The zombie thesis



I have a friend, let’s call him Darryl.

Darryl used his skills from a former life as a project manager to bring his PhD in on time and on budget. This involved carefully setting constraints around his project so it was doable and collecting data in a time efficient fashion.

When this was done Darryl sat his bottom down on a chair to punch out a first draft in record time.

Darryl was shocked when he got his draft back from his supervisors with comments like “it is not a thesis yet”, “Where is your voice?” and “this is boring”. Up till to that point Darryl had just assumed his writing had met the required standard.Feeling disheartened, he called me to ask for help.

I don’t usually work with students at ANU on an individual basis – I’d be totally swamped if I did – but I owe Darryl a few favours and I like him. Time being in short supply as always, I invited him over to my house for dinner to work on the draft together.

I’ve found that most people in this position just need a couple of hours to talk it out and write at the same time, with me giving continuous feedback as they go. Most of the guidance I give on these occasions comes from the excellent, and often under-rated, book “The craft of research” (only $9.95 on Kindle!).

It was immediately apparent that Darryl had the whole thesis in his head. Every time I asked him a question he would answer, sometimes in excruciating detail. But the text on the screen did not yet reflect Darryl’s excellent grasp on the content. I slowly realised the problem that Darryl’s supervisors were talking about.

He had a Zombie Thesis. A Zombie thesis can walk and talk, but it isn’t really alive.

A zombie thesis looks like a thesis – with title pages, chapters, graphs and charts – but the parts aren’t quite hanging together yet. This is largely because the apparatus we rely on to orient us in the text: introductions, transitions, topic sentences and so on, are not always in the right order, or they are missing in action.

How can you tell if your draft is a Zombie Thesis? Here are some classic signs:

  • The paragraphs are not purposeful. You should be able to tell someone what work each paragraph is doing (stating a result, moving an argument forward, telling a part of the history of a subject or whatever). If you can’t do this it’s highly likely your reader will be frustrated.
  • The word ‘this’ appears a lot in the text, often as a place holder for more complex concepts that are left unpacked (with thanks to Katherine Firth of Research Voodoo for this one).
  • There is no ‘theme/rheme” progression – or it’s all messed up. Most sentences have a theme (a topic) and a rheme (some kind of comment on the topic). Getting them in the right rhythm, from sentence to sentence, is a trick which fixes almost any paragraph. It’s like writing magic, but too long to explain here so have a read of this page and, if you need more guidance, refer to the excellent ‘Helping Doctoral students write’ by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler.
  • Introductions do not really set the scene for what is to follow. A good introduction according to “The Craft of Research” should establish ‘common ground’ with the reader before moving on to outline the problems that will be tackled.There’s an excellent post on using introductions to connect chapters over on the Patter blog.
  • Not all the pieces of the standard kit of argument are present: knowledge claims, reasons, evidence, counter-arguments. Or they appear in the wrong order. Again the very best text on this is “The craft of research” (every research student should own this book).
  • There is not much definition of terms going on. Specialised words and language are presented without explanation on the assumption that the reader knows what the writer has in mind. Sometimes you are not the best person to see this problem as you have the curse of knowledge: you’ve forgotten what it’s like not to know what you know. Get help with this from a range of friendly readers beyond your supervisor. I think other PhD students are fantastic at this kind of work.
  • There’s a general lack of transitions or connecting words like: consequently, accordingly, certainly, clearly, chiefly etc etc. For an excellent run down of these words and their meanings see “The art of connection: the social life of sentences”. I also like “Style: 10 lessons in clarity and grace” as a reference book on writing lovely sentences and I’ve got a cheat sheet for conjunctive adverbs which may help too.

The Zombie Thesis is not that hard to fix, but it does require a lot of work. The reason it’s not hard to fix is that you have the shitty first draft. Much of the difficult thinking has been done and there are words to manipulate. This is far, far better than staring at a blank page.

But you will need to rebuild parts of the thesis, or maybe even the whole thing, from the ground up. Psychologically this is difficult because you probably have got used to thinking that the first draft is 90% of the writing work. I’m sorry to say the first draft is at best 70% of the work.

(I’m really sorry if you didn’t know this already. I’ll wait here if you want to go and pour yourself a stiff drink.)

The worst thing to do with a Zombie Thesis is to do a line by line edit. This is like trying to fight a jungle war – you will find yourself hip deep in mud somewhere, with a sucking chest wound, too far for a helicopter to reach. As a first step I recommend starting a new document into which you draft a reverse outline: a plan you make form existing text. Here’s a procedure inspired by Explorations in Style blog:

1. Cut and paste the sentence containing the key idea from each paragraph into a new document, or use what you have to write a new sentence containing the key idea.

2. Read through the new document – is there a coherent story emerging?

3. If you feel the overall story does not flow properly, or has gaps, rearrange the sentences in your story line and add in new ones as appropriate.

4. When you are happy with your story line, start filling in the content of each paragraph with material from your old draft as appropriate. If the paragraph is meant to be progressing an argument, check that some, or all, of the following components are present:

  • Knowledge claims’ or ‘truth statements’
  • Reasons / warrants
  • Inferences
  • References to prior work
  • Definitions
  • Evidence/examples
  • Acknowledgement of counter arguments / examples
  • Conclusions

I’ve produced an A4 printable worksheet on reverse outlines which you can use as a guide. I hope this post helps you to start bringing your Thesis Zombie to life – Darryl tells me I helped breathe life into his and I hope to see him graduate really soon.

How about you? What do you find difficult about revising that shitty first draft? Do you have other strategies to suggest?


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