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Book Review | How to Write a Thesis

Rating: 3.5 out of 4.

The late Italian literary maestro Umberto Eco wrote How to Write a Thesis (Amazon) in 1977, three years before he shot to fame with the suspense fiction novel Il a della Rosa.

Eco – whether you believe it or not – had this knack of turning the most tedious subjects into super intersting reads. This book is no different.

Umberto Eco - How to write a thesis
Umberto Eco

The fact that it remains in print since its first publication in Italy is testimony to its enduring appeal. It’s been published in 17 languages all over the world ever since.

I will be candid with you, How to write a thesis is not meant for everyone. It is strictly a need-based book.

If you are embarking upon a research career, then I can’t emphasize enough how significant this book could be to you.

A doctoral thesis is especially considered a daunting endeavor. This book will help you grasp the entire alchemy of writing a thesis.

However, don’t buy this book thinking of it as a panacea to all your needs. You are still going to write that thesis on your own, this book only provides the roadmap.

In short, Umberto Eco teaches you how to:

  • Constitute a thesis
  • Choose the topic and organize a work schedule
  • Conduct bibliographical research
  • Organize the study material
  • Format the thesis

Eco shares his expertise with the readers helping them choose their topics. He opines about the upsides and downsides of choosing between historical and theoretical topics, ancient and contemporary topics, etc.

The central rule to remember and one that Eco repeatedly emphasises is, “You must write a thesis that you are able to write.”

True, this reads like a text book, but the narraritve is not at all humdrum. Eco’s invaluable insights make it peppy and this happens throughout the book.

Here is him on choosing the topic of thesis: “The more you narrow the field, the better and more safely you will work. A clever scholar will set limits, however modest, and produce something definitive within those limits.

The section where Eco explains how to conduct a preliminary reserach in the library forms the crux of the book.

Even if you wish to conduct your research scouring the internet, you’d absolutely love Eco for his deep-dive into the subject.

He strongly advocates creating a bibliographical file for keeping track of your research. In this file, you shall file the postcard-size index cards.

Umberto Eco’s Bibliographical Index Card

You are supposed to write down key information regarding a particular book on each card. For example, you can record such details as the library where the book is available, ISBN number, your own comments etc.

This compilation – if well organized – can be a great reference for any Ph.D student. A bibliography file, notes Umberto Eco, provides the foundation for the final bibliography of your thesis.

Another section in the book which I found quite informative is how to deploy proper methods for writing citations or bibliographical references at the end of a thesis or a research paper.

His goes to length to describe how various citations work.

If you have read this book you are never going to have a problem figuring out how to cite books, journals, newspapers, translated works, classic works, official documents, etc.

The real gem of the book is the penultimate chapter titled Writing the thesis. In it, Eco writes down how-to rules to overcome the hurdles that you may come across. So you have modern day versions of 10-point listicles on the following:

  • How to write a thesis
  • When and how to quote
  • When and how to format footnotes

Every now and then in the book, Eco pitches in with contrarian gems that might make you raise a sceptical eyebrow.

In a later chapter, for instance, he asserts that it is bad taste to thank you your advisor in acknowledgements. He has simply done his job, remarks Eco.


One drawback and the one that also makes this book special – is that it was written in the pre-Internet era.

Over the years, Eco did not make many changes to the narrative of the book.

It continued to sell and translate into other languages even with its nostalgic mentions of typewritten thesis, using index cards and frequenting libraries for doing all the research work.

Don’t jump to conclusions though.

Eco’s system of conducting research and writing a thesis is anything but arcane. On the contrary, it demands critical thinking, rigor and academic humility.

Finally, if you are a novice in the field of research and want some handholding before you learn the ropes, this book will do a marvelous job. It checks all the boxes for the purpose it was written.

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How to write a thesis by Umberto Eco

1 comment

  1. I think anything by Umberto Eco is worth reading at least once. Though I haven’t read this book, I am sure it is as exciting as his other works.

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