Managing Writing

At this point, you should be making some good progress towards the work that will ultimately become your actual thesis document, and you may be starting to get a little anxious to start actually WRITING something. You have been using your calendar to manage your time, your outline to manage your content, and Evernote to manage your materials.

Now it is time to start to focus on your writing process. There are several things that we need to do to get prepared for this and make it a manageable process. Remember, the goal here is to find ways to break down a project that at first seems insurmountable into smaller pieces and a process that is doable — Mind like water.

Before we jump into writing, we need to do a bit of prep work. We are going to need to do some planning, tool set-up, and some goal setting.

Setting your Writing Goals

As I’ve stated previously, the goal of our system is to continually be breaking down the task of doing the thesis process in manageable chunks. When we are looking at other people’s finished theses and seeing 200 page documents, it is still too overwhelming. There is too much psychological friction to the idea of being able to do that much.

We are in luck though because there is yet another level to how formulaic the thesis is. While different sources vary by a few percentage points, all that I found, along with all the thesis documents I have personally inspected, seem to hover right around these marks.

  • Introduction – 5%
  • Background – 20%
  • Methodology – 15%
  • Results & Analysis – 45%
  • Synthesis – 15%

I needed to put this into a more measurable goals so that I could track, and see my progress when it came to writing. So what I did was I found two theses from the recent past in the department and counted their words. I found one that seemed pretty short but accomplished the task, and one that was pretty long compared to most of the others. I downloaded the PDFs from the library’s database. I copied from the title of the first chapter to the last word of the last chapter and pasted that into two respective word-processor documents, then ran the word count function. This also helped control for differing amounts of images, formatting choices, etc… that just counting pages would not have.

What I found was that the Short Thesis was just shy of 17,000 words and the Long Thesis just crossed over the 47,000 word mark. This gave me a range to work within. Under-achievers (yet successful) write 17,000 words… over-achievers write 47,000 words.

Now it was a simple math game to get me going on some more concrete goals. I somewhat arbitrarily set 30,000 words as my total word goal for my first draft of my thesis. I figured that I have always been a bit of an over-achiever, I am a pretty good writer, but there is no reason to break the mold here. 30,000 words seemed like a length I could be proud of. You can set your mark where you want. You are the one that has to be happy with the outcome. I will use the 30,000 word goal for my examples though, as I already did this math and it was sitting in my Evernote account for easy reference.

With 30,000 words as my goal, the math game played out like this:

  • Introduction: 1500 words – Easy peasy lemon squeesy! In 12pt double spaced Times New Roman, this is just a little over six pages. We have all written six pages before, sometimes even on topics we know very little about. You are going to know A LOT about your thesis topic.
  • Background: 6,000 words – Just shy of 25 pages, spread between at least 2, maybe 3 chapters, certainly manageable.
  • Methodology: 4500 words – 18 1/2 pages, a good chance that this will be one chapter, but it will predominantly be a rehashing of everything you will have prepared for your IRB Proposal. When it comes time to write, the first draft of this chapter will already be extremely close thanks to the IRB.
  • Results & Analysis: 13,500 words – about 56 pages. I will give it to you. This one still seems pretty big, but remember, this will be once again spread out over probably 3 chapters. That is less than 19 pages per chapter. Reminder, we are talking double spaced pages too! Single spaced, this would only be less than 10 pages per chapter. That is a bit of a mind game, but 10 pages is once again… easy peasy!
  • Synthesis (Discussion & Conclusions): 4500 words – 18 1/2 pages. I guarantee that by the time you get to this phase of writing you will know so much, have discovered so much, that your biggest challenge will be keeping your writing DOWN in this range. You will hit 4500 words and think to yourself “Oh Snap! I haven’t even touched on three of my key ideas yet.”

Word Count vs. Page Count

I have just been giving you page counts to help you visualize the word counts. I want to clarify this because most of us are not really accustomed to thinking in word counts, but I STRONGLY believe that word counts are a much better way to set your writing goals. Pages are malleable. You put a couple nice charts or figures in a chapter and your page count goes up automatically. You set your type in a different typeface, page count changes. You know this. You’ve done this. Your history prof wants a ten-page paper… but has not specified the font. You know she probably expects Times New Roman. You write and write and then you have nothing left. You look down and you’ve barely broke the 9 page mark. Select all, VERDANA… BAM! Ten pages. Done. But look at that word count. You wrote 2300 words! That is why we set writing goals in word counts and not page counts. Page counts mean nothing.

These word counts will become more important and more refined as your outline develops and when we get to the writing portion ahead. So do this math for your total word count goal and write it down somewhere. Ideally, you will create a new note for these goals in Evernote and put it in your zz.Admin notebook. It will be safe there and we will reference it again very shortly.

Writing Software

Now you need a tool to help you write. You could use a pencil or pen I suppose. If this is your preferred option… umm go for it and I apologize, because I am sure that this entire site has been a complete bore for you. I would not recommend pen or pencil as your primary writing tool.

Ten-to-one, you are going to want to use a word-processor program of some sort. A word processor is a computer application used for the production of any sort of printable material.

There are lots of options here. LOTS. The big three though tend to be:

  • MS Word on Windows or Mac. You all know this one. You are probably currently planning on using this app, and I fully understand why you might be. Word has made itself the so to speak “Gold-Standard” of Word Processors. That stated, I hate MS Word. It is a ridiculously large, bloated application and because there are so many versions out there, when I USED word, I always ran into issues with compatibility. Your milage may vary, but I am going to tell you not to use it and I am sorry that you spent $140 on this application.
  • Pages on Mac and iOS. This is my go to for shorter documents. If you are running Mac OS and only planning on a straight-forward piece of writing that is less than, lets say about 10 pages, it is great. It has all the features you need and very few of the ones you do not. I am a Mac fanboy though too, so there is that.
  • Open Office is the big one on Linux, but also a cult following on Mac and Windows. I like its politics of being Open Source, but in my experience it can be a little buggy at times.

There are a lot of others out there and because I am really nerdy about these sorts of things I have used many at one point or another. Especially when you start bringing iOS into the mix, there are many more options to consider and I use other things for other purposes.  They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I am emphasizing how much I tinker with word processors and text editors only so that you believe me when I state that there is really only one application that I would recommend using for complex, really long-form writing like your thesis.

You need Scrivener (

Why Scrivener? ->