FOR YOUR DPhil Ed Steinmueller 28 May 2008

Plan of the Talk I. Reading 1. Finding, Filtering, Digesting, Relating 2. Authority and Structure 3. Mechanics Writing 4. Why is writing difficult? 5. Before Your Write 6. Two Approaches – Building Up and Down 7. Habits and Style 8. Motivating Your Text 9. Editing 10. Seeking and Using Feedback 11. Revising Structure and Integrating Dissertation


1. Finding, Filtering, Digesting, Relating Finding The vocabulary of your subject Key authors who you identify with Key authors that others will think are relevant


Filtering Identifying what is ‘relevant’ Making conceptual maps – centre and periphery, links and relations Digesting What are the assumptions needed What are the key steps in argument What drives the conclusion Relating What would X think about Y – X, Y people and ideas What are the departure points for different paths of argument What are the lines of development – following up and downstream

2. Authority and Structure


Examiners look at the literature that you cite as a signal or indicator of your grasp of your field of study – WHO ARE THE AUTHORITIES? This means that you need a clear idea of who is identified with a particular idea Published writers are often idiosyncratic – sometimes in a useful way and mostly not – hence many authors not authoritative Structuring your reading means actively working to address the issue of relationships This is a particularly useful area to engage with others – e.g. Is there any relation between x and y? Is x part of the y literature or discipline? When you arrive at the point where a new article or author seems clearly to be variant or special case of other reading you are getting to diminishing returns and it is time to stop




Taking notes is good – everyone does it differently! Note taking habits you may have learned related to regurgitation are not very useful at the DPhil level – the aim is to capture the assumption, structure of argument, and what drives the conclusion Details and facts matter but are usually secondary A DPhil involve managing a large bibliography that eventually becomes your references EndNote or Zetoc are key resources Page references are vitally important Citations that you intend to follow should be copied in full For most people paper has better random access properties than computer files – unless you have a very clear plan of organisation for compiling information on screen work in paper – it is also safer – more hard disks break than notebooks vanish


Why is writing difficult? There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. American sports journalist -Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith (1905 – 1982)


1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

Fear of judgement Unclear vision of audience – Who are you talking to? You don’t yet know what you want to say Your can’t stay on the rails or get lost in the forest You can’t get started You don’t know when to stop

Robert Graves, The Reader Over Your Shoulder, London, MacMillan, 1944 Howard S. Becker, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article: Second Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing), University of Chicago Press, 2nd Edition, 2007.


Before Your Write


Writing and thinking are intimately connected It is very difficult to write if your thoughts are unsettled or confused It is often very difficult to clarify your thoughts without trying to express them What people use to break this cycle is very personal. Nonetheless, you cannot ‘will’ even a draft text into being without some idea of what you are trying to say. The proper ‘voice’ to choose is probably explanatory. Many academic pieces seem to be written as lectures – slightly more formal and dry, and not necessarily to their benefit. One can always edit to that style. No interruptions and avoid getting distracted!


Two Approaches – Building Up and Down


Building Up • • • • Start by explaining your reading Then explain what is missing/wrong/needing extension Then explain what you want to add and how you will gather the evidence for making this addition Then what your evidence shows, what could be alternative interpretations of your evidence and what conclusions the reader should draw

Building Down • • • Start with the above elements as an outline Elaborate the outline (but not too much) Explain the outline – what each elements says and how it is related to those elements the preceded and follow it

In both cases, it sometimes helps to frame what you are saying in terms of a question and relate your answer to this question with the framing of the next question


Habits and Style


Writing something every ‘working day’ is good. Some days will be better than others -- routine helps Decide explicitly that you will have non-working days don’t work on them


Writing without stopping to chase bunny trails is good if you can do it Flag up the bits you want to check or pursue further with a note in brackets [ ] which makes it easy to find with a search As Einstein said -“It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

• You will have to give up some ‘datum of experience’ and this is often the hardest task you have to undertake. • Focus on the make the elements simple bit.

8. Motivating Your Text The single most important message about writing a dissertation EXPLAIN WHY WE ARE HERE Your reader is your silent companion on a journey


You have to tell them your intentions – where you are going, how you are going to get there, and why every part of what you are doing advances the journey. It won’t do to run off the road and into the woods – your companion will be annoyed or frightened You want to keep your companion along, so you don’t want to bore them with details that they don’t need to know – but you do want them to be comfortable that you have, in fact, planned well, and are carrying out this plan as you have explained Ultimately this influences what you write down to the level of the paragraph




My average number of re-writes is 6 and 9 is not unusual. I am not atypical. Editing is how we interrogate our own writing: How do I know this? Does this follow or is something missing? Am I maintaining the pace, is my reader awake? Editing is how we find ways to state sentences more directly Editing is where we pay most attention to the details What is the page number for this direct quote? Have I really used that word three times in one sentence? Does this word really mean what I think it does? Let it rest! Editing shortly after writing may help clarify the argument but some aging (10-14 days) is needed for a fresh look and a final edit Copy-editing and content editing are two different things. Don’t expect a focus on content to produce a copy-edited text.

10. Seeking and Using Feedback


Supervisors differ in their degree of engagement with the text Some will intervene heavily – others will focus only on key issues or questions Even if you write well, you need someone to look closely at a significant block of your text in detail Questioning the feedback you get is important – the less the feedback the more questions you should ask (within reason) a) To make sure there was a careful reading b) To test your understanding c) To try on other ways you could proceed Keeping a detailed record of the feedback and transferring it to ‘to do’ lists is essential Finding a peer who is willing to trade careful reading can be very helpful

11. Revising Structure and Integrating Dissertation The entire thesis and every part within it has An introduction setting the plan A body implementing the plan A conclusion that follows from the body and recapitulates the plan To keep this all from being tedious you need to have overlap but not ‘cut and paste’ Every part of the thesis is motivated both internally and with respect to what precedes and what follows When you get to the first draft of the thesis you need a paper copy to help keep track of revisions and to make more tangible the weight and balance of different chapter and sections Work towards ‘closure’ meaning. A ‘-2’ draft of chapters and a penultimate draft of the entire dissertation

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