I am a master's student about to start writing my thesis. After I wrote my research proposal, my advisor said that when I write my thesis, I should make it less "popular" (I believe he referred mainly to the introduction, where I presented the field and the subject in a rather detailed manner and broke it down in a way that average people could understand why I am proposing to do this research) and more "dry" and "scientific".

So I'm assuming he means that I should strive to direct the text to experts (as scientific publications usually are), and not begin from the very beginning of the subject and not "build up" the introduction too slowly.

The problem is that I always feel that I DO need to explain the background when starting to write a new piece, as each text stands on its own and should be complete in itself. I need to find some way to set the stage on one hand, but not too tediously on the other hand. I guess this is part of the art of writing, which develops through experience, but I was hoping someone here could offer some helpful ideas to achieve this.

I found this question and its answers related to my question and interesting to read, but that doesn't answer my question.

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    "each text stands on its own and should be complete in itself", obviously given some assumed previous knowledge
    – fqq
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 10:58
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    I had exactly the same problem when I wrote my thesis. I think what you are trying to do is a great idea, but my supervisor did not like it either. I fixed the problem by including more references to the literature.
    – Louic
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 11:21
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    "So I'm assuming he means [...]" Don't do that. Ask him what he means. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 15:33
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    "(...) each text stands on its own and should be complete in itself." --- when you're writing a thesis, yes. When you're writing an article, much less so. My impression is that the abstract should be very dry and to the point. The introduction can be a bit more "popular", in the sense that it should give a non-specialist a feel of what you are doing. But it should not be so popular as to dumb things down to the level of someone outside of your field (unless it goes beyond one field).
    – tomasz
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 21:15

6 Answers 6


This is a common issue when inexperienced people write their first papers. It's tempting to write down everything that went into your personal understanding of a subject, rather than just starting from what's known and focusing on the new things you did.

Imagine if you looked up a recipe for a pie and the first 80% of it detailed the history of wheat cultivation, how wheat is made into flour, the way the tablespoon and teaspoon were defined as units of measure, statistics on the average consumption and enjoyment of pie throughout the 20th century, and so on. Imagine if you looked up the text of a new regulation and it started with "This law could be passed in our state legislature because, in 1773, the Boston tea party...". Imagine if a car repair manual started with the history of the wheel.

It's important to tell the public why science is important and why your studies make sense, but a paper isn't the place to do it. It's also not the place to give a full exposition of every technique you used. If you must, just put references to review articles or textbooks.

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    With the commonality of this issue in mind, I'll note that it's fair to accept this approach as a crutch to start writing, and then edit down the text to the point that it's not reciting ideas that are common knowledge among the target audience. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 18:22
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    Have you ever looked up a recipe online? That's exactly what they do Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 18:36

I am a master's student about to start writing my thesis...my advisor said that when I write my thesis, I should make it less "popular"...and more "dry" and "scientific".

I think you need to establish exactly what your supervisor wants. As you've described it, I strongly disagree with your supervisor. But, I suspect the situation is more nuanced. Ultimately, I think the best style combines popular and scientific, especially in a thesis, which I think should be more accessible than a research paper.

Good writing delivers the idea to the widest audience.

I'm assuming...

Check that assumption!

...he means that I should strive to direct the text to experts...and not begin from the very beginning of the subject and not "build up" the introduction too slowly.

As described, I again strongly disagree with your supervisor, but, again, I suspect the situation is more nuanced. You probably cannot start from "the very beginning of the subject" (at least for many subjects), because the subject might be millennia old and starting from the beginning probably merits an entire book, but you need to start from a reasonable point, perhaps one that anyone can understand or perhaps one that your fellow students can understand (it depends what the subject is).

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    "Good writing delivers the idea to the widest audience." I would challenge this idea. Good writing delivers to exactly the audience it's supposed to target. Writing every piece of text so that the most possible people can follow it does not lead to good, targeted writing.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 13:12
  • @xLeitix I preempted such a comment. The widest audience might not be the audience with the most participants, it might be the widest audience able to comprehend the idea, which is my way of explaining that I was too lazy to craft a more precise statement ;-)
    – user2768
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 14:18
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    "a thesis, which I think should be more accessible than a research paper." Why? Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 15:35
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    @DavidRicherby because the audience differs
    – user2768
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 16:08
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    Most theses are read by precisely zero people, apart from those forced to do so by the degree-conferring procedure. A published research paper is far more likely to be read by somebody - even if the reader doesn't read anything except the introduction!
    – alephzero
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 20:44

Whenever you present something - be it in writing, a talk, or a lecture - consider your audience. A fairly common rule of thumb for a Masters thesis is that you can assume that your readers have all the background knowledge that everyone with a Bachelors degree in the subject would have. (Adjust as needed if you're in an interdisciplinary field.) The other, more crass rule is that the most important audience you're writing the thesis for is the set of examiners (possibly just your professor). If you now write a thesis in a way that includes everything, so that it's readable by everyone, well, guess what? It now becomes a very tedious read for your actual audience, because it just repeats stuff they already know.

So, no, not every every piece of writing needs to stand on its own. It is fine to assume some knowledge, but it does require striking a fine balance. For a thesis introduction I think you can cast a fairly wide net - in a combination of scientific and popular style as user2768 puts it - but too much is always too much. Indeed, figuring out how to write the introduction is often one of the hardest parts. Even if you have a good idea of what your audience knows, you still need to figure out how to write it. Is there a "hook" you can use, a fascinating question to start off with? See the question on How to write a strong introduction into a research paper? and links therein for some ideas.

Concretely, in your case, I'd ask your advisor to recommend a couple (in their opinion) good example theses (either from previous students in the group, or from elsewhere). That should give you a better idea of what your advisor expects and values. Do this soon! The earlier you do this, the more time you have to think about how to improve on this style.


An important concept that every aspiring writer should be aware of is Genre Theory. Genre Theory deposits that for every field and purpose, one or multiple different "genres" (types of text pieces) exist, each geared towards a specific audience and with a structure that has emerged to serve a specific purpose. Writing a thesis proposal in your field is one such genre. Before writing, it is key to understand what exactly your genre is. This includes:

  • The typical outline (not just the section headers, but what content and line of argument is actually expected below each header)
  • Typical terminology and phrasing
  • The purpose of the text
  • The target audience

The best way to understand your genre is through text analysis. Go over existing proposals (both, good and bad examples can be useful), and carefully examine not only what they write, but also how the argument is structured, what recurring phrases there are, in which order content is presented, and towards what audience they write.

In your case, it sounds like you have some misconceptions regarding, at least, the target audience and purpose of the text. A thesis proposal is not written for the general public. The goal of such a text is not to communicate to the general public, but to your advisor and/or committee.

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    Closely linked with this is the problem of "sounding like an expert". I had a Prof who wrote beautifully clearly and made difficult concepts seem simple and obvious: and a lot of his readers, in consequence, didn't realise quite how smart he was. By contrast, some papers are written in language so dense that no-one understands them, which can make the writer look very erudite. You have to find your own balance on this spectrum - but the more you need to establish your reputation, the greater the need to sound like an expert. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 15:38
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    @MichaelKay Writing for a specific audience (which may well understand dry technical writing more easily than flowery prose) is an entirely different beast than overcomplicating things to sound smart.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 18:01
  • @MichaelKay It's awful that even now writing unreasonably dense, dry texts is considered good in any way. Defeats the purpose of sharing knowledge. "Smart" words should be used only if they are needed for precision.
    – Ctrl-C
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 15:11
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    What seems important about the Genre Theory to me is that it gives you a starting point. If you understand the genre well enough, you can break any rule if it will be better for your readers. Unless you are graded by conformity to given rules...
    – Ctrl-C
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 15:16
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    Half way through my career in software development, I noticed that some people were starting to write user manuals in a completely different style, addressing the reader/user directly in the 2nd person. I started to do the same myself, and initially met fierce resistance, but the barriers eventually came down. Someone has to break with convention occasionally: but you need to consider whether the right person to do it is you. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 15:52

I think it's great to want to explain a topic from the beginning, but a thesis (or research paper) is not the right venue for this.

I would assume the knowledge of an above average final year undergraduate in your field at your institution for a thesis. So I wouldn't explain things they already (should) know. Ideally the thesis would also be interesting to such an audience. But ultimately it is up to your supervisor who may have a different view. Naturally a research paper would assume more advanced knowledge.

I sometimes find writing about a topic from 'the beginning' is helpful for me to understand it better. So it can be worth doing. For example, I have written rough sets of course notes in various topics which I could refer to or even develop into teaching materials if the need arose in the future. You may also find being involved in outreach activities to schools rewarding.


Assume whoever is reading has the same level of expertise as you (minus what is in the paper) and continue with that tone throughout the whole paper.

Then have an addendum with personal history on the topic. Mention/summarize the addendum in one sentence in the the introduction.

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