Eco, Umberto. How to write a thesis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. xxxvi, 229 pp. ISBN 978-0-262 52713 2 £13.95

The cover picture of the author seated before a typewriter on an book-strewn desk is appropriate, as this book is the first translation of the latest edition of the original Italian edition published in 1985, before the proliferation of desk-top computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web. I imagine that, unless Eco is the kind of traditionalist who rejects all of modernity (which I doubt), he is now seated in front of his computer, using a word-processor and surfing the Web for information.

In reviewing this book, I am torn between recommending it for the excellent advice provided by Eco, and rejecting it because his instructions on how to compile and maintain a file of references are now so archaic as to be positively prehistoric: well, pre-Web in any event. In the end, I come down to recommending it, although not perhaps for everyone, because his advice is sound, however outdated some of it might be.

How to write a thesis, was written to guide students wishing to complete their laurea by writing the required thesis. The laurea was, before the introduction of the PhD equivalent in the 1980s, the highest degree awarded in Italy, following four to six years of course work and completion by the thesis, which could take anywhere from six months to two or three years. The duration of the process meant that a significant proportion of students never actually completed their degree. Since the introduction of the Bologna process in Europe, the laurea is now the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree. A thesis is still required, but of a less-demanding nature than the original.

The advice offered by Eco can be taken as applicable to a Master’s degree thesis, but much is also relevant to the writer of a doctoral thesis. The main area of application, given Eco’s interests, is the humanities, but topics in the social sciences are mentioned and Eco discusses the choice between a political and a scientific thesis in the social sciences, noting how this distinction arose:

After the student protests in 1968, a widespread opinion emerged that students should write a thesis that is linked to political and social interests rather than on 'cultural' or bookish topics. (p. 26)

and going on to argue that there is no reason why such a political thesis should not, at the same time, be scientific, arguing that, In fact a political thesis can observe all the rules necessary for scientific validity (p. 31).

In seven chapters, Eco defines the purpose of the thesis; explains how to choose a topic; gives advice on conducting the research and adopting a work plan and index cards for the collection of references and ideas; provides guidance on writing the thesis and producing the final draft; and, in the conclusion, makes two observations, encapsulated as, First, writing a thesis should be fun. Second, 'writing a thesis is like cooking a pig: nothing goes to waste'. (p. 221)

As this quotation suggests, Eco’s writing is far from dry, dusty and formulaic; he writes with wit and verve, carrying the reader along on his own enthusiasm for the research process. Any research supervisor will recognize the value of the advice given in the first two chapters, on the purpose of the thesis and the choice of topic. I imagine that most supervisors, like I, have had the occasional student who wants to write an encyclopaedia, rather than a thesis, and have struggled to get the student to refine the topic again and again, until it is something that can actually be accomplished in the time available. Given that the laurea thesis was usually completed after the student had finished all course work and, in many cases, already had a job, the question of time available was usually in his or her own hands. For the modern Master’s thesis the time available is usually dictated by the university and often is completed within a one-year Master’s degree programme (although outside the UK, in the rest of Europe, the Master’s degree is usually of two years' duration, thereby fully satisfying the Bologna requirements).

The applicability of the section on bibliographical research and the chapter on the work plan has been affected by the technological developments in personal computing and the existence of the Internet and the World Wide Web. In spite of this, however, I would argue that maintaining one’s reference list on index cards has much to recommend it, although Eco’s rules for bibliographical references are now likely to have been replaced by a requirement to use the Chicago Manual of Style, the Oxford Style Manual, “Turabian”, or the APA 6th edition.

Why would I advise cards? First, because it is much easier to manipulate a handful of cards, sorting them into different orders for different purposes, for example, than it is to do the same thing with, say an EndNote file. For example, one may colour code the cards by the intended chapter to which they relate and select only those references to have at hand when working on a chapter. Secondly, when handling the cards one is regularly reminded that some references are incomplete, or one may have found a reference in a text, which subsequently proves to be inaccurate in some respect, for example, as regards the date of publication or the authors' names. Discovering these shortcomings can prompt their correction, whereas it is easy to forget to do this when the file is a computer file. Thirdly, and allied to the first two, the physicality of the card file and the continuous interaction between sources of information and the references we extract, means that the process is “embodied” and, as a result, I would suggest, we are more likely to remember what we have found. Of course, once the reference file has been completed and corrected, it is entirely sensible to enter it into a bibliographical software program, such as EndNote.

Eco also suggest two other tools for the research process, the readings index card and the ideas index card. The former Eco describes as the most indispensable:

These are where you precisely annotate all the references contained in a book or article, transcribe key quotes, record your evaluation, and append other observations. (p. 126)

Examples are given of such cards, which are larger than the bibliographical index card. Today, I think that these could be replaced by the note program of any laptop or tablet computer: the Notes program that comes with Apple's OSX and iOS, for example, or Microsoft’s OneNote, which is available for Apple’s devices as well as for the PC. If, however, one is not too happy about working in this way, there could still be virtue in using large index cards for the readings index.

The ideas index card tells us what it is; the cards you use to record ideas about the thesis, topics to develop, theoretical notions that occur, and so on. Again, cards can be replaced by the notes program and the search capacity of the program may be very useful when you recall an idea you had, but can’t remember exactly how you categorised or named it.

The advice contained in Chapter 5, Writing the thesis, is excellent and I cannot recommend too strongly that anyone writing an academic text, whether a thesis or a journal paper, should take it to heart and follow the author’s suggestions. His advice is, essentially, to write clearly, succinctly, avoiding jargon and literary style. The first instruction is that you should not seek to emulate Proust in writing long sentences and, later, do not write long paragraphs. Your aim it to have the examiners (and others, if your thesis is published) understand your aims, methods and arguments, not to be a clever exponent of someone else’s style. Beyond this, there is advice on quotations and footnotes and on academic pride:

On your specific topic, you are humanity’s functionary who speaks in the collective voice. Be humble and prudent before opening your mouth, but once you open it, be dignified and proud. (p. 183)

The penultimate chapter, The final draft, is presented as typewritten text, and is intended to show the final structure of the thesis, providing not a thesis text but instructions on the process of producing the final draft, including information on copy-editing and the symbols used to convey to the typist the required corrections. This is probably redundant for the modern researcher, since he or she is most likely to be producing the final text using a word-processor.

It is a pity there is no index to the book: was this the case, I wonder, with the original Italian edition? Given Eco’s interest in and enthusiasm for indexes of various kind, I find it difficult to understand why he would omit an index to his own book.

This is a small price to pay, however, for the rest of the book is well worth reading, and, for the student, well worth having to hand. One would not wish to support one of Eco’s recommendations, however. He advises those who wish to write a thesis in a month either to pay someone to do it, or copy a thesis from another, preferably small and remote, university! He notes that both of these acts are illegal,

They are desperate acts. We give this paradoxical advice to emphasise that this book does not attempt to resolve the serious and temporal and financial problems that many university students currently face.

Under no circumstance can these be seen as advice to be followed and it has been suggested to me that Eco is joking. If so, it is not a very good joke, especially when repeated later in the book and, given the extent to which the supervisory process is monitored in these days of research assessment, either strategy would be likely to fail. Perhaps we can assume, now that the laurea thesis is less demanding, the need to take either of these options is reduced.

Professor Tom Wilson
April, 2015