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When writing your dissertation, look at it from several perspectives

The project is not the subject. The project is not the thesis. Whether you are writing your dissertation, a journal article, or a book, the project is not simply the thesis. When I ask people about their projects the answer I get is always (or almost always) the subject of the project. Sometimes I ask specific questions like “what kind of project? Is it a dissertation? A thesis?” And still the answer I get is the subject of the project. But your project is not just about a subject; it has a certain form. It is a journal article, a dissertation, a book. It has a certain intention—to share a discovery, to support a position, to instruct others. It is aimed at a certain audience—peers, or students, or educated lay people.

If you can see that form, and understand how that form relates to the work you’re trying to accomplish, then the writing process becomes much easier: it’s less a shot in the dark, and more a purposeful action.

Of course, form is uncertain in some ways–we cannot be certain that what we think will be good will be thought a good dissertation by a professor, a reviewer or an editor–but it is still useful to have some image of the complete project. If we have an idea of the complete project, we can judge when we need to do more work, and when we can move on to another section or chapter. We can judge what is good enough and what still needs work. Without having some guiding image of what we’re trying to accomplish, it’s hard to know when we’ve reached our goal. If you don’t have an idea of the complete work–an outline, an estimate of length–then you can more easily vacillate about what should be included. Even if you’ve thought out an outline and have many details of the plan down, it can help to do things like estimate intended page length.

Intention and Audience

It’s difficult to separate these two: part of intention is to reach a certain audience. Having a clear intention is important—again it helps one focus and keep an eye on what should and should not be included. The same thesis would be expressed differently if the intention were to instruct or the intention were simply to present an argument.

Understanding your audience is crucial. By understanding the audience, you can tailor your language, structure and examples appropriately. Writing to peers is different from writing to students. Again, the same thesis will be expressed differently for a different audience. By clarifying your intention and audience, you help shape the form and expression of your thesis.

Sometimes it can help to think about writing to two audiences. One is immediate, the other distant and idealized. The immediate audience is your professor, reviewer or editor. You want them to accept and approve. The other is the audience that you idealized: whom the work is trying to reach if it can get past the gatekeeper. In the case of a peer-reviewed journal, these are approximately the same. But again, thinking of the audiences helps focus on how the thesis is to be expressed.

There’s a general point: there are several perspectives from which one might approach a work. One of these perspectives is the perspective of trying to prove a point or make an argument. But that’s only one perspective that is relevant to an author. By understanding more than one, you gain additional insight into the project, and this additional insight can play a major role in helping you use your energy efficiently.

Dave HarrisDave Harris, Ph.D., academic writing coach and editor, helps writers rework their writing process, fine-tune their final drafts, and everything in between (;
Copyright © 2007, Dave Harris. All rights reserved