Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Thesis writing: getting started

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It is very important to make your thesis look readable. The quality of your writing determines how readable it actually is, but if your text is presented in a sloppy fashion you may lose your reader early on and struggle to engage them again. Your material is going to be technical and quite tricky to follow. It is your job to make the communication of your work as painless to the reader as possible.

LaTeX – nerdy at first, seamless after a while

I use LaTeX to typeset my thesis. There is a lot already written about LaTeX on web, so I won’t bother with that. The main difference is that you use ‘tags’ or ‘markup’ to create formatting. LaTeX documents are plain text files which contain instructions for the LaTeX program. You then tell the LaTeX program to convert those instructions into the finished document. Formatting is no longer your direct responsibility. Want a heading? Just write \section{Title}. LaTeX will format it accordingly. It takes a while to get your head around. I learned it over a few days while I was on placement at the Met Office in 2009, and have barely used a wordprocessor since. I use LaTeX for typesetting proper documents and plain text for everything else.

The main advantage of LaTeX is that images don’t madly jump around the page like they do in wordprocessors, and there is a facility, called BibTeX, which makes referencing and creating bibliographies a breeze. Seriously. It is so much better than anything else out there. I use Mendeley to generate my reference list which slots straight into my LaTeX files. It’s beautiful. There are also plenty of LaTeX thesis templates out there. Here in the Department of Meteorology PhD students ‘inherit’ thesis templates and make their own modifications. There are a few floating around, each with their own distinct lineage. The one I use has a very elegant structure, with files for each chapter kept separately. It’s quite nerdy, and actually typestting it involves running a custom-written program which does all sorts of complicated stuff, but the outcome is pleasant.

The blank page

Now onto the more difficult point: how to actually get started writing. There has been so much written about the terror of the blank page that I feel this might be a little superfluous. Nevertheless I might be able to offer a few comments.

When I get the ‘blank page fear’, it is because I have not planned what I am going to say. Work that out first. What’s your goal? If you don’t have one, don’t write anything just yet. You will have no idea what to write until you have an idea of what to say. When you are talking to people about complicated things your speech will become more measured. In informal conversation words just come to you, but when it gets important, words have to be carefully selected. The same thing has to happen with your writing. Work out what you need to communicate first. Draw arrows around your concept map so you have a sense of what you’re going to write about first and how that leads to the next thing.

When you do start, you will feel tentative. It is the same feeling as when there is a long silence in a conversation and the silence becomes quite tangible. You will be reluctant to break that silence and your first words will be halting. You will tempted to write something like ‘One of the most important things…’ or ‘There are many factors contributing to…’. This is dull. If you are telling me this in your first sentence I already know it is going to be an important factor. So by all means start like this to get things flowing, but you may want to go back and revise it to something more vigorous.

Vigorous openings – an example

One argument for geoengineering research (though not necessarily deployment) is that there may come a time when deployment will be preferable to any other option. If mitigation efforts continue to fail and the threat of climate change is severe, the risks associated with SRM deployment may become preferable to the risks of unmitigated climate change.

Today I improved this opening couple of sentences by making the first bit a lot stronger.

Geoengineering research is justifiable only if a situation can be conceived of when deployment is a desirable option. The ‘arm the future’ argument for research (though not necessarily deployment) is that is would be prudent to investigate the full range of possible policy response to climate change, in case there comes a time when deployment is preferable to other options.

Weak, tentative prose comes from a mind lacking confidence. Practice by looking at examples of your writing and thinking about ways to make it more direct and assertive. Then apply it. I will write more about vigorous prose in a later post, but for now let me say that Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is most useful. It is a concise collection of examples of how to make written English more readable. The precise rules aren’t important. The overall effect, driven by the examples of good and bad English, is vital.

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Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

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