I want you to argue

The stage at which people usually send me dissertations or theses to proofread is not long before submission, when their supervisor’s said to them something along the lines of ‘Look, you’ve got to get the spelling and typos sorted out otherwise you’re going to fail’. Spelling and grammar are all I’ll correct, perhaps pointing out that a particular sentence doesn’t make sense, but sometimes I’m itching to rip the whole thing to shreds. It may be on a subject I know little or nothing about, but I should still be able to follow the argument – trouble is, in so many cases there just isn’t one.

I may only be at the beginning of my PhD, but already we’ve had drummed into us (in a series of writing workshops led by Kate Williams, from Oxford Brookes) that what underpins your whole thesis is your argument, which needs to be the thread running through every chapter. To me it’s like signposting, this is where I am in my thinking and this is where I’m going next, or scaffolding, to hold everything together. With my publishing hat on, it’s what I look for in a well-written proposal and it’s certainly what I hope to help the author achieve in a finished book. (I have been published – my daughter loves telling friends ‘my mum’s on Amazon‘ – so others can probably tell me whether I achieve it myself!)

Take a medical thesis I proofread recently. The introduction was almost exclusively descriptive – this is the mechanism I’m looking at (actually it wasn’t even that, just ‘this is the mechanism for a particular bodily activity’), these are the processes that make it up, so-and-so found that such-and-such was effective, so-and-so-else used such-and-such-else. At the very end was a paragraph saying ‘until recently no one had looked at this, but members of my group have found x and y’, with a reference that was 3 years old. If I’d been an examiner reading this, I wouldn’t have had a clue what the rest of the thesis was going to describe or what the writer’s individual original contribution was, or even what she was researching.

Remember, this is something the author thought was ready for submission. Her comment was I hope my supervisor likes this, I just want to get the degree. I found that quite sad, that she wasn’t either more enthusiastic or more articulate about the subject of her research and what she’d spent so long trying to find out. It was merely a means to an end, which in my humble opinion she stood no chance of getting to just yet.

This is by no means an isolated example from the work I’m sent to proofread. Presumably before people pay ready money for my work they think they’ve done as well as they can, but maybe my sample is skewed because I only get contacted by students who need help, rather than those to whom writing is second nature (assuming such a beast exists). What are other people’s experiences, either as students or as supervisors?