On Whose Authority?
By Tobias Ball, Dissertation Editor
While interviewing a candidate for an editor vacancy, I asked about something from his work history, the job of writing instructor. I asked how he taught writing. After a long pause, the candidate offered some of the tips that most writers have heard, such as setting time aside every day specifically for writing, sharing work with others, and one of the most popular bits of advice, writing what you know. Although it is often the case that fiction and academic writers share techniques for getting words on the page, this last method is less applicable.
When faculty are working with students to develop a problem statement, they ask them what it is about their topic that they do not know. One of the functions of a dissertation is to fill a gap in the literature, that gap representing something unknown about a topic. The fact that the topic is something unknown means that writing what you know is not really possible. This may leave the academic writer of a dissertation at a loss for inspiration and with concerns about writing with any sort of authority. There is a solution.
Another function of the dissertation is to contribute something new that will foster growth in a particular academic field. The venue for the discussion of such contributions is the academic literature. In the literature, readers find the reporting of successes and failures of experiments, analyses of original data, and multiple perspectives on a multitude of topics. It is here that writers both find their inspiration and establish their authority.
Before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys), it is a good idea to read the literature. At some point, a dissertator will have to write a review of the literature; however, prior to offering analysis through synthesis, read some of it. Select a few articles, read them through, abstract to conclusion, and see how others have started and completed their own research. The result of spending time reading will be twofold.
First, taking the time to read the work of others, the reporting not only of their results, but also how the process came about, may offer ideas for topics, methodologies, and ways of communicating. Second, after reading a few articles, you will begin to know more about that particular topic. The more peer-reviewed articles you read, the more you know; the more you know, the greater your authority. Although it is a simple equation, it is true. Inspiration and authority have the same source.