The dissertation is a scholarly document in which the writer uses detailed yet precise language to convey what is being studied, why it is being studied, what findings emerged, and the recommendations for future research and practice. Such precision in dissertation writing is often a new experience for doctoral researchers who may be coming out of classes where they have written about topics generally. One trap new dissertation writers often fall into is the use of phrases in their early drafts that sound grand but don’t tell the reader anything, in other words, the 7 Deadly Phrases in Dissertation Writing.
The seven deadly phrases in dissertation writing fill the draft with words but avoid any specifics or analysis. The phrases include:
…it is important that…
…it is essential that…
…it is vital that…
…it is very interesting…
…leaders/managers/teachers/directors/etc need to…
What happens when the writer uses one of these phrases? The reader is left wondering why. Why is it important? Why is it essential? Why is it very interesting as opposed to just interesting? Why must people do something? Further, the reader wonders if the dissertation writer has the credentials to make a recommendation on what must or should happen.
Removing Weak Phrases and Avoiding Judgment
Using these weak phrases avoids telling us why something needs to happen and it also prevents us from knowing what happens when the vital or important thing that must happen does happen.
Here is an example:
It is important that HR directors ensure hiring managers are following proper procedures.
But, why? Tell us more.
To create a more inclusive work environment, it is important that HR directors ensure hiring managers are following proper procedures.
This sentence is better, but wordy. We don’t need the “it is important that” phrase at all. Using this phrase also means you’re making recommendations and judgments, which is not your role in the first four chapters of your dissertation.
Let’s get to the point. For example:
HR directors who ensure that hiring managers follow proper procedures create a more inclusive work environment (cite your sources).
The removal of the phrase “it is important that” has immediately upgraded the quality of our writing.
Let’s try this exercise again. Here is a must statement:
Special education teachers must provide effective instruction for their students that aligns with evidence-based practices.
Why must they do this? What does it mean for the student if they do align their instruction to evidence-based practices? What does it mean for the student if they don’t?
This is better, but wordy:
Special education teachers must provide effective instruction for their students that aligns with evidence-based practices to improve academic and employment outcomes.
We can take out the “must statement” altogether. Let’s use this instead:
Special education teachers who use evidence-based practices in their instruction improve student academic and employment outcomes (cite sources).
Improving Your Recommendations in Chapter 5
Let’s do a final exercise, this time as an example of what you might write in your recommendations chapter (typically chapter 5). Although now it is your job to tell the reader what you recommend and what you believe is important because you’ve conducted the research study, avoiding the seven deadly phrases will mean that you are providing analysis and specificity. You don’t want to get to the end of your dissertation only to give the reader generic advice on what is vital or what should happen. You’ve got our attention…now tell us what we need to do!
Here is an example:
The findings of the study suggest that program directors should make curricular changes to the First Year Experience program to improve retention. In addition….
What curricular changes, specifically? Will program directors do this on their own or with faculty? How long will implementation take? How will these curricular changes improve retention?
Let’s jump to the end, knowing that removing a “should statement” will immediately upgrade the quality of our writing:
The findings of the study suggest that program directors who work with faculty to implement curricular changes to lab courses prior to the fall semester will create smoother transitions for incoming freshmen who may not be accustomed to rigorous science classes.
Yes, this sentence is longer, but it is detailed and specific. With this structure, we know who, what, when, and why. We can write further sentences in this paragraph to address the how and where.
Don’t Shortcut Your Analysis
As you can see, using one of these phrases means that you are shortcutting any analysis that your reader wants to know. It’s understandable; it is how we talk in our daily lives, after all. While it is certainly easier to write that something is important or essential, it doesn’t tell the reader anything. It also doesn’t show your committee that you have thought deeply about what you are writing and recommending.
The easiest way to stop doing this is to do a word search for these phrases in your existing dissertation drafts. Anytime you see one of these phrases, rewrite the sentence without them. This will force you to provide the detail that your initial version excluded. It will also reduce wordiness and improve the precision in your narrative. Once you’ve completed this in your entire draft, you are likely to catch yourself as you start writing new sections. Eventually, you won’t be able to read another article or dissertation without catching these phrases in the wild and wishing you could fix them yourself.