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From the other side of the draft

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Noelle Sterne with a guest post on dissertation writing. Dissertation coach and nurturer, editor, academic and mainstream writing consultant and soother, author, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University), has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues. Her monthly posts appear in theTextbook and Academic Authors blog Abstract and the literary blog Two Drops of Ink. In her academic consulting practice, Noelle helps doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion. Based on her practice, her handbook addresses students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life, Noelle shows readers how to release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Noelle also shares her knowledge with ongoing community writing and meditation workshops and university academic presentations. Visit

As an independent academic editor and coach, I generally empathize with beleaguered graduate students who are wrestling with their dissertations. Most doctoral candidates seem to get little support from their chairs in guidance, writing, or cheering on. However, exceptions exist . . . .

A student recently sent me a heartfelt communication, likely born of frustration, from a chair to his dissertation group. This chair, impressively, given the typical overload of students, committees, and jockeying for the lounge microwave, held bimonthly meetings with his students in the throes of their dissertations. In the letter, he showed great caring in his insistence that his students measure up. The chair—I’ll name him Professor Bellows—shared several important “gripes” we can all learn from.

Baneful Scholarly Language
Sounding exasperated, Professor Bellows called out his students’ inattention to scholarly language and wordiness:
Even though I have addressed the issues of appropriate diction and wordiness, providing specifics to you over our many meetings, most of you have not taken this to heart. And worse, for some bizarre reason you thought that feedback given to one student didn’t apply to your own work.

In my work, I’ve found that scholarly language notoriously trips students up. The genre of scholarly writing demands certain standards, expectations, and conventions. A few: no contractions, no colloquialisms, little passive voice, no “emotional” words (terribly, very, astoundingly, unfairly), no redundancy (period of time), no jargon (with exceptions, depending on your field, topic, and pedantry of your chair), no euphemisms (“After ingesting licorice-flavored cyanide, the rat gave up the ghost.”), no anthropomorphisms (“This book instructs you.”), past tense for literature review summaries, future tense for proposals. And of course, proper grammar throughout. See the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010, pp. 65-71) for a roundup.

Sincerely desiring to teach and train his students, Professor Bellows distributed handouts (several times) with examples of words and phrases not to use, such as the above. He also circulated sheets with examples of wordiness and recommended corrections (“There were five attempts to” > ”Five attempts were made to”; “was contacting” > ”contacted”; “A new method is needed by the university” > “The university requires a new method”). On the heels of these handouts, he exhorted his wayward students to attend to such matters privately outside the group meetings:
Much of the feedback provided in our last meeting on a student’s chapter should never have been given time. It was a waste. All of these issues should be taken care of in the peer group or by the author.
Professor Bellows revealed too the source of his annoyance:
It was brought to my attention that last month in her peer group an author had been told about all the problems, like these, with her chapter. She ignored them, only to be given the same feedback by the larger group. This is a waste of all our time!

Follow the Guidelines

Next Professor Bellows addressed an organizational guideline he had distributed specifically for Chapter 3, the methods chapter in most dissertations. Apparently, his students inexplicably concluded the guideline applied only to a certain type of dissertation and, therefore, not to theirs:
This guide is not for qualitative dissertations only. It is a basic guide for ALL dissertations. To bring to the group any chapter not organized according to the outlines provided is disrespectful of my time, the group’s time, and of the process.

The students were attempting to slide over or around the process outlined. When I hear students’ laments about how they attempted to short-circuit the process, they always finally admit shortcuts never work. Sooner or later, the lapses are always unmasked. Especially when graduation is imminent, the penalties can be steep of extensive revision and delay.

Consideration and Responsibility
Showing his sensitivity to the students’ lack of consideration, Professor Bellows exhorted them to develop a sense of responsibility and ownership of the dissertation. Angry and weary at his students’ careless, apathetic, and lackadaisical attitudes, he wrote:
No chapter should be sent out a week before our meeting with a hurried request to provide feedback just a couple of days prior to the group meeting. This means the author is not taking care with the product or taking responsibility for it.

And his passionate irritation shone through:
Listen to all the critiques! Most of what we say to one author at one meeting we have said to others the meeting before. This lack of attention and application to your own work is tiresome! It’s one thing to try to help another craft a ood purpose statement. But it’s quite another to avoid editing heavily for flow and organization because the author couldn’t be bothered either to listen or take responsibility for the work.

I empathize especially with Professor B.’s comments here. Occasionally with clients, I’ve found that, after they receive my questions and comments, their revisions and inserts are wholly perfunctory, as if they’ve been watching TV with their laptop opened to a dissertation screen for show. Once in a while, when I see a student’s production (or lack of it) like this, I feel bound to voice similar words to Professor Bellow’s. Usually, the student apologizes and literally and figuratively turns off the TV and buckles down.

The Benefits of Writing

As any writer knows, and even though we may object violently at times, writing begets better writing. Professor Bellows knew this dictum well and reminded his students:
No one in this group is exempt from writing other papers. The reason is—and this is by far not the first time I have said this—that those who write and receive feedback from peer reviewers at conferences and journals improve their writing skills and are focused on the task at hand.

Again, he pinpointed the slough-off factor of his (and other) students. The effort, concentration, consistency, and actual writing cannot be minimized. As many of my students have attested, paradoxically when we finally do get down to writing, we often enjoy it and even get excited about it.

Respect Respect Respect

In his wrap-up, Professor Bellows returned to a major gripe. Following from his other examples of students’ disrespect—ignoring guidelines, not revising, submitting a “new” draft at the last minute—he brought up a habit all of us should have jettisoned in high school:
I am extremely tired of another aspect of general disrespect. At our next meeting, if you have something to say, address the group. Many of you feel your side conversations are about an issue we are dealing with. But while the larger group is addressing the issue, you carry on your private discussion, interrupting the conversation, and forcing us to stop to listen to you. Then, likely as not, you pull us back to a topic we have already addressed. Another waste of time!

A Great Leader
Finally, like a good and caring academic coach, Professor Bellows reaffirmed his faith in his students:
Take these remarks in the spirit intended—to help you. Let’s work together to improve the group process and your writing. I know you can do it, and my goal is for your dissertations to be the best they can be.
* * * * * *
In all these comments, Professor Bellows impressed me with his insights, courage, and forthrightness. He nailed students’ lack of respect for themselves, their work, the group, the process, and himself. He insisted on adherence to the guidelines, conventions, and accepted standards. He shared his feelings of frustration and implored his errant charges, with reiterated faith in them, to step up and do better.

Several months after I received these materials, the student who had sent them to me reported, I’m glad to say, that the group had indeed improved. The students were respecting the group process more and making decent strides in their work.

If as student or professor you’ve squirmed reading any of Professor Bellows’ observations, good. Like his students, it’s time to take your all-important dissertation to heart, give it your all, and accept the help you are offered. With your renewed commitment and attention, you too will make real progress and, as Professor Bellows desired for his students, you’ll have a scholarly work to be proud of.

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