When writing the first draft of a novel, I don’t think much about the reader, if at all. The reader would distract from the world I’m creating. When I plan, I plan for the characters, for their relationships with each other and for what happens to those relationships. During first creation, it’s ‘me (the writer) before you (the reader)’.
For doctoral students writing a thesis, the priorities are precisely the opposite. Even at first draft, the thesis writer has to think carefully about what the reader needs to know at any given point. Like a novel, a doctoral thesis can surprise or shock, but while readers of novels can be bamboozled and even, if the novelist wishes, hoodwinked, the reader of a doctoral thesis should never be bamboozled, and hoodwinking is out of the question. From the start of a thesis to the end, it’s ‘you (the reader) before me (the writer)’.
Running an academic writing retreat this summer, it was clear that while doctoral students understand ‘you before me’ in theory, it’s not easy in practice. Unsurprisingly, doctoral students at the writing-up stage want to show off their research, their academic insights and discernments, their original thinking, their argument. And so they should. But research, insights, discernments, original thinking and, most importantly, the force of an argument are all diminished if the thesis writer has prioritised what they want to say above what they have prepared the reader to absorb.
So how do you prepare the reader? First, you must decide who the reader is. Doctoral students should rightly focus on their supervisors and examiners as readers, but sponsors and research partners might also need to be taken into account. The readability of their text should be discussed with their supervisor, as well as perennial worries, such as how much explanation is required for discipline-specific terms.
But whoever the reader, the persuasive power of a thesis lies in the writer shepherding them smoothly from point to point, making sure each point builds on the one before. One useful technique is the ‘nine-point thesis’. This involves identifying up to nine critical points in your thesis – for example, when there is a shift in argument or an approach from a new angle – and listing these points (a sentence or two) in the order you will present them. Any disconnect or jolt between points should spring out at you, and you may need to tweak the order.
At this summer’s retreat, my fellow facilitator and I asked participants to practise the nine-point thesis using a fairy tale familiar from their childhood. From the Western tradition, Little Red Riding Hood in nine points! From other traditions, other stories. It’s a fun task, and demonstrates the linear structure from which most theses benefit. The students can play about with their nine points, too. If they change the order in their tale, what difference does it make to the story? They return to their theses with readerly eyes, ready, if necessary, to adjust the order of the points they are making, and with a technique to help them do so.
A novelist, too, cannot ignore the reader forever. For me, the morphing of ‘me before you’ into ‘you before me’ is part of the editing process. That’s the novelist’s privilege. It’s not a privilege a thesis writer enjoys. For doctoral students aiming for maximum impact, it has to be ‘you before me’ all the way from first draft to viva.