Overwhelmed by Dissertation Revisions? Make an Inventory

Closeup of a written work with several revisions written in red ink

Many years ago, I received what seemed like unnecessarily harsh feedback on my first first-authored submission to an academic journal. The editor and reviewers expressed issues with every section of the article. I still remember one of the reviewers stating the closing paragraph of the article sounded like a “soap opera” ending. Ouch! That comment hurt. This article was based on my master’s thesis and I was deeply invested in my research and my findings. Given how critical the feedback seemed, I was surprised that the journal editor still gave me an opportunity to revise and resubmit.

What did I do with this opportunity? For about six months, absolutely nothing! Well, I did all kinds of things, just nothing connected to revising the article. After some solid encouragement from my advisor (thank you Dr. Christopher Keys), I pulled out the reviews that were collecting dust in an office drawer and did something I had never done before. I sat down, faced the feedback, and began making an itemized list of revisions I would need to make, one by one. Truthfully, I felt like I had no idea how to begin and had little faith I could revise to the journal editor or the reviewers’ satisfaction. Thinking about it all was too overwhelming; my only chance was to focus on one comment at a time.

Here’s what I did. First, I made myself read through the feedback a few times (I am happy to report that with each subsequent round, my wounded ego settled down and  the feedback began to seem more helpful than harsh). Second, I got out a pad of paper and did a review of the feedback with the intention of creating an itemized revision breakdown. Out of my desperation to move forward, I finally found of way of making a “revision inventory” that helped me break down the mountain ahead into a series of smaller hills. This approach led to a successful resubmission and publication of the article.

MAKE A REVISION INVENTORY

It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by other people’s feedback and the process of making revisions. In our coaching and consulting practice, we frequently encourage our clients to create revision inventories. We have seen time and time again how effective these inventories can be. The revision process becomes less daunting, it’s easier to make a work plan with daily goals, and other people’s critiques seem less harsh and difficult to address. So, let’s focus on how you can use this strategy.

To start, print out the latest version of your dissertation or thesis. If you have received written comments from your advisor or someone else, make sure you have a version with his or her comments. Personally, I find it easiest to use a hardcopy of the draft and the feedback if possible. If you don’t have written feedback but know your work needs improvement, you can make the inventory based on your own ideas of what needs to be revised.

To make an inventory, start by reading your dissertation or thesis and cataloguing the changes you need to make. Then list out each suggested substantive change as an inventory item. For example, you might note items such as improving the transition between the second and third paragraph on a specific page, adding in key missing details about previous research or theory you are using, or sharpening the language of your research questions or hypotheses.

As you read through your dissertation or thesis, itemize the inventory numerically and write a short phrase describing the essence of the necessary revisions. If you are creating an inventory based on someone else’s feedback, capture any questions you need answered by the reviewer in order to address his or her comments.

Sometimes when students make these inventories, they realize that some of the feedback they received is vague, confusing, or contradictory. A good practice is to make revision inventories within a few days of receiving feedback. This is important for two key reasons. One, you want to make sure you have processed the feedback closer to the time it was provided. If you have questions for the reviewer, you want to ask while your paper is still fresh in his or her mind. Two, you greatly reduce the odds you will put off the revision process and set the stage for being able to make a sound work plan to address the feedback in a timely manner.

MAKE A REVISION PLAN

Once the revision inventory is created; it’s a good idea to make a systematic plan when you will address each item on the list. We encourage our clients to create a day-to-day plan where they thoughtfully commit to when they will address each inventory item. Your day-to-day plan is where you list out each day of the week and declare which inventory items you will address on which day. Monday might be your day to rework your hypotheses, for example, while Tuesday and Wednesday might be good days to read and incorporate more recent research into your literature review.

Do your best to be realistic about what you can reasonably accomplish in one day. We find it is better for students to plan less than their brains tell them they can accomplish. Just like our eyes are bigger than our stomach when we take food from a large buffet, we often overestimate (sometimes greatly) how much revision work we can do in a given timeframe. Make sure your plan is realistic and humane and then do your best to work through the plan one day at a time. If you get stuck on a specific item, take some time to think about you could do to get clarity. Ask for help. Review similar research to get ideas, move onto something else for a while (sometimes just by letting go of forcing a solution to come, it arrives).

If you make a commitment to creating and working through revision inventories consistently, you will be better able to edit, improve and revise your dissertation or thesis in a deliberate, effective manner. We hope you will give this strategy a try and allow it to support your efforts to revise, improve, and ultimately finish your dissertation or thesis once and for all.