Content First. Then Grammar.
When I posted on Instagram about my new editing website, I got a concerned message in my DMs. “Goodness, you’re a proofreader?!” it read. “I bet my posts give you a lot to critique!”
Honestly, they hadn’t. I don’t scroll Instagram looking for misplaced commas and subject-verb agreement errors. Sure, I would notice if NPR or the New York Times or Reuters posted without a proofread. But for the most part, that’s not what I’m looking for. I want to see beautiful knitting projects and other people’s babies and hiking inspiration that makes me feel like a more extreme, rough-and-tumble hiker than I am or ever will be.
Grammar is a tool.
It’s one layer in the way that we communicate meaning. The primary purpose of Instagram is its content: photographs that share experiences and captions that can make quick but powerful statements. Likewise, when you’re working on the first drafts of your dissertation, you’re focused on content. Your goal is to present new research or new ideas. If your brain is straining to make sense of your ideas, you’re not thinking about perfect grammar. No one should expect you to.
It’s a lot like trying to cook while your toddler is terrorizing the kitchen (or trying to write a blog post while he’s flicking the lights on and off). I’ve messed up many pots of mac and cheese because my child has been slamming his stool into me. This may be because I don’t cook very much, but the metaphor still works. Outside of grad school, how often do you talk about the subject of your dissertation?
When your grammar falls through while you’re writing, it doesn’t mean that you don’t know grammar. It means you’re focused on content.
That’s where a copyeditor or proofreader comes in. My job isn’t to figure out the ideas; you’ve already done that for me. I get the easier job of checking commas and prepositions and subject-verb agreement.
Editors aren’t the only option. Sometimes, you can do it yourself. Second and third reads give you time to concentrate on grammar after you’ve thought through the content. Of course, you can also ask a friend to read your paper and check only for grammar. (I’d recommend buying them dinner after they read your whole dissertation, though.) Just make sure you pick a friend who can remember: when you make grammar mistakes, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid; it means you were thinking about something else.