Doing a copy edit of your thesis

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There are many lists of skills that can be developed through doctoral studies. Editing rarely appears on these lists. That’s a strange omission, because any half-decent thesis has usually undergone a rigorous editorial process.

I speak from experience. My own PhD studies (which I completed in 2009) equipped me with a range of editing skills, as well as a general passion for trimming the textual fat. This passion has fuelled my career as a professional editor, during which I have worked on everything from scholarly monographs to business reports and, yes, theses.

In what follows, I will provide an overview of the skills that doctoral students require in order to produce a high-quality dissertation. These skills are (to use that familiar buzzword) ‘transferable’, that is, they are invaluable within and outside the ivory tower.

Take heed of grammar, spelling and punctuation

This may seem like an unusual skill to list here. After all, surely those undertaking the highest level of education should be masters (and mistresses) of good grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Unfortunately, as many Thesis Whisperer readers will be aware, that’s not always the case. Many students undertaking doctoral studies do not know their ‘em’ dashes from their ‘en’ dashes, or their ‘practices’ from their ‘practises’. I can recall my supervisor’s (carefully-controlled) frustration as he advised me again and again that the full stop goes before the quotation marks, not after.

In these situations, you (the candidate) would be advised to seek assistance with your writing. Most universities have learning skills units. Make use of these. You should also approach a colleague (for example, a fellow postgraduate student) to read over thesis drafts, in addition to your supervisor. Preferably this colleague should be within your own academic discipline, but that’s not absolutely essential.

Most importantly, you should take note of the advice being given, and make sure you follow it. Learn from mistakes! Undertaking a doctorate is an educational experience, and this education should not be restricted to grasping a particular research area.

Be consistent

In Australia, doctoral theses are generally between 80,000 and 100,000 words in length. In such a long document, remaining consistent can be a challenge. Ten-point plans become 10-point plans. Chicago referencing morphs into Oxford referencing, and back again.

With this in mind, you could do worse than to produce an editing style sheet. If you stray from this sheet during the writing process, fret not—errors can be rectified in the final proofread (more about that below …)—but try to be vigilant. I use style sheets in my own editing business, and cannot imagine working without them.

Mind your language

Education scholar Professor Tara Brabazon has written: ‘A PhD must be written to ensure that it can be examined within the regulations of a specific university and in keeping with international standards of doctoral education.’ I agree. No, your thesis shouldn’t be cryptic, but neither should it resemble the way you chat to friends on Facebook. Always make sure that the language you use is the language you would find in the work of high-ranking scholars in your field.

Trim the fat

My favourite part of the editorial process! Constantly ask yourself, what have I said in five words that I could say in three? Is that line or paragraph really necessary? The best academic prose is crisp and concise, and doesn’t wade in waffle.

Trimming the fat also involves removing repetition. Again, repetition is difficult to avoid in a lengthy document—but avoid, you must! Even the most patient examiner can become frustrated when they encounter a point that was made only pages ago.

Watch your structure

A thesis is not an exercise in Lynchian non-linearity and randomness. The dissertation should have a very clear beginning, middle and end. There should be continuity between the chapters; these shouldn’t read as similarly-themed articles (and yes, this is even true of the increasingly popular ‘PhD by publication’). Equally, the chapters should themselves flow smoothly; sentences and paragraphs should connect properly to each other.

Do a final proofread

This is the most crucial part of the editorial process. Try to give yourself a break between typing your final word and reading over the thesis draft. This will give you ‘fresh eyes’, as the saying goes. These fresh eyes are invaluable in detecting that typo hidden on page 130, or that wordy sentence in the middle of page 220.

All good theses have been well-edited. There’s no exception to that rule! The skills I have described will increase the likelihood of a positive thesis examination, and serve you well as you pursue a career in academia. Though, in saying that, these editing skills will be warmly welcomed in the world outside the university.

Author Bio: Dr. Jay Daniel Thompson  teaches at the University of Melbourne, and works as a freelance editor. Dr. Thompson has a background in research administration, and remains interested in issues facing postgraduate students and early career researchers.

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