Scholarly Writing: Grammar

To write at the doctoral level, you must meet high standards of communication. Both the content of your writing (i.e., your ideas per se) and the formatting of your document (i.e., how you present your ideas) are equally important in doctoral writing. The areas that you must pay special attention to when you write are:







In this article, we examine issues related to the grammatical correctness of your doctoral papers. 


When it comes to grammar, there is no substitute for the fundamentals. Adhering to the tenets of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or some other basic book of proper English grammar is a requirement of good doctoral writing.


Too often I read journal articles written by intelligent people that violate these basics, particularly when it comes to writing in the active voice. Sadly, students read these articles and erroneously infer that scholars are supposed to write in a stilted, old fashioned way. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the best writing—whether it is academic, professional, or personal— adheres to the rules of proper grammar.


I have had many doctoral students who were taken aback when informed that, at the doctoral level, the quality of their ideas (content) was not sufficient to overcome inferior formatting in the form of poor spelling, bad grammar, and incorrect APA reference citations and headings.


To these students, and others like them, I offer the following personal anecdote, which speaks directly to the need for both quality ideas and the expectation by true scholars of a quality presentation of those ideas.


A Grand Master’s View of my Thesis


To satisfy the thesis requirements for my masters’ degree in management, I chose to analyze marketing data and report my findings in what turned out to be a substantial paper. In this document, I went to great pains to demonstrate my newly acquired knowledge of marketing and statistical data analysis techniques, primarily regression analysis. I succeeded in doing this fairly easily to the satisfaction of my thesis advisor, a world-renowned scholar in the field of Operations Research.


However, to my surprise, he was not satisfied with my thesis. In fact, he asked me to meet with him at his home to discuss it.


At that meeting, we reviewed every single word in my thesis to determine the quality of my analysis and the quality of my writing. Since, he was pretty much convinced of the former, my thesis advisor concentrated on helping me to say precisely what I wanted to say in the best possible English. That meant, among other things, writing in the active voice exclusively, avoiding repetition, and choosing the right word to say what I really meant.


What an eye opener this was. One of the world’s greatest experts in quantitative methods spent an entire afternoon of his valuable time working with me on the qualitative aspects of my thesis. Needless to say, this episode dispelled the myth of the scholar as a peddler of pompous, flowery, passive prose.


So, write in the strong, direct manner of a professional and people will happily read what you have to say. Adhere to a lesser, more amateurish standard and be prepared to spend considerable time revising your work to enhance its clarity and grammatical correctness.


To learn more about the secrets to doctoral study success, read Student to Scholar and Dissertation Research.