Dissertation season is upon us. So here are some thoughts regarding dissertations, final year projects (a term we don’t use any more at Winchester but some institutions might), independent extended studies, and similar documents.
You don’t normally get detailed in-line feedback. So there won’t be any commas added, your spelling corrected or any other little marks. That said, these are your largest and single most important piece of academic work to date. They should be as close to publishable standard as possible. It is worth reading them carefully just for spelling, then again just for punctuation, a third time for grammatical concordance and a fourth time for logic and reasoning.
This can be difficult on the same screen that you normally write on. As we know from Vygotsky the primary function of ‘second order encoding’ or writing as we normally call it is to carry meaning. This is what you should be focused on when you are writing and as this example shows the English language is really quite durable to errors. (Some even argue that this is one of the factors contributing to English becoming such and ubiquitous lingua franca.) This is why you can’t see it when you use “its” instead of “it’s” or “there” instead of “their”, or “your” instead of “you’re”. So your problem is that when you type on the computer you normally use your brain focuses on content.
Print the document. Reading on paper is still significantly different to reading on-screen. And although this may not be the most environmentally friendly, and affordable depending how much your printing costs method it offers us a shift in perspective. On screen, most of us are still in a content focused reading/writing mode. If we switch to paper we can sometimes reduce this compositional modality, and focus more on what is actually on the page. But, watch out this can be time-consuming by itself and you need to get the corrections you make on the page back into the document.
Project the document onto a big screen or even a wall. It’s not overly likely that many of you can do this at home or in your halls and/or dorm rooms, but you might be able to use a study room or even a class room to do this. Again this trick is about shifting your perspective on the piece. Letting you see it for what it is… not what you know it should be.
Read the document aloud, or if you can get someone to read it to you do that. This feels silly, but many professional writers do this, there are some apps that will read text as well. Let’s look at why this works: Studies of how fluent readers read show that most adults read clusters of 4-7 words at a glance. Our brains then reassemble what they think we read and imagine what the text means, rather than trusting it to mean exactly what it says. The trick with this method is to try to shift your focus from your eyes to your ears. This forces your language centres to deal with the language sequentially, rather than in chunks. Additionally, this encourages your brain to utilise auditory and musical intelligences as well as visual and language faculties, so you are using more of your brain to focus on the work. Many people find that the ear is more critical or sensitive to inconsistencies or deviation in grammar, the Monitor Model and related theories support this and feel it is an important part of language learning.
If none of the above are practical for you, or even if they are, use your word processor’s “find and replace” function to add two carriage returns (enter key) after each full stop (or period for our North American readers). This should help you look at each sentence as a sentence and avoid overly short sentences, as well as fragmented or grammatically incomplete statements, and this is not to mention the excessively long and complex sentences. As a guide, a recent survey found that the average length of sentences in published academic discourse was around 25 words with comparatively little variance between disciplines. Of course you will have some short sentences and some longer 25 was an average number. But, if you have only 40-50 word sentences you’re putting a lot of strain on your reader. While 1000 words of 7-10 word sentences will likely feel fragmented and disrupted. If you are working on paper you can still do this or simply use a different colour of highlighter for each sentence.
One last technique, if you are stuck working on one screen, change the font dramatically; (comic sans yes but wingdings is a step to far) change the colour of the text and or background. Remember the key trick is to alter your perceptions of your own work to improve your ability to see it as it is and edit it effectively.
The essential message here is to change the way you read when you change what you read for.