I have found myself writing about my dissertation and writing processes in several blog posts lately. Sometimes it is difficult to think about the long, arduous writing process without thinking about poor decisions along the way. I thought this list might help you avoid similar mistakes as you complete your dissertation.
I would have started thinking about my dissertation from day one. If I had started choosing classes and putting together pieces of my dissertation along the way, I would have been much better prepared to write. Instead my two years of classes and two years of studying for comprehensive exams led to basically having to start fresh on my dissertation.
I would have started talking to older graduate students about how they chose their topics (and would have learned from their mistakes). There were students who finished the program quickly, writing their dissertation in a year or less. There were others who started in a direction that they could not finish and left the program without completing it. There were lots of others, like me, who made a few mistakes that caused bumps in the road along the way. It took me four years to write my dissertation, and I could have easily done it in half the time with a good mentor to guide me.
I would have communicated better every step of the way in the dissertation writing process. Professors are there to help. They are vested in your success and want you to finish. Don’t sit and worry about what they think about you and your ability. Honestly ask questions, admit weaknesses, and, above all, take their help when they offer.
I would have chosen a topic less near and dear to my heart. You definitely want to be passionate about your topic. However, I chose one that turned out to be controversial in the community, with strong feelings for and against. Writing on a topic that is emotionally charged can drain you rather than empower you, especially if you know those you care about disagree with you.
I would have agonized less about what people thought and moved quicker to the task of writing. This one is part and parcel of the last two points. If people disagree, don’t be afraid to talk it out with them. You will either see holes in your argument or it will make your argument stronger. Sitting around worrying what others might think is a recipe for delays.
I would have written a little bit every day. I could not make myself accomplish this because of how long it took me to get down to the task of writing. I was distracted by an unclean house, bills to be paid, and the Weather Channel—you name it, I was distracted by it! It forced me to take large chunks of time to write. I am so thankful to my family and workplace for letting me do this. Otherwise I may never have gotten it written. However, it is still more desirable to write daily and keep the topic fresh in your mind.
I would have asked more people to read my dissertation as I wrote. I asked lots of people to read but only once the entire product was finished. That’s a lot of pressure! As a result, readers cleaned up rather than challenging places that just did not work. I probably should have hired a good dissertation editing service also. A few embarrassing errors slipped through even my most careful proofreading efforts.
I would have started attending dissertation defenses early in the process to see that students really do finish their programs! The stress and pressure is overwhelming enough for a student. But to have a fear lurking that somehow I might be rejected in a defense after all that work is enough to consume a student at times. So go see others succeed and celebrate with them! This might be the place to meet a mentor to help you get to the same place of success.
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Knowing when to quote and when to paraphrase is quite an art. Basically, you don’t want to string a whole bunch of long quotes together, with a few of your own sentences connecting them, and call it a researched essay. You want to use quotes sparingly, to support your points. Paraphrasing is useful, but be careful that you don’t find yourself endlessly paraphrasing and not writing much of your own thoughts and words either. When you do paraphrase, you often need to give a citation as well.
The guiding principle: Is it your prior knowledge or not?
You must cite even material you’ve paraphrased if that paraphrased passage—whether it’s a sentence or several paragraphs—is not your knowledge. The concept of ‘your’ knowledge is very important. It’s an honor system in which you acknowledge that as you are writing you are immediately referring to the material at hand. In other words, if you have to look back and forth from an article or book to the computer screen as you are working to put a passage in your own words, then you must cite it. But if you read something days before, and studied it, so that when you’re writing your essay you’re able to do so without looking at those notes or that article, then it’s become your knowledge and you need not cite it.
There’s one exception to that, however. And that’s if what you’re writing is an original idea or thesis. You must give credit to those who have influenced your thinking. For example, take the following sentence. “The Tubes was an early-punk rock band from the 70’s and 80’s.” That’s a fact and you need not cite your source.
However, take this sentence: “All punk rock originated with the Tubes.” That’s a thesis, an idea, someone’s opinion. In that case, you have to cite your source, giving credit to the person who’s making that claim.
Learn more so you can quote less
So…how do you avoid an overreliance upon quoting and paraphrasing? Don’t ask an editing service to do that for you. That’s cheating. Do your own research, reading, and studying to become knowledgeable in the subject, so that when you sit down to write, a lot of the material comes from you, from inside, and not from your notes and sources. You need to KNOW the subject well enough so that the words you type are YOUR words, your ideas…your knowledge.
Thus, that underscores the importance of really doing your homework… literally. Read and study the subject. Make yourself a legitimate expert in the subject. Then you’ll have something to say that’s your ideas, your words, not just the ideas and words of your sources.
Give credit where credit is due
Of course, to be truly professional you must meticulously document your sources. Why? To give credit where credit is due. To protect yourself against charges of academic dishonesty. To enhance your own credibility. And to provide your readers with the source information should they care to read more about the subject.
Working on magazines for several years now, the most common complaint I hear from new writers is how short magazine articles are. Some actually complain at the word count, as if we might suddenly double it just for them. The truth is that it is much harder to write more concisely and takes skill to do so. If you don’t have a good editing service to help out, here are a few tips you can use for writing concisely. They’ll help no matter if you are working on a magazine article or dissertation.
Identify the major components of your work.
Too often people just start writing without taking stock of what direction to take. For magazine articles, this is usually not only the main body of the article but also sidebars and pull quotes. Other types of writing have similar extras. Your dissertation has footnotes, bibliography, and appendices. Pay attention to details such as source materials along the way. If you focus on these things from the beginning, you will better be able to handle your task without having to go back later.
Outline your project.
Your outline is the skeleton of your writing. It holds it together and supports all the details. For a magazine, it is your title, deck, subheads, and sidebar titles. For your dissertation, subheadings are not that different from the subheads in a magazine article, just multiplied in length, number, and level of complexity.
Cut out unnecessary details.
For magazine articles you may have to cut extra illustrations beyond what is necessary to communicate your point. For any writing, there are extra idioms and phrases that become colloquial habits but are not necessary. Any illustrations that are perceived as extra will be cut first by an editor, so you might as well edit them out early in your writing process.
Limit the scope.
When you write for a magazine, you certainly can’t expect the article to be an exhaustive coverage of a topic. The same is true even for a dissertation. For dissertations, there will be extra research that is good but might be outside the scope of your current project. Knowing how to bracket writing scope and even save extras for later is a skill any writer can use.
Keep the main thing the main thing.
Establish your thesis statement and filter every detail, every argument, and every illustration through the thesis of your paper. It will help you stay on track, keeping a check and balance on the things of lesser importance. If need be, post your thesis statement somewhere prominent so that it is a visual reminder to you to write accordingly.
Focus on the audience.
What you write is largely dependent upon for whom you are writing. Don’t miss this important detail to help your illustrations and explanation hit right on target.
Watch the grammar.
Sometimes writers are too wordy because they use words that don’t really matter. Watch words that repeat and trim out the unnecessary ones. Some common problems are words like that and very. Read your work aloud and you will find extra verbiage you can cut and make your writing more concise. That’s our job here. So if you feel you do need help, consider using our editing service to give your writing that extra assist
To borrow a trite analogy, learning to use APA [or any documentation style, for that matter] is like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you understand the mechanics, including how to shift, balance, and stop, the rest is easy. The first step is to purchase, and actually read, an APA manual, either APA5 or APA6, depending on your university’s requirements. Granted, it is not a riveting work but essential. If the thought of reading a reference book causes chills to dance down your spine, it is likely time to seek professional dissertation editing help … not for your phobia but for editing your work.
Based on many years of editing dissertations, I can offer a few essential points that candidates frequently overlook. The top fifteen below may be helpful:
- All references in the text must have a comparable listing on the reference pages and vice versa. Each mention of an author’s name must have an identical spelling for each use.
- Et al. is Latin for ‘and others’; thus, it applies only to three or more authors of the same work. All authors [unless a number in excess of six] should be listed for the first in text citation; if the citation is for two or three authors, all names should appear in each citation.
- All direct quotes in text must have a page number (p.). Page numbers are not required on paraphrased material.
- If referring to the same author in closely connected sentences, it is not necessary to use the author’s date in subsequent citations.
- If websites have no author, begin the reference with the title of the material you retrieved and use that information as the in text citation.
- Listing databases [Ebsco, LexusNexus, etc.] as a source of retrieval is not required on the reference page. The website address is required.
- If you are using APA6, it is not necessary to use a retrieval date on websites.[Retrieved from http://xxxxxx]
- If you are using APA6, locate the doi number, if available, on periodicals. Add it at the end of the citation without a period. [doi: xxxxx]
- Eschew passive language but tread lightly. It is not enough to employ an active verb if the subject of the sentence is incapable of the implied action [anthropomorphism].
- If you are creating a proposal, refer to your work in future tense; if you are writing a completed dissertation, refer to your work in past tense.
- Normally, all references to previous studies are in past tense.
- In qualitative dissertations, you should avoid personal pronouns. Although it is sometimes necessary, to employ the rather stilted phrase, ‘the researcher,’ it is preferable to using I. Qualitative dissertations offer more leeway on author referents but ‘playing’ with sentence construction can help you avoid using either I or ‘the researcher’.
- Double check your Table of Contents not only to check correct page numbers but also to confirm identical wording as your text headings.
- Tables have labels at the top; figures have labels at the bottom.
- Let the computer work for you. If you are using Word, you can go to file and page setup to indicate consistent margins throughout your document. The paragraph tab under format can produce clean margin indentations and create a hanging indent for those pesky references. Under the insert tab, you can indicate page breaks, which rid your work of widowed headings and subheadings.
To keep your bicycle and your dissertation editing running smoothly may require additional maintenance. In the case of your dissertation, this means discovering whether your university committee or graduate school has exceptions to APA and tweaking your work accordingly. Normally, the exceptions relate to spacing and specific required headings within each chapter but, occasionally, there are exceptions to tense selection or other peculiarities. If need be, seek the help of a dissertation editing service.
This should provide a starting checklist for your work. But it’s no substitute for the manual. So if you’re a grad student or scholar, pick one up and enjoy it! Joke. It can be pretty dense reading, but that’s the name of the academic game.