Unless you have written many formal documents before, you might be surprised how difficult it can be to write a thesis or dissertation. When writing a thesis or dissertation, your style should be formal and similar to what you find in the scholarly journals of your discipline. Review journal articles in your discipline to get a sense of what is expected in terms of structure, style and language. Thorough reading of current journals will also help give you a sense of the “hot” topics in your field along with the most common key words and phrases.
Keep it Simple. The Literature Review is often the section written in the most formal, academic language. While there is not much scope for rhetoric in a Results section, a Literature Review may allow you to express yourself in a more elegant, academic or literary manner. However, it is important not to get too carried away! Shorter, less complicated sentences and paragraphs are always better – and more readable – than complicated prose. Don’t worry about trying to sound “smart”; it is better to be clear.
Remain Objective. One of the fundamental qualities of academic language is that it attempts to be objective, and it is important to maintain a respectful, scholarly tone when discussing the work of others. For example, even if you think a researcher’s methods were sloppy and arguments ridiculous, it is not appropriate to write, “This was terrible, sloppy research.” Use more neutral language; if you write, “without examining the issue directly we cannot be sure about the implications of this research,” your readers will understand what you mean. Likewise, when writing about arguments presented by other authors, use phrases like “Carter argues…”, “According to Mare…” or “The authors suggest that…” Avoid words such as “think” “believe” or “feel” when writing about scholarly discussion. Not only are those emotive, they may be inaccurate; you don’t know what the researchers felt, believes; only what they reported or wrote.
Write for a Wide Audience. In addition, be sure not to overestimate the reader’s familiarity with the topic, particularly in the Introduction. Though you may be writing for researchers in a general area, not all of them will be specialists on your particular topic. As you read through your draft, try to look at it through the eyes of another person … for example, a researcher you met at conference on your subject who worked in a different area. Though the person was intelligent and had the same general background as you, he or she may still know little about the literature or “specific nuances” that apply to your particular area of expertise.
First vs. Third Person. A stylistic area in which scientific disciplines and journals vary widely is the use of first vs. third person constructions. Some disciplines and their journals – e.g., business – have moved away from a very strict adherence to the third person construction, and permit limited use of the first person in published papers. Other disciplines like sociology or – especially the biomedical fields – still prefer the third person construction. Limit your use of first person construction (i.e., " I” or “we” undertook this study....): usually it is most acceptable in the Introduction and Discussion sections, and then only to a limited extent. Use first person in the methods sparingly if at all, and avoid its use in the results.
Use Active Verbs: Use active verbs whenever possible; writing that overly uses passive verbs (is, was, has, have, had) is deadly to read and almost always results in more words than necessary to say the same thing.
Keep Key Words and phrases Handy
If you are well versed in the literature in your particular discipline you will notice some repeated key words and phrases used in every journal article. Make a list of these key words and phrases and be sure to ‘sprinkle’ them throughout your document.
Academic writing is quite formal and is not designed to be entertaining. Remember that the most important goal in thesis writing is to get your intelligent point across in a clear concise manner. This style of writing is structured, formal and objective. A wide range of vocabulary is of course important, however, when writing academic papers, it is often helpful to find key terms that are familiar to your reading audience.
Focusing on scholarly text will also ultimately assist you in the writing process. Use academic journals to prepare a list of key words that are important in your research area – use this set of key words repeatedly throughout your document.
Resist the urge to use your thesaurus to come up alternate synonyms to substitute for key terms; these words all have different meanings, nuances, and connotations. For example, if the key phrase for your discipline is "family structure", – do not try substituting other phrases like "family composition", "family formation", "family arrangement", or "family size." Experimenting with alternative word choice can do more harm than good.
On the other hand, purposely repeating key words and phrases links sentences and paragraphs. Moreover, repetition of key words and phrases not only emphasizes important points but also adds cohesion to your overall argument by creating powerful links between ideas in your paper and helping your reader understand the logic of your paper.
Each sentence in a dissertation must be complete and correct in a grammatical sense. Moreover, a dissertation must satisfy the stringent rules of formal grammar (e.g., no contractions, no colloquialisms, no slurs, no undefined technical jargon, no hidden jokes, and no slang, even when such terms or phrases are in common use in the spoken language). Indeed, the writing in a dissertation must be crystal clear. Shades of meaning matter; the terminology and prose must make fine distinctions. The words must convey exactly the meaning intended, nothing more and nothing less.
Remember, to complete your thesis or dissertation you must turn in a written product: the key to success is practice. You don’t become a better writer by just reading an essay like this. Instead, you need to practice, practice, practice. Every day.
Question of the Month:
My advisor gave me feedback on my lit review back in July. But the feedback was unclear. Two weeks afterward, I asked her to clarify what she meant. She could not even remember what she wrote in the margins. It's now September and she wants a full draft of my proposal but I don't know what to do? She said that if I don't defend my proposal this semester I will not be funded next year.
Hello M, sorry to hear about your issues. You have 2 problems. You have the problem of time and the problem of an incomplete proposal. To fill in the other parts of the proposal please take a look at one of our most popular newsletters "13 Ingredients to Writing a Proposal". Begin by writing the section you know first and then fill in what you don't know later. If you go back to your advisor now without a complete first draft of the proposal she will think that you spent the entire summer doing nothing. Work on the proposal as you would a paper for a class that ends in 12 weeks. Treat working on your proposal as you would a class or a task on the job. Stay focused.
In the future, when an advisor or committee member wants to give you back feedback you might consider making an appointment to go over the feedback as soon as possible. Hence the time lapse might not create such foggy memories. Take notes during the meeting so that you do not forget what the comments mean. At the time that the advisor read your paper ,the feedback was probably pertinent. But once time has lapsed...it might take another reading of the document to get the advisor/committee member back up to speed. That situation is quite frustrating for both of you. Try to reduce those types of encounters with your advisor.
All the best,
Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.
About the Author: As a single mother, professor
Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a
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