WRITING THE THESIS OR DISSERTATION
Now this is the part we’ve been waiting for. I must assume that you have come up with a good idea for research, had your proposal approved, collected the data, conducted your analyses and now you’re about to start writing the Thesis or dissertation. If you’ve done the first steps well this part shouldn’t be too bad. In fact it might even be enjoyable!
17. The major myth in writing a dissertation is that you start writing at Chapter One and then finish your writing at Chapter Five. This is seldom the case. The most productive approach in writing the dissertation is to begin writing those parts of the dissertation that you are most comfortable with. Then move about in your writing by completing various sections as you think of them. At some point you will be able to spread out in front of you all of the sections that you have written. You will be able to sequence them in the best order and then see what is missing and should be added to the dissertation. This way seems to make sense and builds on those aspects of your study that are of most interest to you at any particular time. Go with what interests you, start your writing there, and then keep building!
(David Kraenzel – North Dakota State University – wrote in describing the “A to Z Method”. Look at the first section of your paper. When you are ready go ahead and write it. If you are not ready, move section-by-section through your paper until you find a section where you have some input to make. Make your input and continue moving through the entire paper – from A to Z – writing and adding to those sections for which you have some input. Each time you work on your paper follow the same A to Z process. This will help you visualize the end product of your efforts from very early in your writing and each time you work on your paper you will be building the entire paper – from A to Z. Thanks David!)
18. If you prepared a comprehensive proposal you will now be rewarded! Pull out the proposal and begin by checking your proposed research methodology. Change the tense from future tense to past tense and then make any additions or changes so that the methodology section truly reflects what you did. You have now been able to change sections from the proposal to sections for the dissertation. Move on to the Statement of the Problem and the Literature Review in the same manner.
19. I must assume you’re using some form of word processing on a computer to write your dissertation. (if you aren’t, you’ve missed a major part of your doctoral preparation!) If your study has specific names of people, institutions and places that must be changed to provide anonymity don’t do it too soon. Go ahead and write your dissertation using the real names. Then at the end of the writing stage you can easily have the computer make all of the appropriate name substitutions. If you make these substitutions too early it can really confuse your writing.
20. As you get involved in the actual writing of your dissertation you will find that conservation of paper will begin to fade away as a concern. Just as soon as you print a draft of a chapter there will appear a variety of needed changes and before you know it another draft will be printed. And, it seems almost impossible to throw away any of the drafts! After awhile it will become extremely difficult to remember which draft of your chapter you may be looking at. Print each draft of your dissertation on a different color paper. With the different colors of paper it will be easy to see which is the latest draft and you can quickly see which draft a committee member might be reading. (Thanks to Michelle O’Malley at University of Florida for sharing this idea.)
21. The one area where I would caution you about using a word processor is in the initial creation of elaborate graphs or tables. I’ve seen too many students spend too many hours in trying to use their word processor to create an elaborate graph that could have been done by hand in 15 minutes. So, the simple rule is to use hand drawing for elaborate tables and graphs for the early draft of your dissertation. Make sure your data are presented accurately so your advisor can clearly understand your graph/table, but don’t waste the time trying to make it look word processor perfect at this time. Once you and your advisor agree upon how the data should be graphically represented it is time to prepare “perfect” looking graphs and tables.
22. Dissertation-style writing is not designed to be entertaining. Dissertation writing should be clear and unambiguous. To do this well you should prepare a list of key words that are important to your research and then your writing should use this set of key words throughout. There is nothing so frustrating to a reader as a manuscript that keeps using alternate words to mean the same thing. If you’ve decided that a key phrase for your research is “educational workshop”, then do not try substituting other phrases like “in-service program”, “learning workshop”, “educational institute”, or “educational program.” Always stay with the same phrase – “educational workshop.” It will be very clear to the reader exactly what you are referring to.
23. Review two or three well organized and presented dissertations. Examine their use of headings, overall style, typeface and organization. Use them as a model for the preparation of your own dissertation. In this way you will have an idea at the beginning of your writing what your finished dissertation will look like. A most helpful perspective!
24. A simple rule – if you are presenting information in the form of a table or graph make sure you introduce the table or graph in your text. And then, following the insertion of the table/graph, make sure you discuss it. If there is nothing to discuss then you may want to question even inserting it.
25. Another simple rule – if you have a whole series of very similar tables try to use similar words in describing each. Don’t try and be creative and entertaining with your writing. If each introduction and discussion of the similar tables uses very similar wording then the reader can easily spot the differences in each table.
26. We are all familiar with how helpful the Table of Contents is to the reader. What we sometimes don’t realize is that it is also invaluable to the writer. Use the Table of Contents to help you improve your manuscript. Use it to see if you’ve left something out, if you are presenting your sections in the most logical order, or if you need to make your wording a bit more clear. Thanks to the miracle of computer technology, you can easily copy/paste each of your headings from throughout your writing into the Table of Contents. Then sit back and see if the Table of Contents is clear and will make good sense to the reader. You will be amazed at how easy it will be to see areas that may need some more attention. Don’t wait until the end to do your Table of Contents. Do it early enough so you can benefit from the information it will provide to you.
27. If you are including a Conclusions/Implications section in your dissertation make sure you really present conclusions and implications. Often the writer uses the conclusions/implications section to merely restate the research findings. Don’t waste my time. I’ve already read the findings and now, at the Conclusion/Implication section, I want you to help me understand what it all means. This is a key section of the dissertation and is sometimes best done after you’ve had a few days to step away from your research and allow yourself to put your research into perspective. If you do this you will no doubt be able to draw a variety of insights that help link your research to other areas. I usually think of conclusions/implications as the “So what” statements. In other words, what are the key ideas that we can draw from your study to apply to my areas of concern.
28. Potentially the silliest part of the dissertation is the Suggestions for Further Research section. This section is usually written at the very end of your writing project and little energy is left to make it very meaningful. The biggest problem with this section is that the suggestions are often ones that could have been made prior to you conducting your research. Read and reread this section until you are sure that you have made suggestions that emanate from your experiences in conducting the research and the findings that you have evolved. Make sure that your suggestions for further research serve to link your project with other projects in the future and provide a further opportunity for the reader to better understand what you have done.
29. Now it’s time to write the last chapter. But what chapter is the last one? My perception is that the last chapter should be the first chapter. I don’t really mean this in the literal sense. Certainly you wrote Chapter One at the beginning of this whole process. Now, at the end, it’s time to “rewrite” Chapter One. After you’ve had a chance to write your dissertation all the way to the end, the last thing you should do is turn back to Chapter One. Reread Chapter One carefully with the insight you now have from having completed Chapter Five. Does Chapter One clearly help the reader move in the direction of Chapter Five? Are important concepts that will be necessary for understanding Chapter Five presented in Chapter One?