By Susan Carter
I’m working with several doctoral students who are approaching submission deadlines, so careful revision is much on my mind. There are a few things I am picking up across their work, and I wondered if maybe there are common considerations so that a checklist would be helpful.
My list below relates to what I am doing here and now, and is limited by that—what I’m thinking about now. I’m sure that there is more to be said, and would love it if thoughts about revision checklists surfaced in your own ideas and teaching to add to advice. You could add a comment, or contact us if you could offer a blog post on the same topic: presubmission revision.
Cally Guerin has written before in this blog about presubmission with a focus on formatting, and Claire Aitchison had acknowledged the psychological stress of the presubmission state that seems inevitable, but this post focuses on the seemingless endless checking that revision entails.
A checklist for revision
Considering how much space is given to different ideas in the thesis is a deeper level revision process that helps authors to see what matters. A critical eye is needed. If too much detail is given to something unimportant, this is the time to trim it back. More importantly, are assumptions needing to be spelt out, or are there some crucial sections that should be firmed up with more referencing work and more defence of choices?
Candidates could set the thesis aside for a day or two and then go through it as though they were charged with examining it, deliberately checking for what is missing, or what is too peripheral to the main points. The “examiner eye” run through can be good in terms of claiming entitlement to academic identity: it has the practical benefit of highlighting what might be improved—I’ve mentioned this before in more detail.
Consideration for the reader is a good lens for revision too: are there any points that need more explanation as to how things interconnect? Surprisingly often, when as a reader (think supervisor or learning advisor) you ask for more detail or connection to understand something, a doctoral author will give a succinct description that clears confusion up. It’s ideal if this makes it into the written work, often as metadiscourse, as Claire Aitchison suggests.
It’s good to get help with checking that metaphors are accurate when terms used in the study are metaphoric, not literal. Often metaphors are spatial. I’m always uncomfortable when metaphors don’t quite work, for example, ‘higher level versus lower level’ carries the connotation that higher is more prestigious. So it isn’t ideal for structuring writing when ‘higher level’ means general issues and ‘lower level’ means specific detail—neither one is more important than the other, and maybe specific details are more crucial because they establish what is original to the study. Changing to ‘general versus specific’ keeps the writing clear and clean. That is one small example: checking for integrity of metaphorical terms will often aid clarity.
It’s common to find that what comes immediately under a subtitle, let’s say the first paragraph or two, is not actually about the subtitle topic. If a lead-in of contextual background takes too long, it is a good idea to shift the subtitle. When readers see a subtitle, they expect what follows to be directly related. Matching the first paragraph and the subtitle often means simply adding a phrase or two to establish relevance.
Capitalization of terms needs to be decided before submission. As is often the case, the fundamental principle is twofold in my view: comply with usual grammar conventions when you should, and otherwise be consistent. That means deciding on the rule in the thesis text and applying it throughout.
The usual grammar convention is that you capitalize proper nouns, and all the words in the name, as in Jubilation Hall rather than Jubilation hall. There’s a choice between writing about Chapter Three or chapter four, but capitalizing just one word, capital or number, isn’t right. Capitalizing headings of chapters shows you are treating these as proper names; leaving them lower case means you are maybe comfortable with being a little more casual and less stiffly formal. The NASA guide to grammar, punctuation and capitalization gives thirteen pages (81-94) to points about capitalization, including mentioning that there is a trend towards less capitalization when it is optional. (Do click on that link and download the text: it’s one of the most useful guides I have found, especially for STEM researchers.)
When capitalization is optional, you establish a formal or less formal voice. What does it meant to regard Chapter Three as a proper name? Am I overthinking this?
As a postscript, some presubmission checking work is mundane, the sort of thing you could pay one of your children to do should you have savvy children over 8 years of age who want more pocket money. Otherwise, it’s good to remember that mindless checking is good for when authors are tired and need something a little more mechanical than chores that demand thinking. Checking references is an example of authorial drudgery. Are all works cited in the text in the bibliography/reference/works cited list and visa versa? That might be a few ‘house work’ hours using the Find function. Add to that several hours checking the bibliography for punctuation, spacing, capitalization and italicization. Referencing software is hugely helpful, but is never fool proof, and examiners take a dim view of anything too untidy (Carter, 2008). Checking spelling of authors’ names will be important; they should all be right for scholarly precision, and it is especially problematic if an examiner’s name is misspelt or their referencing details prove to be inaccurate.
This post came out of my own recent practice, and I’d love to hear if others have more carefully thought through lists of points for revision before submission.
Carter, S. (2008). Examining the doctoral thesis: A discussion. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(4), 365-374.