Tag Archives: dissertation

The joys of being an editor

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!

Writing the Introduction

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:

  1. 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.
  2. It states the specific problem that your study is to address, a problem not heretofore addressed by previous studies
  3. It states the research questions to be addressed by your specific study
  4.  It states the methods to be used
  5. 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.

Returning to the scholar

I’ve been going back over letters, journal entries, and emails that I wrote in the early 90s, when I first started teaching full time, my one and only full time, tenure track job, at SUNY Brockport. There is so much hope in them, so many high expectations, so many naive perceptions about my position there. How little I knew about the forces arrayed against me, how my penchant for speaking my mind would come back to haunt me later. And then, of course, there are the early signs of the illness that would ultimately take it all away.

There are also musings about my dissertation, a great deal of which never made it into the actual work, but still have substance and value. Of course I had to take on such a heavy-duty subject: theories of agency, and how they undergird approaches to studying journalism history. One note records my having been told that one of the papers I presented at AEJMC was all the buzz in the history division, and it was being used in graduate courses. The paper was a chapter from my dissertation, which was still in progress at the time.

And yet, I’ve never published that dissertation. Except online on my own, now deleted website. I figured I’d never go back to it. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around all the work that would be required for that. I felt I’d lost the scholar in me and would never be able to get her back.

But working with others on their dissertations has reminded me of how much I loved this work before, and sent me back to reviewing my own. I’ve also been planning to write about some of my experiences in hopes of helping others — material, at least, for blog posts, and that’s what sent me back to the old notes and letters. I wrote some pretty lively and detailed letters back then, so I have an engaging record of that time. And the brain cells are popping again.

I am beginning to see possibilities again. Maybe I can publish that dissertation.

Matrix Editorial Services

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.