Punctuation, and other stylistic rules, with all their exceptions and apparently arbitrary forms, can seem like a massive obstacle to writing. If you’re unsure of punctuation (which is reasonable, given all the conflicting opinions on punctuation), the rules are more than a nuisance; they conspire to break into the writerly flow with their demands for figuring out, for example, where to put a comma. Punctuation and other rules are enemies to many writers. Certainly most of us don’t enjoy reading Strunk and White or the massive style manuals that define proper writing style in many academic fields.
We shall take it as a given that a good academic work is focused. I have trouble imagining a dissertation writer who wouldn’t agree that their dissertation ought to be focused. But focus doesn’t get enough attention early in the process. Yes, early in the process we are seeking to refine a focus by exploring a range of possibilities. All of these are important reasons not to focus too intently, too early.
But this piece is about feedback and how to get and use feedback effectively; this is about submitting work to professors for feedback. You may have many ideas in your head and you may still be seeking focus, but, when it’s time, you want to submit something that is focused. You can have all the competing ideas that you want rattling around in your head, but what you put down on paper for submission needs to be focused.
There’s a world of knowledge out there and it all intertwines. The study of any one subject begins to touch on the boundaries of others, motivating study into the new subject. When reading and when writing, we learn new things, which could lead to feelings of treading on unfamiliar ground.
I’ve met some brilliant and hard-working people in my life in academia. I’ve met people who read articles by the bushel and books by the shelf, but I’ve never met one who had read everything worth reading. There’s too much knowledge out there for any one person to know everything there is to know and to read everything that has been written. And, of course, we recognize this; it is the motivation behind the specialization all around us. Nonetheless, it is not unusual to become paralyzed by the sense that we don’t know enough.
It may be intimidating to have to turn in a paper according to a specific set of style guidelines, but if you just follow a step-by-step process it’s not all that difficult. Here’s a basic checklist of the fundamental issues. It’s just a starting point, but check it against your style guidelines and you should be set. Style manuals are hundreds of pages; universities and journals often have additional specific requirements. But don’t be intimidated. There’s a lot of detail that you probably won’t face. This list is primarily aimed at dissertation writers, but the principles are the same for journals.
When writing an abstract, consider its aim. An abstract is intended to tell the reader the basic, most important aspects of your work so that he or she can decide whether or not to read the rest of the paper.
Those five basic aspects are:
- What it is that you’re talking about (the subject matter)
- Why he/she should care (why the subject matter is important)
- What you found (or hope to find out) about the subject matter (what your research question or intention is)
- How you learned (or intend to learn) about the subject matter (the research methodology)
- What your conclusions were (when appropriate–conclusions don’t belong in the abstract of a dissertation or thesis proposal)