4.7 Revising, Proofreading and Polishing the Thesis Draft: How Many Times?

You are probably breathing an enormous sigh of relief at this point and rightly so. You should also give yourself a hearty pat on the back and perhaps go out and celebrate with your family or friends. You have, after all, drafted the whole of the beast that has no doubt been hounding your waking and sleeping hours for months and quite possibly years, so do give yourself a little time to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. The time you allow yourself will also be helpful for the work you will need to do to proofread, revise and polish your thesis: it will put a little distance between you and your writing, and distance is always helpful when you need an objective and critical perspective. Although you may be tempted to submit your thesis to your supervisor for reading and commentary right away while you are gaining that distance, it is wisest to read through the entire draft yourself at this point before sharing it with any other reader. I certainly do not mean to undermine your well-earned sense of accomplishment, but what you have at this point is what a student of mine once called ‘a drafty draft’ – a lovely little phrase for a text that has been fully drafted, but still contains many imperfections (holes or gaps, as it were, through which the wind of criticism can easily enter). This will be the case even if you have diligently shared each and every chapter as you completed it with your supervisor and other committee members, and responded to their feedback with careful revisions. The thesis as a whole is an altogether different entity than its individual chapters, so while keeping your committee up to date with what you write and revising according to their advice as you proceed will mean a lot fewer changes in the thesis draft, it will not eliminate the need to read and polish the entire thesis before submitting it for commentary.

Once you have given yourself enough space from your writing to gain as close to an objective perspective as possible (and time constraints may limit the space you have), you should read through the thesis with a critical eye from beginning to end in a single sitting. Depending on the length of the thesis and your schedule, this may take you more than a day (and hence a single sitting), but the point is that you should, if at all possible, perform this careful reading without any major (especially intellectual) interruptions so that you can gain a clear view of how the thesis progresses. There are so many matters, both major and minor, to watch for as you read that it can be difficult to do everything simultaneously, so you may want to read through the text more than once or decide upon certain aspects to deal with separately – in-text references and the reference list as well as quotations can, for instance, be productively checked for accuracy and consistency on their own, and tables and figures can as well, though the information they contain should also be compared with that in other parts of the thesis. Most of the work will need to be tackled in the context of the entire thesis, however, so you will have to apply the skills of a proofreader to your own work, attending to each and every detail while also observing the larger picture. This is an excellent time to make connections and correct inconsistencies of all kinds across chapters and throughout the thesis as a whole.

Absolutely central to the success of a thesis is its argument, so you will need to pay special attention to the overall intellectual progression of your writing as well as to transitions of all kinds: between chapters, topics, sources, theories, ideas, methods, instruments, results, subjects, participants, variables, conditions, comparisons, paragraphs, sentences and so on. Ask yourself as a critical reader whether your text communicates clearly what you intended it to communicate at every turn, and ask yourself, too, if it does, as far as you understand it, what a doctoral thesis ought to do in your department and discipline. Ensure that there is an obvious line of thought (your argument) to the progression of which all aspects of the thesis contribute in a reasonable and orderly fashion, and add clarification, explanation and elaboration if necessary. Your argument should be closely related to the structure of your thesis and its division into chapters, sections, subsections and other parts, so spend some time considering the ways in which you arranged material and the headings you used to describe each chapter and section. The arrangement should be logical, include all elements required by university or department guidelines and help make the information accessible and digestible for your readers, while your headings should be clear and concise and accurately describe the material that appears beneath them. If you have used numbered headings, a consistent format (font, capitalisation, placement, punctuation etc.) is usually used across all headings, and you should also ensure that the numbering is accurate and effectively distinguishes different levels of heading. If your headings are unnumbered, all headings of the same level (all chapter headings, for instance, or all first-level headings) should observe a consistent format, but headings of different levels should normally be differentiated by changes in formatting (the format of first-level headings should differ from that of second-level headings, for instance). Such details are more important to a reader’s comprehension of an argument than they may seem, so do take a look at Section 6.1 below for suggestions on how to use headings effectively.

A delicate balance of accuracy, consistency and differentiation in the right places and situations is essential to many aspects of a thesis, so you will need to apply that critical eye to many other formatting matters. Numbers, for instance, whether recorded as words or numerals, must be accurate and their formats consistent, but there are also specific conventions for using numbers that are rather complex and tend to vary from discipline to discipline, so considerable attention should be paid to the numbers you include in your thesis (see Section 6.4 for details). Capitalisation and special fonts should be used in logical and effective ways for highlighting and emphasising the words that feature them, and their use must also conform to acceptable scholarly practices, perhaps even to university or department guidelines or to a particular style guide (see Section 6.2). All nonstandard abbreviations must be defined or explained when first used in a thesis (in some cases in each new chapter), defined separately when they appear in the abstract or in any tables, figures and appendices and then used consistently from that point on. Each term must be abbreviated in exactly the same way in all instances, and if a list of abbreviations is required, every nonstandard abbreviation used must be included in the list with its form and definition exactly as they appear in the main body and other parts of the thesis (see Section 6.3). Formatting issues of this kind may seem small and insignificant when compared with the argument and content of your thesis, but they are not. The concepts that have become so familiar to you are not necessarily familiar to your readers, so inconsistent or incorrect usage can create true confusion, and using such features accurately and precisely is expected in formal scholarly prose at the doctoral level.

Three other elements of a thesis should be given a careful final check as well:

  • Tables and figures require special attention as you read through your work because a lot of information, often of a detailed and complex nature, tends to be included in each table or figure, so accuracy, clarity and consistency are paramount (see Sections 1.3 and 4.4.1 for further advice). You should also ensure that each table or figure is referred to by number in the thesis and in a way that clearly indicates what the table or figure is meant to show the reader. In fact, all cross references (to sections, chapters, appendices etc.) used in your thesis should be checked for accuracy and consistency.
  • Citations of sources always require more than a passing glance. In-text references or the note numbers for them need to be appropriately placed to reflect exactly what material has been borrowed. Information about sources included in parenthetical citations and notes must match the same information in the reference list or bibliography. The details provided for references as well as the order and punctuation of those details must be consistent for all references in the text and similarly for all references in the list. Any text directly quoted from sources must be transcribed with the utmost accuracy, integrated into your text effectively and provided with page numbers (or similar means for readers to locate the quoted text). Finally, all sources cited in the text must be included in the list of references (for more information on references and quotations, see Chapters 7 and 8).
  • Particular attention should also be dedicated to the abstract (see Sections 1.1.2 and 4.2). You may have already revised it as you finished your first draft of the entire thesis and perhaps again when you began proofreading your draft, but it can be incredibly helpful to read and revise the abstract immediately after you have read the entire thesis with a critical eye because, with the thesis contents still fresh in your mind, you will be able to determine more effectively whether the abstract accurately summarises the study as a whole and highlights its most important points. This is also a good time to ensure that the abstract and the entire thesis still meet length requirements, as further revisions of one or both might be necessary if they do not.

Finally, you will need to attend to your writing style and use of language in the thesis. Academic and scientific writing should always be clear and correct, and it should also maintain scholarly formality. Sentences and paragraphs should be carefully constructed using effective syntax and sound logic. Each word should be used accurately, with discipline-specific terminology and especially jargon kept to a minimum; any usage that may prove confusing to readers should be defined or explained. Grammar and spelling should be correct at all times, and the spelling, vocabulary and phrasing of either British or American English should be adopted and maintained, so be sure to find out which version of the language is appropriate for your university and department and then conform to it consistently. Punctuation should be correct and its patterns consistent to clarify the meaning of your sentences and accurately present lists and quoted material.

Your text as a whole should come across as a professional document that communicates facts and ideas clearly and smoothly, and if your research focuses on language, it is ideal to aspire to some level of elegance and eloquence in your own writing. Writing such accomplished English while attempting to share the complex and detailed material generally included in a doctoral thesis can be a significant challenge, even for those fluent in the English language and endowed with excellent writing skills; for those whose first language is not English or who struggle to express their thoughts in writing, it can at times seem an insurmountable barrier. Chapter 5 of this book provides specific advice on dealing with aspects of the English language that tend to be particularly problematic for academic and scientific writers of all kinds, but be sure to use it along with any relevant university or department guidelines regarding the style of English required for a thesis in your discipline.

Once you have proofread and polished your thesis draft as much as possible, ensuring that you have eliminated to the best of your ability all problems with formatting and language so that your committee members will be able to focus instead on the intellectual content and overall argument and structure of your thesis, you will need to submit it for reading and commentary. The usual process is to share it with your supervisor first, deal with any revisions that he or she requests or suggests and then submit the revised draft to your other committee members as well. In an ideal world, you would be able to revise one last time in response to their feedback and then submit the thesis for the formal examination, but in the real world, the process can be far longer and more complicated. You may, for instance, have to resubmit the thesis to your supervisor and other committee members at least one more time so that the changes you have made can be checked and approved, and if there were many changes or the problems were significant, further alterations and submissions may still be necessary.

You must treat each and every concern raised with respect and serious consideration, doing your best to accommodate all perspectives and clearly explaining your reasoning whenever you find that you are unable to make requested changes. It is therefore impossible to predict how many times you will need to revise, reread, discuss and resubmit your thesis before you, your supervisor and your other committee members consider it ready for examination. The process will involve a large number of niggling details – do not forget, for instance, to update your acknowledgements to include any assistance you receive during this process and to adjust the page numbers in your table of contents if revisions have made this necessary – and your progress may be complicated or occasionally hindered by the schedules of committee members and the amount of time they are able to dedicate to your thesis. Rest assured, however, that the process will end successfully if you work hard, remain positive and stay focussed on your ultimate goal – the completion of your thesis and the achievement of your doctorate.

PRS Tip: A professional proofreader can be particularly beneficial at this crucial stage in the writing process. You might want to have your thesis read by such a proofreader immediately after you polish the entire draft for the initial submission to your supervisor or you may want to wait until you have received feedback from all committee members and revised the thesis in response to their commentary. Either way, a qualified English proofreader can offer a great deal: he or she can check all stylistic and formatting details for accuracy and consistency, ensure that your spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax are correct and effective, highlight instances in which terminology, headings, tables and figures might benefit from clarification, make sure that your references are accurate, complete and consistent, and focus on any particular aspect of your writing that presents special challenges for you. The intellectual content of your thesis is your own, of course, and you are the only one who can shape and reshape it appropriately, but a professional proofreader can worry about everything else so that you have more time to focus on that content. Very few working scholars (such as those on your committee) will have the time or the inclination to help you with the language and formatting of your thesis, and once you have read and revised your own text repeatedly over a short period of time you will almost certainly find it more and more difficult to see clearly where the problems may lie, especially if small details of style and formatting need attention. A PRS proofreader will be able to bring an objective and critical perspective to your thesis, and if you have already used a PRS proofreader to check one or more of your individual chapters, you can request that same proofreader to work on the thesis as a whole; alternatively, if you would like a fresh perspective, you can request a different proofreader. Engaging the services of such a proofreader will increase your confidence for the final examination, and it is also an excellent idea once that examination is over, all revisions are completed and you have the final version of the thesis ready to submit for your degree – it is a reliable way to ensure a professional polish on what is, after all, not only a major piece of written work, but the beginning of what will ideally be a rewarding career. In addition, if you are planning to publish your thesis (or need to do so as part of your degree requirements), having it professionally proofread is an excellent start.

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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