Umberto Eco’s How To Write a Thesis: A Witty, Irreverent & Highly Practical Guide Now Out in English


Image by Uni­ver­sità Reg­gio Cal­abria, released under a C BY-SA 3.0 license.

In gen­er­al, the how-to book—whether on bee­keep­ing, piano-play­ing, or wilder­ness survival—is a dubi­ous object, always run­ning the risk of bor­ing read­ers into despair­ing apa­thy or hope­less­ly per­plex­ing them with com­plex­i­ty. Instruc­tion­al books abound, but few suc­ceed in their mis­sion of impart­ing the­o­ret­i­cal wis­dom or keen, prac­ti­cal skill. The best few I’ve encoun­tered in my var­i­ous roles have most­ly done the for­mer. In my days as an edu­ca­tor, I found abstract, dis­cur­sive books like Robert Scholes’ Tex­tu­al Pow­er or poet and teacher Marie Ponsot’s lyri­cal Beat Not the Poor Desk infi­nite­ly more salu­tary than more down-to-earth books on the art of teach­ing. As a some­time writer of fic­tion, I’ve found Milan Kundera’s idio­syn­crat­ic The Art of the Nov­el—a book that might have been titled The Art of Kun­dera—a great deal more inspir­ing than any num­ber of oth­er well-mean­ing MFA-lite pub­li­ca­tions. And as a self-taught audio engi­neer, I’ve found a book called Zen and the Art of Mix­ing—a clas­sic of the genre, even short­er on tech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tions than its name­sake is on motor­cy­cle maintenance—better than any oth­er dense, dia­gram-filled man­u­al.

How I wish, then, that as a one­time (long­time) grad stu­dent, I had had access to the Eng­lish trans­la­tion, just pub­lished this month, of Umber­to Eco’s How to Write a The­sis, a guide to the pro­duc­tion of schol­ar­ly work worth the name by the high­ly cel­e­brat­ed Ital­ian nov­el­ist and intel­lec­tu­al. Writ­ten orig­i­nal­ly in Ital­ian in 1977, before Eco’s name was well-known for such works of fic­tion as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pen­du­lum, How to Write The­sis is appro­pri­ate­ly described by MIT Press as read­ing: “like a nov­el”: “opin­ion­at­ed… fre­quent­ly irrev­er­ent, some­times polem­i­cal, and often hilar­i­ous.”

For exam­ple, in the sec­ond part of his intro­duc­tion, after a rather dry def­i­n­i­tion of the aca­d­e­m­ic “the­sis,” Eco dis­suades a cer­tain type of pos­si­ble read­er from his book, those stu­dents “who are forced to write a the­sis so that they may grad­u­ate quick­ly and obtain the career advance­ment that orig­i­nal­ly moti­vat­ed their uni­ver­si­ty enroll­ment.” These stu­dents, he writes, some of whom “may be as old as 40” (gasp), “will ask for instruc­tions on how to write a the­sis in a month.” To them, he rec­om­mends two pieces of advice, in full knowl­edge that both are clear­ly “ille­gal”:

(a) Invest a rea­son­able amount of mon­ey in hav­ing a the­sis writ­ten by a sec­ond par­ty. (b) Copy a the­sis that was writ­ten a few years pri­or for anoth­er insti­tu­tion. (It is bet­ter not to copy a book cur­rent­ly in print, even if it was writ­ten in a for­eign lan­guage. If the pro­fes­sor is even min­i­mal­ly informed on the top­ic, he will be aware of the book’s exis­tence.

Eco goes on to say that “even pla­gia­riz­ing a the­sis requires an intel­li­gent research effort,” a caveat, I sup­pose, for those too thought­less or lazy even to put the required effort into aca­d­e­m­ic dis­hon­esty.

Instead, he writes for “stu­dents who want to do rig­or­ous work” and “want to write a the­sis that will pro­vide a cer­tain intel­lec­tu­al sat­is­fac­tion.” Eco doesn’t allow for the fact that these groups may not be mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, but no mat­ter. His style is loose and con­ver­sa­tion­al, and the unse­ri­ous­ness of his dog­mat­ic asser­tions belies the lib­er­at­ing tenor of his advice. For all of the fun Eco has dis­cussing the whys and where­for­es of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing, he also dis­pens­es a wealth of prac­ti­cal hows, mak­ing his book a rar­i­ty among the small pool of read­able How-tos. For exam­ple, Eco offers us “Four Obvi­ous Rules for Choos­ing a The­sis Top­ic,” the very bedrock of a doc­tor­al (or mas­ters) project, on which said project tru­ly stands or falls:

1. The top­ic should reflect your pre­vi­ous stud­ies and expe­ri­ence. It should be relat­ed to your com­plet­ed cours­es; your oth­er research; and your polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al, or reli­gious expe­ri­ence.

2. The nec­es­sary sources should be mate­ri­al­ly acces­si­ble. You should be near enough to the sources for con­ve­nient access, and you should have the per­mis­sion you need to access them.

3. The nec­es­sary sources should be man­age­able. In oth­er words, you should have the abil­i­ty, expe­ri­ence, and back­ground knowl­edge need­ed to under­stand the sources.

4. You should have some expe­ri­ence with the method­olog­i­cal frame­work that you will use in the the­sis. For exam­ple, if your the­sis top­ic requires you to ana­lyze a Bach vio­lin sonata, you should be versed in music the­o­ry and analy­sis.

Hav­ing suf­fered the throes of propos­ing, then actu­al­ly writ­ing, an aca­d­e­m­ic the­sis, I can say with­out reser­va­tion that, unlike Eco’s encour­age­ment to pla­gia­rism, these four rules are not only help­ful, but nec­es­sary, and not near­ly as obvi­ous as they appear. Eco goes on in the fol­low­ing chap­ter, “Choos­ing the Top­ic,” to present many exam­ples, gen­er­al and spe­cif­ic, of how this is so.

Much of the remain­der of Eco’s book—though writ­ten in as live­ly a style and shot through with wit­ti­cisms and profundity—is grave­ly out­dat­ed in its minute descrip­tions of research meth­ods and for­mat­ting and style guides. This is pre-inter­net, and tech­nol­o­gy has—sadly in many cases—made redun­dant much of the foot­work he dis­cuss­es. That said, his star­tling takes on such top­ics as “Must You Read Books?,” “Aca­d­e­m­ic Humil­i­ty,” “The Audi­ence,” and “How to Write” again offer indis­pens­able ways of think­ing about schol­ar­ly work that one gen­er­al­ly arrives at only, if at all, at the com­ple­tion of a long, painful, and most­ly bewil­der­ing course of writ­ing and research.

FYI: You can down­load Eco’s book, How to Write a The­sis, as a free audio­book if you want to try out’s no-risk, 30-day free tri­al pro­gram. Find details here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Books You Think Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read: Crime and Pun­ish­ment, Moby-Dick & Beyond (Many Free Online)

“Lol My The­sis” Show­cas­es Painful­ly Hilar­i­ous Attempts to Sum up Years of Aca­d­e­m­ic Work in One Sen­tence

Steven Pinker Uses The­o­ries from Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy to Explain Why Aca­d­e­m­ic Writ­ing is So Bad

Wern­er Herzog’s Rogue Film School: Apply & Learn the Art of Gueril­la Film­mak­ing & Lock-Pick­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Robyn Blanpied says:

    Wish I’d had this when I was writ­ing my dis­ser­ta­tion.

  • Giorgio says:

    Wow, it took 38 years… Sec­ond-hand paper­back copies were avail­able when I wrote my MA dis­ser­ta­tion…

  • dario says:

    One remark: the “the­sis” Eco is writ­ing about in this book was­n’t the actu­al PhD the­sis. In Italy in the late sev­en­ties you only had four-years all inclu­sive “Bachelor’s/Master’s/Phd’s” pro­grams, end­ing with a the­sis (“Tesi di lau­rea”).
    This pre­sup­posed that the final research work (prod­uct of about a year of labor) was poten­tial­ly pub­lish­able… and in fact Eco pub­lished his the­sis on Thomas’ aes­thet­ics. This did­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean less qual­i­ty, quite the oppo­site: try to think at the sen­tence “If the pro­fes­sor is even min­i­mal­ly informed on the top­ic, he will be aware of the book’s exis­tence.” today!

  • Ed says:

    So, the burn­ing ques­tion — is the book avail­able online, in Eng­lish?

  • Max says:

    Patent­ly a pri­ori knowl­edge. That Eco invest­ed time and effort in pro­duc­ing is a state­ment of his dire thoughts about the future of the human intel­lect in the digital/ nascent AI age.

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