Brian Vickers — Tips for PhD (Dissertation) Writing


Brian Vickers, associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently encouraged PhD students with some tips on writing.

Here’s a rough draft of my notes:

1) Create a good, solid outline. A good writer is aware of his reader. You want to create good sign posts. Sum up the work. Any part of the outline can be adjusted and modified; they are not hermetically sealed. Be vicious with yourself as you adjust and adapt as you go.
2) Remember these are drafts, not the final product.
3) Make writing a regular, daily discipline. Keep the momentum going, especially when you don’t feel like doing it. (Pull out the backspace key!)
4) Save your footnotes for later. Put a gap, mention the page, write a quick summary, and come back to it later.
5) Edit, edit, edit. You’re not done editing any part of your dissertation until the final signed copy is turned in. What you’re working on you’re always working on. Create distance between what you wrote (weeks if possible!). What might be crystal clear in your mind, might not connect in the mind of the reader. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Also, get rid of stuff; you’ll be shocked at how much you can delete. Every academic book I’ve come across should be 20% shorter. Also, remove passive voice. While it’s a personal preference, don’t use ‘we’: if you’re the one writing writing, use ‘I.’ Lastly, have solid summaries that are effective and not tiresome for the reader.
6) Get as many eyes on it as possiblewhether it’s a fellow student, spouse, mentor, or friend.  And — just so we’re all clear — all of the above only works if you get started early!
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In the course of the conversation, a few more tidbits came out:
  • Think as you write. You never know what you actually believe until you’re forced to write it out. John Piper, summarizing Augustine, says it well: “I count myself as one of the number of those who learn as they write and write as they learn.”
  • Use your writing as oral process. While you can gain much from talking it out with others, it doesn’t get a dissertation written. (Someone even recommended using dictation software for writing and collecting quotes.)
  • Read widely — more than theological books. I think Doug Wilson eloquently captures the point: “Reading solely within one genre is a form of literary provincialism, and it will provide you with a distinctive but unhelpfully narrow accent.” (p. 31 of D. Wilson, Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life.)
A great article also mentioned: “A Conversation with Verlyn Klinkenborg on the Craft of Academic Writing” (via Marginalia Review — a site worth bookmarking!). Here are a few highlights from that interview:
  • “The issue is how we train those within the academy to write. The part that worries me is that I have talked with young professors all over the place, and they say things as blunt as: ‘If I write more clearly people will distrust my writing’. There is a negative placed on clarity and directness as if these characteristics pander to the public.”
  • “If you look at almost any piece of contemporary non-fiction alongside an academic article, the first thing you’ll notice is how dense the prose in academic writing looks. This is due to the superabundance of transitions, an anxiety of transition, and a real emphasis on the apparatus of logic—as if logic weren’t apparent in the argument itself.”
  • “The more clear the prose, the more direct it is and the more room there is for implication and playfulness, openness to the argument of prose, and openness to the diversity that your sources present. Clarity reveals style. It reveals who you are. Your style is as much of a function of your mental acuity, of your sense of humor, of your take on the world, than it is of anything to do with the arrangement of words.”

The whole interview is worth reading.


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