Who knows how effective such advice can ever really be. As I write this, I can still put my hand to a pack of large white index cards I bought 20 years ago, in a fit of nearly fatal PhD anxiety, and never once used. Although the texture of the lost world Eco captures is almost moving now – the scribbled cards, the photocopies, the endless retyping of drafts – it is the state of mind he prescribes that matters, not the moraine of vintage technology that supports it. “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing,” Nabokov said about his own Bristol index cards and Blackwing pencils. You could subtract the last two words from the title of Eco’s book, because at its best it’s a primer in the architectural pleasures of any writing that aspires “to build an object that in principle will serve others”. If Eco is a less inspiring guide to the shape and finish of actual sentences – there are huffy passages about scholars who aspire to prose experiment – that is to be expected in a critic whose style is forever outshone by the likes of Barthes and Calvino . But all three are in love with plans and schemes, which are half of writing, and How to Write a Thesis is a schemer’s dream.
Now, I’m still a bit reluctant to proffer this last recommendation, for a few reasons. First, a terminal master’s ain’t cheap. This means accruing a decent amount of debt and then going to graduate school for a few more years and then, if you’re lucky, getting a job that won’t help all that much in paying down your debt. Second, this approach takes at least two years to execute. You can’t apply to a . program in your first year of an . program, because applications need to be in by January and your master’s program profs won’t know you well enough to draft good letters (that’s why a two-year program is superior). Furthermore, as crazy as this sounds, for most . programs, your . coursework won’t count – you’ll often need to do a certain number of course requirements (it does help intellectually, however). And with all of this, there’s still no guarantee you get accepted.