How To Write A Thesis, by Umberto Eco
In many ways, this charming and relatively short guide to how to write a thesis is somewhat obsolete in that it was written in an age of card catalogs before word processing and internet research. By no means would I recommend that someone who actually wanted advice on how to write a contemporary thesis read this book, except to gain background information on the timeless aspects of writing and research, such as choosing a sufficiently narrow scope that one can simultaneously fulfill the ambitions of completely researching a topic while simultaneously doing so within the scope of time and writing that one wants to spend, which is highly limited. Eco is humorous and tells some stories of his own experience writing and also asks the right sort of questions that should prompt the reader to ponder what exactly they are seeking from their research and what they want to accomplish in writing a thesis. These are, of course, questions that it is worthwhile to ask no matter what technology one uses to write a thesis, as there is a certain set of rigorous research habits that allow one to be a successful scholar, though it takes much time and effort to acquire such skills.
This slim volume of a bit more than 200 pages is divided into seven chapters and numerous smaller sections that give the author’s advice on how to write a thesis, written for an Italian audience in the late 1970’s originally. The book begins with a foreword, a translator’s foreword, and introductions to the 1977 and 1985 editions of the book. After that the author begins with the definition and the purpose of the thesis (1). After that the author discusses various concerns that come with choosing the topic of a thesis, including the genre of the thesis as monograph or survey (2). The author then gives some advice about conducting research based on the availability of sources as well as how to research in a library in the 1970’s and 1980’s (3). There is a then a discussion of the work plan, which is heavy on the use of index cards (4). After that the author gives advice on writing the thesis including the use of quotations and footnotes (5). There is then a discussion of writing the final draft of the thesis (6), after which the author offers some conclusions (7) and then provides a series of notes.
Admittedly, a great deal of this book is certainly archaic if not obsolete given contemporary ways of researching and writing theses that are not discussed here. That said, this book is still full of good advice that is important for young scholars to recognize. For example, the author gives humorous advice about buying a thesis for those who are unable or unwilling to do the work while also instructing the reader not to be exploited by one’s thesis adviser. The author also discusses the thorny problem of expertise in foreign languages that is necessary to conduct some research. What is particularly humorous about the book is the author’s own stories about his own research and how he gave credit to an obscure (and not very creative writer) who ended up being able to inspire him to make a leap of intuition that he might not have made otherwise, even if the book he was reading did not show that particular leap being made in the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, the subject of the author’s own thesis. To be sure, this particular book is aimed at an academic market, and was originally aimed at the niche market of working-to-middle class Italian graduate students of the 70’s and 80’s, but it is certainly of interest to other readers.