Getting over Writer's Block Choosing a Topic The Need Finding a Focus References Home Page

Writing a Thesis: Getting started

One of the most difficult stages of any writing is getting started. As noted in a paper published by Research Consultation

"Many dissertation students struggle with writer's block while writing their dissertation or thesis. Writer's block can be extremely frustrating and can delay many students during the dissertation or thesis process." (Braunstein)

However it is worth remembering Mark Twain's thought that:

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking down complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."

Getting Past the Blank Page

Once an author has been able to put something onto the formidable blank page, they have made significant progress. In the case of a thesis or assignment essay, getting started may include deciding on a topic. If the topic is given to you, the problem is in the interpretation of the topic, since it is almost always true that the given topic can be viewed from more than one angle. Each viewpoint will give rise to a different focus with an aim and set of objectives that fit the focus. The conclusions and recommendations of each thesis can be expected to be different even when the topic is the same. On other occasions however, the topic is the personal choice of the researcher. Choosing a topic is a headache for many students, so where do they begin?

Choosing a Topic

The first and most important thing is that whatever subject is chosen it must be interesting to the researcher. Enthusiasm for the topic has a tendency to shine through all the writing to give the final product an extra glow. So ask yourself what is the most interesting topic that you've read about or studied. Is there a particular idea, within the general subject area, that poses an interesting question? Does the idea of the human interaction with the subject excite you? Does the subject have social or ethical implications that you would like to consider in more depth? After such an examination of interests, students frequently find that they have a choice of topics. The problem then is still choosing a thesis topic, but now instead of a blank start, it becomes a choice among apparent equals.

The need

There are a couple of things that must be true before a topic can be said to be a viable choice for a thesis. There must be a need and it must answer a question. Consider the following topics:

"How is the supply chain defined for retail industries? "

Research into this subject would answer the question asked, by definition. Would it satisfy any need? The answer must be that that is very unlikely. A library shelf could be filled with books answering the question. It needs to be more focussed.

" Are there any recommendation that can be made about the management of the supply chain of 'Small to Medium Enterprises" (SME's) in the retail sector that could be expected to help improve customer satisfaction? "

Now there is a question to answer, but there is also a need. It is highly likely that the management of a retail SME would find the answer useful.

Finding a Focus

Another consideration that can be noted in the last topic is that it has a real focus. The first topic was lacking in focus to such a degree that it would be possible to provide an almost unlimited number of answers to the question. The answer that a retailer selling second hand books in a corner shop would give to the question posed is a far cry from the answer that the Chief Executive of a multi-national superstore would give. Which part of the supply chain should we consider? What would the recommendations focus upon? Without such focus once again it would be possible to write enough to fill a library bookcase with answers.

There must be focus to ensure that the final report is not so vague that it has no audience. The research needs a client. In practice few researchers can find a real client to promote their work, but a virtual or potential client is sufficient in most cases.

As is the case in so many areas of life there are five W's and an H (What why Who Where When and How) that need answers. Without answers to these questions it is unlikely that the topic will meet all the necessary criteria of a good piece of research. These then are questions that you should ask yourself.

What is the real question that my research will answer? Every piece of research should explore, and attempt to answer, a reasonably challenging question of some academic worth.

Why is it needed? Even if the research answers a question, if it has no meaning in the real world, and is therefore not needed, it is probably not worth attempting. While some research is purely theoretical, answering only a highly academic need, the majority of research has to be applied and therefore answers a real-world need.

Who is it for? As has already been noted, there needs to be a client or some organisation that could benefit.

Where would it be useful? Is there a focus within the topic area, or is it too vague to be worthwhile?

How will the product be provided? What is the end result and what form will this take? Every thesis, assignment or dissertation has an end product. This can be obvious, e.g. a piece of software in the case of a Computing project, or a new concept model in the case of a design project. However there are other times when the only product is a report complete with recommendations.

When will it be complete? The project is only complete when the product is delivered, in an appropriate form. It must be remembered though, that the final research report must cover the product and the project material. The project material includes such areas as the literature review and research methods.

Other sources of information covering this area can easily be found through a suitable internet search. A useful paper, covering the writing of a thesis statement, is part of a series of student aids produced by Dartmouth College (Dartmouth).


Braunstein J. W. 'Simple Strategies for Overcoming Writer's Block' Simple Strategies Vol 1. No3. 2004 [online] available at
<http://www.> [13-09-11]

Dartmouth 'Developing your Thesis' Dartmouth College USA [online], available at
<http://> [13-09-11]

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