, a number of outdated and mistaken notions about graduate student writing ability exist:

  • Graduate students write well enough to develop a thesis/dissertation proposal without further instruction in writing.
  • A thesis/dissertation is similar to other papers students have written.
  • Previous coursework adequately prepares students for writing a thesis/dissertation—that is, students who have successfully written seminar papers will, with relatively little difficulty, proceed through the thesis/dissertation process, from proposal, to draft, to polished document.

These misconceptions are counterproductive to developing an effective working relationship between a student and his or her advisor during the process of developing and writing a thesis/dissertation because they set up unrealistic expectations for students and minimize the role of the advisor. Most advisors are genuinely concerned with helping students, but they may not know how to teach writing, particularly the writing of a long scholarly work such as a thesis/dissertation. As a result, although advisors may have little difficulty identifying (or complaining about) inadequacies in a thesis/dissertation, they often do not define its rhetorical goals and genre requirements for their students. Perhaps they have not consciously articulated these goals and requirements for themselves; maybe they feel that they shouldn’t have to do so. Graduate school is associated with a lingering elitism in which students deemed intellectually “worthy” are those select few who can discern on their own what is regarded as acceptable. More commonly, though, students begin the process of writing a thesis/dissertation without a clear idea of its generic expectations—what it is intended to “do,” what it is supposed to “look like,” and what the established members of the discourse community are expecting it to “be.”

Moreover, a number of advisors seem to expect students to know intuitively what is required of them because, if they don’t know, they shouldn’t have been admitted to graduate school in the first place. This is the legacy that has generated the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.

Distrust of Collaborative Writing

Graduate student insecurity associated with writing a thesis/dissertation is partly due to the emphasis in the academic world on the importance of “originality,” which is strongly associated with the idea of an autonomous writer working alone (usually in a garret). This legacy of the romantic tradition has persisted, despite the endorsement in composition scholarship of collaborative learning as a means of helping individual writers learn to write. The academy continues to endorse the idea of the solitary author and tacitly supports the assumption that, as Rebecca Moore Howard observes, “some writers are born with ‘the gift.’ The others can only be socialized not to make fools of themselves when writing—and to revere the writing of the truly gifted” (35). How many of us believe we have this “gift?” My guess is that a lot more of us think that a few others may have it but that we, ourselves, do not. We may consider ourselves hard workers but not original thinkers—and this belief generates insecurity.

Misconceptions of “Originality”

The idea that a thesis/dissertation must be truly “original” can stifle your ability to write because you will find yourself waiting for inspiration to strike, which is likely to be a long, lonely vigil. And yet, what is known about the creation of original works is that they often build upon the works of others, with inspiration occurring within the context of an established tradition or form. An important way to think about creativity is that it can exist only within the context of a particular genre and that a thorough understanding of and familiarity with a genre is a prerequisite for working creatively with it. Thus, Mozart’s achievement in the sonata form can be understood as an outgrowth from an established tradition—that is, Mozart had to work extensively within the sonata form before he was able to create an “original” version of it. Similarly, Picasso had to have developed competence in traditional forms and colors before he could create the visual juxtapositions associated with his “original” style. And Charles Darwin, who is reputed to have “originated” the theory of evolution, was working at a time when many other scientists were exploring this same direction. An “original” work often builds on works that are less “original”—and this is certainly the case in the academy.

On the other hand, if you are from a non-English-speaking country or culture, as many graduate students are, your notions of originality may differ. In some cultures, imitation and emulation are privileged over original work, and it is sometimes the case that students incorporate the work of others into their own work too closely. Then they may find themselves accused of plagiarizing, when their intent was simply to show respect for someone else’s work. The concept of originality is tricky, so I suggest that you think about it in the context of your particular discipline and raise it as a point of conversation with your advisor and other students.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020