An Unsolicited Guide to Writing your Archaeology Thesis

Pic: The first page behind my title page in my Masters thesis

Well, I did it.  I wrote my archaeology Masters thesis.  And then I won the battle against formatting images in Word to create a beautiful PDF document that I can be proud of.  It’s not perfect – it will never be perfect.  But that sure as heck won’t stop me from being proud of what I’ve accomplished!

I would be lying if I said I knew what I was doing when I started writing.  When I saw down and opened up a blank document in Word I realized I had absolutely no idea where to start.  It took me a good few days before I put any sort of substantial wording down on [digital] paper, and when I did it was just a title page.  That certainly got me thinking that I am not the only one who felt lost.  So I’ve decided to write down my process and what I figured out along the way in the hopes that it will give some reassurance to future students and help relieve at least a little bit of their anxiety.  I hope it helps!

Full Disclosure Notes:

In full disclosure, at UToronto you don’t write an archaeology Masters thesis.  You write a Masters Research Paper.  But that MRP can be whatever you make it into.  It can be a lit review, or it can have original research.  Most archaeology students, myself included, write about original research, which is why I keep calling it a thesis.  We don’t have to defend it, but it goes through two readers (one of which is your supervisor) who gives it the yay or nay.  So what I’m writing here is from my own experiences and will only cover the writing process (not the thesis defense process).

Step 1. Acknowledge your thesis is NOT going to be perfect

Nothing is ever completely perfect, theses included.  And it doesn’t have to be.  Sure, you need to be able to have a clear discussion with your points supported and illustrated.  But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be A+++.  The best thing you can do for yourself is to accept early on that your thesis is not going to be perfect and there will forever be room for improvement.  As my husband pointed out to me, you know you’ve done well when you can read your thesis later and see where you could have improved.  That’s how you know you have improved.  Be proud of what you’ve accomplished, imperfections and all.

Writing example 2
Nothing about this is 100% perfect.  But at the end of the day I’m still pretty damn proud to see all my hard work presented here!

Step 2. Make sure you have all your permissions in place

This is a big one for archaeology, especially in North America where many of us work with Indigenous descendant communities.  Make sure you know what you can/cannot include.  By this point in time you should already have permission for your research.  But you’ll want to be clear on things like photos.  Even though you have permission for research, that doesn’t mean photos of sensitive materials are allowed to be included in a document that will be freely available to others once it’s done (most universities will make PDFs of theses available).  My research was about very sensitive mortuary data, and I made sure I had clear permission on what I could and could not include in my thesis AND presentations, but I also made decisions on what within that scope I wanted to include.  I did have permission to include photos of the mandible that the beads were associated with, but I decided not to include those photos.  Instead I wrote out 5 pages of detailed description of the mandible.  If you’re using copyrighted photos from books, websites, or documents, make sure you properly reference them in your thesis.

Step 3. Find out what exactly is required

How long does the thesis need to be?  Are there specific formatting requirements? Where do you send it once it’s done?  Does the file need to be named in a specific way?  These are the base questions to be asking, because these will physically shape your thesis.  Some departments have this very conveniently located in their websites.  UToronto did not.  I had to go searching.  I ended up finding a convenient UToronto website with all the formatting info I needed.  Even though I was technically not writing a thesis, I still used the guide because it was super useful to keeping me organized and pointing me in the right direction.

Make sure you’re also asking your supervisor what’s required.  Page length is a big one.  We were told to aim for 40-50 pages (short, I know, because it was a MRP).  But that was not set in stone and every paper was going to be different.  I know people who finished at 30 pages and others who finished at 120 pages.  I finished at 83 (I completed my program in 1 year and I probably would have been closer to the 120 pages had I included a second field season).  Some supervisors are really strict with length requirements.  Others, like mine, don’t care about length as long as you’ve clearly made your argument and included enough information to support it.  Also find out about a timeline.  Does your supervisor want your drafts by a specific time for editing?  Do they want it in segments, or all at once?  Earlier is always better.  There WILL be edits (remember how I said nothing is perfect), so you want to make sure you’re going to have enough time to address them all.

Step 4. Know your writing style and what works best for you

My work space.  Books on the floor beside a box full of cat toys, and a lego X-wing hanging above my head.  It worked for me!

Are you a fast writer?  Slow writer?  Do you need a specific space to write?  Music?  By this point in your academic endeavors you’ve written enough research papers that you should have a pretty decent idea about how you work.  I know I’m a fast writer, so I wasn’t too worried having a month-long field season right in the middle of my writing period.  And I wasn’t worried when I got almost NOTHING written during that field season.  In all honesty, it took me about 3 weeks of writing to get my thesis done.  And that includes some days where I managed to only get about an hour of writing in.  With planning a textbook on top of the last couple of weeks of writing (Intro to North American Archaeology open access textbook).  Some days I could get out only two pages, other days I got 10 pages down on paper.  I also like to have music playing, but it has to be a specific kind of music (aka no or minimal lyrics).  I love the Spotify focus playlists.  And I definitely can’t work around other people because I get way too distracted.  So I made sure I had a comfy space at home to write, where no one but my cats could distract me.

Step 5. Make sure you can read and understand your primary data

By this point in time, you should have all your primary data collected.  By primary data I’m referring to field notes/analyses/photographs about your specific topic.  I made sure I had all my field notes re-written in one spot.  I had all the measurements for my excavations written out, and all the details for the beads written out (i.e. colours, sizes).  I also made sure my photographs were tidy and labelled so that I knew what I was looking at, and which photographs could be used to support what points of writing.  Everyone will have a different organizational system, so make sure you know what works best for you.  But remember that your writing is describing what you already know to someone who doesn’t know it.  So make sure you include as many details as possible so that the readers can understand your primary data.

Step 6. Know that you’ll still be doing research as you’re writing

You’ve definitely got enough information to get started with writing.  You’ve got your articles and books and notes (if you’re like me and kept written notes in a notebook) organized and ready to go.  But I can guarantee that as you start writing you’ll suddenly realize you may need a little more info here or there to better support your points.  Or maybe you’ll realize that you didn’t take quite enough notes from that book you returned to the library.  There were definitely a few days I spent doing additional research instead of writing.  So be prepared for that.  Also, know that there is no minimum/maximum for the number of references to include.  Make sure you’re well researched.  I ended up with 6 pages of references for an 83-page paper (which is about 130-ish refs).  And that doesn’t include the additional 5 page appendix I included specifically for archaeological reports.

Step 7. Format your document

I found formatting my document before I even started writing was super helpful to

Writing example 5
Formatting at the beginning helped the table of contents stay organized and up to date as I wrote

keeping it relatively organized.  It saved me a lot of fighting at the end.  I made sure to get the table of contents set up, page breaks in all the right spots, and the references section set up.  Word has a built in references manager for many, many different formats.  I used APA style and found Word was actually pretty good for it, but make sure you’re keeping an eye on your reference list in case you need to change anything.  In total honesty, I had NO IDEA how to do any of this formatting stuff before I started writing.  I spent some quality time with my good friends Google and Youtube learning about formatting Word documents.  Looking at old theses also helps give you an idea of what to expect.

Step 8. Write an outline

An outline is something my supervisor specifically asked for, and I’m glad he did.  I wrote out my planned chapters and a brief synopsis beneath each of what I was planning on including.  My supervisor gave me some feedback on it, including some reorganizing a bit of the info that would fit better into a different chapter.  Once the outline had been approved I could then use it to build my thesis around.  I formatted my chapter titles into my document as a starting point, and in italics below it I wrote out what I planned on including in each chapter, including how I would break it down into sub-chapters.  As I wrote and came to a break in the day, I would write my train of thought in bold italics so I knew where to pick up again.  It was an enormous help in keeping my mind focused.

Step 9. Start writing

All you have to do is get a few words down and the rest will start flowing.  Sometimes you’ll have good days, sometimes bad days.  I was definitely slow at the beginning as I was trying to find my way.  I would set little goals, like getting three pages written in one day.  More often than not I would end up writing far more than that.  I also did not write anything in order.  I think I started with chapter 2, finished chapter 3 first, bounced between chapter 2 and 4, and left chapter 1 for last.  I have no doubt had others read my unfinished drafts they would have found it chaotic.  But that’s what worked best for me and kept my writing going.  Starting to write is always the hardest.  From there you find ways to keep it going.

Another bit of writing advice I have is keep your references cited list up to date as you add references.  Every time I referenced someone in my writing I paused for a moment to add that to my references cited page.  It saves you a LOT of time from having to go back through everything later to include it.

Writing example 6
If you’re going to have multiple pages of references, keeping it up to date as you go along is a HUGE help (get the formatting set up before you start writing and update it as you go)

Step 10. Take breaks

Sitting down and writing, writing, writing, is EXHAUSTING!  Mentally and physically.  Take as many breaks you need for however long you need.  Get up and stretch and move

Writing example 1
When I took breaks I wrote notes in bold so I knew where to pick up again

around.  Have some food.  Play with your cats.  Do whatever you need to do to give your brain a break and keep you focused.  I found I usually took small breaks every half an hour-ish.  Sometimes my writing was flowing well and I didn’t take many breaks.  Other times I couldn’t stay focused and took more breaks.  Sometimes I sat down for a break and didn’t get back to writing until the next day.  I let my mind and body dictate how I was going to be working, and it really helped my stress levels stay down.

Step 11. Know that edits are NOT personal

There will be edits, and more likely than not there will be many.  Edits are never personal, no matter what’s written.  Edits are there because your supervisor wants you to be the best you can be.  Criticism is constructive, in your favour.  I know some supervisors can write really awful things, which I completely disagree with.  Know that it’s not an attack against you and your capabilities and knowledge.  That’s a failure on their part to communicate, it’s nothing to do with you.  Edits exist to help you make your points clear enough that others can understand them.  By this point in time you’re probably so exhausted from writing your thesis that you’re bound to be missing things that others can see and point out to you.  Other times you know your data so well that you’ve forgotten others don’t know it and not included enough detail.  Embrace edits and use them to make your writing that much stronger.

Step 12. Add images last

Because adding images can alter your text formatting, and adding text can alter image formatting, I found it worked best to add images once all my writing was finished.  If I had a specific image in mind I would write it in place in bold text so I knew later what I wanted to add.

You’ll need to learn how to format your images, which was perhaps the most difficult part because Word really doesn’t care much about making image organization simple.  Some of my images I wanted to put on their own page with a landscape layout.  It was a HUGE pain in the butt trying to figure that one out.  I still don’t think I have it 100% figured out.  But I made it to the “good enough” level and I’m happy with that.  Building/inserting tables in Word is whole other struggle.  So get well acquainted with Google and Youtube for formatting help.

Writing example 3
I had to figure out how to get some pages into a landscape layout for photos while keeping others horizontal.  It definitely wasn’t the easiest thing to figure out

So there you have it, my very unsolicited guide for writing an archaeology thesis.  Remember, everyone writes differently so what worked best for me might not work best for you.  As always, if you have any questions or want more suggestions, feel free to send me a message!  Happy writing!



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