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Writing a history masters thesis

May 8, 2018

Effective Proposal-Writing Style (for History students)

Contributed by B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships, [email protected]
Posted: 2010
Originally written for History students writing proposals for a senior honors thesis, but applicable to all proposal writing                  

                                                                                                                                                 printable file (Word)

Personal pronouns

Writers use first person (“I,” “my”) when discussing their own interests and plans.  This is appropriate in a research proposal because you will be admitted to the Senior Thesis Program and/or awarded a summer grant.

Well-organized paragraphs and headings

For the most part, writers use topic sentences to signal a paragraph’s key point.  That point often corresponds to a required element, such as “what I want to learn,” “what scholars have previously studied,” or “where I plan to find sources.”  Writers then add details that explain the topic sentence or argue the point it makes.  Also, paragraphs should not be overly long.

In addition to well-organized paragraphs, writers sometimes use headings to identify key sections.  Such organization is helpful because readers often skim the beginnings of sections and paragraphs to find a proposal’s main argument before they go back for details.  Headings and topic sentences highlight a proposal’s structure.

Action-Oriented sentences

A preponderance of sentences should use active voice.  In other words, sentences emphasize who (or what) performs the action:

Active voice makes sentences shorter and clearer and makes writers sound confident.  Use passive voice when you have a legitimate reason for doing so, such as when the actor is not important or when passive voice promotes coherence.  Consider these examples from the model proposals:

Active or passive voice is only an issue with action (transitive) verbs, which have objects.  Some sentences simply use state-of-being (intransitive) verbs, such as “is” or “was”:

These intransitive verbs are often necessary, but in a well-written proposal, active verbs in the active voice will dominate.

Conciseness

Good proposal writers explain their ideas as succinctly as possible.  Most writers start with a proposal that is a little too long.  Then they solicit help from advisors and peer reviewers to trim the fat.  Along with unnecessary background information, you should be vigilant about clunky phrases and excessive qualifying words.  The following strategies for revision will help.

Effective use of transitions

Transitional words and phrases show how sentences and ideas are related to each other.  Used correctly, they make it easier for readers to follow your argument.  The following transitions at or near the beginnings of sentences will make your logic come through clearly and coherently to readers. 

Repetition and parallelism

As the model proposals show, it is often effective to repeat key terms and phrases:  “I will pursue research in three areas…; I will travel to X in July in order to…; I will then go to Y so that I can…“  The repetition in these sentences helps readers focus on the student’s proposed actions.

Because you are women, people will force their thinking on you, their boundaries on you. They will tell you how to dress, how to behave, who you can meet and where you can go. Don't live in the shadows of people's judgement. Make your own choices in the light of your own wisdom. Amitabh Bachchan To be a champion, I think you have to see the big picture. It's not about winning and losing; it's about every day hard work and about thriving on a challenge. It's about embracing the pain that you'll experience at the end of a race and not being afraid. I think people think too hard and get afraid of a certain challenge. Summer Sanders A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. Marcus Garvey

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