Thought this article would be of particular interest to my clients and potential clients. From the Chicago Manual of Style monthly newsletter, Shop Talk:
Today I am in awe of the performance of one of my clients whose revision of her final dissertation chapter is such a vast improvement over her original that it brings tears to my eyes.
It is often all too easy for editors to become utterly frustrated with fixing all the little things that are wrong, and to lose sight of the big picture.
If someone has been admitted to a graduate school and has reached the point of writing that dissertation, clearly that person has the capacity to perform well. Early versions of the dissertation may hide that capacity underneath the students’ struggle to find her own authority and personal voice, especially when the text contains a significant number of minor errors.
The editor’s job is to look past all those little frustrating things to help the client find the diamond in the rough, waiting for the right chisel and vision of possibility. Once that happens, everything else falls into place. The empowered voice takes over and suddenly the student’s contribution to scholarship becomes clear.
Of course, the pleasure I derive from seeing that happen is the same joy I always felt when I was a teacher and a student made substantial progress in any of my courses. There’s nothing like it!
As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.
The first draft of most dissertations seems to be very similar: the student is trying to demonstrate competence in all the major literature in any way remotely connected to his or her study. This is not only unnecessary, it is annoying for the average reader.
The Introduction or introductory chapter is often rambling and extensive, leaving the reader who is interested in the actual subject of the research feeling very frustrated. Get to the point! one wants to shout. The literature review and methods sections continue in the same vein.
This is perhaps most characteristic of the qualitative study. Unlike quantitative studies, which have very specific expectations for how one is to proceed, qualitative studies have no predetermined methodology or research design. Often, especially in certain fields for which qualitative studies have only begun to be accepted, there is still the need to JUSTIFY doing qualitative instead of quantitative research. And very often one needs to review and integrate large bodies of literature from outside the field, literature unfamiliar to many readers WITHIN the field. All too often that leads the writer to spend way too much time covering that literature before you get to your actual study. There are huge bodies of potentially relevant literature, and it is difficult to distinguish among literature that
- 1) sets up the background for the study,
- 2) provides the theoretical framework that
- a) justifies taking a qualitative approach,
- b) defines the acceptable parameters for the study, and
- c) enables interpretation of the data.
I find that good deal of the material presented in first chapters is “front-loaded” — i.e., it more properly belongs to the literature review or methodology sections, or even the study section where the researcher explicates what is perceived to be occurring in the data.
The introduction to a dissertation must do the following, and the following ALONE:
- It identifies, locates, and justifies your study within your field. It demonstrates that your study attends to something entirely new, never examined before in the field.
- It states the specific problem that your study is to address, a problem not heretofore addressed by previous studies
- It states the research questions to be addressed by your specific study
- It states the methods to be used
- And finally, it outlines the chapters to come.
The introduction answers the following questions:
- What is the problem? Why do I study this issue? Why should it be solved?
- Who will benefit the most from this piece of writing? What is the contribution?
- What is my purpose?
- What are my methods?
- What can the reader expect in the subsequent chapters?
Except for an overview of the literature that needed to demonstrate that the study at hand is unique and adds important NEW understanding to the existing literature, the major literature reviews are saved for the literature review and/or to the methodology sections.
The introductory chapter of a dissertation is much like that first paragraph in the old “five paragraph theme”: essentially, you tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em. The big difference is that you must also demonstrate that the study about to be read is unique and makes a major contribution to the field in which it is located. .
I will discuss the literature review and the methodology sections in separate posts.
I originally wrote this for my students in my Writing for the Mass Media course when I was teaching online for the University of Maryland University College, and then decided to post it on my former weblog, Random Acts of Love, with some revisions and additions. That blog is no longer available thanks to technological changes involving Apple’s move to iCloud. It is very pertinent to the focus of THIS blog, and so here it is.
Many years ago when I first started graduate school at the University of Iowa (for my Ph.D. — I already had a master’s) I had to come face-to-face with the reality that no matter how wonderful a writer I had been told that I was, I still had a lot to learn. And I will always have a lot to learn!
In the School of Journalism at Iowa, graduate students were required to participate in a “mock convention” where we presented papers to our faculty and fellow students in a manner similar to what was required at professional academic conventions. We had to present one research paper per year (they had just changed it from once per semester when I started — thank goddess!) that required us to go beyond what we had done in our other courses. When we presented our papers, we had “respondents” — one person from the faculty and one graduate student would publicly critique our paper and presentation.
For my first paper I worked so hard I barely saw the light of day. I took an idea that I had from my historical research methods course and did some fairly extensive research that required me to read hundreds of pages of microfilm from the New York Evening Post (which no longer exists), as I was studying the work of Rheta Childe Dorr, who became the first women’s page editor for that paper in 1904. (Dorr became a “muckraking reporter” who has been pretty much ignored by most of the journalism history textbooks.)
I know I worked twice as hard on my paper as my graduate school cohorts had done on theirs. And my advisor for the paper really loved it. So I thought I would be getting all sorts of accolades when it came time for me to present.
Contrary to my expectation, I was devastated when my faculty critiquer began his response by saying “This is a very ambitious paper. Too ambitious…” and from then on he essentially tore my paper to pieces. I was particularly hurt because my advisor said not one word in my defense.
I walked home from our “convention” in tears. That night there was an “after convention” party (as customary). I did not want to show my face there! But I finally pulled together the courage and went. There was no way I was going to let anyone get in my way. I knew that I had to go, no matter how I felt.
The real problem was that everything the professor had said about my paper was absolutely true. And it didn’t matter how hard I had worked on it, or how much more time I had put into it than my fellow students had put into theirs. It didn’t matter that I had wonderful writing talent. The paper was very flawed. It was, as the professor said, “too ambitious.” I had tried to do too much with one paper.
The issue wasn’t about whether or not I deserved an “A” for the paper — I certainly got that. It was about how much I still had to learn. After all, if I already knew everything I needed to know about doing scholarly research and writing for a scholarly audience, what was the point in going to graduate school? Why waste all that time and money if I already knew everything?
It was a hard and very painful lesson to learn. The lesson was this: sometimes your biggest critic can be your best friend.
Well, I showed my face at that party. And I continued to work very hard. And by my second year of graduate school I was presenting papers at professional conferences around the country. That was the whole idea behind our “mock convention” — that it would prepare Iowa SJMC graduate students to become scholars of the highest order.
In 1987, after three years at Iowa, I won my department’s highest graduate student award — for research. But make no mistake about it, even though my department recognized the quality of my work, each time I did a paper I still had lots to learn. And I came to value the criticism other people would offer. Sometimes I would ignore that criticism, because I determined that it came from misunderstanding what I was trying to do, or because it reflected an agenda of theirs that conflicted with my own. Even so, that criticism served to help me figure out how to do better what I had set out to do.
So remember: Sometimes critics can be your best friends. They call you to do and be more than you have ever been before. But while you are taking the criticism to heart, also remember — assuming that you did put in your best effort — that you did the best you could do at the time. And now, thanks to your critics, you can do better.
This month I launched Matrix Editorial Services by posting a notice on the Women’s Studies Listserv — the “grand dame” of academic listservs, in which I have been participating since the early ’90s — that I would be taking on freelance academic editing projects. I was quite surprised with the flood of responses — requests that required me to put several people on the “back burner” while I dealt with two doctoral students who wanted to graduate this summer. One ultimately — and wisely — backed off her timeline when she realized how much work she needed to do after receiving my evaluation. The other client and I have already met her deadline for submission of her defense copy to her committee, and the final touches are in progress with time to spare.
I am delighted to be back in this work again, having left it completely around 15 years ago when my health issues got in the way. The past 20 years — since I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1992 (along with several other concomitant and unrelated conditions) — have been seriously challenging for me. The brain fog that accompanies fibro and the medications often prescribed produced cognitive issues that made it difficult me to sustain intellectual activity, or at least to succeed with complex long-term projects. I had almost given up intellectual work altogether. This past year I worked as a nanny! While I have actually enjoyed that work and the two very charming children I supervised, I have missed the scholar in me.
But thanks to work done with the University of Wisconsin’s Integrative Medicine specialist Dr. David Rakel, I have achieved a level of adaptive success that now gives me confidence that I can make commitments to others and follow through with them in a timely manner. And have already done so.
Currently I have several projects booked through July and August, but I will be taking on new clients in September. I also am planning a trip to California to visit my mother, who is 93 and too frail to travel herself, and somewhere in all of that I must schedule knee replacement surgery.
As readers can see from this blog, this is a very different sort of business website. This is my way of connecting personally with my clients and potential clients. Along the way I will be sharing stories of struggle and survival (and knowing when to quit) in the world of academia, and out of it. I will also be sharing my insights into writing and editing in the academic world.