Writing is rewriting, right?

Creative writers know better than anyone the pain and necessity for editing work and they often spend months perfecting draft after draft. Katie shares tips and ideas from the writing toolbox that can shortcut some of the most common pitfalls and help refine your dissertation into a masterpiece…

Every Masters course will have distinct dissertation assessment criteria, and a universal requirement to produce a grammatically sound piece; departments often make vague statements such as: “very well written” or “no grammatical errors”. However, a well-written document does more than tick some boxes to score a few extra marks.

If I’ve written 20,000 words, I want to make sure I am doing my months of research, planning and analysis justice. I want to make sure I am clear and well structured. I want my reader to focus on what I am saying, not how I am saying it. Better writing gives confidence to the reader and helps persuade them I know what I am talking about. It can also give precious wiggle room in the limited word count. Better writing is subtle but sells my thoughts in the best possible way.

I find I can’t be both subtle and include everything I want to say in a first draft. My first draft is usually a brain dump of everything, perhaps following an outline, but untidy. The edit is everything, not simply a spelling and grammar proofread and this is where the magic happens. I’ve had to learn to be brave in my edit – nothing from the first draft is safe.

However, there are a few key information sources I have in mind throughout the writing process, alongside my research notes:

  • Be familiar with your department’s stipulations for word counts, deadlines, format and referencing styles. This is your framework, and there are nuances between writing with footnotes instead of inline citations.
  • Use an accepted writing style guide. If your department doesn’t specify, the Guardian style guide is a good place to start and will meet the needs of most academic standards. If in doubt, ask. The use of “14” instead of “fourteen” may be important!
  • Have a dictionary and thesaurus to hand. If you use subject dictionaries, make sure you have easy access to that as well.
  • Use the software’s in-built spell and grammar checks, but don’t rely on these. They can’t tell the incorrect use of a homonym like “sun” and “son”. Theirs (There’s) know (no) substitute four (for) you’re (your) own common sense.

Once I’ve completed the first draft and am happy I’ve got everything down that I want to say, the real work begins. Obviously, the tips I’m about to share aren’t a magic wand to a distinction, and good writing by itself won’t get the marks, but they do make a difference that is noticeable straight away. Also, I’ve found the more I practise editing, the better my writing becomes, so I spend less time editing now.

Sentence & paragraph level:

  • Take a break between writing a draft and going back to review it, this will make the process much easier.
  • Read through every single sentence out loud. This will help identify clunky phrases, incorrect punctuation and overlong sentences.
  • Is your syntax in order? Are there any ambiguities that can be fixed by changing the order of words?
  • Are the sentences active? Are proper nouns and verbs doing most of the work? Stronger sentences lead with nouns and verbs (rather than “It is better to have sentences which are led by nouns and verbs”).
  • Remove every adjective and adverb and see what happens. A more accurate verb is worth a thousand adjectives. For example, “says loudly” vs “shouts”.
  • Use active verbs: try to avoid auxiliary verbs, for example, “find out” vs “discover” or “is living” vs “lives”.
  • Paragraphs should contain no more than one point, and ideally, follow a “What? Prove it; So What?” structure, with a beginning, middle and end that returns to the beginning. If paragraphs start to address new points, start a new paragraph.
  • Remember to save as you go, save new versions as new files, and the all-powerful “undo” function.
  • I recommend this useful editing guide, which includes examples.

Whole document:

  • Does every paragraph, every sentence, address the question you have asked? If not, why is it there?
  • Is there a clear, logical structure to your writing that takes the reader on an organised journey, building one point at a time?
  • Are the tenses and person consistent and appropriate? Did they suddenly move into past tense third person plural, when the rest of the essay is in the first person present tense?

Ultimately, the most important thing is the dissertation is your own original work, that fulfils the assessment criteria and does the best job possible to reward you with the marks you deserve.

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