This post is part of my "research" series.

Eco, Umberto. How to Write a Thesis. MIT Press, 2015. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. Original publication: Come si fa una tesi di laurea: le materie umanistiche. Bompiani, 1977.

  1. Why
  2. In one paragraph
  3. Table of Contents
  4. An alternative outline
  5. Highlights
    1. Rigor and scope
    2. An Experiment in the Library of Alessandria
    3. Academic pride
    4. Time
    5. Less wrong
    6. Why you have to annotate
    7. Structure of the bibliography
  6. General commentary


Mainly, because it was there. I read it years ago, and it stuck with me. I also respect Eco. I've enjoyed several of his novels, and I know he is well regarded as an academic.

In one paragraph

Eco's advices how to write a rigorous (read "exhaustive") piece of original research in 6 months to 3 years, depending on ambition. Main skills taught: selecting a topic, using a library, organizing material, producing an italian-university-standard thesis manuscript. Note that Eco does not explain how to actually come up with or prove the thesis, he just focuses on support skills.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Francesco Erspamer ix
Translators’ Foreword xv
Introduction to the Original 1977 Edition xix
Introduction to the 1985 Edition xxiii

    1.1 What Is a Thesis, and Why Is It Required? 1
    1.2 For Whom Is This Book Written? 4
    1.3 The Usefulness of a Thesis after Graduation 5
    1.4 Four Obvious Rules for Choosing a Thesis Topic 7
    2.1 Monograph or Survey? 9
    2.2 Historical or Theoretical? 13
    2.3 Ancient or Contemporary? 16
    2.4 How Long Does It Take to Write a Thesis? 17
    2.5 Is It Necessary to Know Foreign Languages? 22
    2.6 “Scientific” or Political? 26
        2.6.1 What Does It Mean to Be Scientific? 26
        2.6.2 Writing about Direct Social Experience 32
        2.6.3 Treating a “Journalistic” Topic with Scientific Accuracy 35
    2.7 How to Avoid Being Exploited by Your Advisor 42
    3.1 The Availability of Primary and Secondary Sources 45
        3.1.1 What Are the Sources of a Scientific Work? 45
        3.1.2 Direct and Indirect Sources 50
    3.2 Bibliographical Research 54
        3.2.1 How to Use the Library 54
        3.2.2 Managing Your Sources with the Bibliographical Index Card File 58
        3.2.3 Documentation Guidelines 62
        3.2.4 An Experiment in the Library of Alessandria 79
        3.2.5 Must You Read Books? If So, What Should You Read First? 103
    4.1 The Table of Contents as a Working Hypothesis 107
    4.2 Index Cards and Notes 115
        4.2.1 Various Types of Index Cards and Their Purpose 115
        4.2.2 Organizing the Primary Sources 123
        4.2.3 The Importance of Readings Index Cards 126
        4.2.4 Academic Humility 142
    5.1 The Audience 145
    5.2 How to Write 147
    5.3 Quotations 156
        5.3.1 When and How to Quote: 10 Rules 156
        5.3.2 Quotes, Paraphrases, and Plagiarism 164
    5.4 Footnotes 167
        5.4.1 The Purpose of Footnotes 167
        5.4.2 The Notes and Bibliography System 170
        5.4.3 The Author-Date System 174
    5.5 Instructions, Traps, and Conventions 179
    5.6 Academic Pride 183
    6.1 Formatting the Thesis 186
        6.1.1 Margins and Spaces 186
        6.1.2 Underlining and Capitalizing 188
        6.1.3 Sections 190
        6.1.4 Quotation Marks and Other Signs 191
        6.1.5 Transliterations and Diacritics 195
        6.1.6 Punctuation, Foreign Accents, and Abbreviations 199
        6.1.7 Some Miscellaneous Advice 204
    6.2 The Final Bibliography 208
    6.3 The Appendices 212
    6.4 The Table of Contents 214
Notes 225

An alternative outline

Broadly, how this book reads from my perspective.

1. "Stupid government, setting economic incentives for degrees and ruining it for smart people" (ch1)
2. Choosing a topic,
    or "How to Please an Academic Committee in a Human Timeframe" (ch2)
3. Bibliographical research
    1. Intelligent use of libraries (ss 3.2.1, 3.2.4)
    2. Skimming (p58)
4. Staying organized,
    or "How to Juggle a Hundred Books Without Getting Lost"
    1. Card systems (s3.2.2, s4.2)
    2. Annotation, underlining, and highlighting (s4.2.2)
    3. Outline first (s4.1, p107-108)
6. Formal requirements and advice on style (ch5-6)


The good, the bad, and the extremely revealing. Direct quotations in no particular order. Some of these ideas may not be discussed at length, but it still seemed worthwile to put them here.

Rigor and scope

[…] the rigor of a thesis is more important than it's scope […] it is better to build a serious trading card collection from 1960 to the present than to create a cursory art collection. The thesis shares this same criterion.

(s1.3, p5)

At the very least, writing a thesis is like training the memory. […] If a student works rigorously, no topic is truly foolish, and the student can draw useful conclusions even from a remote or peripheral topic.

(s1.4, p7)

[…] realistically I would not choose a topic unless I already knew: (a) where I could find the sources, (b) whether they were easily accessible, and (c) whether I was capable of fully understanding them.

(s3.1, p47)

This is my main beef with this work. As Natalie Wynn (of ContraPoints fame) puts it "[…] you end up having to narrow in on a research topic that’s really specialized. So specialized, in fact, that it strains the human ability to give a shit."

An Experiment in the Library of Alessandria

Now that we have imagined this hypothetical picture, I will try to put myself in this student’s shoes. In fact, I am writing these very lines in a small town in southern Monferrato, 14.5 miles away from Alessandria, a city with 90,000 inhabitants, a public library, an art gallery, and a museum. The closest university is one hour away in Genoa, and in an hour and a half I can travel to Turin or Pavia, and in three to Bologna. This location already puts me in a privileged situation, but for this experiment I will not take advantage of the university libraries. I will work only in Alessandria.

(s3.2.4, p80)

This entire section is a gem. Eco grabs you by the arm and shows you how he does it, step by step.

Academic pride

On your specific topic, you are humanity’s functionary who speaks in the collective voice. Be humble and prudent before opening your mouth, but once you open it, be dignified and proud. […] on the topic you have chosen […] you must be the utmost living authority.

(s5.6, p184)


[How long does it take to write a thesis?] Let us state from the outset: no longer than three years and no less than six months. This period includes not just the time necessary to write the final draft, which may take only a month or two weeks, depending on the student’s work habits. Instead, this period begins at the genesis of the first idea and ends at the delivery of the final work.

(s2.4, p17)

Less wrong

A good researcher can enter a library without having the faintest idea about scholarship on a particular topic, and exit knowing more about it, if only a little more.

(s3.2.1, p54)

Why you have to annotate

Readings index cards are useful for organizing critical literature. I would not use index cards, or at least not the same kind of index cards, to organize primary sources.

(s4.2.2, p123)

[Filing references to primary sources] would require a huge effort, because you would have to practically catalog the texts page by page.

(s4.2.2, p125)

Structure of the bibliography

As you can see, the format [of the final bibliography] will change according to the thesis type, and the goal is to organize your bibliography so that it allows readers to identify and distinguish between primary and secondary sources, rigorous critical studies and less reliable secondary sources, etc.

(s6.2, 209-210)

This fits into a more general theme of academic transparency and fair play. You write your Table of Contents to help your reader navigate. You write your bibliography to give your reader access to all your sources; to either reinterpret them, or criticize your choice of material.

General commentary

Advice on topic selection is entirely irrelevant to me. Sometimes, you face a problem and just have to give it your best.

The index-card files that Eco describes in this book are very similar to the Zettelkasten system12. Eco is a bit abstract about how to apply his system applies to stuff that isn't books, but he shows a few example cards from his own research. Worth looking over.

s3.2.4 "An Experiment in the Library of Alessandria" is Eco picking a topic and showing you how he puts together a bibliography. Very instructive and very welcome. Abstract advice is all well and good, but I'll take commentated examples over them any day.

Eco never defines rigor, and I don't quite understand what he means by it. He claims that thesis work must be rigorous, and he claims that thesis work must be honest, transparent, exhaustive, and original. But he doesn't explain which attributes are parts of rigor, and which are other things a thesis must have. The only exception is exhaustiveness3.

  1. "Zettelkasten" or "Slip-box" is a system of note-taking in which index cards are inserted at arbitrary positions in a collection through the use of a system of branching codes (if you want to add a note between 1 and 2, you can always mark it 1a). This is mean to allow related ideas to cluster with minimal friction. 

  2. Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2017. 

  3. "[…] the rigor of a thesis is more important than it's scope […] it is better to build a serious trading card collection from 1960 to the present than to create a cursory art collection. The thesis shares this same criterion." s1.3, p5