begin as you mean to go on #wakeupreader

Your average doctoral thesis is about the same length as a fat airport novel, but nowhere near as racy.

We could/should ask whether a thesis ought to be as riveting as a whodunnit or chick lit.  And we’d probably conclude that a thesis couldn’t be a riveting read in the same way as a novel. But a thesis could be enjoyable. It could be good read.

If you want to write the thesis that the examiner wants  and loves to read, then you  will benefit from consciously learning about writing, and practicing what you learn. And keeping on learning and practicing. Learning/practicing the craft of writing can be/ought to be integral to academic life.

Learning about writing means learning about your tools. Writers  use linguistic tools either mindlessly and routinely, or with a sense of writerly craft. And  there are very few writing tools as important as the sentence. Why a sentence? Well, it’s the basic building block of your thesis and all subsequent and allied writing.

A thesis is not accomplished through words alone. A word count does not a thesis make. The thesis depends on stringing the words together – in sentences – and then building up the sentences in a logical and pleasing order. So it pays to know a bit about sentences as they are what you use to construct, well, all things thesis.

Understanding sentences is a strategy for developing control of your writing. It’s not about using recipes and rules. Here is a good sentence and here is  a bad one. NO. Learning about controlling sentences is about drafting, and then revising. It’s about you being a writer.

One of the things to look for when revising at the sentence level is how the sentences actually start. What does the reader come across sentence after sentence? Well, the first thing the reader sees is how the sentence begins.

The most common way to begin sentences goes like this – thing + action. Subject followed by a verb.

Active voice – The researcher had written several pages.

Passive voice – Several pages were written by the researcher.

These are the default sentences structures of academic writing, and they get a fair old outing in a thesis. It’s not uncommon to read pages of literature review which go something like

Jones argued that.. He suggested that.. He produced evidence to the effect… He concluded that…

Or pages of methods writing which go

Quantitative research is defined as…. It allows the researcher to… The researcher must… Qualitative research on the other hand requires…. The researcher always

Too much of this subject + verb structure and the reader, be they examiner or supervisor, ends up reaching for a real airport novel. However, there is good news. The basic subject + verb sentence structure can be varied without too much effort.


So what do you do?  Well, you might add a bit more information.

As in.. The researcher had written several pages and this surprised her. 

But the basic subject + verb structure remains. But see what happens when you you simply reverse the sentence order.

 To her surprise, the researcher had written several pages.

A little bit of variety painlessly added. So adding ‘stuff’ to a sentence doesn’t necessarily mean adding a conjunction and another idea. You can change the way the sentence begins.

Within an hour or so, the researcher had written several pages. (This sentence starts with a prepositional phrase)

And a sentence beginning can also help carry an argument forward.

However, the researcher had written several pages. (This sentence starts with a transitional term which makes a strong connection to a previous sentence. You can probably imagine what came before. She stopped writing at ten o’clock, convinced she had done almost nothing. )

 You can easily put pertinent information at the sentence start.

Although she felt that she had done nothing, the researcher had written several pages.  (This sentence begins with an introductory clause)

These are all fairly common ways of adding a bit of variety to sentence beginnings, as well as extra information.

But these are not the only way to kick off a good sentence. For instance, the occasional rhetorical question can be useful.

How much had the researcher written? A few pages within an hour or so, far more than she had expected.

You can use an infinitive to create a need for further information.

To understand her surprising productivity, the researcher compared today’s several pages with yesterday’s one.

You might also consider – albeit carefully as these are tricky to use without sounding  very awkward – how you might use

a participial phrase –  Her fingers racing, the researcher wrote several pages in a few hours

a beginning adjective – Surprised, the researcher began to look for reasons why she had written several pages so quickly.

a beginning adverb – Surprisingly,  she had written several pages very quickly.

This is not the end of the sentence beginning possibilities.  You will find even more in books and websites about writing in English.

I reckon it’s a good idea to keep an eye on sentence beginnings when you read something particularly well written; check out what experienced /clever writers do. You might also write yourself a little cheat sheet of sentence beginnings which you have to hand when you are revising. (I’m not a great fan of cheat sheets because I think they make the process of writing somewhat mechanical, but I know some people do find them helpful.)

Once you get the hang of sentence starter options, it’s easy to read through a first draft looking at the way each sentence starts off. Just print off a copy of your chapter and highlight the first few words of each sentence.  Then look for any pattern that you have inadvertently created.

If you find that you have great long stretches of subject + verb – zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz – then you are in a good place. It’s no disaster to find same-ish sentence beginnings in a first draft. It’s helpful. You know what to do. You can now consider how you might strategically intervene  in this textual monotony with a few syntactical variations. While this won’t be a lot of work, and it may not fix all of your prose problems, you may be surprised how much simply changing sentence beginnings can lift, lighten and enliven your academic writing.

And as you revise, just keep the airport in mind. After all, examiners often read a thesis in an airport, on a plane or train. They need to be kept awake and reading.

And an aside.

One of the best ways to get your head around syntax is to play with your sentences. Play. Yes, play. With no particular goal in mind. Take a few problematic sentences and cut them up so that you have something that looks like magnetic fridge poetry. Rearrange the pieces in multiple ways so that you can see what different structures can do for them, and you.

Make haiku. Invent a limerick. Write a ransom note. Play.

A spare hour or so of word play  can do a great deal for  your control of the sentence beginning, and your confidence in syntactical manipulation.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in revision, revision strategy, sentence beginnings, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to begin as you mean to go on #wakeupreader

  1. Pingback: academic sentences -#wakeupreader | patter

  2. Tawnie says:

    Dear Professor Thomson,
    As your advice in this article, if apply this to a thesis, whether it will be acceptable as academic writing. Could you please give some advice how to tone this in writing a thesis. Thank you.


  3. Tawnie, I think Pat makes a great point, it does apply to academic writing. I read Helen Sword’s book, Stylish Academic Writing, and she makes the same point. Great writers started in grad school writing well, with style and interest. They didn’t write dry, boring text and then after they were hired start writing well. I suggest the book. It is worth the money. And keep reading Patter too!


  4. Pingback: Academic sentences -#wakeupreader |

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