Archive for the ‘discourse’ Category

I’m curious how you learned the conventions you are to use, the voice you should use, the way to argue within your field, or, if you’re learning as you go, now, as you write your dissertation.

If you were at a U.S. university as an undergraduate, you may not have been writing exclusively in your major course of study until late in your 2nd or even until your 3rd year of school.  By then, had you learned a bit of flexibility by writing in different discourses for your required courses? 

Had you been writing as an art historian one night and the next night as a psychologist?  Did that give you insight into what writing conventions are important in each field?

And as you specialized more and more in  your own field, did you become clearer about your field’s discourse or writing conventions?

The New York Times (9.6.2009) asks several professors to give advice to students entering college this year. 

Stanley Fish advises students to “take a composition course even if they have tested out of it.”  He says, “I have taught many students whose SAT scores exempted them from the writing requirement, but a disheartening number of them couldn’t write.”

Gerald Graff,  the past president of the Modern Language Association, tells students how to write an argument, seemingly without the help of a writing class or instructor.  

Since it’s a little late for those of you who are writing dissertations to take a writing class, Graff’s suggestions on how to take what you know and transform it into an argument might be helpful and definitely would have helped me early on in my student career.

He says: 
1. Recognize that knowing a lot of stuff won’t do you much good unless you can do something with what you know by turning it into an argument.

2. Pay close attention to what others are saying and writing and then summarize their arguments and assumptions in a recognizable way. Work especially on summarizing the views that go most against your own.

3. As you summarize, look not only for the thesis of an argument, but for who or what provoked it — the points of controversy.

4. Use these summaries to motivate what you say and to indicate why it needs saying. Don’t be afraid to give your own opinion, especially if you can back it up with reasons and evidence, but don’t disagree with anything without carefully summarizing it first.

Even as the writer of a dissertation, it’s great to remind yourself that you know a lot of stuff.  It’s easy to forget that. 

Also don’t forget that there’s usually a reason for the writing requirements you run into for your dissertation.  Remember that the literature review creates a context for your methodology and findings or for your argument.

As you write your dissertation, your field’s required structure and discourse conventions give you a great clothesline where you can hang your ideas.

Warm regards,


Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach


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Dissertation writers are largely self-taught academic writers, and the learning process can be a bold and daring adventure.

Over the years many of my dissertation coaching clients talk about the challenges in writing academic discourse.  Academic writing is its own special discourse, with its own particular conventions. My dissertation coaching clients largely learn this discourse by doing.

What they are asked to do and the way they feel their way along, trying to put into practice what they think they’re being asked to do, is not unlike underprepared students in their first year or years of college.

Professors and instructors in composition and rhetoric fields are familiar with David Bartholomae’s article “Inventing the University.” Bartholomae defines how beginning college writers must act as if they know what they’re doing, even if they don’t.

The article opens in this way: “Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion–  .  .  . or a branch of it, like History or Anthropology or Economics or English. He has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.” 

Bartholomae says that students can’t wait to write academic discourse until after they have learned more or can write comfortably: “they must dare to speak it, or to carry off the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill is ‘learned.’”

Likewise, my dissertation coaching clients have to boldly write and rewrite. Dare to write.

Dare to carry off the bluff.

Warm regards,


Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach


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An ABD student wrote to me about her advisor’s generous rewriting of the dissertation text.  According to the student, the advisor doesn’t change the thought, only the language.

The ABD student recognizes that the advisor’s writing is superior to her own, Her question is if the advisor has rewritten a lot of the language of the dissertation, is the ABD student’s dissertation still her own? And is this a common happenstance?

I agree that this advisor is amazingly generous and that the student is incredibly lucky to have such a responsive advisor.  I’ve had many clients who complain that their advisors mark up their drafts with little more than where to put commas.

The two or so clients whose advisors did some rewriting were glad to have the rewritten text.  In fact, when, down the road, one of those clients started to feel lost, I suggested that he go back and read what his advisor had written.  There was much to be learned in the advisor’s writing.  Not the least of which was the confidence in the student and the interest in the student’s topic that the rewriting suggested.

As might be expected, my clients also weren’t sure if they could use the text written by the advisors as their own, and so one of them bravely asked.  The advisor said yes. (I think the advisor assumed his language would be adopted.) If this is your problem, please ask the advisor if you can use the language as written.

If your advisor replaces your language with hers, I can see that you might feel your revision process is truncated.  It might even raise questions in your mind about how you can learn to write if your process is limited in this way. As for how you can best learn to write academic discourse, you can learn by writing and rewriting and rewriting again—at the request of your advisor—but the down side might be that you would feel anxious and uncertain in trying to interpret what the advisor actually wanted you to do.

Another way to improve your skill as an academic writer would be to follow the model offered to you by your advisor.  Analyze her discourse—her use of words, her sentence structure, the argument.  Put your text side by side with hers and look for the specific differences.

The dissertation is more about learning than it is about producing a completely original work or an amazing contribution to your field.

Some of my clients have procrastinated submitting early drafts to the advisor because they know they can’t write as well as the advisor.  Well, duh! Advisors are tenured, published, and have been through this writing and rewriting and editing process umpteen times.  Their use of language shows what they’ve learned.

If you would rather your advisor give you more open-ended questions, such as “What do you mean here?” you can always ask for that kind of response.  If you have a good relationship, she will most likely give you what you ask for.  It will take a lot of courage to say that you’d prefer to use your own language, but if it’s important to you, speak up.

I would be curious why an advisor might be so generous as to rewrite part of the student’s text.  It would be interesting to have a discussion with the advisor about her style of responding to writing.  I’ll bet she’s trying to give you something that no one ever gave her — specific examples on how a certain sentence/idea/paragraph could be better stated.

Readers, if you have a thought you’d like to share on this topic, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

In addition, if you are one of those people who procrastinate on sending a draft to your advisor because the draft isn’t perfect, I’d like to hear about that, too.  Procrastination is the #1 problem among dissertation writers.

All good wishes,


Nancy Whichard, PhD, PCC
Your International Dissertation and Academic Career Coach



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An ABD’s dilemmas with her writing underscore for me the problems dissertation writers have when they’re isolated from campus and from an advisor during the dissertation process.

As a dissertation coach, I don’t fix people’s writing, but I listen, and if a client sends me some text, I see what the writing looks like.

This morning a dissertation writer talked about several pages of a chapter. In these pages she writes, in part, the history of a movement.

She came to me because her advisor gives her no feedback.  She had sent him some pages, and it’s obvious he didn’t read the work or, if he did, he decided he wouldn’t involve himself in her process. He says she’s doing great!

The introduction to the survey of literature is murky, repetitious, hard to follow.  It goes on for page after page. She tries to write in what she thinks is the expected discourse. She hurries, compresses, meanders, and throws in rhetorical flourishes.

No one has told her that the convoluted language is confusing.  Nobody has told her, in effect, to choose a traffic lane and stick with it.

In the second half, where she presents the background material, she says, “I don’t have any concepts in here.’  It seems to me that her writing becomes clearer in this second half of the group of pages, but she dismisses that writing as “baby-ish.” She is in a hurry to wrap up the telling of the history because it seems obvious to her.

When she talks aloud to me about her ideas for the dissertation, she sounds competent and clear, but she knows that she has problems when she writes. She is spinning her wheels.

I have faith in her.  I know that she can turn this around, but she is looking at quite an investment of time.

I have to ask:  Did her university prepare her for writing this dissertation?
What responsibility does her advisor have toward her?

What do you think?

Until next time,


Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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Where do you start on your dissertation?  The word review can start you on the following five fast tracks.

Let’s get started:

1.  Learn from your peers who are a bit farther along the road than you are—read and review carefully their dissertations.
 Even if you’ve been writing papers since you were a wee tot, or at least you may feel that way, a dissertation has its own discourse, structure, format.

How have other graduate students written their dissertations on topics similar to yours?  Learn the language by looking at models. Take notes on how other dissertations have been structured, chapter by chapter and section by section. 

2.  Review dissertations suggested by your advisor.
Since your advisor is instrumental in your successfully finishing your dissertation, ask her/him to suggest completed proposals or dissertations that you can read.  Emphasize that you want to see models for form and format.
3.  Review specific dissertations directed by your advisor
Even if your advisor does not mention dissertations he/she has directed, it is de rigueur, absolutely required, that you hunt them down and review them carefully. 

4. Start writing your literature review before you’re ready.
Many advisors suggest that you read widely on your topic, and as you’re reading widely, start writing.  Evaluate each source as you read it for relevance, currency, and the author’s expertise.  If the source measures up to your standards, not only should you make sure you record a complete citation, written in the style required by your discipline, but you also need to write a succinct critical note (quotation/summary) of that source. 

You’ll have a head start on your literature review from your note-taking/writing at this early stage, not just a stack of copied articles or books with yellow underlining throughout.

5.  Review one of the standards in the how-to-write-your-dissertation book genre.  

How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation still gets good marks in this genre, even though it was published in 1981.  Read some book reviews of it and then get your own copy.  This book has put many ABD’s on the fast track.

6.  Bonus source for you to review:  Go to my website (www.nancywhichard.com).  While you’re there, sign up for my Smart Tips for Writers newsletter.  As a special gift, I’ll send you right away—no waiting—5 new success strategies.

Make this a memorable week—Get it off to a great start today!

Until next time,

Nancy Whichard, PhD, PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach


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