Defamiliarise Your Thesis

Editing the thesis can seem like a daunting task, and it’s easy to get trapped by perfectionism. For science students, there’s a huge amount of work to do at the end, while arts students often edit continually. Whatever stage you’re at, Sophie Shorland has some ideas to ease you through the editing process… 

We’ve all been there: staring at the typed-up page for so long that we begin to question everything, pointlessly switching around commas and forgetting the spelling of basic words. A low point for me was when I forgot how to spell my middle name. Blame it on the thesis.

This, obviously, isn’t the most effective way to edit your 60,000 plus word document, but it’s easy to get to a stage where you’ve looked at the thesis for so long it’s impossible to judge whether it’s good or bad. This is where defamiliarisation, as an editing technique, comes in. Essentially, defamiliarisation means presenting familiar things in an unfamiliar way. Picasso used this technique in his painting, to get us to look at everyday objects, people and animals differently, evaluating their component parts and then reassessing the object as a whole.

And, for better or worse, nothing over the years it takes to complete your PhD becomes quite as familiar as the thesis. So what techniques can you try to edit like Picasso, and see your work from a different, more objective, perspective?

The first and most effective technique to defamiliarise your work is to give it some time. Nothing brings objectivity like a couple of weeks not looking, or even thinking, about your thesis. If you can’t take time off entirely, edit chapter by chapter, giving your brain some time to recover before it looks at the graphs or sentences it’s focused on for the last three years again.

However, this isn’t always an option: sometimes you have a deadline. The first, and most effective defamiliarisation technique for tactile people like me, is to print the whole thing out so that you can hold a physical copy. When writing his books, P. G. Wodehouse tacked every page of his manuscript at different heights on the wall. The higher up the wall the page was physically, the better it was. He would then keep moving pages up as he edited, until everyone had made its way over the picture rail, when it was pronounced good enough to publish. You may not want to take this system that far (especially if you’re sharing a room), but physically rearranging pages can make you think differently, especially if you’re struggling with structure. Just make sure your pages are numbered when you print them out!

Visual people, on the other hand, often respond well to a change of font, size and colour – this jars against your memory of where the text is located on the page, the disconnect in your brain forcing you to pay attention. For typos and grammatical problems, reading your text backwards, sentence-by-sentence, can be surprisingly effective. It might sound crazy, but backwards reading can stop you skimming over the text and automatically filling in the blanks, as tends to happen when you’ve read something so many times your eyes start to water.

Finally, if you digest information best by hearing it, try using a software that will read your thesis out to you (reviews and different options helpfully listed here). The errors that have been niggling away at the back of your mind may leap out once you hear them.

Of course, no one is that simple, and trying each technique could be a good way to get through successive edits of your thesis/conference paper/article.

However, you’ll know you may have gone a little too far if your thesis ends up sounding like the work of another famous defamiliariser and close friend of Picasso. I’ll leave you with these words from the author Gertrude Stein, summarising what it can feel like to wade through the PhD:  There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s my answer.


How do you edit your thesis? Have you tried any of these techniques? What do you think a PhD by Picasso would look like? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Sophie is a PhD candidate working on Early Modern Literature at the University of Warwick. She’s interested in Shakespeare, celebrity culture and early modern women’s writing. You can find her on twitter @sophie_shorland.


Cover image: man-holds-painted-mess / Alice Achterhof / CC0 1.0

Image 1: blue-cubism-background-wallpaper-3015021 / e-Rigoberto / CC0 1.0

Image 2: woman-act-cubism-2380274 / bstad / CC0 1.0


2 thoughts on “Defamiliarise Your Thesis

  1. I have found taking a complete break from my thesis and research does help me proofread it better. I have never tried the other techniques you suggested! Maybe I’ll try them out!

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