Death by Detail: How to Find a Balance Between Detail and Insanity in Your Writing

I remember Hemingway’s descriptive writing enthralling me at times and then sometimes driving me batty. The Old Man and the Sea was so descriptive; I got seasick just reading it! That’s the way it goes with details! But as you write your own dissertation, how do you decide when enough is finally enough? Do you need more detail or work to get it perfect? Does it need to be a masterpiece? Try the following to help you know where to draw the line in your dissertation writing.

  • Limit your study from the beginning. This means you must closely identify and outline your focus. The more you do up front, the more helpful this will be for later. Likely, you will have to limit your writing even further once you get into it. It is OK to save portions of your research for later if need be.
  • Have professors approve bibliographies before putting in the research, especially your literature review. This practice holds you accountable to a specific list of books, but it also gives you room to push back later if extra books are suggested. Every dissertation needs limits, even in a literature review.
  • Limit quotes. Use quotes only when they communicate in ways you could not possibly summarize in your own words. The problem with quotes is that they forever seem to expand in dissertation writing. Use sparingly.
  • Make use of your appendices. Add information to an appendix that is not absolutely necessary for the body of your dissertation. Your surveys, letters, research questions, etc. can all go into an appendix.
  • Add commentary and information to footnotes only if necessary. This practice can grow uncontrollably. Every resource listed could have additional commentary, but they all are not necessary to your dissertation.
  • Let someone else read your dissertation who is not familiar with your studies. You might be surprised at the insight they bring into the discussion. It is OK to ask specifically for the reader to note areas that seem confusing, either in language choice or level of detail. But also allow for your readers to make insights from other disciplines or their life experiences.
  • Turn your fine-tuning over to a pro like Edit 911. There is always room to take your writing to the next level. Edit 911 staff will work out the details of style and formatting so you don’t have to worry about areas where you don’t feel confident.
  • No second helpings! If you start correcting things that have already been changed once back to the original wording, then you have edited enough. Yikes! Don’t duplicate work. You can forever tweak your dissertation. A wise professor told me that my dissertation could either be perfect or it could be finished! Aim for completing it.
  • If your professor says it’s good enough, you’re done! No questions asked. You may want to perfect your paper but don’t get into that game. If you get it published, you will probably have to make additional changes anyway to meet the expectations of the publisher.

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