Writing a dissertation or thesis can be traumatic enough without making it more difficult than it needs to be. The first two documents you should find, read, and follow are (a) the university’s dissertation policies and procedures handbook and (b) the university’s style and formatting guide. The policies and procedures handbook contains the details of the dissertation editing process from writing your preliminary proposal to having your final paper professionally bound and microfilmed and everything in between. The style and formatting guide contains all the nitty gritty details for ensuring your dissertation meets the publication requirements your university. Often the two items are combined into one document, but do not assume this is so. Check all the resources available to you through your university to be sure you have the information contained in these two documents.
When it comes to writing the final paper, the style and formatting guide will be your best friend. Find it, read it, and follow it. Doing so will minimize the myriad potential problems when you assume that writing this paper is just a longer version of any basic research paper. Should you choose to hire an editor, this is also the first document he/she will request to ensure the editing is done properly.
What does the style and formatting guide contain? A brief glance at this list will show you how important it is:
- Organizational structure of the final dissertation
- Margin requirements
- Footers and headers
- Font style and size
- Line spacing
- Required preliminary pages
- Headings and subheadings
- Acceptability of widows and orphans
- Quotations (block and run in)
- In text citations
- Footnotes and end notes
- Tables and figures
- Reference list or bibliography
- Biographical sketch or vita
- Templates and examples (sometimes templates are in a separate document)
As you can see, the physical appearance of your dissertation is dependent on the information contained in the style and formatting guide. You will do yourself a favor, save your editor much time, and possibly save yourself some money by setting up your dissertation files according to the requirements in the style and formatting guide before you begin to write anything. In fact, to avoid the mysterious emergence of font styles and colors you didn’t intend to use that sometimes occurs when numerous changes are made to a document, set the defaults in your word processing program to the requirements for your dissertation. That way, anytime you add to your dissertation, you won’t have to worry about resetting margins, spacing, and font style and size. You will already have it done.
By becoming thoroughly acquainted with your school’s style and formatting guide early in your doctoral program and setting the defaults to those requirements before you begin writing your dissertation, you will make the whole process much easier. Use the school guide in conjunction with the professional style manuals required for your department (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) to set up your paper correctly from the outset. You will then be able to concentrate on communicating your content.
And remember: If you do choose to hire a professional dissertation editor to proof your dissertation, be sure to include a copy of the style and formatting guide or a link to the page within the school’s Web site where the editor may access it. Having access to this document allows your editor to ensure a finished document that meets all the publication requirements of your university.
When you begin to write, whether a dissertation or a novel, you must fight the urge to edit your work too soon. Your first responsibility must be to get your ideas down on paper or in a computer file. Only then should you make a concerted effort to edit your work.
Ideas generally do not flow smoothly or sequentially. They often come in spurts that allow you to write several paragraphs to several pages without stopping to think about what should come next. One idea may also trigger related ideas, like shoots on a tree limb that will either grow into separate branches or be pruned to keep the tree shaped and healthy.
Don’t stop the creative process. When you stop the flow of ideas prematurely to wordsmith a sentence, second guess the name of a character, or determine the appropriateness of the content you are writing, you may be terminating your creative thinking process prematurely. You can become so fixated on ensuring you have the perfect word or the most appropriate name that the plot line of your novel or the next connecting idea in your chapter is removed from your short-term memory bank, possibly never to resurface (at least in that particular form). What is left is a well-crafted sentence that goes nowhere, often accompanied by deep frustration at again not knowing how to continue because you have also lost your momentum.
Instead, keep writing. Don’t worry if you are suddenly developing a different but related idea. Don’t worry about word choice. If another word pops in mind as you are writing, note it in the margin (if you are a pen-and-paper writer) or in parentheses at the end of the sentence or in a comment using the track changes feature of your word processing program.
Reread & Evaluate. When you have completed your writing for the day or whatever time period you have set aside for writing, reread your material. As you reread, begin identifying what works and what doesn’t. Substitute the words, names, or other things you noted to see what works best. Note anything else you need to think about more before changing or developing more fully. Work on those areas later.
If you have changed subjects and begun developing a different idea, move that material to a later point in your writing. Either physically cut and paste it into the appropriate section or, if you haven’t begun to section yet, move it to the end of your writing to be used later (or not).
Resist the urge to edit intensely until you have your first draft complete. This draft may be the entire chapter of a dissertation or thesis, one section of a paper, a chapter in a book, or an entire article or essay.
Then do a preliminary edit. This edit is strictly for content and organization. A well punctuated sentence with appropriate word choice that does not contribute to the main idea of your paragraph is still a poor sentence, so concentrate on content. Look at the flow of ideas. Look at the relationships between ideas. Identify what has to be developed more fully. Identify anything that is off topic. Look at word choice and clarity of meaning. Based on what you find, return to research and writing mode to fill in missing information to ensure the content moves smoothly from one idea to the next.
Note: This is still not the time to work intensely on nitty-gritty details such as punctuation and capitalization. Correct or change items that you see immediately as you read, but do not get bogged down in the details. Once you have your content under control, then you can begin editing in earnest.
Editing Dissertations, Theses, and Works of Nonfiction
In your second edit, look primarily for clarity and tone. Do your sentences make sense? Have you used the most appropriate word choice? Have you used appropriate transitions to get from one idea to the next? Are your sentences so long that they become difficult to follow? Have you used the correct verb tense? Have you used active voice? Have you eliminated all contractions? Have you used abbreviations and acronyms appropriately? If you are writing a dissertation, be sure you have organized each chapter according to university requirements. Be sure each section contains the required information.
Also check to see you have eliminated possible plagiarism. Make sure all quotations are clearly punctuated (often people forget to put the ending quotation marks in) and that the citation for each quotation includes not only the author and publication date but also the page number on which the quotation appears. Make sure any ideas that are not completely your own (e.g., conclusions based on your findings or personal interpretations) are credited appropriately. Better to cite something than to overlook citing something! Then be sure you have all the sources you cite listed in your reference list or bibliography.
What’s next? After this second edit, you may be ready for the final edit or you may need to return to research/writing mode. Your decision depends on whether you have areas that still need to be finessed in terms of style, beefed up in terms of specific content, or moved or removed because the material does not work in its current location.
The 3rd Edit—That’s right, 3rd. Once you are sure your content is as near perfect as you can get it, you are ready for the third edit. This edit should focus on nitty-gritty details. You may consider this proofreading; and, if you have been successful in your previous edits, this may be the case. However, if you had to redo content, you may be combining proofreading with the areas outlined in the second edit. In this third edit, focus on grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing, usage, sentence structure, and any of the stylistic requirements your publisher (or university) expects.
Finally, ensure that your reference list and your citations match. Generally, any work cited must be placed in your reference list and any source given in the reference list must be cited within the main text at least once. Bibliographies may include works not cited; however, check your university dissertation formatting and style guide to be sure this is allowed.
Works of Fiction
Writing fiction is a bit different from nonfiction, but the basic premises are similar. You should have some kind of plot outline to guide your story development just as doctoral candidates have the specific chapter outlines to ensure all the content in included in the final paper. However, you have more freedom to play with your material and let your story spin itself than writers of nonfiction.
Write first; edit later. Just as with nonfiction, you want to get your ideas down before wordsmithing and reorganizing your material. Unlike nonfiction, you have a myriad of details that you must keep straight as you move through your storyline, from the color of the hero’s eyes to the car used in the bank heist get away.
However, your first priority should be in getting the story roughed out in as much precision as possible. If you get to the end of a scene and aren’t sure where to go from there but know that later a particular event must occur, jump to that portion of the book and develop it. If you want to frame your story using a flashback technique but have difficulty creating the transition, consider writing the whole story in chronological order first and then playing with framing to create the tension and tone you desire to keep your reader reading.
Let your characters write their story. You often hear published authors talk about their characters taking on lives of their own. Even though these authors begin with plot outlines, their characters dictate the action, often changing the original storyline completely. So think like your characters when you get to a point where your story is not moving forward. What would John do here? How would Mary react? What would happen if Tim and Stephanie divorced? Moved to another city? Adopted a child? Were involved in an accident?
Reread & Evaluate. After you have completed your story, begin rereading to see how the story flows. Identify what needs to be developed and what needs to be removed. Examine not only the progression of your story but also the consistency of content and characterization details.
Profile your characters. In terms of characterization, keep a file for each character as you write. Note the person’s physical and personality characteristics and background information. If you change someone’s characterization as the story develops, be sure there is a reason for the change (e.g., the outgoing little boy becomes withdrawn because of his father’s disappearance, a divorced woman lies about her age and former experience because she is desperate for a job; the accountant changes his physical appearance to escape the mob). Otherwise, rewrite to eliminate the inconsistencies.
You will need to keep locations and timelines consistent. For example, the physical layout of the main character’s apartment must remain the same throughout a story unless part of the storyline is changing its arrangement. Note in your file, even if you never mention it in the actual story, its complete layout. Draw it, including doors and windows, furniture placement, colors and décor, east-west orientation. Then, if you have to have a character exit the apartment because of a fire, you aren’t having him crawl out on to a balcony that did not exist earlier in the book. Similarly, you won’t have a character seeing the sun rising over the skyline from his bedroom at the beginning of the chapter and then seeing the sun setting in the horizon from the same bedroom later in the book.
Timelines must be realistic. Draw one for your story, and possibly for each main character, to make sure their comings and goings are doable. It’s hard for someone to live fulltime in New York in 1963 and fulltime in Florida in 1965 when the character moved to New York in 1963 and lived there for five years. Either the dates have to change or you have to create a scenario in which this is possible. Even in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, consistency is important to create and maintain the suspension of belief necessary for readers to stay engaged in these storylines.
Now edit and proofread. Once you complete your story, including elimination of any inconsistencies, you are ready to proofread and edit your work for the technical aspects of writing. Even during this time, you should be attuned to the flow of the story, especially dialogue. You should also look carefully at the way you have divided the story into parts, sections, or chapters. These should reflect not only the appropriate structure for your story (location, time, character) but also the creation of anticipation for the next page in the story: Do you maintain the momentum of the story? Does the chapter end with a mini cliff hanger so that the reader wants to know what happens next? Is the character sufficiently charismatic that the reader will keep reading to see what he or she will do next? Is the situation plausible enough that the reader will want to continue reading the story? Does the story flow, especially if you use flashbacks or other time devices that disrupt the chronological order of the events in the plot?
If need be, employ an editing service. It’s no secret we often can’t see our own writing’s flaws. Most of the world’s best writers have an editor. At Edit911, our dissertation editing service and book editing service has helped over 23,000 people improve and maximize their writing.
Writing is a process, one that is slightly different for every person. However, editing your writing too soon may result in abandoning your story or dissertation out of a sense of frustration rather than in completing the finely crafted work you want to create. Concentrate first on the creative part of the writing process. Get your ideas down. Then work on flow, framing, and organization. Look at the nitty-gritty details of the conventions of writing last. Doing so will help you fulfill your writing goals.
I really didn’t have a topic for my dissertation as I finished my coursework. I knew that teaching was one of my strengths, but research was not. I had earned my teaching certification as an undergraduate. Then during seminary I found myself gravitating to topics relate to education, human development, and spiritual development, but I just wasn’t sure the direction I should go for my research.
Then it happened—fatherhood! When I found out that we were expecting I began that 9-month process of reading everything my hands could find related to parenting. My life started to take shape as a parent-to-be. Suddenly it clicked. I would research Christian parenting theories and how they impact faith and childhood development. This was perfect for me, bringing together my past studies and experience along with my current life situation. Becoming a parent was the thing that brought focus to my life and to my research.
In doing so I found my voice. I was living this search for the best parenting theory in my personal life and in my research. This topic was almost too personal at times, but it was definitely me, through and through. Life experience had led me to this place. But is this for everyone? If so, how can you express your voice and passion in finding the right topic for your dissertation?
Look at your experience. You will probably find yourself working in your areas of interest long before graduate school. Think of what interests you and turn your attention and studies in that direction. Your experience and interests are part of your passion, who you truly are, and hopefully can become part of your dissertation.
Consider your strengths and weaknesses. You do not want to work on a dissertation that requires skills you do not possess. You may find that you can do so for a small time, but this effort will wear on your passion as well as the rest of you. You can talk with your professors honestly about your strengths and weaknesses and trust their guidance.
Meet others with similar writing, work, and research. Place yourself in similar situations with those who are writing and researching projects that interest you. Ask yourself if you would you be happy examining that topic for months or years. That is the reality of what you will do, so do not pick a topic or scope that is so difficult that you cannot stand to work on it every day.
It’s OK to switch directions. If you are heading down the wrong path, it can be devastating. Putting work, time, and money into research that proves wrong for you and your project is frustrating. Taking stock of your research whether changing scope or completely changing plans is OK. You will not be the first to do it. Better to find your sweet spot early in the process than to do so later.
Find the happy medium between passion and obsession. Be able to distance yourself from your research and disassociate criticisms of your project from your personal feelings. Not being able to do so is setting you up for many difficulties along the way. A healthy passion means that your work inspires you to action and motivates you, but that you can step back and examine your work when needed. Inability to stop and step away from your work will interfere with daily life and should serve as a warning sign to gain perspective.
Nothing is a bigger enemy of good writing than fuzzy thinking. Nothing can quite replace putting appropriate time and thought into your writing to make your points and word choice clear and concise! Take the following steps.
Picture your audience. Name a member of your audience. Give him an age, name, and face if necessary. Think of him as you write. Think about how your writing will interest him and help him achieve what you want him to accomplish after reading your work.
Review your assignment. If you see your audience and know what you want the end consumer to get out of it, then the next step is to examine the requirements to get across your message. Have all requirements squared away from the beginning: word count, purpose, goal, technique, etc. Leave nothing to chance.
Set up your document. Create your word processing file. Set up your document preferences: proper margins, font, font size, tabs, and other settings so that you don’t have to go back and redo anything.
Write a thesis statement or hypothesis. Keep that statement in focus for your entire research. If a statement does not help you get across your thesis, or help evaluate your hypothesis, then delete it.
Outline your argument and the steps you will take. Have a plan for your writing and provide this sketch before you fill in the details. This will help you, especially if you are a writer who typically starts writing first and shaping later.
Ask at least 3 people to read your writing. The more eyes you have on your writing, the more problems you are likely to catch on the front end. Be willing to take the critique of others. Allow people to correct everything from the details (like grammar and punctuation) to the big picture ideas and assumptions you make (to keep from incorrect assumptions and faulty logic).
Write your first draft. Write it freely. You can self-edit as you go if you wish. Sometimes it’s great just to get the ideas out. After you have your first draft, let it sit for at least a day. Leaving this time after your first draft will help you gain some perspective and help your read it fresh.
Read it again. Look at it from a big picture point of view, seeing if it makes sense or if anything needs more attention.
Do a final edit. Read it, editing all the details. Trim to the word count and cut out unnecessary words and phrases.
Run spell and grammar check. This can help your writing more than you know. Spell check finds those nasty misspelled words. Grammar check can find any pesky subject-verb agreement issues or help you find that easy-to-miss passive voice that may sound correct to your ear.
Ask one other person you trust to read it again. You can never get too much feedback. Sometimes your professor will offer to do this for you if you can finish your writing early.
Turn it in and reward yourself!
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.