Why it’s better to avoid back-references in your thesis


Introduction

In this post, I would like to discuss something which I have already discussed in a previous post. I might post this on the next page. But you should probably read the Introduction first.

Confusing? I hope so! Nonetheless, I sometimes encounter structures or sentences like these in dissertations. I call these: “back-references”, and they’re the topic of this post:

What are back-references
How to avoid using back-references
I’ve already used back-references. What can I do?

What are back-references

Academic writing is difficult, no doubt. You have to put an abstract idea into words, in a way such that others will understand exactly what you mean. Often you understand what you mean, since you have constructed your text in your own personal way: you know exactly where in your text you have said what, especially if you have been working on a manuscript for many months.

However, the people that will actually read your thesis (such as your supervisor) will often not have this intimate knowledge of your text. They will simply take it at face value, and they count on your ability to logically unpack your arguments. One at a time, each one building on the next. In short: your readers will expect that you have written the text for them.

My experience

In my experience, this is not always how students have written down their arguments: sometimes, an important element of an argument is mentioned in the Introduction, and it is further explained in a different section of the thesis. Or, an argument that has already been made is being repeated many times throughout the text, or in different sections.

In other words, the arguments are scattered around the thesis. To ‘solve’ this, students often reference back to the section or page number where they first started the argument. This is what I call: a ‘back-reference’. And these back-references generally do not help the reader to better understand your argument, text or discussion.

Examples

Below are some of the most common ones I see in essays and dissertations:

  • “As I have written before”,
  • “As mentioned before”,
  • “As was previously discussed”,
  • “As I have written on the previous page”.


How to avoid using back-references

The advice I have to offer on this matter is simple: avoid using these back-references, and instead write down your arguments in a way such that you do not need to use them!

I know, I know: this is easier said than done! But realize the following: a person that is carefully reading your thesis will only need to hear each of your arguments once to understand where your story is going. There is no need to repeat yourself: in fact, repetition often is a tell-tale sign that you need to work a bit harder on developing your idea prior to writing it down.

I’ve already used back-references. What can I do?

Did you find a back-reference in your thesis? Find the two parts of your text that you are trying to link, and ask yourself: “How can I write this part in a way, such that I only have to make this argument once?” Often, simply deleting and rearranging some text will do the trick!

Closing words

Personally, I’ve picked up some great academic writing tips from Prof. McCloskey’s book ‘Economical writing’. Her tips are pragmatic and to-the-point, and applicable to any scientific discipline.1

Back to Introduction

Need some additional help with writing your thesis?

Have a look at the following courses that are available from ThesisCore.com:

Course – How to write your research proposal

Course – How to write your theoretical framework