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By Susan Carter

I come from English literary studies originally and am intrigued by the shrewd connotative power of words; I think word choice matters. Sometimes a word skews the whole thread of discussion off track by smuggling in with its connotations a set of ideas that are counter to your own epistemological position. Too many hijacking words will convey the sense that you are theoretically unhinged. I notice too how the way you put sentences together influences what part of the sentence the reader sees as important, so I think grammar and structure effect how the reader interprets your emphasis. For me, then, word choice, grammar and syntax matter to the content of prose, and the overall thesis argument.

Maybe it isn’t just literary studies that knows this; the best grammar and punctuation website I found when I was teaching and writing on this is maintained by NASA, those explorers of outer space. http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19900017394_1990017394.pdf  They recognize that precision is sometimes as essential in writing reports as it is in engineering. This website has wonderful precision in itself: for example, they explain that pronouns should signal back to a noun you have previously used and not to a verb. If you mean ‘this’ to stand for a verb, sometimes your reader will get what you mean by exercising common sense, but your writing is clunky. At worst, if pronouns snarl up, a great idea can get muffled in tangled prose so that it never quite surfaces.

However (and as a bit of an obsessive about language, it is painful to utter this imperative), temper any fascination with the joy of perfection.

Of course, I love it when students are mesmerized by language, but it is always more important to pay attention to accuracy and communicability than to give yourself the pleasure of a stylishly crafted thesis. Ideally, you will find a compromise and manage to have some aspects of your thesis that cause you to glow with pleasure. You have found the right words. Topic sentences are short and powerful. You can hear the authority of accuracy. I’d recommend the introduction and conclusion as the spots to try to secure at the least.

But this is planet Earth, where human beings have a frustrating and also fascinating habit of evaluating you on whether or not you have sussed out their unarticulated habits. If you really are from this planet, then you will show this by doing things how other humans do them. (It is a bit like those squiggly words you are asked to reproduce to identify you are a human and not a bot as you sign in digitally.)

The thesis is an excellent example of when humans will be watching to see if you are an insider. If you come from a discipline that truly doesn’t think prose matters unduly, happily accepts sentences ending in a preposition, doesn’t worry about the countable and uncountable noun thing, then don’t expect that they will applaud you for outdoing all other theses with your style, wit and wide lexicon. They may, because we all like a good read, but they may also notice that your writing isn’t like their writing.

Don’t be a perfectionist at something that isn’t rated highly if it takes you time that is better spent finishing the draft and checking the semiotics of your diagrams, formula, charts etc., and ensuring that your referencing is right.  I hate giving this advice, because I don’t believe it. It isn’t true in any of the areas I work in. (There, a sentence ending in a preposition.) I don’t believe it according to who I am. However, I’m a constructivist. I accept that what is absolutely a core truth for me won’t be for others. And I want to ensure that I am not leading anxious students into more pedantry than is good for them.

What works well for me in both literary studies and higher education, and what feels core to who I am as a human being as well as an academic, won’t be essential for many other researchers. For doctoral students, completion within a tight time frame is significant.

The sooner you get through successfully, the more chance you have of bringing your contributions into the light of day where they really count for something. If you know you are a perfectionist, save your infinitely fine tuning of detail for the publication after your thesis. The really important work with revision aims to get the thesis good enough to submit.

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