Dressing Your Dissertation For Success

Preparing a dissertation for its first public appearance in the university library or with University Microfilms International (UMI) can be exasperating. It can also delay final acceptance by the Dean’s office past critical deadlines. The manuscript may not be formatted to university guidelines; may have mistakes in editorial style (APA, Turabian, MLA, etc.); or may not be written well enough for publication.
Students are increasingly being asked by their advisors, committee members, university readers, or their own consciences to copy-edit their dissertations for accuracy, brevity, and clarity of expression before printing and binding. This pressure for polished prose is intensifying because today’s dissertations are more widely circulated than ever before.
Dissertations Go Online Until 1993, doctoral students had little reason to carefully craft their dissertation writing. They were writing primarily for committee members who were experts in the field and obliged to read the manuscript. Most other scholars read only the abstract and never saw the entire dissertation. Students’ lack of concern about public inspection appeared justified, given that the reprints of any dissertation requested from UMI, on average, totaled exactly two.
Since 1993, however, UMI databases contain the full text, not just abstracts, of every dissertation, and are available not only in libraries but online over the Internet. Every dissertation can be skimmed or scoured by anyone around the computerized world–academic peers, scholars in the field, or casual online browsers.
This greater circulation offers benefits, especially for well-written dissertations. The more thoroughly scholars read dissertations, the more likely they’ll use them and–of interest to academics–cite them. Doctoral students have greater opportunity for their work to be recognized and to make a contribution.
Students who write well should welcome this showcase for their work. Others should be shivering in their shoes to think their future employers and professional colleagues will have easy access to their dissertations, publicly exposed in all their unreadable nakedness.
Pressing Need for Better Writing Advisors are concerned about quality of writing, knowing their reputations go online with the dissertations they chair. But few programs, with the exception of English departments, offer doctoral coursework in writing and editing. This is despite the fact students in most fields don’t write at a professional level and don’t know how to copy-edit beyond basic grammar and organization. Until such instruction becomes common, students are, for the most part, on their own to fine-tune their dissertations.
Even if students know how to edit their manuscripts, many feel they don’t have time. It’s all they can do to submit spellchecked drafts by agreed-upon deadlines. Advisors can’t solve the dilemma. Their advising loads are heavy and growing, swollen by English-limited students who need help simply writing understandably; in 1992, 32% of all doctorates were awarded to foreign-born students, compared to 12% in 1980 and 9% in 1970. Accordingly, many advisors feel compelled to edit dissertations for university format, editorial style, and writing quality, although they don’t want to–and don’t believe they should–be concerned with anything but content.
It’s a vicious circle… their added editorial burdens lengthen the time advisors take to return manuscript drafts. This decreases the time students have to make revisions and perfect their writing. Often it’s only when they’re preparing their manuscript for the Dean that format, style, and quality of writing assume importance. Good, careful writing is best started early and attended to throughout the dissertation process, but it’s essential before final submission. Only by copy-editing their writing, can students dress their dissertations for online success.
Dressing Your Dissertation for Success appeared in Dissertation News No. 4. Other articles appearing in this issue included: Ten Top Tips to Tip Top Writing Grammar Checking Software Why Write in Style? Working Smart With Style Editors Expert Advice, Editorial Help Dave’s Ways to Cut Editing Costs.