Alastair Iain Johnston’s Cultural Realism (1998)
1. Have a couple of PhDs in your area as writing models. These may have been published by a university press; may be on an academic’s home-page; or can be obtained through databases like Proquest’s Dissertations & Theses.
For example, for my in-progress PhD, I am using Alastair Iain Johnston’s PhD ‘An Inquiry Into Strategic Culture’ (University of Michigan, 1993), later published as Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton University Press, 1998). For a model of paragraph structure and condensed writing that conveys a lot and uses historical sources, Bruce Kuklick’s Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger (Princeton University Press, 2007). You will find different examples in your own area. Also look at A* and A-level academic journals in your field or discipline.
2. Early on, talk with your PhD committee about the thesis format they want; the possible chapter structure and sequence; and the particular referencing system that you will use (e.g. Chicago, Harvard, MLA). Also use the PhD committee meetings to discuss exploratory ideas and tentative hypotheses that will contribute to the originality of your dissertation.
3. Before writing up a chapter, do an outline of the key points and possible sections. Keep a separate file for chapter notes – or have some other way to capture rough ideas as they spontaneously emerge. You will find that a sequence of ideas will emerge that will form paragraph and section structure. This will also identify potential problems before you write, so you won’t get stuck. It will minimise scope creep which can add time and complexity to your candidature. And it will mean you don’t over-write when drafting.
4. Approach each chapter or section in a series of write-ups or progressive drafts. The first write-up may be to get specific ideas down on paper: just speed-write and don’t self-censor. The second may be to look at argumentation – use a book like Barbara Minto’s The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking (Essex: FT Prentice Hall, 2002) or Austhink’s Rationale (www.austhink.com) to map out your arguments, counter-arguments, deductive and inductive logic, and evidence. The third may address the specifics of your research design and methods. The fourth may deal with referencing. The fifth may deal with overall flow and ensuring that your conclusions follow from the earlier parts of the chapter. Do a final edit for clarity: try to condense and rewrite over-wordy sentences to convey your key points in a more succinct manner.
5. Pay close attention to editing paragraphs. Does the opening sentence establish the paragraph context? Do the subsequent sentences develop the argumentation and evidence in an analytical rather than in a descriptive way? Does the paragraph explore an idea in an elegant and clear way, or are there several, muddled ideas in it? Does the final sentence transition effectively to the next paragraph? Do the paragraphs provide a narrative arc or flow for the reader?
6. Define and explain all key terms. Define all abbreviations the first time you use them. Clarify any field or discipline-specific terms so that the reader can understand them. Read your chapter out aloud so that you can find sentence fragments and unfinished arguments. Check that your sentences have verb-tense agreement and that they do not have dangling modifiers.
7. Invest in a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (2011 edition) and perhaps Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb’s Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (New York: Longman, 2010). Check out the creative non-fiction and investigative writing on Longreads.com and Longform.org and see how writers for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair approach these issues. Do a forensic analysis of a journal article that has made a significant impact on your field or discipline, and look closely at how all of these issues are dealt with. Academic writing does not have to be dull and boring.
8. Get others outside your PhD committee to read your drafts including ‘naïve’ readers who are non-experts in your field or discipline. Circulate your draft chapters at conferences and student colloquia. Your colleagues will have fresh eyes and are more likely to pick up proofreading and copy errors. Approach experts in your field or discipline to read sections that deal with their work – this can lead to you chairing conference symposia and to potential collaborations with their students. It also increases your research visibility.
9. Consider keeping a public writing blog of your unfolding research journey, and using it to draft initial ideas and to review the relevant literature in your field or discipline. This can attract readers who will proofread your work. Also set up Academia.edu, Google Scholar and Twitter accounts to increase the probability that your academic work will get publicly cited. Schedule time to write and edit/proofread your work.
10. The best academic work goes through several redrafts. Jeremi Suri spent seven years researching and writing his PhD ‘Convergent Responses to Disorder’ (Yale University, 2001). His PhD supervisor, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, who won the 2012 Biography Pulitzer, made Suri proofread and redraft some of his sections up to 12 times. Gaddis would question sentences, ask for more clarity, and seek clarification on the theoretical constructs and arguments that Suri was developing.