Final Year Writing Gymnastics!

GUEST POST from Eljee Javier 

Profile: Eljee Javier is a final year PhD student at The School of Environment, Education and Development, The eljees pictureUniversity of Manchester. Her research interests are native speaker/non-native speaker issues in TESOL, narrative performativity, teacher identity and Critical Race Theory. A Canadian in the UK, she’s also an avid gamer, casual weight lifter and cake eater.

FULL TITLE: Final year writing gymnastics – turning a bunch of chapters into a thesis

Writing a thesis, section by section, eventually becomes a chapter, which in turn, becomes part of a thesis. At least this is the logic I’ve used: keep writing and eventually you’ll have a thesis draft. So this is what I did, I wrote (and rewrote) several chapters, so technically I should have a thesis. Literally, on paper, I have the word count but it’s not quite there yet.

So what actually makes a thesis a thesis?

In my determination to get words down on paper I hadn’t thought of what it takes to put these various sections together in a way that it is recognised as ‘a thesis’. It’s one thing to present a complex discussion on the theoretical basis of your research and/or set forth a substantial report of your data, but it’s an entirely different to weaving this understanding into the rest of your thesis. As I finished completed drafts of my chapters and submitted them for feedback, my supervisors’ queries have gradually developed in this way:

“What does this word/sentence/section/paragraph/image mean?”

to “How does section X support section Y in the same chapter”

to “How does section X in chapter X relate to section X in chapter Y”.

The first question had more to do with developing a clear presentation of the content, which as basic as “What am I trying to say?”. A lot of writing takes place at this stage where PhD students write their way into understanding. Putting initial ideas down on paper was the first hurdle thesis writers must overcome.  For me, the majority of my third year was spent writing in this way.

The second question had more to do with the overall coherence of the chapter. In my case, it was checking that I did what I stated what I was going to do in a chapter. For example, in one of my chapters I stated at the beginning that it was a discussion of how my chosen topic area is situated in the native speaker/non-native speaker binary in TESOL. Yet the ensuing chapter mostly focused on controversial English language policies in Asia (?!). My supervisors pointed this out (since I didn’t pick up on this initially) and made me realize that when setting up reader expectations, I had better make sure I deliver.

The last question is an interesting one, where it not only involves looking at the coherence of ideas and arguments between chapters, but really looking at evidence that me, the researcher, features prominently in the content. This, I believe, is what turns a bunch of chapters into a thesis – me. This isn’t to say that writers need to use “I” or talk about themselves but instead, the content focuses on their research rather than a nice summary of other people’s ideas.

There’s quite a lot of information about ‘voice’ within your thesis (e.g. Pat Thomson’s blog post on academic voice is particularly useful or for a focus on writing conventions, check out Thesis Whisperer’s blog post ) where my presence in the thesis become the driving force behind it’s development.

There comes a point where your thesis becomes less about making sure that you’ve covered all the major areas (which is essential, no doubt) and more about how your research fits or, dare I say it, contributes to your topic area. In practice, this involved revisiting each section of each chapter to see how the content addressed my research questions. If I can’t see an obvious link then I need to revise that section or, perhaps, even reconsider including in the overall thesis.  At this stage of my PhD I’m beginning to enjoy my thesis again because I’m gaining a sense of control over my writing. Although it certainly hasn’t been easy, it’s only now that I feel like I’m really starting to own my thesis.

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