The writing-editing process
Even though we tend to think of the 'editing phase' as something that comes at the end of the thesis writing process, the reality is that the process of writing a thesis may not be as linear as we think. It does not begin with research, followed by writing, with editing as the final phase. In fact, many of the editing strategies suggested here should be kept in mind from the beginning. Writing is a process through which your ideas develop and change. The process of editing itself should help to further develop your knowledge.
You have to craft your ideas in a way that communicates your argument to your reader. To do this you need to see your writing as your readers will see it. Remember it is your responsibility to guide your reader to see your argument, and editing helps you to see your ideas more clearly.
- Your readers want a sense of structure and coherence.
- Your readers have certain expectations in terms of academic writing style.
- Your readers want to hear the voice of the writer - your voice.
- If English is not your first language you will need strategies in place to overcome language issues.
- Meticulous proofreading is expected of scholarly work.
Here are some practical strategies to help you to look at your thesis on different levels and for different purposes.
Structure and coherence
A well structured thesis should present its argument logically and coherently. Coherence means that your ideas are presented so that your argument is easy to follow. You need to share your intellectual journey with your reader, demonstrating your knowledge, understanding, abilities and depth of thinking.
- Look first at the overall structure of your thesis. Does each section of the thesis perform its proper function? Does it logically and coherently develop your argument?
- Reflect on the purpose of your thesis. Complete this statement and keep it in front of you as you work through your thesis:
In my thesis I am trying to show that...
This should help you to focus on what you want to get across to the reader as clearly and convincingly as possible.
As you near the completion of your thesis, and are writing your abstract, you should check that your claims are clearly outlined.
- Use sections and subsections to establish structure. Does each subsection have a descriptive heading in bold?
- Check that your table of contents corresponds to the major divisions and subdivisions of the text. Headings and subheadings should be clear and explicit. The table of contents should tell you at once if there are any major problems in the logic of your thesis.
- Read the introductory chapter. Does it say why the work is being done? Is the aim clear? Is it clear how the writer (you) intends to achieve this aim? Are the thesis claims clearly outlined? Does the introduction outline the pathway that the reader (examiner) will travel in arriving at the conclusion? You want to provide a road map for your readers in the introduction so that your intentions are clear.
- Read the concluding chapter - does it respond to the aim stated in the introduction? Do the introduction and the conclusion complement each other?
Read the introductory paragraph to each chapter in order. Do they follow logically? Is there a link to the main idea of the previous chapter? Does each introduction foreshadow the argument to be made in the following section or sections clearly?
Look at the conclusion to each chapter. Does each concluding paragraph provide a summary of what the chapter has achieved? Conclusions should not be mere summaries but show how the chapter is advancing the argument as a whole. Does each conclusion foreshadow or link to the following chapter?
Using a highlighter, identify the topic sentences. It is usually found at the start of each paragraph. The topic sentence summarises the central idea of a paragraph and acts as a signpost to what is to follow in the paragraph. If you have a paragraph without a topic sentence, ask yourself what the main point of the paragraph is, and write this up as the topic sentence.
- Check that sentences within each paragraph are arranged in an orderly way so that there is a logical flow of ideas. Paragraphs should not jump from idea to idea, but flow from one logical thought to the next.
- Use linking sentences at the beginning and end of paragraphs to improve the coherence or clarity of your work.
- You can also use key words to draw thematic threads through your thesis. Coherence is supported by the repetition of key words, terms, phrases and ideas. Highlight key words in your thesis statement. Then use these words in your text, particularly in your topic sentences. It will help the reader to stay on track with your argument.
- Check your signposts. As you will be articulating an argument through a long document, you need to signpost your argument to make your work clear and accessible to your readers.
- You can signpost at all levels of text: through chapter headings and subheadings, introducing and concluding paragraphs, paragraphs, sentences, and words. You can use signpost words, phrases and sentences to tell the reader where your writing is going. Simple examples are,'first', 'next' and 'finally'.
- You can give the reader directions or present an overview; you can forecast, recapitulate or review. For example you may look forward with phrases like: 'The third chapter will cover...', or 'We will see, when we analyse the data more closely that ...' You may look back with these phrases: 'In chapter two we examined...' or 'We have seen that the key question which emerged ...'
- Use link words to make each step of your argument easy to identify. Link words or transition words include: 'however, 'also', 'too', 'in addition','like', 'similarly', 'in the same way', 'but', 'on the contrary','therefore','as a result'.
Finding your voice as a researcher
Academic work builds on and makes use of the work of others. We need to acknowledge this, and reference ideas accurately, but your reader will also want to hear the voice of the author.
- Look at how you have chosen to refer to the ideas of others in your work. The way you reference other people's ideas in your text indicates how you view the ideas of other researchers. Consider the following sentences:
Fox hunting should be banned (Reynard 2003).
Reynard (2003) argues that the hunting of foxes should be banned.
In the first sentence the writer is implicitly agreeing with Reynard whereas in the second sentence the writer has opened up a space between himself or herself and Reynard and is able to either present a counter argument or introduce other writers with differing or convergent views.
The first referencing style is said to be information prominent, and is usually more appropriate when discussing ideas about which there is general agreement. The second, or author prominent style, enables you to position your own views within more controversial debates.
- You can use reporting verbs to enrich your engagement with the ideas of others and make your position in a debate clearer. Try getting the highlighter out again and mark all the verbs that describe what other writers are doing. For example, the writer 'believes' or 'contends' or 'demonstrates' or 'disagrees'.
- Check that there is 100% correspondence between the works you have cited in your text and those you have listed in your reference list.
Academic writing style
Deakin University has four faculties. Within each faculty are schools, and within schools there are disciplines. While different disciplines have writing styles and ways of constructing an extended argument which may differ in many ways, the writing styles in different disciplines are not discrete genres and frequently there are overlapping ways of doing things. As a thesis writer, you are an apprentice to the scholarly traditions within your discipline and therefore all the suggestions and strategies that follow should be considered in terms of the academic community within which you are writing.
Writing in an academic style, in this instance, means writing to communicate your message clearly and accurately to an expert audience. At postgraduate level, mastery of the language of your discipline is, of course, expected, so you have a twofold responsibility - to use the language of your discipline accurately and to use it in a clear, concise way.
Here are some strategies, suggestions and principles to keep in mind as you look over your writing.
Sentence and paragraph length
- Vary sentence length, but avoid long, convoluted, rambling sentences. There should be one main idea in each sentence. As a rule of thumb, if a sentence is more than three lines long, consider breaking it into two sentences.
- Use paragraphing to help the reader. Look at the shape of your text on the page. If you see a continuous block, your paragraph is probably too long and difficult for the reader. Try breaking up the paragraph, using clear topic sentences.
- If your paragraphs are very short it may be that your points need more development. About three to four paragraphs per page should be about right.
- Use tentative verb forms. Often it is not possible or appropriate to make a definite statement or come to a single conclusion, so the use of tentative language is often a feature of academic writing. For example, rather than concluding that the cause of 'a' is 'b', try more tentative forms such as: 'may be' or 'might be'. Rather than asserting your claims, qualify your writing with expressions like 'it is likely that' or 'it is possible that'.
Clarity and conciseness
- Be concise. Say what you have to say, no more and no less. Get straight to the point - don't waffle! Avoid unnecessary words - edit ruthlessly. For example: 'It will be noted that...' or 'It should be pointed out that...'.
- Avoid empty repetition, for example, 'actual facts', 'acute crisis', 'may possibly', 'first and foremost'. Such phrases are features of oral rhetoric and can sound overblown in the more precise context of academic writing.
- Avoid using cliches that carry very little meaning, for example: 'in this day and age', 'down to earth', 'unbelievable'.
- Be careful that you aren't inadvertently using slang.
- Be precise. You cannot assume that your reader will automatically follow your thought processes.
- Check that when you use a pronoun, the subject noun you are referring to can be clearly identified. Try not to use a pronoun unless you have already mentioned the noun in the same paragraph. You cannot expect your reader to remember what you are referring to. Incorrectly referenced pronouns are a frequent cause of ambiguity.
- Do not use contractions such as 'isn't' or 'can't'. Write them in full.
- Think about whether active or passive voice is appropriate. The active voice is generally recommended as it is clearer and more direct. However, in methodology sections for example, the reader is often more interested in what was done than who did it. In such cases, the passive voice is the one to use.
- The use of the first person 'I' and 'my' are acceptable in some disciplines but not in others. Generally it is the more scientific and business focused disciplines that avoid the use of 'I'. Even where the first person is appropriate, beware of overuse as this reduces its power.
- Keep your verb tense consistent.
- Use the appropriate tense:
- In the introductory chapter, the present tense is the most common.
- Literature reviews can be written in the past, present perfect or present. Think carefully about your choice as it will have subtle influences on your meaning.
- The methodology (what you did) and the results (what you found) will be in the past tense.
- The discussion or conclusion may again be a mixture of past when summing up what has gone before, and the present tense, when reflecting 'general truths'.
- Use inclusive language. This means that the choice of words doesn't exclude either gender. To avoid awkwardness here, you may use plurals. Instead of using 'his' or 'her', 'man' or 'woman' (the singular form, which excludes the opposite gender) you may choose to use 'their', 'they' or 'people' instead.
If English is not your first language
- Try to find out what errors you typically make and how to correct them.
- Never use words if you are unsure of their meaning.
- Beware the thesaurus! Do not use words you might have found in the thesaurus unless you are confident about how to use them. It really takes familiarity with the language to be able to select which synonym is appropriate in a particular context and which will sound odd.
- The active voice is less complex to use than the passive voice.
- Keep sentence structure simple and keep sentences short. Long complex sentences are more likely to have grammatical mistakes.
- Check that nouns and pronouns agree in number and person, especially if your sentence is long or complex in structure. For example, 'Anderson and Poole argue...they...'not ' Anderson and Poole argues... he...'
- Check subjects and verbs agree in number.
- Skim your paper, stopping at words that end in 's'. The present tense is the most frequently used tense in thesis writing. Check every verb in passages which use the present tense.
- And of course check the elusive articles 'a' and 'the' - the first thing you learn and the last thing you get right.
Tips for proofreading
- Leave time before you proofread your thesis. This will help you to be more objective and to view your work from the perspective of the reader.
- Reading your paper aloud can help to improve sentence structure and punctuation.
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