Dear dissertation advisers: Ask for short drafts, use page limits

Ask for short drafts, use page limitsIf you want to give better feedback and also save yourself time, ask for short drafts and suggest the use of page limits (or word count limits). Both you and your students will benefit.

For any reasonably intelligent and diligent graduate student, the problem of having far too much to say is more common than the problem of not having enough to say and is the much more difficult problem to fix.

With someone who has not said enough, all that is needed is a question that leads to the necessary addition: “What about X?” It is much harder to give concise feedback to someone who has too much to say, not only is there more to cover, but there is greater potential for problems of focus to arise. Often, a poorly defined purpose leads to saying too much, but even with a clearly defined purpose, it is easy to have too much to say. One invaluable tool for guidance, in my experience, is to use page limits (well, word count limits, really, but that’s not as easy to say as “page limit”), and to ask for drafts that are only a fraction of the desired size of the final draft.

A lot of people don’t like the idea of page limits, so there may be some emotional resistance to overcome. I used to dislike the idea. My thought was: “I should say what needs to be said, and no more (or less), which is determined by the material I’m covering, not some abstract page limit.” This is not, I think, an unusual attitude. (At least in the US. In the UK, most or all universities have explicit word count limits, so writing to a word count is an accepted part of the process. Not so for US universities.)

I no longer believe there is some abstract “what needs to be said.” All written projects need to be sensitive to their audience and the purpose of the specific document within the context of a researcher’s career (and by “researcher,” I mean “doctoral/master’s candidate working on a dissertation”). A student working on a dissertation will not produce a single written work, but rather many different drafts of material describing their work—from the first prospectus, through formal proposals, IRB applications, if needed, to final drafts, and possibly including grant applications, seminar or conference presentations, departmental progress reports, participant recruitment materials, etc.—all of which are describing the same thing to different audiences with different levels of knowledge and information, and different amounts of time to dedicate to reading about it. What needs to be said or written is always subject to the venue in which it is presented. Part of deciding what needs to be said in a given venue is deciding how much material is appropriate for that specific audience at that specific moment.

In addition to recommending attention to suiting the length to the audience and venue, I recommend aiming for short projects and page limits.  Here are reasons why:

  1. Time is valuable. A 20-page draft takes less time to read closely than a 60-page draft.
  2. Short projects and page limits can help with problem definition. The shorter the draft, the greater the need to make choices about what to omit.
  3. Short projects are less intimidating. Even if your final chapter draft is going to be 50 pages, it’s much less intimidating if you think of starting with a 25-page first draft that roughs out the main issues and structure.
  4. When revising, it’s generally much easier to make a draft longer than it is to make it shorter. You can often add large chunks of material to a draft without making substantive changes anywhere else. But trying to remove material from a draft is complicated by interdependencies written into the draft. Additionally, if a draft is poorly focused, it’s hard to know what to take out.
  5. Writing to a page limit is a skill that’s required of academics. Journals often have limits. Most academic venues have limits, in fact, some clearer than others. Publishers may take any size manuscript, but they definitely prefer some sizes. If you submit 50,000 words as your chapter in an invited book, the editor will not be pleased. And if you submit a 200,000-word manuscript to a publisher, you can expect to be asked to reduce it in size (if you’re lucky enough to get it accepted at all). In the UK, universities usually set an explicit limit on the length of dissertations, which seems to me a very reasonable policy.
  6. Somewhat cynically, I’ll note that the less one writes, the fewer one’s chances for error, even acknowledging the possible error of writing too little (which, as I noted earlier, is pretty rare).

Here are three suggestions to help struggling writers keep things short:

  1. Write 100-word abstracts as an exercise. Thiscan be done quickly and repeated. Instead of agonizing over one draft, a writer can experiment by writing several radically different ones. Because it’s so short, writers are forced to leave stuff out. And it’s not unreasonable to try to write a 100-word abstract draft in 10 minutes, so it’s a good exercise.
  2. Write outlines with page counts. When writers make an outline, they can include page counts, and these can often help make the project less intimidating, especially in conjunction with a page limit.  If the project needs to be 20 or 200 pages, then how are those pages allocated to the different sections of a paper? Thinking of a 200-page work is intimidating, but an outline can show it to be a collection of five 40-page chapters, and 40-page chapters are less intimidating than 200-page dissertations. And if a 40-page chapter is also intimidating, an outline can show it to be four or five sections of 5 to 15 pages, and a section of 15 pages is less intimidating than a 40-page chapter. As long as a section is long enough to justify an outline, it can help to set target lengths to each section.
  3. Ask for early drafts that are 50% the length of what the ideal final draft would be. Give students the justification that a short target length makes the initial draft easier to write. But do it because it saves readers—especially you, the dissertation advisor—time (while improving, not compromising, the quality of your guidance).

Giving students page counts is an easy and clear way to set expectations and give guidance. Present them as guidance—as suggestions to help focus effort—not rules that must be followed. The ultimate concern is that students produce solid research in a timely fashion. Page counts are a useful tool to help the writer focus attention and make progress, while simultaneously reducing the dissertation advisor’s work load.

Read the previous three posts in this series:

Dear dissertation advisers: I have some advice for you

Dear dissertation advisers: Make sure student has defined the research purpose and question

Dear dissertation advisers: Focus on the practical dimensions of the research project


Dave HarrisDave Harris, Ph.D., editor and writing coach, helps writers develop effective and productive writing practices, express their ideas clearly, and finish their projects. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning(Routledge, 2010). Dave can be found on the web at www.thoughtclearing.com


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.