Editing a doctoral thesis

The first draft is only the start of the writing-up process for a PhD thesis. Editing, revision and a careful look at presentation are key to producing good work.

January 31, 2008

In his book Authoring a PhD, Patrick Dunleavy, professor of political science at the London School of Economics, says it takes up to six months to reorganise the elements in a first draft to produce a final text. This will involve drawing out the intellectual themes and ensuring that they run consistently through the thesis title, abstract, introductory chapters and conclusions.

Dunleavy also advises you to think about how your project, your discipline and the wider intellectual world have changed or are likely to change since you came up with your working title. “Is the current title going to have the same fashionable connotations it once did? Is it going to stand up in the future?”

You will need to make your thesis more readable by checking spelling, grammar and phrasing, as well as font sizes of headings and subheadings, the referencing format and the labelling of figures and illustrations.

Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams, founding co-ordinator at the Centre for Academic Writing at Coventry University, says you will need to leave a good few weeks for this work. “Editing is notoriously picky work, for which one must have untired eyes and a well-rested brain.”

She suggests you set aside a few weeks to check mechanical issues such as spelling. By the time you return to editing, you should be removed enough to see where changes are needed.

Mary Lea, senior lecturer in teaching and learning at the Open University, suggests that you read your work aloud because it helps you to appreciate whether your writing makes sense.

It is also important to check citations for ambiguity. “You cannot rely on the examiners knowing the work of all the authors you are referring to,” she says.

Ganobcsik-Williams recommends saving small-scale edits until you have finished your thesis, but don’t leave everything to do with presentation until the last minute. Find out what the conventions are for writing a thesis in your discipline early on by talking to your supervisor and looking at theses produced by others.

Writing your thesis should be a constant process of drafting and revision, she says. Between ten and 20 drafts of each chapter is typical.

Lea advises you to keep a potential reader in mind. While your supervisor knows about your research, the examiners will need to be persuaded that your approach is valid.

Rowena Murray, reader in the educational and professional studies department at Strathclyde University and author of How to Write a Thesis, says you need to state explicitly how your work makes a contribution to knowledge. Point this out in your conclusion and check to ensure that the chapters add up to this conclusion.

Dunleavy says that the concluding sections of the main chapters need to link to themes discussed in the opening chapter. “The theme that each conclusion links to should be wholly relevant to the specific materials in that chapter and also adapted to the role that the chapter plays in the thesis as a whole,” he advises.

“Assign one function to each chapter and make sure that this role does not overlap with those of its neighbours.” Dunleavy’s tip is: “Say it once; say it right.”

The main text of the thesis should be about four fifths of the formal university word limit, leaving the rest for the bibliography, notes, appendices, preface and acknowledgements. If cuts are necessary, Dunleavy advises trying to make edits in the introductory chapters to safeguard the core of the thesis.

If you find yourself making substantial changes and dropping what you thought were important concepts in favour of new themes at this stage, don't worry, he says. You can see what works and what doesn't only when you see the complete thesis.

But you should not lose faith in what you have done or be tempted to go off in another direction entirely, he adds.

Further information:

• Patrick Dunleavy, Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation, Palgrave Study Guides, 2003.

• Rowena Murray, How to Write a Thesis, Second edition, Open University Press, 2006.

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