The big job: revising your thesis manuscript

So, you’ve written your thesis! You have drafts of every chapter, your introduction, your conclusion, your abstract. Your bibliography is looking pretty. You’re done, right? Right?

…sorry. No. There’s more work to come, I’m afraid.

As we say around this neck of the woods, drafts are called drafts because they’ve got great big holes in them that the wind whistles through, and that’s as true for academic writing as it is for fiction. Before you can submit your manuscript, you need to spend some time revising it—taking out all the gaps and making sure every link in your argument holds together like chain-mail.

It’s a big job, made harder by the fact that it’s very difficult to try to hold a clear picture of three years’ work in your head all at once. For this reason, I recommend—not breaking it down into sections, for once, but getting it outside of your head. This will help you to spot problems, gaps and changes that need to be made. Then you can start work on a plan of attack.

1.Map your thesis

This is kind of like drawing a mind-map, but not quite, because you don’t free-associate ideas. Instead, you draw up a visual representation of your thesis—colour-coded if that helps—that breaks down the argument chapter by chapter, step by step and link by link and lays out how it’s organised, how the sections connect to each other and how the argument develops. It’s incredibly helpful for spotting gaps in your argument or evidence, repetition between chapters and spots where you haven’t yet spelt out the connections between points.

Be aware, though, that this is not a small project—either physically (mine took up six sheets of butcher’s paper taped end to end) or in terms of the time it will take. But it will help you with the next thing you have to do, which is…

2.Identify necessary changes, and be prepared to make them (when you’re ready)

These can be big, structural changes—the location or content of a chapter, the focus of a discussion and so on—or small specific ones. They can even be changes to your argument that ask you to do a lot of tweaking and revising to tighten everything up to a new line: How do I know what I think till I see what I say? is a phenomenon that can affect academic writers too, especially on big projects! The main point is that at this phase of your work, there will be changes to be made, and you can’t back away from that.

However, you don’t have to jump into them straight away (unless you feel like it, of course). Completing a first draft is a lot of hard work, and if you need a short breather before you get back into rewriting, that’s fine. Take some time, identify the changes you need, plan them, and build up your strength again before you start revising your text.

But when you do start again, this time, work through your text in order from the first chapter to the last. It will help you to keep that sense of the larger pattern in your head as you write.

3.Revise your conclusion, introduction and abstract last

And yes, I listed them in that order for a reason. Even in the process of revising, you’ll be discovering new things about your project, creating new connections and making your argument more cohesive and sophisticated. By the time you get to the end of the argument, you’ll probably know exactly what it is that you’re trying to say, and will be able to wrap the ideas up nicely.

Then you have to take those insights back and embed them into your introduction. No spoilers in academic writing, remember? And no saving the best till last. Grab your best and most completely expressed ideas from your conclusion, transplant them to your introduction, and polish them up some more. This will both hook your examiners’ attention immediately (reader-centric writing!) and keep your argumentative line straight as an arrow from introduction to conclusion.

And then, of course, you line the abstract up with that. You can’t summarise what you don’t know yet, so wait until you’ve finalised your argument to finalise the abstract too!

…Oh, and one final point: if you’re using EndNote to create your bibliography, please make sure you check it against your university’s style guide! EndNote is great but it’s not perfect, and it can throw out small errors and odd punctuation issues from time to time. Check it at the revision stage and there’s less likelihood you’ll spot an error at the last minute and have to check everything in a screaming panic just before your print deadline…

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About kleditor

Editing services and academic writing.
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