Last month I ran an editing boot camp aimed at helping late-stage doctoral writers whip their theses into shape. My late dear friend, Heather Kerr, used to talk about the ‘large, loose, baggy monsters’ that PhD candidates often confront towards the end of candidature. The phrase comes from Henry James when describing big 19th-century novels, and seems particularly apt for those doctoral candidates who have been writing and writing for several (sometimes way too many) years. The boot camp was designed to tame those baggy monsters into tightly argued, concisely written documents ready to submit for examination. Here I outline four exercises we used to achieve this.Continue reading
by Susan Carter
This morning a colleague who was to provide a workshop for doctoral students phoned in sick. Stepping in at short notice to replace her, I’m used Amanda Wolf’s four sentence formula for writing a research proposal in the workshop. As we worked through Amanda’s exercise, I noticed how this great post is an exercise about writing to sell ideas to the reader rather than an exercise in writing to think. In this blog I ponder two related aspects arising from my fill-in workshop using Amanda’s sentence formula. Continue reading
Dr Kerrie Le Lievre is a former teacher of business and academic writing at the University of Adelaide, and a current freelance editor. She is a professional member of the Society of Editors (SA), a branch of IPEd. You can find her blog, which includes thesis-writing tips, at https://kleditor.wordpress.com/blog/.
By Kerrie Le Lievre
It’s becoming increasingly common for PhD and Masters students to employ professional editors or proofreaders when finalising their theses. However, many editors report that the students who contact them often know very little about what a thesis editor does, how to work with one, or even when to approach one.
While Australia’s Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) has some useful information available online both for supervisors and for students, these mostly focus on what happens once an editor has been engaged, and cover only a small portion of what students need to know to ensure that they can work effectively with their chosen editor. Similar information is available from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) in the UK, and multiple bodies in the USA. This post uses Australian practice as a model, but the advice given here will be useful in other contexts too.
Well before students complete their thesis drafts, they need to know what a thesis editor does, how to locate one and when to contact one. Continue reading
By Susan Carter
Doctoral students are often anxiously interested in what research shows about examiners. It is a useful practice for doctoral writers to measure their work against the questions examiners are known to ask before submission. It’s a writing task, revision not for grammar or punctuation or structure or referencing, but with the examination criteria in mind. And with those first readers in mind: the examiners. For those doctoral candidates whose examination proces includes an oral defence or viva, preparation for facing the examiners is a crucial part of completing the PhD.
Vernon Trafford and Shosh Leshem research doctoral examiners and examinations. When I placed their work in the writing section of my book on Developing Generic Doctoral Support, they worried I had made a mistake. However, I deliberately put them there because their research findings are so useful at the writing stage.
One of Trafford and Leshem’s earlier articles suggests that it is easy to guess the kind of questions you will get in the viva because the same clusters of issues underpin all examinations (2002, pp 7- 11). Then they provide a breakdown of predictable questions. To me this looks like a checklist against which doctoral writers can audit their work before submitting the thesis.
Trafford and Leshem cluster these predictable questions. Here I have clipped their work back to just what seems applicable to all doctoral research, regardless of epistemology or methodology—this is just a sample, and may inspire you to follow up their work.
Some predictable examiner questions from Trafford & Leshem 2002 that suggest defensive writing in the thesis before submission:
Cluster 1 Opening Questions
Why did you choose this topic for your doctoral study?
Cluster 2 Conceptualisation
What led you to select these models of…?
What are the theoretical components of your framework?
How did concepts assist you to visualize and explain what you intended to investigate?
How did you use your conceptual framework to design your research and analyse your findings?
Cluster 3 Research Design
How did you arrive at your research design?
What other forms of research did you consider?
How would you explain your research approach?
Why did you select this particular design for your research?
What is the link between your conceptual framework and your choice of methodology and how would you defend that methodology?
Can you explain where the data can be found and why your design is the most appropriate way of accessing that data?
Cluster 4 Research Methodology
How would you justify your choice of methodology?
Please explain your methodology to us.
Why did you present this in the form of a case study?
What choices of research approach did you consider as you planned your research?
Can you tell us about the “quasi-experimental” research that you used?
Cluster 5: Research Methods
How do your methods relate to your conceptual framework?
Why did you choose to use those methods of data collection?
What other methods did you consider and why were they rejected?
Cluster 7 Conceptual Conclusions
How did you arrive at your conceptual conclusions?
What are your conceptual conclusions?
Were you disappointed with your conclusions?
How do your conclusions relate to your conceptual framework?
How do you distinguish between your factual and conceptual conclusions?
Cluster 9 Contribution
What is your contribution to knowledge?
How important are your findings and to whom?
How do your main conclusions link to the work of [other famous scholars]?
The absence of evidence is not support for what you are saying and neither is it confirmation of the opposite view. So how do you explain your research outcomes?
Some of these questions are invitations to doctoral students to spell out things that they do actually know, but might not have articulated in the thesis. The list above could be a great help before the thesis goes over the counter to be sent to these questioning examiners. The list above, and several other lists from those who research examiners and examinations could be consulted.
If you have suggestions as an examiner, or know of other research on examiners’ questions that might help doctoral writers before submission, post a comment!
Carter, S. (2008). Examining the doctoral thesis: A discussion. Innovations Education and Teaching International 45(4), 367-374.
Johnson, S. (1997). Examining the examiners: An analysis of examiners’ reports on doctoral theses. Studies in Higher Education 22(3), 333-347.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2000). Examining the doctorate: Institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain. Studies in Higher Education 25(2), 167-179.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2004). The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Trafford, V. and Leshem, C. (2002). Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: Predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review, 34(4), 43-61.
By Susan Carter
You might remember that Cally Guerin’s blog a few weeks ago described her fascination for punctuation and its expression in a two-hour workshop. I share her obsession: my workshop focussing solely on the comma is three hours long. (I hasten to add that this is partly because students do a lot of the teaching, and we also get to talk about style and voice.)
Cally covers the point that you must not separate a subject from its verb, even when that sentence subject is one of those giant mutant nouns that academic writing is so prey to, made up of the noun word with a whole heap of adjectival stuff before and after it. You would not be tempted in a simple sentence to put in a comma between subject and verb—”The dog, ran”—. However, you might be tempted in one of those gruesome academic sentences like: “The subjects who had been previously identified as at risk from multiple socially-constructed hierarchies that disempowered them at the crucial years of puberty, were found to be more likely to….”. I’m running over that point again because I agree with Cally that it is invaluable to doctoral writers when they get to the proofing stage.
And I am putting it into a writing guide that I’m revising for staff involved in our university’s publication. One of my goals in revision is to redress the balance given to different aspects of punctuation—the comma previously on received a mere third of a page while ‘words to be capitalized’ occupied four pages. Even a non-obsessive can see that the comma is more crucial than that. (My indignant defence of the importance of commas has triggered this post.)
So, I’m adding to the guide as follows.
Often decisions about using a comma will be based on whether additional information in a sentence is essential or not. Non-essential words, phrases and clauses can be omitted without altering the meaning of the sentence. Judge what is essential by which words need to cluster together to make one meaning.
When not to use commas
Never separate words from their essential meaning-cluster, that is, essential to the grammar or the meaning with commas. For example, it is wrong to write “Boys, who learned ballet, were found to be better soccer players.”
“This” and “which” clauses and commas
We begin clauses with the word “that” when the content is essential: “The data that showed anomalies has been destroyed” (other data wasn’t necessarily destroyed). So the rule is that “that” clauses don’t have a comma before them. “Which” clauses, in contrast, are used for non-essential material and it is kind to readers to always have a comma before them. “The data, which took five years to accumulate, was destroyed” (all the data was destroyed).
If you insert non-essential detail into the middle of a sentence and use bracketing commas, you must have two (just as you need two brackets). You can often get away with none but not one.
Never use commas that disrupt the logic of grammar
1. Never separate a noun from the verb it governs, even when the noun has adjectival stuff round it that makes it fairly long (as in that giant mutant noun example above). E.g., it is wrong to write “The evidence that came from a longitudinal study involving 52 first-in-the-family graduates and how their careers developed, was surprising.” That sentence cannot take a comma.
2. Never put a comma between a verb and its object. It is wrong to write “The rat ate, the poison” or “The chemical was then heated, to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.”
In general, there is a tendency in academic English to leave commas out when they are optional. If in doubt, it is safer to leave them out than risk breaking up a meaning-cluster or disrupting grammatical logic.
When to use commas
Use a comma to differentiate items in lists. Note that some pairs are regarded as a single idea and the comma will come after the second item, e.g, “Guests choose from eggs and bacon, filled croissants, and cereal, yoghurt and fresh fruit” (they have three options).
Put a comma after any introductory material before a main clause, especially if it is more than a few words long. This makes for easier reading, especially when the introductory material is long, e.g., “While she was analysing comments about scrum experience from her All Black interviews, scrum rules were changed.”
In our guide, we prefer not to use the Oxford comma (before the penultimate item in a list like dogs, cats, and small children)—we tend to follow British preference down-under rather than American. Personally, I’m never sure why there is such interest in this relatively unimportant anomaly.
It does raise the point that there are different practices between British and American writing, particularly around the punctuation at the end of quotations. For those of us outside these places, consistency is the main rule. Take your pick and then stay in that zone.
Let us know whether you think it is sometimes helpful for the DoctoralWriting SIG to mention the mechanics of grammar and punctuation or not—we’re pedants who find this stuff intriguing but we don’t want to irritate.
P.S. And if you are also a fellow pedant, one great site on punctuation and grammar comes from NASA courtesy of Mary K. Mccaskill.
By Cally Guerin
When I was at the Plagiarism Advice conference in the UK recently, the role of professional editors in doctoral theses came up in a discussion. I was taken aback by the surprise expressed by my UK counterparts that such a thing could be possible, even perfectly respectable, in Australia. It made me reflect (yet again!) on what best serves the candidate and the academy in this respect.
The Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies (DDOGs) and the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) in Australia agreed on a set of guidelines for professional editing of theses in 2001. These have since been updated to take into account current digital technologies in order to allow editors to use track changes on theses. The details are available on their website.
Some myths about doctoral writing and editing
Editing is mostly for international students who use English as an Additional Language (EAL): Of course, for those students who are struggling with English grammar and sentence structure, an editor can tidy up their writing to ensure that the reader is not distracted by surface details of expression. Research by Mullins and Kiley and Carter into the examination of theses has shown that carefully proofed, polished documents are received well by examiners. Many people find it hard to notice errors in their own work, so this is an advantage for all students, not just EAL students.
PhD students are already good writers: We know perfectly well that some PhD students are already experienced writers, but others have not previously written long documents. Achieving high grades in exams focusing on multiple choice and short answer questions as an undergraduate requires very different skills from presenting a sustained argument over the course of a whole thesis. Even for those presenting a thesis by publication with a series of journal-length papers, the expectations of this level of writing can be somewhat mysterious. And then again, some students are comfortable communicating through formulae or diagrams, but struggle when it comes to writing prose.
Supervisors know how to help students develop their writing skills over the course of candidature: Certainly, some supervisors have an excellent understanding of how to teach writing, but others ‘correct’ their students’ writing without being able to articulate the grammatical or stylistic principles underlying the changes. Students can happily accept those changes, but do not necessarily in the process learn to be better writers without direct instruction about why the supervisors’ suggestions are better than their first attempt. Certainly some students will improve their own writing when working this way, but others need rather more. Lots of students and supervisors also tell me that supervisors simply don’t have time to focus on writing development for individual students.
But how much editing is too much?
The concerns expressed by my colleagues at the conference seemed to stem from anxiety that the editor might intervene in the writing too much, so that it was no longer the student’s own work. This is where the Guidelines mentioned above can be very helpful. The appropriate level of intervention is clearly spelt out there in relation to copyediting (clarity of expression, grammar, spelling, punctuation) and proofreading (checking for consistency, ensuring everything is complete, including accuracy in references). Professional editors should not comment on substance and structure, which is the domain of the supervisors and the students themselves. The details of what is included under each of these headings can be found in the Australian Standards for Editing Practice.
It would be interesting to hear about your experiences with academic editors – what has been most useful, and what has been disappointing (hopefully any negative experiences have been disappointing rather than devastating!).