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Why Dissertation Writing is So Hard and How to Master It

It’s undeniable: writing your dissertation is hard. All that time you devote to research is a worthy endeavor but, no matter how many brilliant analyses you’ve collected, at some point you know you’re stalling. In my longtime dissertation coaching and editing practice, I have witnessed, cautioned, and counseled many dissertation writers on the difficulties of the actual writing. A new doctoral candidate who came from the corporate world confided, “I struggle daily with understanding the shift from business and occupational writing to writing as a researcher according to certain expectations and standards.”

Standards

And expectations and standards there are. Academic writing is a breed unto itself, with certain “disciplinary expectations” (Casanave, 2008, p. 15) and conventions demanded. A few: no contractions, no colloquialisms, no passive voice, no “emotional” words (completely, extremely, very, utterly, fantastically), no redundancy (period of time), no jargon (with exceptions, depending on your field and topic), no euphemisms (“After ingesting licorice-flavored cyanide, the rat gave up the ghost.”), no anthropomorphisms (“This book comforts you.”). See the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2020, pp. 114-117) for a roundup.

What Is Good Dissertation Style?

Good dissertation style is not that of a conversation, personal essay, or novel. Neither should dissertation writing be stuffed with incessant polysyllabic words that went out of fashion with nineteenth-century classical education. Joyner, Rouse, and Glatthorn (2012) summarized: “While there seems to be a trend away from the highly formal style and a reaction against turgid academic prose, there is still the expectation that the dissertation will sound scholarly. . . . scholars write in a style that is formal, not colloquial, and is objective, not subjective” (p. 7).

Yet articles in scholarly journals are still notorious for incomprehensibility and obfuscation (pardon my polysyllables) and not only for scientific or medical topics. Harvard professor and chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary (Steven Pinker 2014) left nothing to subtlety or prudence in his Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing”: “Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?” (para. 3).

Write in Your Own Words

When you start to write to write . . . . Some professors, editors, and coaches advise starting with your own words, without bothering about proper dissertation style (e.g., Joyner et al., 2012). I recommend this approach too, and it has advantages and drawbacks. The main benefit is that it gets you going. The main limitation is that you may get going in the wrong direction.

Read Journals and Good Dissertations

You should already be acquainted with scholarly style from mining the research, reading scholarly articles, and writing course papers. But reading and writing are two different animals (oops—anthropomorphism). Read or reread understandable articles in respected journals. Read dissertations that have won awards and have been recommended by professors you trust (the quality of accepted dissertations varies hugely). Do some of the exercises in Greene and Lidinsky’s (2014) From Inquiry to Academic Writing, not only for reading and writing in academic style but also for thinking and extracting the essence of articles (this book will help too in your literature review).

Practice

Writing Dissertationese that doesn’t get you exiled from the kingdom of Academe takes practice. Aim to achieve that balance of formality but understandability (although I do recommend words of three syllables when one will normally do). However (or But or Nevertheless), as I suggested, write at first in whatever style comes out. It’s hard enough to get the words down without fretting about their Greek roots. With the list of APA “no’s” in front of you, you can fancy it up later.

Don’t Copy

Of course, I need not remind you never to copy published passages verbatim, as brilliantly as they may accord with your topic, without the proper citations. You never know when that ugly word plagiarism will catch up with you, although definitions of plagiarism vary among faculty (Martin, 2005). Remember too that most universities subscribe to Turnitin, that devilish plagiarism hunter.

It’s true that Turnitin has received some serious criticism (Dames, 2008) and is not infallible. When one of my clients turned in her dissertation, Turnitin tagged every use of the most generic words and phrases that were at the heart of her topic and research! (We wrote a strong letter to her chair pointing out the deficiencies— and she passed this hurdle.) Nevertheless, your university probably requires you to put your dissertation through Turnitin or something similar. Better paraphrase than sorry.

And you probably know from today’s headlines that prices for plagiarism can be very steep.

See Published (and Maybe Maverick) Guidelines

For your very own work, consult the many helpful and frequently hilarious suggestions in the provocative booklet by Pinker, Munger, Sword, Toor, and MacPhail (2014), Why Academic Writing Stinks and How to Fix It. In this booklet, which reprints the Pinker article I referred to earlier and others on the art and failings of academic writing, see especially Sword’s (2014) prescription for curing yourself of “jargonitis” (p. 13).

Don’t Hurry

Recognize that the processes of writing, thinking, digesting, rethinking, revising, re-rethinking, and re-revising cannot be hurried. Your subconscious continues to chug along, even if you’re staring out the window. As you come back and back again to your work, it all gets clearer and you will revise with a more incisive eye.

So give the process—and yourself—time to sit, ruminate, play with ideas, jot a few notes, write a few words, wander to the window, come back, take a swig of iced tea, and write a few sentences. Maybe you label these actions as diversions or procrastinations. They’re not; they’re all part of the precious creating process.

Finally, Affirm

As you begin the actual writing, you can “program” your mind to expect and act on the best with mindfulness and conscious thought. Here are some affirmations for going forward and even enjoying the process:

  • I open, listen, and write.
  • I don’t need to mow it down but flow it forward.
  • When I listen, I am shown the way.
  • When I’m still, I know what to do, where to look, and who to ask.
  • I am the perfect conduit. This dissertation writes itself through me.
  • This work goes smoothly, easily, quickly, and joyfully.

I’ve used such affirmations often for client projects and my own. And they work. With the suggestions here, and possibly your own variations, you too can take the step of starting to write your dissertation with confidence—and mastering it.


References

American Psychological Association. (APA). (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). Author.

Casanave, C. P. (2008). Learning participatory practices in graduate school: Some perspective-taking by a mainstream educator. In C. P. Casanave & X. Li (Eds.), Learning the literacy practices of graduate school: Insiders’ reflections on academic enculturation (pp. 14-31). University of Michigan Press.

Dames, K. M. (2008). Turn you in: Scholarly ethics in a culture of suspicion. Information Today, 25(6), 23-25.

Greene, S., & Lidinsky, A. (2011). From inquiry to academic writing: A text and reader (3rd ed.). Bedford/St.Martin’s.

Joyner, R. L., Rouse, W. A., & Glatthorn, A. A. (2012). Writing the winning thesis or dissertation: A step-by-step guide (3rd ed.). Corwin.

Martin, A. (2005). Plagiarism and collaboration: Suggestions for “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.WPA: Writing Program Administration, 28(3), 57-71.

Pinker, S. (2014, September 26). Why academics stink at writing. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pinker, S., Munger, M. C., Sword, H., Toor, R., & MacPhail, T. (2014). Why academic writing stinks and how to fix it. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sword, H. (2014). Inoculating against jargonitis. In  S. Pinker, M. C. Munger, H. Sword,R. Toor,  & T. MacPhail, T., Why academic writing stinks and how to fix it (pp. 13-16). Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sword’s article is also available at Chronicle of Higher Education, 58(38).


© 2024 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com

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