Some of us can probably remember the film The Exorcist. It was one of those “demon child” films so popular in the 1970s. It featured Linda Blair as a possessed young teen – her green-slime spitting, 360 degree swiveling head and manic, gravelly-voiced Satanic torrent of abuse kept many who saw the film awake at night.
Now, of course I’m not suggesting that there is anything about a PhD that is like this nail-bitingly scary film. Am I?
Well, many a doctoral thesis has left an examiner underwhelmed because it doesn’t seem to be written by an expert researcher. The writing is hesitant and deferential at the very times when the writer should be showing that they are assured and assertive. It’s as if the nearly doctor is possessed by an inner doctoral “student” whose writing is tentative, distant, impersonal, formal. And that “student” needs to be got rid of.
So yes, I am saying that there is an exorcism needed when writing the PhD. It’s not an exorcism which features ritual recitations, candles and priests. It’s not one you get someone else to do. It’s an exorcism you have to do for yourself – although you can get some help from your friends. The exoticism I’m referring to is one which means hunting for, finding and removing the doctoral ”student” lurking within your thesis text.
How to do this? Well, here’s a few things to try out:
(1) The lurking doctoral “student” is risk averse, afraid to state their case. So, go through your text looking for all of the places where you have used words like “possibly”, “might”, “could” and would” and check whether these can be excised/removed. You may choose to keep some of these hedges – but you may also decide to make some of your statements stronger and more confident.
(2) The lurking “doctoral student” is afraid to say things in their own words. They often hide behind the words of others. So, show your work to a colleague. Ask them to look for places where there are too many quotations and citations, places where you could provide your own explanation of other people’s work and offer your interpretation and evaluation. Rewrite these sections as if you were explaining them to your colleague.
(3) The lurking “doctoral student” often writes difficult and complex sentences. Too many ideas jammed in together. Clunky writing that trips the reader up. So read some of your pages aloud. Does the reading sound as if it could be delivered as a key-note at a prestigious academic conference? Remind yourself what words and phrases are characteristic of the authoritative academic public speaker… Can you rewrite your pages using this kind of expert syntactical approach? Say it loud and proud.
(4) The lurking “doctoral student” feels as if they are writing in another’s voice. So, give some of your text to an academic colleague who knows you well. Ask them to find and mark a passage which they think “sounds like you”. Go through the passage(s) with them to work out what are the characteristics of this like-you writing – is it, for example, sentence length, variety in sentence construction and length, choice of terms, use of linguistic tools such as metaphor, the balance of active and passive voice, the judicious use of nominalized terms? Writer’s “voice” is largely conveyed through choice of language and the way in which sentences are constructed. Work around the like-you writing, spread its borders outwards.
(5) The lurking “doctoral student” writes for a reader they can’t imagine. So, choose a particularly difficult piece of writing, one you’re not happy with. Now rewrite it as if you are talking to a friend. Compare this more relaxed and informal writing with the original. What can you take from the second piece of text and bring into the first to make it less awkward and hard to read?
(6) The lurking “doctoral student” sees writing as a chore, or worse, as something to be endured. They are not prepared to practice the craft of writing. So, take some time out to look at the writing of others. Find your favorite writer and examine their prose to see how they construct paragraphs. Strip out the content from a passage you particularly admire to make a sentence skeleton, and then insert your own content. How did it “feel’ to take this rhetorical stance and present your work using this expert writing? Try to write a passage of your own taking the same rhetorical stance.
And of course writing other kinds of texts – blogs, media articles, short pieces for professional papers – all helps you to develop a sense of your own expertise and authority. Writing for a range of audiences and purposes is a very good way to develop your own expert researcher and exorcise the lurking “doctoral student” for good.
The idea of exorcism and the exercises in this post have been adapted from Chapter 4; Rankin, Elizabeth (2001) The work of writing. Insights and strategies for academics and professionals. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.