Writing a Research Proposal? Writing a Thesis? Here are some tips.

Academic writing is not obvious or natural. It is a practiced and learned skill, a craft that most do not learn outside of university (and sometimes not even in university). Here I will share what has been d̶r̶i̶l̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶o̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶h̶e̶a̶d̶ passed on to me from my academic advisers and some peer reviewers over many, many years. Everything here is in textbooks about the research process, but hopefully, this is more fun to read. I typically dictate these suggestions to students in the classroom and thought I should document them here so that students may revisit them throughout the writing process. Also, others might find it useful.

Note: Some of these tips are personal preferences or specific to publishing, applying for funding, and writing research proposals in the domain of Geographic Information Science. Even here these are not hard and fast writing rules. These are recommendations. When in doubt, check with your own thesis adviser.

Here I will first describe the general structure of a scholarly paper and the goal of each section. Then I will go over recommendations for writing style, common mistakes by students, requirements for figures, tables and their captions, some differences between proposals and final thesis or papers, and final checks! Finally, I share some motivational words about writing and recommend books to help with the process.

Note to my students: Before you start writing, READ THESE TIPS. After you have written, PLEASE CHECK THAT YOU HAVE INCORPORATED ALL OF THESE TIPS.

Overview of the Structure of a Scholarly Paper

1. The general structure of a research paper should be as follows: Introduction, Literature Review (sometimes called Background, Conceptual Framework, something else), Research Questions, Methodology, Results, Discussion and Conclusion (sometimes Discussion and Conclusion are combined in one section, doesn’t matter).

2. The Introduction is a presentation of the problem and should answer the question: why is this research important? Why should the reader keep reading?

3. The Literature Review (lit. rev.) presents what you have read about what research has already been done explored (or completed). The point of the literature review is to do the work for the reader, you have done a lot of reading in preparation to write this scholarly work. You can see how these readings are related. Tell your reader the story about how all of these ideas are related. Do not make them guess (the reader should not sit there thinking, “Okay, he was just telling me about climate change and population growth and now he is talking about bananas? Why?” Hold their hand, guide them. Only share literature that relates to the research you will present in the next sections. Present the narrative, this review of literature as a story arch so that when they get to your research questions in the next section they think, “Of course! what a great idea!”. Make them feel like it is obvious, even though it is not, you have led the reader there. A good writer makes the reader feel like they have come to the conclusion on their own based on the facts you presented. The literature review should not include anything about YOUR research methodology. That goes in the methodology section. No explicit and direct foreshadowing about your research in this lit. rev. section. The literature review is about what has been done researched and what is missing. In this section, you can and should point to gaps in the literature…which leads your reader to your brilliant and answerable…

4. Pose your Research Questions (RQ). Your RQs should be answerable. There is much more to say about formulating research questions. These should guide everything.

5. The Methodology should be well justified. Research needs to be replicable; it can only be replicable if methods are described in sufficient detail.

6. Results should be written in a cut and dry format. Only state what you did find. Don’t write about, why you think you arrived at that result, save that for the discussion. Just results. Only results. Proposals will not have a results section but might have an “anticipated results” section.

7. Discussion, you can write about what you think about your results, compare them to existing literature. You can divulge any limitations of the study here. Do not introduce new literature here, only relate your findings to the literature you introduced in the lit. review/background section. This section should be particularly fun to write because you can insert your own ideas about what you found.

Writing Style Recommendations

1. Your very first sentence in your introduction should hook the reader. What is the problem? Why should I keep reading? Tell the reader exactly why, directly. Immediately. Don’t make them read 3 paragraphs to think, ah ok, now I see what they are saying.

2. Scholarly writing should be written professionally. We do not write in the same tone, using the same language as we speak. Read your work out loud. Although you do not write as you would speak, when you read your work out loud, you can quickly find simple mistakes.

3. Scholarly writing is pretty cut and dry. Meaning, get to your point quickly and directly.

4. Every statement should have a point. Each point should support the arguments previously stated or coming in the future. Make sure your workflows. Each sentence should build on the last. Paragraphs also must segue and connect to each other. Meaning, there should be a coherent narrative. This sounds obvious, I know, but it is still pretty hard to do! Never use” in order to…” when you can simply say “to”. As Strunk and White say, “Omit needless words!”

5. I think it is perfectly okay to use the first person. Some people (disciplines, locations — UK, I am looking at you.) do not think it is okay in scholarly research, but I do. “ This research will…xyz” No it will not, you are doing the research so you will xyz…Use the first person. I am not suggesting that you write a self-centered memoir but do state what you are going to do (proposal) or did (thesis). Take ownership of your work.

6. Typically, in an empirical research paper, the structure of presenting your research findings are as follows: Introduction, Literature review (Background, Conceptual Framework, call it what you will) Presentation of the Research Questions (RQ), Methodology (to answer those RQs), Results, Discussion, and Conclusion.

Writing Style Common Mistakes

1. While I have said, each paragraph should have a main point and get to it quickly and directly please do not state, “The purpose of this paragraph is to…” this does not sound scholarly. It is good that you, the writer, are thinking about the point of the paragraph but it is unprofessional to explicitly state it in this way. It is acceptable and encouraged, in the introduction to say something like, “The purpose of this research is to…”

2. You have done the research, the reading. Now in the lit. review, weave all of these ideas together, draw connections between the literature, tell us what you learned from it, your new ideas!

3. Some common examples of sentences found in literature reviews of inexperienced scholarly writers.

“The relationship between land-use and draught has been studied in detail.”

So what? This statement is vague, tell the reader what was studied in detail. Do the work for the reader!

“The effect of land use change on draught has also been researched based on different land-use scenarios (Smith et al.,2006).”

Again, Ok, what kinds of land-use scenarios? What did they find? Why do I care?

“Smith and Harris (2011) have studied mobile mapping extensively.”

That is great. What did they find? How is this relevant? Include it in this sentence!

4. Think about all of the scholarly literature you have read (not the fun books for which I shared links), think about their style,

Good examples include:

“Goodchild (2007) suggests that VGI could be especially useful in early warning or post-disaster response (Ricker et al 2013: 215).”


“The exclusionary and top-down nature of traditional GIS has been acknowledged within the GIS and society literature (Ghose, 2001; Harris & Weiner, 1998; Sieber, 2006).” (Ricker et al 2013: 215)

From: Ricker, B., Johnson, P., & Sieber, R. (2013). Tourism and environmental change in Barbados: gathering citizen perspectives with volunteered geographic information (VGI). Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 21(2), 212–228.

5. Use direct quotes sparingly. Re-write the idea in your own words and cite the author. This will help with the flow of your writing too. Only use direct quotes for effect.

Figures and Tables

1. All figures and tables should have labels.

2. Any and all numbers should have a unit of measure next to it (ex. 4 meters).

3. Table –x and y-axes must have labels.

4. Legends are always welcome and expected — especially for maps and diagrams.

5. Figure and Table captions should be numbered and be very descriptive. They should be able to stand alone.

6. Make sure all text is legible. Sometimes we make graphics so small, text is no longer legible. Do not do this.

General Suggestions

1. Methods are so important, maybe even most important! Research needs to be replicable; it can only be replicable if methods are described in sufficient detail.

2. Methods are important also because the reader might not know anything about your topic, but they might know about research methods, this will tell the reader if your approach is sound and in turn, if your findings are (or will be) sound. This is particularly true for funding proposals.

3. Writing a research proposal? write in the future tense. You will do all of the work you are proposing, in the future.

4. Writing a thesis? write in the past tense. You already did all of the work, in the past and now you are writing about it.

5. The first time you use an acronym, spell it out. Do not assume your reader knows it, no matter what.

6. What is your research question that is guiding your research? Will you be able to answer/have you answered this research question? The proposal should tell me the reader exactly how. Sometimes the reader needs to be reminded of your research question, more than once.

7. Do not put too much pressure on yourself. This is not your life’s work. This is just one research project. You will have opportunities to do more research if you want them. You do not have to cram all of your ideas into this one assignment.

Writing a Research Proposal: Key Considerations

1. Write in the future tense! You have not done the work yet; you will do it.

2. A literature review is a given in research. It does not need to be reported in your methodology. Unless you are conducting a systematic literature review and/or content analysis which are specific research methods. Full research papers can be written about implementing them. For example, a systematic literature review will report on specific sources, search terms and justification for the decision to use each search terms. The researcher will then report on how many articles were returned by the search engine (database — whatever), how many were included, why or why not, it is a rigorous process. However, if you are writing a research proposal, and your instructor or supervisor told you to write a literature review, it is likely that is something you are to just do, and it is not to be included in the methodology. It should be included in your methodology if and only if the whole study is based on the findings of your literature review. All scholarly work must start with a literature review (although it might be called a background section, or a conceptual framework or something else) literature review is a given, you have to describe what has been done and how what you are going to do is different.

3. Make a schedule or timeline, a Gantt chart with details about what specific steps you will take and when working backward from the deadline.

Figures presenting your ideas are helpful too. A Paper prototype of an app, of a map, a schematic of your ideas and connections, these are so valuable for a proposal. Show the reader you have thought the research through, that you can do it. Schematics and diagrams are your friends. They can help organize your ideas and convey your ideas to those outside your own head.

Writing a Thesis: Process Recommendations

The process and order of writing your thesis will be different than writing the proposal. When writing your proposal, you likely read, and read and read, and then wrote your methods last. When writing your thesis, write your method first! While it is fresh and you remember what you did! Again, remember to write in the past tense.

1. Write the methods first

2. Then write the results.

3. Then write the discussion.

4. Finally, write the literature review (you likely have drafts of it written already from your proposal — annotated bibliography — really this is making sure only relevant literature is included based on the other sections).

5. Re-read section about scholarly writing structure.

Check the following before you submit your work!

1. Did you mention new literature in the discussion? Because you should not have done that, fix it by either omitting it completely or introduce it first in the lit. rev.

2. Will the methods you propose or described help you answer your research question? Research aim?

3. Is there mention of literature in your literature review that is not related to your research question, your methods, or your findings? If so, take it out!

4. Does your writing flow? Is there a flow between ideas? Is there a flow between paragraphs? Is there a flow between section? Yes? Great! If not, add segues between ideas. You can do it.

5. Did you read your work out loud?

6. Are all of your references in your ref list mentioned in the text? If not, take them out!

7. Are all of your references in text in your Works Cited/Bibliography? If not, add them!

8. Did you ask someone to proof-read your work? (Mom, thank you for proofreading this post!)

Students, I am looking forward to reading your work!

If you are not my student, check with your own academic adviser about their expectations for your research proposal and thesis.

Finding motivation (and resources) to write

Writing takes effort, even if English is your first language. That being said, please enjoy this process! It is fun to research something you are interested in and passionate about. Savor the freedom and creativity of inventing and implementing your own research plan. Experiment with combinations of different methodologies to make exciting findings!

I highly recommend the following books that are not academic. First and foremost, two books I recommend to everyone and anyone, especially those who are planning to go to grad school or write anything at all, these books are great!

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by Strunk and White. This is a short and cheap grammatical and stylistic guidance book that you will use again and again. Do you know the author EB White who wrote Charlotte’s Web? He is widely published and wrote this guide with one of his Professors, Strunk!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I have not read any other book by Stephen King, but I LOVED this book. He is so human. I personally sometimes dread writing, but he makes writing sound like a fun activity! While this book is about writing fiction, these tips can be transferred to scholarly and scientific writing. In the second half of the book, he restates much of what Strunk and White describe. King tells us to read to become better writers, which is why I am recommending some fun books below.

Most writers write about writing because they know no other way of life. While some writers, write about writing in a way that makes you want to write! As fun relaxing reading during the scholarly writing process, I recommend reading some fun books that inspire you to write. Fun books that are indirectly about writing or writers and helped me during the doldrums of writing my Ph.D. dissertation and Master’s thesis include Diary of Anais Nin, Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay, really anything by Katie Rophie but especially The Violet Hour and In Praise of Messy Lives. (Note: Gay does not like Rophie and writes about it. Their writing is candy.)

I keep telling myself I like writing! I don’t actually like writing. In Amy Poehler’s book Yes, Please, she complains about writing in an honest hilarious fashion, but I digress — it is not useful in this context, I mention her book only because it is a fun book and she admits to how hard and painful it is to sit still, alone and write, even when you are getting paid to do so.

Read the New York Times or other reputable, journalist news sources. As you read their articles, pay attention to their writing style. Pay attention to the flow of ideas, how they weave an argument together in a coherent way, tie ideas together tightly, taking the reader with them through the story, not making the reader guess how two ideas are connected. Pay attention to good writing and what makes it good and replicate those techniques.

More seriously relevant resources include university library websites have amazing resources for researchers (see Purdue’s OWL). Use them! Shout out to libraries and information schools. You are the best! University libraries are particularly great at providing information about citation and reference management requirements.

I hope this helps.

Assistant Professor in GeoSciences at Utrecht University. Researcher of maps online, UAS (drones!) and maps Sustainable Development Goals.