disrupting the passive approach to learning doctoral writing

This post is part of WriteFest (#AcWriFest17) for PhD supervisors wondering how to get their students to write their thesis. It addresses some of the ‘in theory’ points that cover the supervisor’s role in developing doctoral writing. Part 2 (here) will cover some ‘in practice’ ideas.

Learning PhD writing: a passive model

FIGURE 1.pngThe assessment part of the PhD is almost always a lengthly written document — the doctoral thesis. It’s been this way for so many years now; yet we repeat the cycle of recruiting research students, encouraging them to spend the vast majority of their time on data collection, and assuming that the writing will take care of itself somewhere near the end. When I did my PhD (I graduated in 2007) it seemed to me that every student came in, made the all the same basic planning mistakes as everyone who had gone before them, got to the ‘writing up phase’, expressed regret at having not started writing sooner, panic wrote, and left feeling exhausted.

Did we learn? Have we changed much? Are writing structures, programmes and strategies in place as standard in all departments and schools now? Somewhat, perhaps, (depending on your institution/discipline area), but we still frequently see students who Eat — Sleep — Don’t Write — Repeat.

It may or may not surprise you to learn that ‘doctoral writing’ is a prolific research field. The ability to write well is one of the most important tools for the success of PhD researchers according to Simpson et al. in their 2016 book on supporting doctoral writers. There are very many research articles now available documenting doctoral writing problems, effective support mechanisms, supervision factors, and calls for ending the ‘writing up phase’ in favour of a more iterative and developmental strategies for teaching research writing. Earlier this year Guerin et al called for placing learning to teach doctoral writing as a central part of any supervisor development. Yet, we are still as a sector really bad at translating what is well known in the literature, into regular supervisory routines and repertoires. 

The development of good research writing, over the course of the doctorate, is worthy of being placed centre stage say Kamler & Thomson, who implore supervisors (in their 2014 book) not to allow ‘research doing / writing up’ patterns to persist, and to see the development of doctoral writing as a discipline-specific ‘social practice’, meaning, new PhD researchers will passively fall in with the common writing behaviours they see going on around them…

FIGURE 2.png

Questions for you: In your group/dept/supervision teams — what are those common behaviours? Are they working? Could they be better? Who are the writing role models PhD researchers will observe? How do people talk about writing? Are there bad practices you don’t want them picking up? Are all the phases of writing visible to PhD researchers (e.g. developing ideas, drafting, editing, redrafting, feedback, peer review etc)?

While we lack in our critical approaches to supervisor development, we are generally better at offering discipline-spanning writing support hosted in centralised services, something like the work I do. I really enjoy my work using the wealth of literature to design programmes that support writers, and through the Thesis Mentoring programme I have gained a huge amount of insight into the barriers to PhD writing — but it can’t end there. In the last few years I’ve shared my accrued (and of course, anonymised) data sets with supervisors, running development workshops on ’Supervising Thesis Writers’, shaped by themes and case studies from the Thesis Mentoring programme. I play a role in translating the research and the data into learning opportunities.

It’s my belief that PhD education in both the disciplinary aspects of research writing (led by supervisor/peers), and in the self-governance and peer conversations needed to develop good writing habits (led by developers via retreats, mentoring, workshops) should weave together from the start of the PhD, to blend information, encouragement, frameworks, feedback, deadlines, guidance, momentum, and sometimes simply just to offer neutral spaces for researchers to spout off about their frustrations. Both mentoring spaces, and supervisory guidance, support the development of writing in a way the other cannot. They complement each other.

But to look at this from an engagement angle: I can design any number of educational programmes, coaching tools, or online learning that supports writers at the point of need… but, and if they elect to take part, I may get 8h of a student’s time, and I may reach 40% of PhD students. I can reactively get these people ‘unstuck’. Supervisors can proactively build up good writing through the day to day processes of supervision, in the contextual way they request, read, and respond to PhD writing.

Disrupting the passive model: How do you request, read, and respond to PhD writing?

You will already be well aware that the content of writing is contextual: conventions of the thesis format, choice of journal, language and style.

But also the habits of writing are contextual: observation of role models, attitudes, permissions, requirements. The supervisory team shapes how students:

  • Understand the importance of writing;
  • Prioritise writing over other research tasks;
  • Practice writing and build writing habits;
  • Acquire writing expertise through practice and feedback.

Two more points that I hope you may make use of for a thoughtful bit of self-evaluation this Academic Writing Month are below:

“Passively accepting that a thesis is one of life’s great unknowns is not a sensible course of action; like any other writing task, it can, and must be defined.” — Rowena Murray How do you help PhD researchers do this? When do you have this conversation? How do they access and evaluate examples of ‘good’ theses? How do they proactively plan their way through? How do they break the writing into small, manageable pieces over years? How do they track and monitor their progress?

“There is more to writing than simply skill, knowledge and ability, i.e. cognition. This is an important part of writing but is only one aspect of it. The positive and negative attitudes and feelings of graduate students towards writing matter in enabling them to succeed.” — Jerry Wellington How do you support PhD researchers to talk about their relationship with their writing? How do you ride the rollercoaster of frustration, breakthrough and elation together? How do you help remove the fear from writing — making the unknowns known? Are you able to spot when the pressure of writing overbalances into stress? 

Getting to know the backgrounds and the real lives of students through Thesis Mentoring gives me more things I can share for you consideration in how you approach the development of doctoral writing:

  • People work in different ways: some prefer a deep focus on one task at once, some thrive through variety. Some like to do the easy bits first, some the hard bits. Some are morning people, some evening. Some make up their mind through talking it out, some will only share a thought once they’ve fully thought things through.
  • Work experience matters: people with established professional lives may for example be better at project managing, but may also have to ‘unlearn’ some ingrained writing conventions.
  • Their relationship with writing will vary: PhD researchers may have more or less experience, past good or bad experiences, differing English language / academic language / language processing abilities.
  • Their relationship with the research will impact on research writing: Are they confident in their data, and in their argument? What’s their relationship to the subject area? Is it a topic, disease or phenomenon they have personally experienced? Is it a traumatic subject to study?
  • Background has an impact: Educational background, socioeconomic background, and ethnicity, can determine the likelihood of a PhD researcher having access to supportive family or friend groups that contain PhD graduates – and the insider knowledge and peer support that brings.
  • Personal circumstances: family or caring responsibilities, PT or FT time work demands, finances / debt, health and wellbeing. Bear in mind that to delay submission may exacerbate debt. Bear in mind people might be writing after a full day’s work topped off by being a parent.
  • Your relationship: People don’t easily share their thoughts, their time or their writing with people they don’t trust. Sharing works and giving/receiving feedback is a key way of building and of breaking trust.

The intention of this post was to open up your thinking about the need to develop doctoral writing as a proactive practice of good habits.

My point is made if reading this helped you start to think of supervising doctoral writing as an active teaching and learning matter, rather than viewing student abilities as innate, passively absorbed, or automatically acquired at ‘writing up’ time.

Where to start? Rachael Cayley suggests (in Chapter 10 of Carter & Laurs 2017 book) that supervisors could usefully establish with PhD researchers that writing is a process of redrafting: “Stylish writing always relies upon waves of revision… If supervisors are to help doctoral writers with the actual writing process… they will need to share what they themselves know as academic writers.” and “If revision is framed as an essential part of all writing, weak early drafts start to seem much less significant.” So, in the next week, how will you make time to discuss this idea with your supervisees?

The follow up post next week will look at some more ideas, drawn together from the literature, for how supervisors can actively facilitate the learning of good doctoral writing.


  1. I really appreciate the sentiments in this post – in my two newest students I’m trying something different from previously – in our monthly meetings we edit together the work that they have written. After a few months I was already seeing improvements. It’s helping to cement that idea that the writing process is a continual thing and a major part of their work.


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