Eco’s “How to Write a Thesis” in 15 Maxims

March 24th, 2015 by Christian

(or, Thesis Advice, Click-Bait Style)

Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco released How to Write a Thesis in 1977, well before his rise to international intellectual stardom. It has just been released in English for the first time by MIT Press. I’ve just read it.

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I was thinking of assigning it in doctoral seminars, but I regret that a great deal of the book involves scholarly practices that are no longer relevant to anyone. For instance: Is it OK to insert an unnecessary footnote in the middle of your text so that your footnote numbering matches up correctly with what you’ve already typed? (Meaning: So you don’t have to re-type the entire manuscript. On a typewriter.)

It turns out that it is not OK to insert unnecessary footnotes.

And there’s a whole bunch of things about index card management, diacritical marks, and library union indices. And some stuff about the laurea.

However, even if I do not find the book relevant to assign as a whole, Eco’s great wit and strong opinions did lead me to compile the best quotes from the book. I present them to you here:

Eco’s 15 Maxims for PhD Students:

From How to Write a Thesis [1977/2015], selected by me. These are slightly paraphrased to make them work in a list. I hope you like them as much as I did.

  1. Academic humility is the knowledge that anyone can teach us something. Practice it.
  2. A thesis is like a chess game that requires a player to plan in advance all the moves he will make to checkmate his opponent.
  3. How long does it take to write a thesis? No longer than three years and no less than six months.
  4. Imagine that you have a week to take a 600-mile car trip. Even if you are on vacation, you will not leave your house and begin driving indiscriminately in a random direction. A provisional table of contents will function as your work plan.
  5. You must write a thesis that you are able to write.
  6. Your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset, not to show the breadth of your knowledge.
  7. What you should never do is quote from an indirect source pretending that you have read the original.
  8. Quote the object of your interpretive analysis with reasonable abundance.
  9. Use notes to pay your debts.
  10. You should not become so paranoid that you believe you have been plagiarized every time a professor or another student addresses a topic related to your thesis.
  11. If you read the great scientists or the great critics you will see that, with a few exceptions, they are quite clear and are not ashamed of explaining things well.
  12. You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences.
  13. The language of a thesis is a metalanguage, that is, a language that speaks of other languages. A psychiatrist who describes the mentally ill does not express himself in the manner of his patients.
  14. If you do not feel qualified, do not defend your thesis.
  15. Do not whine and be complex-ridden, because it is annoying.

 

2 Responses to “Eco’s “How to Write a Thesis” in 15 Maxims”

  1. Multicast (@niftyc) breaks down Eco’s guide to writing a thesis | Urban ethics and theory Says:

    […] Sandvig notes that Eco’s witty and direct advice is helpful in other ways, and he boils down Eco’s advice to 15 maxims. Go read. […]

  2. roehampton dance ma dissertation 2015 Says:

    […] via http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/niftyc/archives/1024 […]

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