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Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation: Getting Started

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Need to get started on your dissertation? This chapter discusses strategies for beginning the writing process and suggests ways of avoiding the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.
This chapter is from the book
  • “What?” thought the Emperor. “I see nothing at all. This is terrible! Am I a fool? Am I not fit to be Emperor? Why, nothing worse could happen to me!” ... And he nodded his satisfaction as he gazed at the empty loom. Nothing would induce him to say that he could not see anything.

    —“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Andersen’s Fairy Tales

WHAT DOES THE STORY of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” have to do with the purpose of this book, which is to help graduate students write theses or dissertations? In the well-known tale, two swindlers arrive at the Emperor’s palace, claiming that their cloth is invisible to anyone who is stupid or unfit for his job. The reality, of course, is that the cloth doesn’t exist. The swindlers pretend to spin, but they are actually spinning nothing at all, well aware that few people, even the Emperor, will be brave enough to acknowledge that they can’t see anything. Similarly, many graduate students, uncertain about what a thesis/dissertation is supposed to accomplish and having only a vague idea about how to write one, are afraid to acknowledge their uncertainty, fearing that they will be judged unworthy and unfit for graduate school. Insecurity is the reason some students, like the Emperor and others in the palace, sometimes pretend to understand what for them may be a mysterious undertaking. They ask few questions and begin the process of searching for a topic and drafting a proposal without a clear sense of purpose. Many have only a general notion of a topic they may like to explore, are unaware of what is involved in transforming a broad subject area into a workable thesis/dissertation topic, and have little idea of what a proposal is supposed to look like. Anxiety causes some students to avoid writing as long as possible, engaging in extensive reading and note-taking as an avoidance strategy or procrastinating in other ways. Some develop writing blocks, even if they have never had difficulty writing in other situations.

What graduate students should also realize is that professors rarely receive formal training in teaching writing or in supervising students in research. Presumably, students are supposed to figure things out on their own through a sort of intellectual osmosis between academic minds. Some are able to find an advisor who is concerned about teaching and is aware of students’ inexperience in undertaking a large project such as a thesis or dissertation. But many students are not so fortunate.

This book provides theoretical and practical insights into the process of developing a topic, drafting a proposal, and developing it into an effective thesis/dissertation. It also addresses practical issues, such as taking notes, selecting an advisor, and working with a departmental committee. Having worked with graduate students from a variety of disciplines, I have developed a number of approaches to thesis/dissertation writing that students will find helpful. Most important, I have learned that when students understand that scholarly work involves interacting with the ideas in an academic community and that a thesis/dissertation involves entering the conversations of that community, they are able to write with less difficulty.

This chapter discusses strategies for beginning the writing process and suggests ways of avoiding the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.

Difficulties Associated with Writing in Graduate School

The fact that so many students experience difficulty in writing a thesis or dissertation can be traced to a number of misconceptions about the preparation graduate students receive before they begin and about the nature of the task itself. Other factors contributing to student anxiety include the entrenched elitism associated with writing a culminating work and unrealistic expectations for originality.

Graduate Student Preparation

Although considerable scholarship has been published over the past 25 years about the “process” of helping undergraduate students learn to write, little attention has been devoted to the writing tasks graduate students face. Hence, a number of outdated and mistaken notions about graduate student writing ability exist:

  • Graduate students write well enough to develop a thesis/dissertation proposal without further instruction in writing.
  • A thesis/dissertation is similar to other papers students have written.
  • Previous coursework adequately prepares students for writing a thesis/dissertation—that is, students who have successfully written seminar papers will, with relatively little difficulty, proceed through the thesis/dissertation process, from proposal, to draft, to polished document.

These misconceptions are counterproductive to developing an effective working relationship between a student and his or her advisor during the process of developing and writing a thesis/dissertation because they set up unrealistic expectations for students and minimize the role of the advisor. Most advisors are genuinely concerned with helping students, but they may not know how to teach writing, particularly the writing of a long scholarly work such as a thesis/dissertation. As a result, although advisors may have little difficulty identifying (or complaining about) inadequacies in a thesis/dissertation, they often do not define its rhetorical goals and genre requirements for their students. Perhaps they have not consciously articulated these goals and requirements for themselves; maybe they feel that they shouldn’t have to do so. Graduate school is associated with a lingering elitism in which students deemed intellectually “worthy” are those select few who can discern on their own what is regarded as acceptable. More commonly, though, students begin the process of writing a thesis/dissertation without a clear idea of its generic expectations—what it is intended to “do,” what it is supposed to “look like,” and what the established members of the discourse community are expecting it to “be.”

Moreover, a number of advisors seem to expect students to know intuitively what is required of them because, if they don’t know, they shouldn’t have been admitted to graduate school in the first place. This is the legacy that has generated the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.

Distrust of Collaborative Writing

Graduate student insecurity associated with writing a thesis/dissertation is partly due to the emphasis in the academic world on the importance of “originality,” which is strongly associated with the idea of an autonomous writer working alone (usually in a garret). This legacy of the romantic tradition has persisted, despite the endorsement in composition scholarship of collaborative learning as a means of helping individual writers learn to write. The academy continues to endorse the idea of the solitary author and tacitly supports the assumption that, as Rebecca Moore Howard observes, “some writers are born with ‘the gift.’ The others can only be socialized not to make fools of themselves when writing—and to revere the writing of the truly gifted” (35). How many of us believe we have this “gift?” My guess is that a lot more of us think that a few others may have it but that we, ourselves, do not. We may consider ourselves hard workers but not original thinkers—and this belief generates insecurity.

Misconceptions of “Originality”

The idea that a thesis/dissertation must be truly “original” can stifle your ability to write because you will find yourself waiting for inspiration to strike, which is likely to be a long, lonely vigil. And yet, what is known about the creation of original works is that they often build upon the works of others, with inspiration occurring within the context of an established tradition or form. An important way to think about creativity is that it can exist only within the context of a particular genre and that a thorough understanding of and familiarity with a genre is a prerequisite for working creatively with it. Thus, Mozart’s achievement in the sonata form can be understood as an outgrowth from an established tradition—that is, Mozart had to work extensively within the sonata form before he was able to create an “original” version of it. Similarly, Picasso had to have developed competence in traditional forms and colors before he could create the visual juxtapositions associated with his “original” style. And Charles Darwin, who is reputed to have “originated” the theory of evolution, was working at a time when many other scientists were exploring this same direction. An “original” work often builds on works that are less “original”—and this is certainly the case in the academy.

On the other hand, if you are from a non-English-speaking country or culture, as many graduate students are, your notions of originality may differ. In some cultures, imitation and emulation are privileged over original work, and it is sometimes the case that students incorporate the work of others into their own work too closely. Then they may find themselves accused of plagiarizing, when their intent was simply to show respect for someone else’s work. The concept of originality is tricky, so I suggest that you think about it in the context of your particular discipline and raise it as a point of conversation with your advisor and other students.

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