A proactive approach to learning doctoral writing

This post is by Dr Kay Guccione. It provides some thinking points on the supervisor’s role in developing doctoral writing.

The passive model

The 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 I see repeated again and again, 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, and was allowed to repeat the all the same mistakes as everyone who had gone before them in terms of not learning to write early enough. We got to the ‘writing up phase’ as was commonly spoken, we all expressed regret at having not started writing sooner, we ruined our health with stress and panic, and then we left. 

A large stay of paper manuscripts are overlaid with the caption 'eat, sleep, don't write, repeat.

Nowadays my role is to have a professional eye on who’s learning what and how, in order to design better ways of learning.  Over the years since my experience, there has been much more attention paid to writing, with early checkpoints added to the PhD programme design, Researcher Development professionals recruited to support academic writing skills development, and a much more solid grounding in the research literature covering academic and doctoral writing. 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 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. I also think that students over all have also become a lot less tolerant of being left in the dark about what they are supposed to achieve. I am also delighted to see that a sector we are taking the students mental health and wellbeing more seriously. Writing is an emotional process.

“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? 

Cultural barriers to writing proactivity

With writing structures, programmes and strategies in place in many universities now, and dedicated staff to supply it, shouldn’t this all have been resolved by now? So why do we still frequently see students stuck in that classic trap of Eat — Sleep — Don’t Write — Repeat. The (oversimplified) answer is that their supervisors don’t require them to write, or teach them to write. Perhaps the supervisors are not prolific writers themselves and so the student is lacking a role model? Or perhaps they are frequent and productive writers, but they do all their writing behind a closed door, and their students never benefit from seeing the hidden work that goes into the production of a manuscript?

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

Questions for you: In your group/dept/supervision teams — what are those common writing behaviours? Are they visible to your students, do they know when and how often you write? Who are the writing role models your PhD researchers observe? How do people talk about writing? How often? Are all the phases of writing visible to PhD researchers (e.g. developing ideas, drafting, editing, redrafting, feedback, peer review etc) or are they just seeing the finished products and assuming that all your writing comes out perfect first time?

Guerin et al raised the excellent point that learning to teach doctoral writing should be central in 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. This is why I started the Supervising PhDs blog and Twitter, to try and place translated, useable versions of the literature into the hands of supervisors and those who develop supervisors.

So, where to start in supervising the learning of good writing practices? 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 month, how can you make time to discuss this idea with your supervises?

A partnership approach to developing proactive writing habits

In recent years, universities have developed rich offerings for writing support, often hosted in centralised services. It’s my belief (having done this kind of work for years, leading a Thesis Mentoring programme) that education in both the disciplinary aspects of research writing (led by supervisors and peers), and in the practices and self-governance needed to develop good writing habits (led by developers via retreats, mentoring, workshops) should weave together from the start of the PhD, to provide for students a blend of information, encouragement, feedback, deadlines, guidance, momentum, and neutral spaces to get frustrations off their chest. Whilst the two learning approaches complement each other, it is the supervisor(s) who can really make the students aware of the expectation that academics will write and write regularly. Developers can design any number of writing workshops, retreats and coaching sessions that support writers at the point of need, but supervisors have to raise awareness of that need, and normalise engagement with such services, or these opportunities will be overlooked. Students want to please their supervisors primarily and will fall in line with the predominant culture. If, like in my experience, that culture is ‘writing up is always stressful’ and ‘your thesis is a rite of passage’ and ‘it’s supposed to be hard’, then no wonder we were all stressed from feeling like our day to day lives, and the expectation placed upon us, were out of our control. 

“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 task definition? When do you have this conversation with them? How do they access and evaluate examples of ‘good’ theses? How do they proactively plan to weave writing into their work breaking their writing into small, manageable pieces over years of study? How do they track and monitor their progress?

Considerations for helping your individual doctoral researchers to develop and maintain their own good habits of 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 itself will impact on their inclination to write about it: 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 or emotionally demanding subject to study?
  • Socioeconomic background amongst other factors 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 having those social support network brings.
  • Time, the space, and energy for writing will be influenced by personal circumstances including also managing family or caring responsibilities, PT or even FT time work demands, finances / debt, health and wellbeing. Bear in mind that a delay in thesis submission may exacerbate debt if it delays the ability to work and earn. 
  • People don’t share their thoughts, their worries, their points of ignorance, or their thesis drafts with people they don’t really trust. Build a good relationship with your researchers, and be open to ‘less than perfect’ or be constantly chasing them up for drafts of chapters.

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 job is done if today you start to think of supervising doctoral writing as an issue of inclusive teaching and learning, rather than viewing student abilities as innate, passively absorbed, or automatically acquired at ‘writing up’ time. 

2 Replies to “A proactive approach to learning doctoral writing”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: