25 Dissertation Editing Tips From a Professional Editor

Avatar by Brendan Brown | March 23, 2021, 12:14 am

I’m a professional editor by trade.

And I know that one aspect of the dissertation writing process that causes the most panic for university students is editing and getting the dissertation ready for submission.

Perhaps, when writing a shorter university essay or research paper, you have already experienced concern about some of the following:

  • Are my ideas expressed clearly?
  • Is it written ‘academically’?
  • Is my grammar correct?
  • Have I followed the writing guidelines?
  • Do all the sections fit together?
  • Have I done the referencing correctly?

With a dissertation, these questions become even more significant. The content is longer and more complex, and the stakes are higher. This is the work that will count the most towards your academic degree.

It is really your work, your creation. You want the end product to be amazing.

Thankfully, this article is here to help. What follows are 25 tips that any student can all follow to edit their own dissertation to an expert level.

1. Start writing with editing in your mind

Huh? Isn’t editing something I do at the end when I am checking my writing for errors?

Well, yes and no.

If you start your dissertation writing with an awareness that you will have to proofread, add citations, rewrite sentences for clarity, and much more, you are likely to approach your writing with more care.

You will keep better notes and follow a more consistent process which will mean a much easier time when you come to your final editing stage.

So, from the beginning, remember your goal – submitting a beautiful, error-free, accurate piece of academic writing. As you write, be conscious not only of your content but of how you are presenting it in written form.

2. Decide how you will manage your editing from the beginning

Do you like using Google Docs? Microsoft Word?

Talk with your dissertation supervisor about which word processing software you will use. Choosing one that your supervisor does not use might mean having to change during the process.

While this is not the end of the world, why not save yourself the trouble and make this decision at the outset?

Do you know how to use the editing and commenting tools? Spend a little time becoming familiar with this technology if you are not already. This will really help you during the editing process – it will be easy to see what to edit, to track what has been edited and what remains outstanding.

You can do this with pen and paper if you choose. Though it might be worthwhile to at least consider working electronically, particularly if your work involves a lot of sourced information.

Electronic research tools such as Zotero, Mendeley, and EndNote can really improve the academic writing process (these are discussed later in relation to citations and references).

3. Make editing-related notes as your write

Have you ever written a sentence, and immediately thought ‘that is not perfect’ or ‘that is not exactly what I mean’ but been unable to immediately find the right words? And then promptly forgotten about it and submitted your assignment later without fixing the issue?

To avoid such cases, you can simply make an electronic note or comment in your writing file – ‘sentence not perfect – come back and edit later’. Doing this will help ensure you do not miss or forget these common issues.

4. Know your main writing concerns

We all have different strengths and weaknesses as academic writers and researchers. As such, each individual may need to pay closer attention to different areas of their work, which may likely require more editing.

Perhaps you have not yet fully understood the ins and outs of the citation and referencing system you are required to use, or you are not great at formatting documents.

Do a little research to find what resources you will be able to use to help you overcome these concerns in your writing (many useful resources are given in this article).

5. Allocate enough time for editing

Depending on the length, subject content, and submission guidelines for your dissertation, editing can take quite a while.

Try reading a single page for content clarity and grammar errors. Or try correcting a few in-text citations and the corresponding references.

It can take a bit of time, right? So, when you are thinking about your submission date, remember to allocate at least a few days between finishing writing and submitting to allow time to give your work a thorough edit.

Students often underestimate the editing process in two ways.

Firstly, they underestimate the amount of time dissertation editing can take and end up having to submit work that still has errors or is not the best version of what it can be. Or secondly, they undervalue the importance of editing and submit a work full of great ideas that are not expressed clearly and logically, thus undermining the impact of the dissertation.

Don’t let this be you!

6. Know what academic writing services your university provides

Many universities today have academic writing services, often a Writing Center.

Students sometimes think that these services are to assist non-native students with writing in English. While this may be partly true, many writing centers also provide academic writing support for all students.

Find out what services are available and what the turn-around times are like. Do not wait until the day before your submission and expect a large research dissertation to be edited! Consider making a few appointments earlier in your writing process, perhaps submitting a chapter at a time.

7. Know the submission guidelines of your university and department

I’m sure you can remember the exam-taking advice of ‘read the questions carefully first’. Well, the same applies to the guidelines for your dissertation.

This does not mean simply whether to use APA or MLA referencing. Your institution may have some requirements of its own for the submission of dissertations. There can often be very specific formatting guidelines which can be quite time-consuming to do ‘after the fact’ when you are doing final edits. Advance knowledge of these guidelines is very important.

8. Become familiar with the writing conventions of your discipline

Writing dissertations in Applied Linguistics, History or Business Administration can require different forms of writing, even different chapter structures.

Some disciplines really prioritize conciseness and precision in writing (often reflected in shorter word requirements for dissertations), and word choice that leaves little margin of error for confusion.

Others are looking for you to show your depth of knowledge and your ability to connect areas.

9. Language use in your subject area

Within your subject area, your academic discipline, there will be a lot of very specific language. As a dissertation writer, you are likely well aware of this already.

One area of academic writing that can cause problems, even when we know our terminology, is how to construct sentences about the technical phenomena in our area.

Using research books, academic papers, and published dissertations in your area as models of how to write is a great help. Having a few of these close to hand as you edit your own work is an excellent idea.

10.  Academic tone

In most dissertations, we are expected to write with an academic tone, which relates to the writer’s place in the writing.

Typically, it means removing the ‘I’ from our writing (though there are some dissertation and research styles where this is not always the case). This creates a sort of distance between the writer and the data, helping us keep bias out of our work.

Alongside this, the writing avoids language that generalizes or is overly conversational. Academic writing maintains a degree of formality, from using the last names of authors to not using contractions.

Many universities maintain websites, such as the Walden University Writing Center, with excellent advice about the elements of academic writing, including how to write with an academic tone.

11. When you are beginning your main editing, think about the big picture first

Your dissertation is an exercise in communicating your main ideas about a topic. In your editing, this should also be your first concern – have you used your writing (the tool) to communicate your ideas and findings with clarity?

Your dissertation examiners first and foremost want to read a work that clearly presents its main points with a logical progression, and where the central questions of your research have been addressed.

Reading and viewing your dissertation as a whole will allow you to determine if you have provided this ‘big picture’ clarity for the reader.

12. Chapter by chapter

In an academic dissertation, each chapter has a specific purpose – each is almost a project all on its own.

A literature review chapter does something very different from a data and results chapter and from a conclusions chapter.

With this stage of editing, we want to make sure the right information is in the right chapter. Considering the function of a chapter (e.g., introduction of ideas, analysis) can help us do that, and allow us to judge if we have sufficiently completed what was required.

13. Paragraph, sentence and word-level editing

Looking at your writing at this granular level will help you to catch errors you may have missed when focused on the big picture.

With this type of editing focus, you will also be able to pick up on any strange phrases you may have used, catch instances of repetition, and have the chance to improve on your word choices too. You will also get the chance to check up on your use of commas, dashes, and the smaller elements of your writing.

Reading aloud can help at this stage of proofreading.

14. Headings and content agreement

A dissertation usually has a very long list of headings and subheadings within every chapter. As the writing process is long, and changes of direction can happen during the process, it is important to confirm that your content and headings still fit with each other at the end of the writing.

Bear in mind that the readers of research (your audience) often want to read your contents page, and then look at a specific section of your work. The accuracy of your section headings is very important.

15. Spelling and grammar check

While this article introduces several useful online editing tools, do not forget to run a basic spelling and grammar check with your word processing software first.

Then you can try running an online grammar service such as Grammarly – the free service is great and will catch some of your errors.

However, do remember that such tools do not catch everything, and do make some mistakes in their recommendations for your writing. Using them does not mean you do not need to give your writing a human spelling and grammar check too.

You do!

16.  The language features of your writing

Alongside grammatical corrections in your writing, there are many improvements we can make to our writing during the editing process that will improve the readability and ultimately the impact of our work.

How do we transition from one section to another, from one paragraph to another? Can this be improved by adjusting the transitional words and phrases we use? Are we overusing any words or terms in our writing, are there redundancies in our writing, is our writing too repetitive in other ways?

If this is not an area that a writer is particularly confident addressing, it is something a university writing center can help with.

Alternatively, there are online services such as ProWritingAid that can generate reports on your writing that address language features above and beyond grammatical correctness.

17.  Active or passive voice?

One aspect of writing that is often mentioned is the guideline to write in the active voice.

There is not a hard and fast rule that you must never use the passive voice in any dissertation, but it is correct to say that some disciplines strongly prefer the active voice. However, disciplines such as the hard sciences do not follow this rule, as using the passive voice removes pronouns and allows for our sentences to seem objective.

Again, university writing guidelines on this topic, such as the information provided by the University of Wollongong Australia, can help you understand such specific use cases.

18. Citations, References and Bibliographies

This is often the part that causes students the most stress.

Once you are aware of the referencing system you are required to use (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago), then you need to make sure you have the necessary resources available to help you create your citations (where you refer to a source of information in your text – an ‘in-text’ citation) and references (where you provide a full list of all sources of information at the end of your dissertation) correctly.

Free electronic reference managers such as Zotero and Mendeley can connect directly with your word processing software and do much of the work for you. Your university may offer Endnote or another such tool, free to all registered students. If you choose not to use one of these, online editors such as Scribbr provide free citation tools.

19. Citing and referencing different types of sources

The stumbling block for most of us when it comes to citations and references relates to all the small little differences.

How to cite a book written by one person, a chapter written by four people in a book edited by two other people, a website with no author listed, a video of a TED talk….ahhhh!! It is enough to make you want to pull your hair out.

Thankfully, there are many wonderful online resources, such as Owl, the Purdue Writing Lab, that allow you to search for these specifics, and see examples. Having a physical research book on your desk, with a reference list that you can check for examples is another practical idea.

20. Confirm that your citations and references match

If your discipline asks for a reference list, make sure that your citations and references match.

Everything that is cited in your text, should be referenced in your reference list and vice versa. If you find some references in your list that did not end up being cited in the text of your dissertation, remove them from the reference list.

If you are required to provide a bibliography and not a reference list, the situation is a little different. A bibliography will include everything that would be in a reference list, and also any sources that you may have read and researched as part of your work, but have not cited in your writing.

21. Consistency

Despite the long list of rules and guidelines to follow, they may be certain points that are not specified. Here are some examples of questions you may have that might not be specified by your institution or the referencing system you are using:

  • Should I use British or US spelling?
  • How many spaces should I insert between paragraphs?
  • Should my section subheadings be in bold or underlined?

If the answer has not been specified (read your guidelines carefully to confirm this), then you are free to choose.

Just follow the same practice consistently throughout your dissertation. This consistency will allow your reader to follow your paper with ease.

22.  Format your paper

Formatting a long document is another area that some of us are not too comfortable with.

Thankfully, this is one of those areas where universities are very specific. Much like the case with citations, follow the instructions! If the instructions say “all subheadings should be Times New Roman, underlined, and font size 12”, then make it so!

If there are areas of formatting you are unsure of, refer again to your university’s writing resources and those of others available online. For example, the University of Massachusetts Amherst provides online tutorials about how to format your dissertation.

23.  Always check for any accidental plagiarism

Plagiarism is an area of academic writing that universities take very seriously.

If you are at the stage of writing a dissertation, you are already familiar with the rules for avoiding plagiarism.

However, during the many months of writing your dissertation, you may have accidentally forgotten to insert quotations marks somewhere, or forgotten to cite a particular author you have paraphrased. Dissertations are expansive, large pieces of work, so it is not surprising that we make occasional errors or have moments of forgetfulness.

Confirm that you have appropriately used all the quoted, paraphrased and summarized work of others.

24. Keep a checklist

As this article illustrates, editing a dissertation involves the checking of many different aspects of your work.

As you work through your document, it will be helpful to keep a list of what needs to be done. Check off all the elements that you have completed editing, and highlight what remains outstanding.

As a researcher, you know the importance of methodology – so why not be ‘methodological’ in your editing!

25. Finally, get a reader

Do you have a parent, friend, or sibling that is really excited about your university journey? A supportive classmate?

These wonderful people are all potential readers, and therefore, potential editors of your work. Allowing another set of eyes to look over your writing may bring to light certain issues that you have overlooked or small errors that your tired eyes may have missed.

When you find a willing reader (of the whole dissertation, or of a chapter) you can be specific in what you ask them to ‘read for’. Your father may not be able to check if your MLA citations are correct, but he may be an excellent judge of the logical flow of your work or a grammar expert who can spot your errors.

Summing up

Hopefully, these 25 tips show you a process to follow for editing your dissertation that removes some of the concern about this aspect of your research journey.

If you follow the guidelines and instructions carefully and consistently, and use the resources that are available to you, your dissertation will be ready for submission.

Best of luck!

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