General Information on Writing Thesis

The Writing Program Thesis

In any serious graduate writing program, students demonstrate they can produce creative or professional writing at a high level of literary or journalistic skill and ambition. The M.A. in Writing Program requires that students finish their studies with a course called Thesis & Publication. The course has two goals: the completion of a successful thesis and a challenging, enriching capstone experience that helps students prepare for a writing life.

Students must complete all eight courses in the program before enrolling in Thesis. Students may take a second, additional course along with Thesis with the permission of the Writing Program Director, but this second course must be in addition to the program’s required courses.

The Thesis semester combines a Thesis course, with a Thesis course instructor, with intense one-on-one work between the student and a Thesis advisor. The course meets several weeks, but not every week. Usually there is one section offered in Washington, D.C. and one section offered in Baltimore. The sections are the same in content and you should register for the section whose location is more convenient for you.

The Thesis and Publication course number is 490.801. Thesis is offered only in the Fall and Spring semesters. Once you have completed all eight program courses and are ready to take Thesis, you may enroll any time during the open registration period. At least thirty days before the course starts, you should complete and submit a Thesis Planning form.

Students must prepare a draft of their thesis before they start Thesis & Publication. That first draft will be submitted at the second class of the semester, and will be the focus of a term-long revision process, with a Final Draft prepared near the end of the course. The faculty Thesis Committee reviews that Final Draft and either approves it or directs more revisions. A final Thesis is submitted to the university for permanent filing.

The Thesis should contain work that has been written and revised during the student’s time in the Writing Program. All work included in the Thesis should have been reviewed in a class or by an instructor, and it should be revised prior to Thesis. When selecting work to be included in your thesis, we recommend you choose a combination of your best writing and writing you most want to work on revising during the Thesis process; revision is the focus of your work with your Thesis advisor. Fiction students may include chapters from a novel or short stories or a mix of the two; nonfiction students may include chapters from a nonfiction book or individual articles or a combination. Chapters from a book do not have to be consecutive.

Students should not worry about special thesis form or format for this first draft, with these exceptions: Please consecutively number each page for the draft, even if the page numbers are added by hand, and please include a rough draft of an Introduction that provides basic information about your goals, a synopsis for any book excerpts, or other information a thesis advisor might need. To focus on quality over quantity, first drafts should be between 40-60 double-spaced pages of text. See the Q&A below for more information about the thesis course and how to select thesis material.

Remember, a Writing Program thesis should contain some of your best, most-revised work from previous courses. You should not submit the same versions submitted in an earlier class. Extensive revision is required before the first thesis draft. The thesis term is spent revising this draft under the guidance of an assigned thesis advisor.

Below is a Q&A about the Writing Program thesis, thesis course, and related issues. Students who have questions after they review these notes and the information below should contact their advisor, Mark Farrington ( for Fiction and Karen Houppert ( for Nonfiction.

Why do we have a thesis course in addition to a thesis revision and approval process?

The Writing Program considers Thesis & Publication an essential capstone experience.  In addition to the individual thesis process, we want a final, communal course that presents a challenging end to what we consider a demanding program. The course prepares students for a writing life, whether artistic or professional.

What happens in Thesis & Publication besides the thesis itself?

The course is a busy one. Students engage in forward-looking discussions on the writing life, attend literary or professional events, submit writing for publication, participate in a program-capping roundtable debate, and rehearse and conduct a public reading. Students submit queries, proposals, or writing to editors, agents, or publications. Class discussions and exercises challenge students to consider the discipline and dedication needed for writing success and to examine their role in the community of letters. The course ends in the celebratory public reading attended by family, friends, fellow students, faculty, and alumni.

What does the Writing Program generally expect in a thesis?

A lot. The thesis is supposed to be a hurdle for any graduate student. In a way, the thesis and the thesis course is the Writing Program’s final exam in which students prove their writing is ready for publication at the highest levels individually possible. The program has composed a formal set of goals and expectations for a thesis.

So how long does my thesis need to be?

For fiction and nonfiction, the First Draft should be between 40 and 60 typed, double-spaced pages of writing text, excluding References and title/table of contents pages. This length limit allows students to focus on quality over quantity. For the First Draft, don’t worry about formatting, other than these exceptions: consecutively number each page for the draft, even if the page numbers are added by hand, and please include a rough draft of an Introduction that provides basic information about your goals, a synopsis for any book excerpts, or other information a thesis advisor might need.

What writing can become part of my thesis?

Any writing that arises from Writing Program courses or other program work can be part of your thesis, provided it has been reviewed by an instructor, and is revised at least once before going into your thesis. While most thesis work comes from writing workshops, any course, from core courses to electives, can produce thesis material. Each individual thesis piece should be a complete story, article, essay, or chapter; exercises should not be submitted unless they resulted in completed forms. Students who want to include writing from outside their chosen concentration must obtain permission from the program director; only a small part of the thesis may be such work. Finally, quality is always better than quantity; writers get no extra credit for achieving maximum length in a thesis.

Specifically, how do I choose writing for my thesis?

We recommend that you choose a combination of the very best and most revised writing you produced in the program, along with writing that you most want to work on revising during the Thesis semester. Thesis is a revision process: no new work of any significant length should be included, although we understand new pages might enter into an established piece during revision. Remember that quality is more important than quantity. The thesis can be a collection of related or unrelated work, part of a novel or other book, or a combination.

Isn’t there a special format for how a thesis should look?

Yes, but you don’t need to worry about that for the First Draft. Just make sure that draft has consecutive page numbers and perhaps a rough draft of an introduction, to deliver any possible themes or goals for your writing to your thesis advisor. You will be given all Writing Program and University guidelines for format, form, margins, etc. during the thesis course. You also will get a sample thesis and all sorts of procedures for thesis printing and submission. None of that applies until the Final Draft submitted later in the term.

Can I look at theses that have already been completed?

Sure. They are on file in Advanced Academic Program offices in Washington and Baltimore. Stop by to take a look.

Can I see copies of PennUnion?

Yes. Copies are available for sale for a small fee, at each thesis reading. They also are available for sale at Writing Program offices in Baltimore or Washington. Back copies are available for most issues.

I’m shy and have never read my writing in public. Do I have to join in the public reading?

Yes. But don’t worry. Students rehearse all term in front of their classmates. We “workshop” each other’s readings, and students can try out different material. By the time the reading nears, you will be ready.

After the reading, do I have to attend commencement?

No, commencement isn’t required. Everyone is mailed a diploma if you finish all degree requirements and meet all of the university’s requirements. However, we encourage all students to participate in commencement, which is held once a year in May on the main Homewood campus. It’s a fancy, well-done ceremony that celebrates your achievement in earning a master’s degree from one of America’s great universities. And yes, you get to wear the robe and funny hat.

Do I have to wait until May to get my diploma?

No. Students who complete their thesis and all other requirements in Fall will be mailed their diploma a few weeks later. However, everyone can join in the commencement, even if you already have received your diploma. Spring thesis students will get their diploma a few weeks after the May commencement. If you have other questions, contact your faculty advisor.