By Susan Carter
Writing is a social practice. We might labour over clunky writing with rage at how long it takes, or grieve at the mutilation we perform on our prose when we admit something’s irrelevant. This laborious work with writing is a courtesy to our significant other, the reader. It is important. Being courteous, following social expectations, has to be done because we are negotiating socially with our writing.
All those rituals that we know about and usually conform to unthinkingly as adults–who to speak to formally, who, informally, how far we can take humour with different audiences—gain us the benefit of fitting in comfortably. It keeps those round us comfortable too. They won’t be offended or uneasy if we behave considerately and meet the socially prescribed conventions. Same principle goes with thesis writing.
With writing, our guest, the reader, is a person. They have their own needs. Recently a friend wrote to apologise for a very minor sin of omission with the excuse that she had been in an agony of house-cleaning in case her dinner guests feared her food would be too unhygienic to eat. In my experience, guests won’t notice a bit of dust on the ledges and a sink full of pots as long as the food, drinks and company are all good.
Applying this little domestic homily to doctoral writing doesn’t quite work. Examiners are more like health inspectors issuing a licence. But it works to some extent: examiners are also ordinary people with a few particular needs when they arrive at your thesis. The last touches to the doctorate, in the last four months or so, should be to ensure the comfort and interest of the reader as a guest.
Clutter should be tidy enough for your reader’s ease of access. Clear the access route. You do not want a heap of barely relevant detail at the start of your thesis. We don’t usually lead guests towards the table of drinks by the route of showing them what is in the back room wardrobe. The introduction should be a well-lit foyer, preferably with something delicious set out.
Doctoral entre? Examiners usually look at the abstract, skim the introduction and discussion and conclusion before beginning in earnest: these parts should be good. One experienced examiner I know first checks the reference list at the back for dates. ‘Nothing since 2007 is likely to be a case of revision,’ he said. Avoid being too retro for comfort.
A clear statement of your motivating problem/question/hypothesis will arouse their interest, too, so that they are looking forward to the reading ahead. A reader who smiles over their first skim through is likely to be a sympathetic reader. Then the burning needs examiners have are to be able to tick off that you have fulfilled the regulations for a doctorate. So they are relieved to spot a clear statement of your original contribution to knowledge or understanding. They also want evidence of critical analysis of literature; clearly explained methods; and a good framework tying literature, methodology, findings together. The word ‘evidence’ here means write some sentences about it and set them out where they will be clearly seen.
Perhaps this is where the analogy of the dinner guest /tidy house works best. You do need to take care about grammar, punctuation, referencing, consistency and a zillion other small housework details before submitting, which usually means leaving about three to six months for this revision. What is even more important is highlighting what matters, the generic requirements of the thesis. These keep the examiner readers comfortable. Your good hosting as author will help make for well-behaved guests. Keep them happy so they leave the social negotiation of thesis examination with the satisfaction of signing off positively.