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How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco

How to Write a Thesis (1977)

by Umberto Eco

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This slim volume is a gem of a writing book. Umberto Eco takes would-be thesis writers through the steps of choosing a thesis topic, conducting research, creating a work plan, and actually writing a thesis. Throughout the text he offers dry witticisms and sage advice for anyone interested in academic research. Though I haven't been a student for many years, I enjoyed reading the advice of someone who has clearly seen all forms of thesis and students. It made me nostalgic for my own students days, and wistful that I didn't have this book at that time. In the era of computers and the Internet, a book that gives advice on using typewriters may seem out of date. Indeed there are elements that are no longer applicable in the 21st century. However, what this book excels at is reminding the reader of the value of deep seated learning and research—research that you owned and poured your soul into. Eco's system of note cards may seem antiquated, but I can't help but feel copying quotations down by hand, and meticulously putting together bibliography cards can help even the most high-tech of today's writers crystallise his or her thoughts. ( )
  mmcdwl | Sep 22, 2015 |
Reading How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco, even an ‘updated’ version in this MIT Press edition, felt like a sweet exercise in futility. There’s something folksy and quaint about being told how to put notes on index cards and properly organize them and being given tips for using the library and talking to librarians. (Not too surprising, as Eco wrote this in the late seventies—almost forty years ago!) But with over twenty-three editions and countless translations, there’s something to be said about this just-won’t-die thesis-writing guide. It endures, even in a world of Dropbox and Evernote and Endnote and online style guides and, of course, the oracle of information—the internet.

The reason for this is that Eco’s book actually has a lot more to say to people outside of academia, to those no longer writing long tracts of academic esoterica or using words like ‘juxtaposition,’ ‘asymmetricality,’ or ‘reconfigurations’ in everyday writing.

How to Write a Thesis could be easily re-titled ‘How to Live a More Realized Life’ or something along those lines—tongue-in-cheek, of course, as this is Eco and despite all the rhapsody in his prose is actually quite funny. What Eco’s classic tome gives us is the kind of advice you might get from an inspiring college graduation speech. It resonates with wisdom about being more curious, about being more engaged in the world—which is wonderful advice, especially for those who stand on the precipice of maturity, where on one side is youthful idealism and optimism still, and on the other side, lingering over the horizon, is the embittered resignation and indifference of...middle age? Just because you’re not a hot young thing in your twenties anymore doesn’t mean you can’t experience that revelatory process of discovery in other aspects of life.

Eco takes on the usual mechanics of the thesis-writing process—coming up with the right research question; outlining; collating notes—and expands on it so that it becomes a jumping off point to exploring the notions of creativity, originality, and attribution. There is a section on developing core ideas and then using those ideas to explore more peripheral ideas; often, the true thrust of a thesis comes in those minor works and footnotes. I also liked his ideas on how to approach the work of others. My favorite rule of thumb from the book is: “Work on a contemporary author as if he were ancient, and an ancient one as if he were contemporary … You will have more fun and write a better thesis.” Eco also has much to say on the obsession with spending too much time compiling information (he calls it the “alibi of photocopies”); it makes for a watered down, unfocused, blurry project. We’re all guilty of this in some way. How often do we bookmark and save articles we come across on the Web and never really get to? Eco is basically saying, ‘Don’t be a hoarder.’ Don’t do the equivalent of bottom trawling and hoping that there will be a prize fish in all the bycatch. One solution: Better outlining and a read-now attitude (don’t stockpile; read soon, and then decide to keep or toss).

I know it’s weird to think this but reading How to Write a Thesis felt very homey. It was very much a feel-good book; like being treated to home cooking. It reminds the academic to not be so insulated and narcissistic (reality check: odds are, only a handful of people will ever read your work in its entirety). And it reminds the rest of us of the worth of slowing down and digesting information thoughtfully, with care and consideration (no skimming), and of the the worth of committing to a task.

[Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley for an honest and candid review.] ( )
  gendeg | Jun 15, 2015 |
Excellent practical advice for people undertaking research. It is particularly directed to those who are or perceive themselves as somewhat disadvantaged. ( )
  beatrizmaturana | Sep 4, 2009 |
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A Bulgarian language edition of the Come si fa una tesi di laurea by Umberto Eco.
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"Eco's approach is anything but dry and academic. He not only offers practical advice but also considers larger questions about the value of the thesis-writing exercise. How to Write a Thesis is unlike any other writing manual. It reads like a novel. It is opinionated. It is frequently irreverent, sometimes polemical, and often hilarious. Eco advises students how to avoid "thesis neurosis" and he answers the important question "Must You Read Books?" He reminds students "You are not Proust" and "Write everything that comes into your head, but only in the first draft." Of course, there was no Internet in 1977, but Eco's index card research system offers important lessons about critical thinking and information curating for students of today who may be burdened by Big Data." -- Publisher's description.… (more)

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